Category Archives: Film

“WHAT’S THE WORSE THAT COULD HAPPEN”— A Burglary

what's the worst

“What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

A Burglary

Amos Lassen

Martin Lawrence is a clever thief named Kevin Caffery who frequents auctions to find out what’s worth stealing. At an art auction, he meets Amber Belhaven (Carmen Ejogo) who is in tears because she has to sell the painting her father left her because she needs money for a hotel bill. The painting is described as a fine example of the Hudson River School, goes for $3,000 but to many it is worth much more than that. Max Fairbanks (Danny DeVito) is a man who has several lovers including his wife (Nora Dunn), his secretary (Gleanne Headly) and Miss September.

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Kevin has a criminal sidekick named Berger (John Leguizamo) and a getaway driver (Bernie Mac) and he is friends with a flamboyant a Boston cop (William Fichtner). The plot is about Kevin’s attempt to rob Max’s luxurious shore estate, which is supposed to be empty but in fact contains Max and Miss September. After the cops are called, Max steals a ring given him by Amber Belhaven. The rest of the movie as about Kevin’s determination to get it back, intercut with Max’s troubles with judges, lawyers and accountants.

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What could have been quiet jokes becomes sloppy and slapstick and the film does not have a strong narrative that will go from beginning to end. A comedy needs a strong narrative engine to pull the plot through to the end. There are simply too many actors and too poor a script to carry this through.

 

worst4In a movie about a caper like this one, it’s the actors who matter. Lawrence did not make it as a star and he just is not funny here. DeVito is a great talker but he is once again playing the same old, same old.

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The cast is very good and there are some funny moments but by and large, I just could not get into the movie. The underlying premise is that the only difference between the businessman, the politician, the lawyer, and the man who steals is that at least the professional thief is honest about what he does. There is something unsettling about the underlying assumptions here, especially those about the smug self-righteousness of the thieves.

“SIBLING RIVALRY”— A Fling

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“Sibling Rivalry”

One Last Fling

Amos Lassen

Marjorie (Kirstie Alley) has a single sister, Jeanine (Jami Gertz), who thinks that Marjorie should have an affair because her doctor husband, Harry (Scott Bakula), neglects her. Harry’s dominating doctor sister, Iris (Carrie Fisher), also treats Marjorie as a zero. In rebellion, Marjorie picks up a stranger named Charles (Sam Elliott) for a hot hotel one-nighter, but Charles’s heart gives out from the exertions. Then Marjorie learns that Charles was really Harry’s brother, just returned from years overseas. So Marjorie tries to make it look like Charles committed suicide. She is aided by Nick (Bill Pullman), a bumbling window-blind salesman who just happened to be hanging blinds in Charles’s hotel room. Nick doesn’t want any bad publicity either, since his brother, Wilbur (Ed O’Neill), is a cop running for chief of police. Everyone is related and there is a lot of mugging for the camera.

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 Director Carl Reiner seems to have lost what he once had when he was directing wonderful dark comedies such as Where’s Poppa” and “All of Me”. As I watched this, I thought it was cheesy and somewhat exhausting. It is madcap and a bit screwball and I do not think it fair to summarize the plot because some of you might actually enjoy this and I do not want to influence your opinion.

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The plot is a series of revolving-door situations in which first one person and then another lacks a crucial piece of information. The actors deserve better than the material and direction they’re given.

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Watching the film, I found myself thinking about other ways of directing the same material. If the performances were cooled down and the pacing was revved up, I think the movie would be better received. As it stands, it is something of a failure with a lot of talent.

“UNLIKELY HEROES”— Winning Respect

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“Unlikely Heroes” (“Schweizer Helden”)

Winning Respect

Amos Lassen

In “Unlikely Heroes”, Swiss director Peter Luisi brings us a mainstream comedy-drama in which a motley group of asylum seekers come (crammed) together in a center in the Alps to put on a play during the Christmas vacation. This is a film about immigration and white guilt set in Swiss Alps that follows an amateur production of Friedrich Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” at a home for asylum seekers.

