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By Joe Bendel. K2 is a challenge to summit, but as recent films have documented, getting back down is even more treacherous. However, merely reaching the mountain’s base requires a determined effort from climbers, before they ever set their first piton. Viewers will get a full perspective on the 8,000 meter mountaineering experience in Dave Ohlson’s K2: Siren of the Himalayas, which opens this Friday in New York.

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In 1909, the Duke of Abruzzi led an expedition to K2. Although they did not ultimately summit the second highest peak on Earth, their experiences were invaluable for future attempts, much as the Italian nobleman hoped. One hundred years later, alpinist Fabrizio Zangrilli (of Boulder, Colorado) led his intrepid party to K2. Of course, they were fully aware of the Duke’s historic campaign, but the tragic events of the previous year preoccupied their thoughts considerably more.

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In a sense, K2 is an independent sequel to Nick Ryan’s The Summit, which reconstructed the murky events that led to the deaths of eleven climbers in August, 2008. Zangrilli knew some of them. It is a small world in his line of work. Yet, he attacked K2 just the same, along with Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the future National Geographic Explorer of the Year, who was then still working on her goal to become the first woman to scale all fourteen 8,000 meters without artificial oxygen.

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Ohlson captured some dramatic visuals, but arguably the most mind-blowing shots in the film are not of K2, but the ridiculously unsafe mountain highways Zangrilli’s group had to traverse just to reach Concordia, the gateway to K2 and three other 8,000 meters. Getting there is a trek in itself, with Pakistan’s regional instabilities adding additional danger.

From "K2: Siren of the Himalayas."

Periodically, Ohlson intersperses footage of Zangrilli, Kaltenbrunner, and company with Vittorio Sella’s incredible photographs of the Abruzzi expedition. It gives viewers a good sense of the mountaineering tradition. More importantly, Ohlson uses Zangrilli’s example to redefine a successful 8,000 meter attempt. Clearly, Zangrilli is a great sportsman, but he had yet to summit K2. However, he had foregone perfect opportunities to carry down an ailing colleague. Instead, a successful K2 team leader brings his entire party safely off the mountain. After all, several climbers summitted during the fateful 2008 incident.

Evidently, we are witnessing a golden age of mountaineering documentaries. K2 follows hard on the heels of The Summit and Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge, all of which are quite good, but in different ways. K2’s strengths are the wider contexts it provides, as well as some insight into the bonding that happens between fellow alpinists. Mountain climbing does not look like much fun in The Summit, but we come to understand why Zangrilli and his colleagues do it after watching Ohlson’s footage and interview segments. Recommended with equal enthusiasm for sporting audiences, K2 Siren of the Himalayas opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:57pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Arguably, Dave Brubeck’s second greatest hit is “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” It therefore ranks rather highly on the all time jazz hit parade, considering he also recorded the definitive version of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” Brubeck was serious about the “Turk” reference, crediting its genesis to his experience visiting Turkey and exploring the local rhythms. Inspiration would also flow back to Turkish jazz musicians from the American jazz masters. Batu Akyol surveys the history and music of the scene that developed in Jazz in Turkey, which screens during the 2014 San Francisco Global Movie Fest (in San Jose).

Viewers might expect it to be treated like a dirty secret, but pretty much everyone admits the pioneers of Turkish jazz were largely Armenians and Jewish Turks. After all, they were more receptive to western music and culture in general—and could maybe better identify with its blues roots. Of course, they were aware of the music’s African American heritage. In fact, one of the early popularizers of jazz in Turkey was an expatriate African American ensemble called Seven Palm Beach.

There will be more familiar names in Akyol’s documentary than casual viewers will expect, like Ahmet and Nesuhi Artegun, who discovered jazz when in America as the children of the Turkish Ambassador and would later become the leading independent producers in America through their label, Atlantic Records. Super-producer Arif Mardin also grew up as a jazz-loving teen in Turkey, before studying at Berklee (which proved to be the start of the school’s long association with Turkish students and faculty).

Essentially, Akyol identifies two primary approaches taken by Turkish jazz artists. Many follow western swing models, utilizing classical jazz instrumentations and arrangements. Erol Pekcan, whom Akyol identifies as the great statesman of Turkish jazz (he even worked as a translator for the U.S. embassy) largely fits in this camp—and man, that cat could play. On the other hand, fusions of jazz and traditional Turkish music also found an audience (particularly amongst tourists, not so ironically). Özdemir Erdoğan emerges as one of the early leaders of this movement—and man, could that cat play.

From "Jazz in Turkey."

It hardly seems possible, but perhaps the history of Turkish jazz will not immediately intrigue broad-based mainstream audiences. However, the musical clips Akyol selects should seal the deal. They swing hard and are played with evident passion, yet many are still madly catchy. It would be cool to have a companion CD for this film, because nearly everything sounds great.

