Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tribeca Journal . . .

I don't know whether the Tribeca Film Festival's documentary selections have generally made a stronger impression on me because there are more of them -- the ESPN sports sidebar tips the numerical balance and the qualitative one as well -- or because they are better than the narrative features, or because I usually end up writing about more of them. Perhaps it's because the fiction films tend to be heavily weighted towards American independent films at their most anodyne, maundering, meandering and maudlin family melodramas.

Whatever the reason, my Monday viewing seems to me typical. The only fiction feature I went to was Dito Montiel's Boulevard, and that provoked an unusual reaction in me: I walked out after 40 minutes. I almost never leave a film before the end credits and when I do it usually has more to do with the audience than the film. But there is no mistaking my reaction of Boulevard. It's one of those low-key, ostensibly sensitive portraits of middle-class angst with Robin Williams in his "tragically repressed" mode, all fluttering eyelids, quivering lips and when-is-the-explosion-going-to-come. Williams is a bank officer who has fallen into a very deep rut at home and at work. Then he almost inadvertently picks up a male hustler and is instantly infatuated to the point of becoming something of a stalker. By the end of the first half-hour I realized that there were only two or three ways this film could go and none of them were very interesting. Suddenly, after two-and-a-fraction films and four hours in the dark, it seemed like a good time for lunch. Unfair to Montiel no doubt, but that's festival life.

My reaction was probably colored by the fact that the film I had seen immediately prior to Boulevard was Maravilla, a first feature documentary by Juan Pablo Cadaveira that profiles the middleweight boxing champion Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez. As regular readers of this blog may recall, I am not only a former sportswriter but also a fairly serious boxing fan. Martinez is probably my single favorite active fighter in the world today, and I was looking forward to this film with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the result is a huge disappointment.

Damon Runyon once offered the scriptural advice, "The race is not always to the strong, nor the battle to the weak. But that's the way to bet." Unfortunately, fiction films about sports seem only to be interested in defying the smart money, focusing almost exclusively on the rise of the downtrodden. The result is that the genre is almost inevitably manipulative on a level so crude that the worst horror film director on the planet would be ashamed to put his name on the result. Ironically, the major exceptions are almost always boxing films. For better or worse, the sport is so identified with corruption and the underworld, and attracts such outsized, outrageous and deeply dangerous personalities -- think Jake LaMotta or Mike Tyson -- that the drama doesn't center on whether the "hero" can win but if he will be allowed to. The moral uncertainties that  rule the boxing film almost never come into play in fiction films about other sports and the result is that boxing movies tend to be about what is actually interesting in sports, the interplay of personalities in and out of competition. That is one of the key elements -- to my mind -- that made covering sports compelling. along with the socio-economic and political aspects of our games and what they tell us about our society, and what former major-league baseball player Ted Simmons elegantly called "the mental application of physical skills."

Sergio Martinez: A Marvel, sure, but who is he?

On paper, Maravilla should be about precisely those themes. Martinez grew up as one of the working poor of Quilmes, one of Buenos Aires's poorer barrios. The collapse of the Argentine economy forced him to move to Spain to move his boxing career forward. After considerable struggles in and out of the ring, he finally won the WBC middleweight title. But as is typical of the sport, he was stripped of the title by WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who essentially handed the strap to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., son of the Mexican boxing legend, and Sulaiman's godson. The WBC darted and dodged as capably as Willie Pep on one of his best nights but eventually had to give Martinez a chance to win his belt back from Chavez fils. It's not exactly a spoiler if I tell you he did so, and in fine style.

Maravilla wants to be every kind of sports movie, a fearless revelation of the corruption of the sport's sanctioning bodies, a profile of a singularly compelling man, a dramatic underdog story, a family drama and a spectacle. It only succeeds as the last, intermittently. Watching footage from his fights on a big screen is a joy seldom offered any more; why watch a fight on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater when you can see it in your own home? Even that pleasure is spoiled somewhat by Cadaveira's tinkering with the soundtrack of the fight footage so that every punch thuds, every whiff zips and the crowd noise ebbs and flows with the ostensible story line.

