Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Quick Head's-Up

Thought that if you are reading this blog, you'll enjoy my tribute to Theodore Bikel for Jewish Week.
Bikel's acting career is a perfect antidote to the Method actors who were dominating the screen at the same time. Watching Brando is like watching a workshop -- you can't wait to find out which interpretation of the role he'll finally decide to offer; naturalistic actors like Bikel just decide who the character is and live it.

Back with some actual film reviews shortly!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Bit of Film History and a Bargain

Thanks to Fandor's daily news flash, which I recommend unequivocally, I learned a few minutes ago of a terrific DVD package that readers of this blog will want to grab quickly. As many of you may recall, a few years ago the New Zealand Film Archive discovered a print of the long-lost 1927 John Ford feature Upstream. Given the small percentage of Ford's silent films that have survived, the rescue of any of them is noteworthy and I, for one, was ecstatic. Ecstasy is often blunted by the concerns of day-to-day living -- not to be too ponderous about it (okay, it's too late) -- and I promptly forgot the whole thing until I saw an item on the Fandor site announcing the availability of a DVD, American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive. The entire package retails for only $25 (and can be had cheaper on Amazon, if you don't have any moral qualms about Jeff Bezos and Co.) or you can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Fund and get it free. At any rate, there's more info here and the NFPF site is well worth a look itself.


Friday, July 17, 2015

If It's Sunday, Bring an Umbrella

I'm starting to prepare for my fall class at JASA, which will be a collection of a dozen underrated British films ranging from Picadilly (1929) to Raining Stones (1993). Consequently, I've been looking at the twelve films I chose and getting a vivid reminder that, Francois Truffaut notwithstanding, there are great British films, albeit not as many as one would wish. Somehow with the Ashes being contested right now (and England getting well and truly waxed by the Aussies at Lord's this week), it seems appropriate to have just seen Robert Hamer's splendid 1947 noir It Always Rains on Sunday.

Tommy and Rose in Happier Days

Like most films noirs, it's a bleak number in which nobody gets what they want and everyone gets what's coming to them. Although the central plot is almost ridiculously straightforward -- Tommy Swan (John McCallum) breaks out of prison and heads for London's Jewish-dominated East End, home of his old girlfriend Rose (Googie Withers) -- but this is an ensemble piece in which Hamer moves deftly and gracefully among a half-dozen storylines and twice as many significant characters. In a sense, It Always Rains is really a film about a soon-to-disappear neighborhood, Bethnal Green when it echoed to the sound of Yiddish and the streets were filled with peddlers, a working-class neighborhood reminiscent of New York's Lower East Side. (Like the Lower East Side, the East End merely exchanged one striving ethnic group for another with the Latino population moving onto the bottom rungs of the Manhattan socioeconomic ladder and the South Asian and West Indian poor as their London counterparts.)

Urban Claustrophobia in the Rain

One might not think of Ealing as a studio for film noir, but the mix of eccentric locals and salt-of-the-earth working poor is as typical of the studio as any of their comedies, which usually boast the same blend. When you note that the screenwriters include Hamer (whose next film would be Kind Hearts and Coronets), Henry Cornelius (Genevieve) and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail (who also worked on Ealing vehicles for comics Will Hay and Tommy Trinder), then the frequently playful tone makes more sense. MacPhail, in particular, was a favorite of Ealing honcho Michael Balcon (perhaps not coincidentally, himself a Jew), and Ealing has always felt to me like a family operation writ large, sort of a super-sized version of a John Ford set with everyone falling easily into familiar and familial roles.

It certainly worked that way for McCallum and Withers, who married after the film was completed and remained happily hitched until his death in 2010 at 91. There is an unmistakable chemistry between them, edgy, even a little barbed, but utterly sexual, and it gives the film almost as much drive as Hamer's liquid direction.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

And another good guy bites the dust . . . .