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Recently separated from her husband and coldly abandoned by her posh socialite friends, middle-aged Sabine (Esther Gemsch) faces the prospect of spending the holidays alone. Unable to tell her snobby companions the truth about her plans for Christmas, Sabine elects to make reality more to her liking by telling those same friends that she will be directed the show at the local shelter for political refugees. Her friends, however, insist on viewing the show themselves, and consequently, Sabine is forced into going through with her own falsehood. Thus, with a group of nonprofessional actors with varying degrees of German fluency and a very hesitant sanctuary staff, Sabine sets out to produce the play.

 

“Unlikely Heroes” desperately wants to say something about the politics of immigration. Director Luisi exploits every opportunity and every character to make some sort of hackneyed statement about the necessity of reform. Some characters are made to fall in love. Others are made out to be as flat and likeable as physically possible. This is undoubtedly because he wants to make sure that everyone who sees this film will be angry enough to do something about immigration.

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He places Sabine front and center. Because of this, potentially potent sub-plots and honest character development are pushed to the back burner and Sabine hopelessly meanders about very much preoccupied with what her waspy confidantes are going to think of her play. Even more upsetting is that, when Sabine eventually wakes up and understands what is going on, Luisi actually asks the audience to empathize with her and her feelings of being a goddess to the immigrants.

Technically this is a fine movie but the plot is a disaster. The original play about William Tell is practically entirely stripped of dialogue by a semi-xenophobic actor friend (Klaus Wildbolz) of Sabine’s and she needed him because the level of German of most of the asylum seekers is extremely basic. Luisi uses this absence of German skills of most of the actors as an awkward source of humor.

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Unlike Sabine, Luisi uses real actors for the roles of the asylum seekers, and they are an affable bunch that at least manage to suggest why Sabine keeps coming back to the center. Unfortunately (again), “Unlikely Heroes” fails its feelings of self-importance.

“BETRAYED”— A Real Killing Fictionalized

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“Betrayed”

A Real Killing Fictionalized

Amos Lassen

“Betrayed” is a fictionalized version of a genuine killing – the shooting by white supremacists of “shock jock” Alan Berg in Denver. We meet Katie (Debra Winger), a ‘combine girl’ who has been hired to cover the busy harvest season in a small town in Iowa and becomes romantically involved with Gary (Tom Berenger). He is a widower with two children and Katie seems to be just the woman he needs to restore his faith in love after the highway murder of his wife three years earlier. However, there is more to Katie than he realizes and we learn that she is an undercover FBI agent who has been charged with the task of discovering if Gary, a suspected member of a right wing militia group, was involved in the murder of the DJ. Her boss Michael (John Heard) is Katie’s ex-lover) who is convinced that Gary is implicated in the killing. However, Katie can’t believe that the man she is falling in love with could possibly be an extremist, let alone the organizer of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of white supremacy. Her feelings become conflicted when she hears him voice racist sentiments and he life takes a turn when she becomes directly implicated in Gary’s secret life.

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Director Costa-Garvas handles Gary’s monstrous sympathies in a way that makes it easy to believe that Katie could have such a hard time believing that he could really be a killer. The truth is revealed in a genuinely horrifying sequence when Katie is invited to a ‘hunt’ where a kidnapped black man is tracked down through the woods and then shot. It is a brilliant and shocking sequence which is perhaps necessary to demonstrate the logical result of Gary’s extreme political beliefs. It’s also hugely effective propaganda. There is a distinct sense of exploitation here and the hunt sequence is shot for queasy shock effects. We also see a which aren’t all that far away from the murders in a white supremacist training camp where neo-Nazis trot about in their uniforms and white-cloaked racists burn crosses sing “Amazing Grace”. We see the banality of evil in an excellent performance from John Mahoney as Shorty, a farmer whose political radicalism has been fired by the bank taking his farm away and Vietnam taking his son from him. When he casually talks about the evils of ‘niggers’ and Jews, his quiet rationality is far more disturbing than the more obviously upsetting hunt sequence. Equally disturbing and believable is a sad scene where Gary’s cute little daughter talks about “killing all the dirty niggers and the Jews”.