Indeed, that is the most important thing for any music doc. Akyol will definitely leave the audience wanting more Turkish jazz. Fans will also appreciate the occasional commentary from musicians like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard. Those who enjoy hearing something new will find it very entertaining. Highly recommended, Jazz in Turkey screens this Friday (8/15) at the Towne3 Cinemas in San Jose, as part of the SF Global Movie Fest.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 13th, 2014 at 10:45am.

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Aug 082014

By Joe Bendel. You will never find a collegiate sports program less tainted by agents and money than the Xinjiang University baseball team. It is the only area of the highly segregated campus where Uyghurs and ethnic Han Chinese freely mix. They could not field a team without each other. Christopher Rufo documents the passion for the game that keeps the underdog team together in Diamond in the Dunes, which airs this Sunday on PBS World as part of the current season of Global Voices.

Parhat Arblat might be the best baseball player in the entire Xinjiang province. He is also a member of the Uyghur minority. Despite his soon-to-be-completed university education, his future remains uncertain. He is far more likely to return to shepherding than field an offer from the Yankees, or even our beloved Mets. Although he might be a comparatively okay player, he unfortunately appears to be getting played by his childhood sweetheart.

Nevertheless, he emerges as a leader on the field, teaching the younger players how to play the game and conduct themselves in life, as they train for their one big annual game with a Tibetan University. Yes, Arblat and his Xinjiang teammates are the boys of one single summer day. They practice all year to face their nearest rivals, one thousand miles away—a thirty hour train journey. That is commitment.

The irony of an American game bringing together Xinjiang’s fractious ethnic groups is not entirely lost on the players. Frankly, the broadcast cut of Diamond could have played up the unifying power of sportsmanship more, because it is quite compelling. Rufo also seems to deliberately de-emphasize the Uyghurs’ Muslim faith, portraying the regions’ differences in largely racial and cultural terms.

From "Diamond in the Dunes."

Still, the extent and severity of Xinjiang segregation exposed in the film is truly mind-boggling. The fact that Communist China gets a pass from professional protestors and NGOs constitutes sheer hypocrisy. Indeed, the film serves as an indirect indictment of the western media’s coverage of China. Remember all the coverage of the 2009 Ürümqi riots? Exactly.

Arblat is an enormously sympathetic POV figure, so it is nice that Rufo can balance some hopefulness with the hardscrabble realities of his provincial Xinjiang life. While the broadcast edit feels noticeably abbreviated, it still makes rewarding viewing. Recommended for baseball fans and China watchers, Diamond in the Dunes airs on PBS World this Sunday (8/10).

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 2:01pm.

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Aug 082014

By Joe Bendel. It was late in the Lindsay administration. New York really was becoming the grungy crime-ridden vice pit largely sustained by attitude people remember with such strange fondness. John Wojtowicz helped paint that picture. True, there is more to his story than the ill-fated bank robbery immortalized in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, but there is no getting around that notorious incident in Brooklyn. Wojtowicz speaks for posterity (and he is not shy about it) in Allison Berg & Frank Keraudren’s The Dog, which opens this Friday in New York.

For the record, Wojtowicz did his time in Lewistown, not Attica. Arguably, he was a something of a gay marriage pioneer, wedding his lover Ernest Aron (subsequently known as Liz Debbie Eden) in a Catholic-aping ceremony. It was a troubled union, mostly because of Aron’s discomfort living as a man. Initially, Wojtowicz opposed the gender re-assignment surgery, but he eventually relented. Of course, that would cost money. Recruiting two accomplices from the scene, Wojtowicz hatched a very half-baked plan.

The late Wojtowicz (adopting the moniker of “The Dog”) sounds every bit the tough talking, unapologetic New Yorker viewers would expect. His interviews dominate Berg & Keraudren’s film, for obvious reasons. They also evoke plenty of the era’s seedy atmosphere, while documenting the early years of New York gay activism. It definitely has value as a time capsule, but it does little to burnish Lindsay’s reputation.

In addition to Wojtowicz, Berg & Keraudren talk to nearly all of the surviving principles, including his first “legal” wife, Carmen Bifulco, and George Heath, the third wife Wojtowicz met in prison. Clearly, the man was not shy or commitment phobic. Unfortunately, Eden and Lindsay have long since passed.

Berg & Keraudren keep the pacing brisk, never getting overly fixated on any particular tribulation. While the film holds unmistakable GLBT interest, it should also appeal to true crime audiences. Recommended for old school New York nostalgics, The Dog opens this Friday (8/8) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center uptown and the IFC Center downtown.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 1:32pm.

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By Joe Bendel. The Deepsea challenger submersible is a marvel of engineering. It can withstand the pressure diving to the lower depths of the Mariana Trench, while still containing James Cameron’s ego. The Oscar winning filmmaker follows his passion to the remotest corner of the ocean floor in John Bruno, Ray Quint, and the late Andrew Wight’s Deepsea Challenge 3D, which opens this Friday nationwide.