RIP Sergio Sollima, director of such hard nuggets of politically driven action cinema as The Big Gundown, Face to Face and Violent City. At 94, he was one of the very last of the Italian filmmakers who gave us the westerns of the '60s and the crime films of the '70s. These guys were the product of a society that was much more fragmented and polarized politically than the U.S. in the same period. (You're probably thinking "more fragmented than the U.S during Vietnam?" Compared the Red Brigades and their train-station-bombing fascist counterparts, yes.) That reality was reflected in the films they made. Italy in the period was like a 



 Who you callin' ugly, chump?
 
gigantic version of the Warner Brothers backlot during the Depression, recycling and reinventing popular genres (mostly American) with ferocious abandon. Although Leone rightly got most of the attention, it was the second-tier guys like Sollima, Corbucci, Lizzani, DiLeo, who made the wheels turn, and they were anything but untalented.That said, there's an excellent appreciation of his life and career at IndieWire, written by Dennis Cozzalio.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Iran's Ongoing War on Its Filmmakers . . . .

I have written in this space many times about film people who are prisoners of conscience around the world, but it seems as if an inordinate number of these cases take place in Iran. Perhaps that is merely one more tribute to one of the world's most creative film industries. Reminds me of the story Mark Twain tells about an editor friend who, when asked about an incident in which he was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, replied: "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I'd have just as soon walked."

The latest bludgeoning of freedom of expression in the Iranian film community is the sentencing of writer-producer Mostafa Azizi. Azizi is currently in Evin Prison, having been handed an eight-year sentence for "insulting the Supreme Leader," among other charges. For more information and a guide to writing to push for his release, go here.

Get this man out of prison!



Friday, June 26, 2015

Bit of a Let-Down from Eran Riklis

Among the prominent Israeli directors to have emerged in the past two decades, Eran Riklis is perhaps the one with the most uneven output. His best work -- The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree certainly come to mind -- is quite good indeed. He made a string of disappointing films after Cup Final, his first success, but lately he has been turning more predictably interesting films, laced with a warmth and humanity that reminds me often of Leo McCarey.

So his latest, A Borrowed Identity, which opened theatrically today, really is unfortunate. It's not terrible, but it feels rather studied. When it played the Israel Film Center Festival this spring I wrote this:


Eran Riklis opens the event with the New York premiere of  A Borrowed Identity, scripted by popular Israeli Arab novelist Sayed Kashua from the writer’s novel Dancing Arabs. . . . A Borrowed Identity, like its literary source, is a bildungsroman that traces the youth of a young Israeli Arab, Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) as he picks his way through the minefield of ethnic identity and Jewish-Arab conflict. Although there are moments of levity, Borrowed is essentially the latest installment the director’s ongoing search for the human side of the crisis. As in his best films. . . Riklis is trying to find the some reason for optimism but the material stubbornly refuses to provide one. Instead, it is his own dogged commitment to a cinematic humanism that is the most hopeful element in the film. 


Better than the Material:
Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) and Edna (Yael Abecassis)




Although A Borrowed Identity pivots on the literal event invoked in its title, the name of the film also serves as a reminder of the uniquely ambiguous status of the Israeli Arabs. Eyad encounters the expected racism in the larger society, but finds allies among his classmates at the elite arts school he attends in Jerusalem. He also becomes involved with someone even worse off than he, Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), whose muscular dystrophy has already put him in a wheelchair. The problem with “A Borrowed Identity” is that, despite some nice very acting, the film is sluggishly paced and too often feels like a rather obvious version of a ‘50s problem picture. And yet, against all odds, the final fifteen minutes is genuinely moving, as Riklis’s complex language of camera movement pays emotional dividends.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Listen to the Silent(s)

Now here is a film series that looks like a lot of fun and adds titles to the general mix that could include some potential rediscoveries. The Czech Center is offering a "Rooftop Cine-Concert Series" Tuesday evenings this summer that will include a nice selection of Czech and American films from the late silent period, one pre-code classic (Sternberg's Blonde Venus, a typically delirious Dietrich vehicle) and one 1937 ham-and-egger, Sam Wood's Madame X  (which makes the cut because it includes uncredited work from Gustav Machaty). All the silents will feature live musical accompaniment, the most exciting of which, to my mind, are the presence of jazz great Henry Grimes playing for A Woman of Affairs (Clarence Brown), Jiří Bárta playing cello at An Old Gangster's Molls, a 1927 Czech film directed by the euphoniously named Svatopluk Innemann, and Ben Model accompanying Machaty's Erotikon. The combination of silent films with live music and the presence of several Czech films that are virtually unseen in the U.S. makes this one a keeper. Add a little summer moonlight, dance music before the film and is sounds like a very pleasant evening in New York.




Karel Schleichert and Ita Rina get ready to drink the Kool-Aid in Erotikon