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What Costa-Gavras does so very well here is suggest how extreme right-wing organizations can flourish in apparently normal small towns and recruit people who are otherwise “entirely normal”. He doesn’t make the mistake of turning the racists into crude caricatures and in the character of Gary, he allows Tom Berenger a small triumph as we see him as a perfectly and entirely believable figure. His sincerity is evident in everything he does and while this doesn’t make him sympathetic, it does help us to understand why Katie would be so conflicted in her feelings about him. In the early scenes, Berenger is charismatic and likeable so that when the truth is revealed, we somehow want his true nature to be some kind of mistake or deception. Debra Winger is also excellent in a very difficult role that demands her character to be pulled every which way without ever quite defining just what she is doing in the FBI or why someone like her would put up with the patronizing types she is forced to work with.

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I am not sure that this is a thriller although it was advertised that way. Whatever twists are in the plot, they happen early on and the revelations about Katie and Gary come in the first half hour. All that we have to do is wait to see how long it will take for Gary to find out that his new love is an FBI agent. We are gripped by the performances but unfortunately the characters aren’t complex enough for this kind of exposure. The sentiments of the film are excellently shown and the anti-racist message is delivered in no uncertain terms. “Betrayed” is certainly worth seeing for the performances and for some very good scenes.

 

“DIE FIGHTING”— Getting a Break in Hollywood

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“Die Fighting”

Getting a Break in Hollywood

Amos Lassen

“Die Fighting” chronicles four Shaolin martial artists who have just won the top award at a Film Festival. They immediately set their sights for Hollywood, but they face a new challenge— a mysterious director forces them to “act” in his own brutal reality film, with the lives of their loved ones at stake. Every move they make is watched through hidden cameras and they are forced to run a gamut through the underbelly of Los Angeles including robbing an armored truck, dealing with a Drug Lord, breaking an entire dojo of Blackbelts, evading a SWAT team, surviving a blazing gunfight and these are only a few of what they have to do according to the script. The team gives us some of the best martial arts that we have seen on commercial film.

This is a low budget film and there moments where the low budget does become more evident, but as soon as something like this starts to show, they become involved in brilliantly choreographed fight sequences. that reminds you why this movie works so great. Not only are the lead actors but so are the bad guys that they take on. We see a variety of styles that help to keep the film fresh and fun to watch.

“VIKTORIA”—“The Baby of the Year”

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“VIKTORIA”

“The Baby of the Year”

Amos Lassen

Maya Vitkova’s debut feature, “Viktoria”  is set in the final years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the early years of the transition to democracy. Born without an umbilical cord and unwanted by her mother unwanted by her mother, Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) , Viktoria (Daria Vitkova) is named the country’s “Baby of the Decade” and is showered with gifts and attention until the disintegration of the East Bloc. Despite throwing their worlds off balance, the resulting political changes also allow for the possibility of reconciliation. 

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Vitkova wrote, produced and directed the film which makes it personal for her making it both personal and universal. It is the first Bulgarian film ever to screen at Sundance and it has a lot to say and does so with very few words. As the story comes to life during the fall of communism, Vitkova’s gorgeous imagery elevates her semi-autobiographical debut to poetic heights. Viktoria’s relationship with her mother was severed before it even began. As a living symbol of the communist party, Viktoria knows that the love she receives is more political than it is maternal and as we watch we see a powerful metaphorical link between the physical body and the body politic.

It begins in November 10, 1979, ten years before the fall of communism. Boryana and her husband Ivan (Dimo Divov) are quietly having sex and do not to wake her mother (Mariana Krumova) with whom they live. The next morning, we see Boryana having her daily ritual of drinking contraband Coca-Cola from a stash that she keeps hidden in the bathroom and we get a hint of her desire to go west to the free world. She also goes through a series of activities to prevent a child from forming inside of her. These obviously did not work since the next time we see her she’s pregnant.

Director Vitkova actually takes us inside the womb to connect the viewer with the fetus. Cross cutting between two laboring mothers in the same room, we see the normal delivery of one baby and the silent birth of Boryana’s child. As the doctors hover over Viktoria in awe and confusion because of her lack of a belly button, a pack of well-suited comrades invade the room to celebrate “the baby of the decade.”

