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By Joe Bendel. Who has a harder time adjusting to the capitalist system: a former Soviet republic or a documentary filmmaker? Needless to say, it is the latter, but he still has his mind set on importing Ukrainian vodka into the British marketplace. He feels a special connection to the distillery, because his family used to own it, up until the 1917 Revolution. Soviet, Ukrainian, and even Northern Irish history are explored from a decidedly personal perspective in Dan Edelstyn & Hilary Powell’s How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire, which screens during the 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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Edelstyn knew little of his father’s side of the family, because he died when the filmmaker was quite young. His first real introduction to his Ukrainian heritage came through the letters and journals of his grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich, shunted away in his mother’s attic. He discovered his grandmother was the progressive daughter of a well-to-do land-owning family. Regrettably, all her efforts teaching the local peasantry to read and write meant little to the conquering Bolsheviks.

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Zorokovich’s story is truly remarkable, including stints entertaining the White resistance forces as a dancer, which is how she met Edelstyn’s grandfather. From her diaries, Edelstyn gleaned a sense of the family’s house and sugar factory. Drawn to his roots, Edelstyn was disappointed to find them in a state of disrepair and off-limits. However, he discovered another family holding that was still up and running—a vodka distillery.

Zorokovich never mentioned the family vodka empire, but with good reason Edelstyn presumes. Communist propaganda often demonized Jewish Russians as predatory purveyors of alcohol, constantly tempting the stolid peasants into drunkenness. It would be a lot easier for the Jewish Zorokoviches to identify themselves with the sugar plant rather than with a booze pipeline.

Disurbed by the town’s economic stagnation in the wake of the sugar factory’s closure, Edelstyn takes it upon himself to become the vodka company’s British agent. Of course, he knows nothing about importing spirits, but how hard can it be?

Edelstyn might be ridiculously naïve throughout Empire, but his instincts on how to help his ancestral Ukrainian home are surprisingly on-target. It is too bad he and his wife Powell were the ones behind the camera, though, because there was probably considerably more comedy to be mined from his attempts to navigate British customs bureaucracy.

As a result, probably the strongest sequences involve Grandmother Zorokovich. Blending various styles of animation with family heirloom photos, Edelstyn & Powell craft some Guy Maddinesque dramatic recreations of Zorokovich’s life. To their credit, they bring home the fear and arbitrary violence of Lenin’s reign of terror (yes, Lenin’s – not that of the subsequent tyrant, Stalin) with full force, as well as chronicle the Zorokovich’s complicated years in Belfast. It is an epic story to which they do justice.

While Edelstyn undeniably went out on a limb on behalf of the former family vodka company, there is still an awful lot of him in Empire. He is not a bad chap at all, but he is not exactly a riveting cinematic presence.Regardless, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire documents a fascinating intersection of commercial, political, religious, and family history that goes down rather smoothly.

It is preceded by Jack Feldstein’s brief but powerful Shards. An expressionistic, almost abstract representation of Peretz Markish’s similarly titled poem, Feldstein’s neon-animated short film serves as a stark elegy to the poet and to the other twelve Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin’s minions of terror in 1952. While only two minutes long, it powerfully conveys the essence of the Soviet experience. Both films are highly recommended when they screen this Thursday (1/10) and Saturday (1/12) as the 2013 NYJFF gets underway at the Walter Reade Theater.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on January 7th, 2012 at 1:56pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Like a put-upon Kafka character, San Bao has lost his voice. Life in go-go Beijing has not been kind to him. In relatively short succession, he lost his girlfriend, his dog, and his apartment. He really is not in the mood to talk, even as he silently forges unlikely new relationships. However, Zhang Yuan has plenty to say about the state of contemporary China in Beijing Flickers, which opens the 2013 Global Lens film series, once again launching in New York at MoMA, this Thursday.

It is hard to say whether getting dumped hurts more than his dog running away. And while it means little to him emotionally, San Bao’s eviction leads to the immediate issue of homelessness. He sort-of kind-of solves the problem short-term, by chomping down on a glass during a drunken bender. Of course, that also leads to hospital bills. Ironically, this turns out to be a good thing. The bar’s singer, You Zi, held onto his cell phone for safekeeping. When reclaiming it, he is struck by her ethereal voice and beauty. Somehow, a circle of friends develops around the two psueudo-lovers, incorporating her roommates – San Bao’s buddy from home, and the female impersonator with whom he is crashing.