Martinez seems to be an intensely private guy, guarded and heavily armored. Given that both his manager and promoter were involved in the production of the film, it comes as no surprise that his privacy is never really challenged. Sulaiman, who died after the film was completed, sounds eminently reasonable if you're not actually listening, but the easy morality of the sanctioning bodies -- and the seeming complicity of the major cable networks in their nonsense -- are stated but not explored. What we are left with in the end is a compendium of visual cliches -- the ring being assembled in speedy time-lapse shots -- and a complicated, looping narrative structure that adds little but confusion. A painfully missed opportunity.

Fortunately, the day began and ended much more happily.

One would expect the director of the deft food doc King Corn to be appalled by the culture-bending spectacle of American adaptations of Chinese dishes that is the heart of The Search for General Tso, but Ian Cheney has a rich sense of humor, a thriving curiosity and a hunger for . . . well, in this case for General Tso's chicken. Me too, although given the regrettable coincidence of the screening of Cheney's film and the penultimate day of Pesakh, I had to settle for a cheese omelet at a nearby diner. (General Tso's chicken is lightly breaded, you know.)

Well, it turns out there was a General Tso, and he died nearly within living memory. A major figure in 19th century Chinese history, he came out of the Hunan region and was famous for never having lost a battle, which makes him the Perry Mason of war.

I'll have the brown rice, please

For reasons that the filmmakers and their many interviewees can only guess at, the dish which bears the general's famous name is one of the most ubiquitous in North America, found on just about any Chinese food menu on the continent. Yet until very recently, it was completely unknown in China. Cheney goes to Hunan and shows many locals photos of the insanely bright red concoction and they profess utter bafflement. When he finally tracks down the Hunanese chef who invented it, living and working in Taipei, he is utterly flummoxed by the alien sight; needless to say, it bears almost no resemblance to the recipe he devised.

Along the way, Cheney talks to a dazzling selection of restauranteurs, food historians and writers, Chinese food buffs and memorabilia collectors (who even knew there was such a thing?) and historians of the Chinese-American diaspora. The result is witty, smart and insightful, offering some useful lessons on issues of acculturation, assimilation and "authenticity." The film displays some minor lapses in judgment in its rather too-cute use of animation, but the overall effect is as delightful as, well, as a good plate of General Tso's chicken. Which is what I think I'll go have after I post this.

The nerdiness/neediness of engineering students is proverbial. On the evidence of Tonislav Hristov's film Love and Engineering every cliche you've ever heard about the males of the subspecies seems to be true. The Finland-based Bulgarian documentarian follows an affable but profoundly maladroit group of perpetual bachelors and their would-be mentor as they search for an algorithm or some other formula that will find them true love with the opposite sex. Or just sex with the opposite sex. Or a date. Anything.

Reservoir Engineers: Four guys getting their Tarantino on

Okay, I'm picking on these guys but the thing that struck me most forcefully while watching this charmingly goofy movie was how much these guys resembled the film students of whom I was one back in the mid-1970s. (The most significant difference between them and my classmates and me was that they are virtually guaranteed a sizeable living when they have their degrees.) For the most part, the quartet of losers are engagingly dopey and at least one, Todor, is a genuinely sweet guy whose helplessness in the face of his own emotions is really quite moving. Atanas, their instructor, has a certain clumsy self-knowledge that is refreshing: he tells them, "[The] fact [that I am married] is practical proof that an engineer can find a wife." Todor gets the last word, and it's a charming one: "Love is the algorithm," not the other way around.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Can't Show a Movie Without a Screen

As some of you may know, I've been a delighted supporter of the campaign to bring movies back to the United Palace, an astonishing 1930 movie theater up in Washington Heights, my neighborhood. We've succeeded in restoring film to the arts agenda in this unique venue and the next program on tap is a real NYC-set classic, the 1933 King Kong*, but the experience of seeing a film in this deco-and-Indian-and-Moorish phantasmagoria would be even more splendid if the theater's screen were replaced. Right now, we're looking at a 50-foot screen, which is pretty impressive, but the damned thing is an antique and desperately needs to be replaced.

If you'd like to pitch in, go here and make a donation. A gem like the United Palace needs a perfect setting.

* King Kong will be screening free on Sunday, April 27 at the United Palace (175th St. and Broadway, Manhattan); doors open at 4 p.m., live stage show at 5, screening at 5:30. Guests include Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author of the Tony- and Grammy-winning musical In The Heights, and John Landis, the director of Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places.