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Unable to breast-feed her own child, Boryana’s post-partum depression becomes darker as Viktoria grows up. What Viktoria doesn’t receive in motherly love, she finds in the affections of a doting government. The party throws her lavish birthday parties and transports her to and from school everyday. She has a phone by her bedside that connects her exclusively to the party leader and is allowed free reign at school. Vitkova gives us some absurd by satirizing political propaganda.

When the collapse of communism arrives in 1989, the entire foundation of Viktoria’s life comes crashing down with it. Quickly moving ahead, the film begins a nuanced exploration of the mother-daughter relationship. As an adolescent Viktoria (Kalina Vitkova), see a good deal of pain and longing. Boryana who has maintained a stoic front throughout the film until the final scene and we get hints of her motivations.

The film spans some thirty years. Politically and psychologically, Vitkova gives us a highly personal story with great pathos that shows her smart sense of humor.

“THE KINGDOM OF ZYDECO”— The Roots of Zydeco

the kingdom of zydeco

“The Kingdom of Zydeco”

The Roots of Zydeco

Amos Lassen

“The Kingdom of Zydeco” is a celebration of music and it is also a comedy of manners. Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque are involved in a tussle that is an American status farce and a folk tale. Both of these men give thrilling performances that have been filmed by Robert Mugge who is a specialist in roots music documentaries. This is basically a documentary on the irresistibly rhythmic dance music of Louisiana’s black Creole community.

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Two musicians are rivals to wear the crown of Zydeco’s. The veteran Boozoo Chavis insists it is his to wear because he’d been anointed by none other than the late Rockin’ Doopsie, whose own claim as successor to the original King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, was itself much disputed in Southwest Louisiana.

Chavis made the first commercial zydeco recordings in 1954, when Beau Jocque was still a gleam in his father’s eyes. Now the strapping Jocque challenges Chavis in an accordion and washboard-fueled battle., However, this civil war seems more of a promoter’s scheme than a serious musicians’ showdown. The genial Jocque says that the best man might win if he does. Jocque clearly the people’s choice, thanks to a bracing zydeco sound updated to include elements of funk, rock and John Lee Hooker-style electric boogie.

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As for the 63-year-old Chavis, who takes the challenge quite personally, sees himself as the gatekeeper of tradition. I know more music than he’s ever going to learn says the feisty Chavis, who adds that Jocque has a lot to learn before he can come over Boozoo. “I’m coming from way back, I ain’t comin’ from yesterday.”

Chavis also claims that claiming he’s been overlooked because he’s “kind of short.” Jocque is 6-foot-6. Even though the heart of this documentary is the showdown, it’s never really shown and there’s an anti-climactic feeling at the eventual crowning of which man wins and to find that out you will have to see the film.

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Robert Mugge is a longtime chronicler of American music, is not out to create a history of zydeco, but to capture the music’s spirit. He intersperses performances by both Chavis and Jocque with interviews about the “conflict” with local deejays, club owners and other musicians. This is a delightful film about delightful competition between two delightful musicians.

“DILLINGER”— A Different Dillinger

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“DILLINGER”

A Different Dillinger

Amos Lassen

Director John Milius gives us a “Dillinger” that is fascinating for its speed, action and firepower.Dillinger (Warren Oates) and company rob banks and get shot up in dashes across the Depression countryside in vintage cars to vintage music on a gory road that ends in Dillinger’s bloody finish outside that Chicago movie house in 1934. However, it is never explained why or how Dillinger chose that path. “I sure am happy. I just want to steal people’s money,” says Dillinger. As depicted in scenes shot in and around Enid, Okla., members of his gang (Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, et al) are just as callous and equally happy in their work.