To avoid confusion, the film is title Deepsea Challenge 3D, the expedition is the “Deepsea Challenge” and the craft is named “Deepsea Challenger.” Clearly, all the inventiveness was saved for the engineering. To a large extent, all three were made possible by Titanic and Avatar. Cameron was no mere figurehead attached to the project. He cut checks and pilots the Deepsea Challenger during its historic dive, which is not so crazy given his short stature and long enthusiasm. However, he comes across as quite the demanding taskmaster during the extensive development process. Tragically, the entire project is temporarily called into question when Wight and underwater cameraman Mike duGray perish in a helicopter accident.

You cannot say Cameron never put his money or the rest of his body where his mouth is. In fact, one gets the sense his wife, former model and actress Suzy Amis would just as soon see him collect vintage cars, like Leno. Still, Cameron’s evangelical zeal for deep sea exploration is admirable. In fact, the best sequences in Challenge 3D revolve around the research vessel Trieste’s previous voyage to the depths of the Mariana in 1953. Subsequently overshadowed by the Moon landing and Jacques Cousteau, the Trieste fired young Cameron’s imagination, directly inspiring The Abyss.

From "Deepsea Challenge 3D."

Strictly speaking, the 3D adds very little to the viewing experience, even when the mission is underway. On the other hand, it is so unlikely most viewers will ever find themselves exploring the Mariana Trench, it makes sense to replicate the experience as fully as possible, much like the Chauvet Cave in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Of course, it also necessarily comes with 3D pricing, which many audience members may not believe is warranted for a film produced very much in the style of a National Geographic television special.

Regardless, Challenge 3D should be considerably informative for most layperson viewers and they way it captures the team’s spirit of innovation and derring-do is certainly appealing. It just lacks the “wow” moments Cameron fans might expect. Recommended for aquatic-fascinated audiences of all ages, Deepsea Challenge 3D opens this Friday (8/8) nationwide.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 4th, 2014 at 10:02pm.

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The Search For Weng Weng trailer from Monster Pictures on Vimeo.

By Joe Bendel. It might be hard to imagine Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos rolling out the red carpet for a two foot-nine inch martial arts film star, but it makes sense when you consider how much money Weng Weng’s films made. In the early 1980s he was the Philippines’ top cinematic export—and there really wasn’t a number two behind him. Cult film connoisseur Andrew Leavold set out to discover the unvarnished truth about the ironic icon, while grappling with the obvious issues of exploitation as best he could in The Search for Weng Weng, which screens during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The man born Ernesto de la Cruz will always be best known as Agent 00 in For Y’ur Height Only. As seen in Mark Hartley’s Machete Maidens Unleashed, it has become a word of mouth favorite amongst midnight movie patrons. While investigating Weng Weng’s whereabouts, Leavold confirmed a number of earlier featured appearances by his subject, including a film starring future president Joseph Estrada.

Many of the Philippines’ established film scholars and critics are uncomfortable talking about Weng Weng, because they consider his films the cinematic equivalent of a carnival sideshow. However, Leavold found some people who were happy to talk about the Guinness record holding actor, such as his former co-stars and director, as well as fans Imelda Marcos and her daughter, Governor Imee Marcos.

Of course, Search is all about weird cinema, but Leavold’s considerable time spent with Imelda reveals much about the current state of Filipino society and politics. Clearly, she still considers herself the nation’s First Lady-in-spirit, but you cannot call her delusional because there seem to be an awful lot of people who agree with her. It is a heavy thing to say, but Leavold’s footage of her might just be stranger than the Weng Weng movies that brought him to the Philippines in the first place. Yet, nobody can say she is not a gracious hostess.

On the other hand, there is one person conspicuously missing from Search: Cora Caballes, who produced Weng Weng’s films with her late husband. It is his relationship with the Caballeses that most directly raises questions of exploitation, including issues of fair compensation, or lack thereof.

From "The Search for Weng Weng."

Through interviews with old school movie business veterans, Leavold conveys a vivid sense of the Philippines heyday as an unregulated haven for low movie production. He also achieves closure in his quest to determine whatever became of Weng Weng, but his fate holds few real surprises. It will sound like a bit of cliché, but the journey is what is important in Search, rather than the ultimate destination.

Along the way, Leavold tantalizes viewers with truly bizarre film clips, while treating his subject with scrupulous sensitivity. It is a tricky balance to maintain, but he pulls it off. The result is a big, entertaining valentine to B- movies that opens a strangely insightful window into the contemporary Philippines. Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates the ragged glory of offbeat cinema, The Search for Weng Weng screens again on Monday (8/4), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on August 4th, 2014 at 10:01pm.

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