Cine-Journal, Mark II

For five years I turned out this blog, mostly on matters cinematic, on a somewhat regular basis. It wasn't always easy although it was frequently fun. It enabled me to experiment with different registers and tones in my writing, to plug my occasional public appearances, my books and the writings of my friends (including my esteemed and gifted wife) and my politics. Occasionally I would bend the self-imposed rules and comment on matters having nothing to do with the moving image.

For several months now, since October in fact, the blog has been dormant. As I have remarked in this space occasionally, when you are a professional writer -- someone who writes for a living, to pay the bills and feed the cat -- it is a pain in the ass to write for free. Of course, at least in theory, the blog leads to paying gigs or somehow creates other cash-earning opportunities. I have not found that to be the case, although I suppose it did alert some of you to the existence of my books, none of which is remotely about cinema.

After careful consideration, though, I have realized that writing the blog fills a few other needs, almost as important as the gaping holes in my bank account. It allows me to communicate more directly with similar-minded film people, to write on films that have no Jewish content, to write on films that are not necessarily playing in theaters right this instant, not to mention giving me a forum in which to comment on larger issues. When I'm not writing the blog, I have to pass up all of those. Obviously, if a paying gig came along that afforded similar opportunities, this space would suddenly be a blank once more. And if anyone reading this knows of such job, don't hesitate to tell me.

In the meantime, the Tribeca festival has begun once again and you can find my first Jewish Week piece on the event here.

As always, I reserve the right to talk sports, politics, literature or nonsense here. You can expect plenty of the last, I'm sure.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Memoriam . . .

I've always liked Ed Lauter. He is, or more appropriately, was a wonderful character actor, an inventive player who brought lots of nuance to any role he was handed. Plus his career coincided with my own salad days as a film critic.

So I'm seriously bummed that he has died at the age of 74. My friend and colleague Ira Hozinsky drew my attention to an excellent interview with Lauter, which you can read here

One small tidbit I have to add to Lauter's story about Robert Aldrich casting him in The Longest Yard, everything Lauter says about Aldrich's many accomplishments is true -- he was an Aldich as in the Rockefellers and the Aldrichs, and went to UVA -- but what Lauter either didn't know or had forgotten is that Aldrich played varsity football at Virginia, so he knew even more about football than Lauter lets on.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Washington Heights Film Class Has a New Website

We're back up!
Check out our fall schedule here:

Hope to see some of you tomorrow night for The Trip!
(No, not the Roger Corman, the Michael Winterbottom.)

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Another NY Film Festival Story

You can read my next NYFF piece at Jewish Week. And I urge you to check out the Empire project's website. They now have both the Legacy and Cradle segments up and each is well worth your time.

 Is this a legacy of slavery? Ceremonies in Ghana in the Empire project videos

Saw the new James Gray, The Immigrant, and the new Claire Denis, Bastards, yesterday, and I'll have a bit to say about each later this weekend.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

From Russia with Films

You can't keep track of everything that happens in New York City in film. Heaven knows I try, but it's simply not possible. So when I received an e-mail about the sixth annual Russian Documentary Film Festival in New York I was a bit surprised -- sixth? and I never heard about it before? Not to mention that the e-mail came the day before the event begins.

So let me pull your coat to what looks like an interesting group of films about one of the most complicated nations on earth. The focus is mostly on non-controversial works, including a 75th birthday tribute to Rudolf Nureyev, but there are some very appealing subjects on display, including a longitudinal study of young Russians, literally a Russian 28 Up, directed by Sergey Miroshnichenko. Not surprisingly, it's a Russian-British co-production.

The program takes place October 4-6 at the Tribeca Cinemas, DCTV and the Brooklyn Public Library and you can find the particulars here.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A Quick Update

Jewish Week has two new film stories of mine up on the website right now:

On a more serious note, let me draw your attention to the latest attack on an Iranian filmmaker, this one by the ostensibly more moderate new regime. I've written a bit about Muhammad Rasoulof's problems with the government before, and this comes as no great surprise. I guess Rowhani felt he had to let people at home know that the face he showed at the UN wasn't that of a "weak" leader.