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Warren Oates’ Dillinger is tough and homespun. He, pushes Baby Face Nelson around and is sentimental about visiting his folks. He is roughly affectionate with his girl, but there is something missing is this characterization. The film captures the look of the nineteen-thirties, but its violence dominates the film and the players who are largely undefined. We see Dillinger as a fairly decent man who became something of a folk hero with more modesty than Bonnie and Clyde (whose adventures he follows in the newspapers). He brags sometimes, but with reason, and he’s not a sadistic killer. He’s a professional. He has killers in his gang, however, and is enraged when Baby Face Nelson gets trigger-happy.

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The film perfectly captures the local colloquialisms, the mannerisms, and casting is near perfect, from the lead to supporting characters, primarily because the actors don’t look like actors, they look like ordinary early-twentieth-century common folk. They are certainly representative of the time period with crags and wrinkles in their faces and in their hardened eyes. The Dillinger gang, other than Richard Dreyfuss’ George “Baby Face” Nelson, operate almost like a family. We believe that they care for each other, are courteous to their women and, on occasion, to the common folk. And while they are desperate killers, they seem to delight and enjoy the entire affair and even know that the end is always near.

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It’s a brutal film with a lot violence, sexual aggressiveness and death. There is no internal conflict to go “straight” or escape from his past. Dillinger says to his lover, Billie Frechette, “All my life I wanted to be a bank robber. Carry a gun and wear a mask. Now that it’s happened I guess I’m just about the best bank robber they ever had. And I sure am happy.” We look at him and think that he is hardened. And if Oates’ Dillinger makes a compelling anti-hero, Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis is a great foil. He pursues Dillinger with almost T-800 Model 101 efficiency and the folksiness of a John Ford character. His mission is to eradicate Dillinger his gang. However, Milius never makes him unwavering in his mission, and both the FBI and the gangsters develop a form of mutual and deadly respect.

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All in all, the film is a fun and nostalgic romp. The protagonists are clear in their intentions— they’re outlaws. The antagonists are the system that will systematically track them down and kill them. No one will be left alive. The Dillinger gang will meet a gruesome end, but they will not go quietly.

“ANTIBALAS— LIVE FROM THE HOUSE OF SOUL”— Afrobeat

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“Antibalas – Live From The House Of Soul”

Afrobeat

Amos Lassen

“Antibalas” is the next installment of Daptone Records’ new video series, Live From The House Of Soul. It was recorded at Daptone Records’ backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn and directed by Philip Di Fiore. Antibalas was born in a Brooklyn warehouse in 1997 and is a 12-piece ensemble credited with introducing Afrobeat to a wider global audience, influencing countless musicians and developing a live show that is the stuff of legend. The group has performed everywhere from Central Park to Carnegie Hall to Rikers Island Prison, and that’s just in New York. Through their concerts, tours and recordings, Antibalas have helped re-popularize the classic Afrobeat sound and in doing so have won the admiration of a wide array of respected musicians.

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Antibalas (Spanish for “bulletproof”) is a Brooklyn-based afrobeat band that is modeled after Fela Kuti‘s Africa 70 band and Eddie Palmieri‘s Harlem River Drive Orchestra. Although their music generally follows the musical architecture and language of afrobeat, it incorporates elements of jazz, funk, dub, improvised music, and traditional drumming from Cuba and West Africa.

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The group’s first performance was on May 26, 1998, at St. Nicks Pub in Harlem at a poetry night organized by renowned visual artist Xaviera Simmons. Over the next few months, the group solidified with a core of eleven band members and expanded their repertoire of original songs.

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Today the band is made up of:

Martin Perna – Baritone saxophone (1998-present)

  • Luke O’Malley – Guitar (1999-present)
  • Martin Perna– Baritone sax (1998-present)
  • Duke Amayo – Vocals, congas, percussion (1999-present)
  • Jordan McLean– Trumpet, flugelhorn (1999-present)
  • Aaron Johnson – Trombone (2000-present)
  • Stuart D. Bogie– Tenor saxophone, alto saxophone (2001-present)
  • Marcos J. Garcia – Guitar, vocals (2003-present)
  • Eric Biondo – Trumpet (2003-present)
  • Marcus Farrar – Shekere, vocals (2005-present)
  • Nikhil P. Yerawadekar – Bass guitar, guitar (2010-present)
  • Miles Arntzen– Drums (2010-present)
  • Rey de Jesus – Congas (2010-present)
  • Raymond “Evil Ray” Mason – Trombone (2013-present)
  • Will Rast – Organ, electric pianos, synthesizers (2013-present)
  • Timothy Allen – Guitar (2010-present)
  • Kevin Raczka – Drums (2015-present)
  • Jas Walton – Tenor saxophone (2015-present)
  • Joseph Woullard – Tenor saxophone (2015-present)
  • Raja Kassis – Guitar (2015-present)
  • Doug Berns – Bass (2015-present)
  • Jeff Pierce – Trombone, trumpet (2013-present)