Although not a musical per se, Flickers is like a Chinese version of Rent, in which dispossessed and Bohemian Beijingers band together to face the trials and tribulations of a highly stratified society. Much like his thematically similar Beijing Bastards, Zhang also includes plenty of music, including You Zi’s haunting signature number, further supporting the comparison.

Li Xinyun lights up the screen as You Zi.

It is doubtful very many Brooklyn hipsters could cut it in Zhang’s Beijing. On one hand, this is a predatory system of have’s callously exploiting the have-not’s. Yet, it is also a lawless environment, where the slightly less than stable San Bao periodically lashes out physically, with little fear of repercussions. It is like the worst of both worlds.

Granted, Flickers might sound grim (okay, it is grim), but Li Xinyun truly lights up the screen as You Zi. In addition to her distinctive look and sound, she brings dignified resiliency to the alt-torch-singer, rather than overly cute pluckiness. While she has far less screen time than the rest of the principals, Han Wenwen is also quite powerful as You Zi’s roommate Su Mo, giving the audience a bracing slap during the film’s one big jaw-dropper scene. As the more-silent-than-strong San Bao, Duan Bowen lends the film commendable cohesion, interacting with each member of the large ensemble with subtly different shades of either fierceness or sensitivity.

Although Zhang’s recent films have clearly been more pleasing to China’s popular audiences and government authorities, Flickers is very much a return to his in-your-face Bastards roots. Yet, the noir-ish style and seductive soundtrack make it a considerably more polished viewing experience. Basically, that is a win-win combo. Enthusiastically recommended for China watchers and aspiring bohemians, Beijing Flickers begins a week long run at MoMA this Thursday (1/10) as the opening selection of the year’s Global Lens (which also includes the highly notable Cairo 678).

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on January 7th, 2012 at 1:53pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Musicians hate requests. Yosef Tawila is particularly disinclined, but he cannot refuse the dying wish of his former friend and band-mate. However, he will have to recruit some high caliber Mizrahi musicians to play the ambitious title symphony and time is running short in Beni Torati’s The Ballad of the Weeping Spring, which screens during the 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Tawila has not touched his guitar since his glory days in the Turquoise Ensemble. Riddled with guilt, he is not a man who wants to be found. Nonetheless, Amram Mufradi tracks him down, bearing the Weeping Spring score. His father Avram is quickly succumbing to lung cancer and wishes to finally hear the extended composition he co-wrote with Tawila, as it was meant to be performed.

Unfortunately, Tawila cannot simply get the old band together again. Two members died in a car crash he was found responsible for. Their singer Margaret is now confined to a wheel chair, but she passed on her talent to Tamara, the daughter Tawila never knew. That is a hard recruiting stop for the absentee father to make, but Mufradi and the young singer hit it off rather well. For the rest of the band, it just a matter of haunting the right dive bars and red light districts. In one case, they will have trouble with a blind flutist’s Fagin, but people just seem to want to help the Tawila level his karma.

From "Ballad of the Weeping Spring."

While not essential for cineastes, Weeping Spring could easily be the biggest hit at this year’s NYJFF. There is plenty of camaraderie, redemption, and some elegant music, but Toraty never excessively milks the sentiment. In fact, the father-daughter rapprochement is surprisingly matter-of-fact and the attraction between the second generation Turquoise musicians is mostly hinted at. Of course, it ends with a big emotional concert, but again Toraty resists overplaying his hand.

Looking like the weight of the world rests on his shoulders, Uri Gavriel (the blind prisoner of the pit in The Dark Knight Rises) has gravitas to spare as Tawila. Established Israeli pop-star Ishtar displays a warm cinematic presence as Margaret and her voice nearly steals the entire show during the big climatic concert. For the most part, the large supporting cast of actor-musicians look appropriately colorful and slightly seedy, except for Dudu Tassa (seen during last year’s festival in Iraq ‘n’ Roll), here very earnest and clean-cut as young Mufradi.

While dubbed a Mizrahi Magnificent Seven, Weeping Spring actually includes an obvious riff on Marion Ravenwood’s drinking contest from Raiders of the Lost Ark, so it has that going for it. A modest but appealing drama with a striking soundtrack, Ballad of the Weeping Spring should have a long and fruitful life on the festival circuit and in specialty distribution. Sure to be a crowd pleaser, it screens this Saturday (1/12) and Thursday (1/24) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of this year’s NYJFF.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on January 7th, 2012 at 1:51pm.

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