In Afrobeat music, it is all about rhythm and that rhythm comes from many different places—vocals, horns, keyboards and the listeners. It is all about feeling the music and letting it take you away.

“ZYDECO CROSSROAD: A TALE OF TWO CITIES”— Creole Music from Louisiana

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“ZYDECO CROSSROAD: A TALE OF TWO CITIES”  

Creole Music from Louisiana

Amos Lassen

Robert Mugge explores the Creole culture of Southwest Louisiana in this 87-minute film that features performances by Buckwheat Zydeco, C.J. Chenier, Chubby Carrier, Nathan Williams, Major Handy, Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr., Rosie Ledet, Creole United, Soul Creole, Chris Ardoin, Lil’ Nate Williams, Corey Arceneaux and Vasti Jackson. The film also includes interviews by World Cafe host David Dye with many of these musicians as well as interviews with Zydeco and blues club owner Sid Williams and Zydeco music experts Herman Fuselier and Michael Tisserand. Since I am originally from New Orleans, I have been waiting for this DVD for quite a while after hearing wonderful things about it and it does not disappoint.

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It is a musical hat explores Louisiana’s Creole music community. During the latter half of 2014, music filmmaker Robert Mugge and his partner Diana Zelman worked with executives Roger LaMay and Bruce Warren of Philadelphia public radio station WXPN and their “World Cafe” host and producer David Dye to document and assist WXPN’s exploration of the Creole culture of Southwest Louisiana through its yearlong Zydeco Crossroads project. It documents concerts by zydeco artists C.J. Chenier and Rosie Ledet in the Philadelphia area and followed XPN staff to Lafayette, Louisiana where concerts were staged featuring other top zydeco artists listed above. We also see David Dye’s interviews with most of the key performing artists and with zydeco club owner Sid Williams, zydeco historian Michael Tisserand, and zydeco deejay Herman Fuselier of Lafayette public radio station KRVS.

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In the interviews, we learn the history of music created by Southwest Louisiana Creoles, who are generally defined as people of mixed African, French, Spanish, and Native American descent, but especially African and French. We meet musical families who, generation after generation, play a dominant role in preserving and updating Creole musical traditions and we see that there are different kinds of zydeco— the earlier fiddle-and-accordion-driven ‘French’ or ‘La La’ music and later accordion-and-rubboard-driven zydeco. There is also the influence of Mississippi blues on both traditional Creole music and contemporary zydeco. The film’s dialogue is English, while the song lyrics are a mix of English and French patois with English summaries provided where necessary.

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Track listings include:

C.J. Chenier – Zydeco Boogaloo, I’m Coming Home

Rosie Ledet – You’re No Good For Me

Creole United – Mmm Mmm Mmm, Les Barres de la Prison

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Soul Creole – Madeleine, Buffalo Soldier

Sid Williams – Got A Party Goin’ On At El Sid O’s

Nathan Williams – Lookin’ For What You’re Lookin’ For

Lil’ Nathan Williams – That L’Argent

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Buckwheat Zydeco – Jackpot

Chubby Carrier – Tu Le Ton Son Ton

Corey Arceneaux – Creole Man

Chris Ardoin – Back Home

Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. – Josephine

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Vasti Jackson – Zydeco Crossroads

Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. – Baby What You Want Me To Do

Major Handy – Zydeco Feeling, Trail Ride

87 minutes on 1 disc + 55 minute bonus ROSIE’S IN THE HOUSE TONIGHT starring zydeco artist Rosie Ledet