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.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Back Again . . .

So I've been covering the New York Film Festival and other goodies for Jewish Week. Plus a bunch of things I want to pull your coat to.

First, my first Film Festival piece is here:
I don't know when the Frederick Wiseman review will be posted, but here's what I said:

Frederick Wiseman is a documentarian whose work seldom touches directly on Jewish topics (although his brilliant essay in fiction film, “The Last Letter” does so with exceptional power), but his attitude and interests bespeak a personality steeped in Jewish ethics and values. His latest film, “At Berkeley,” a four-hour glimpse into the inner workings of the University of California at Berkeley, provides an excellent example. As in most of Wiseman’s work, the film pivots on the theme of the place of large public institutions in a democratic society, one that is pluralistic and wildly diverse. Berkeley, which has always grappled pretty openly with this issue in both its governance and its daily routines, is a terrific vehicle for Wiseman’s cinema-verite gaze.

Covering most of an academic year at the school, Wiseman’s primary focus is on the complex vectors of power that tug at the school on a daily basis – the state legislature in Sacramento, the impossibly complicated array of student groups and interests, California’s financial crunch, potential donors both personal and corporate, and so on – and his access was formidable. In the post-screening press conference he said that the only meetings to which he was not privy were discussions of tenure.

Strangely enough, therein lies the film’s central dilemma. If you can show nearly everything, how do you choose what to show? For much of the film’s running time, Wiseman’s choices are unerring as usual. The university’s leaders, particularly the handsome and soothing-voiced Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau (who retired this May), are not merely smart manipulators. One feels their genuine concern for the student body, beleaguered by continuously rising costs, and the faculty, and their commitment to the place of higher education in a democratic society. When the film is focusing on them, and on the staff, its footing is sure. But the choices of class time Wiseman has made frequently seem arbitrary, even perfunctory. Only towards the end of the film, when he devotes a long sequence to a remarkable group of older students, an on-campus  veterans’ support group, do we get some sense of the larger societal impact of a great public university.

The second part of a spirited and charming conversation with Eran Riklis is up on the JWeek site here: 

Stephen Dorff in Time Out, One of His Bleaker Moments in Eran Riklis's Zaytoun

I cannot urge you strongly enough to see Alan Berliner's HBO film First Cousin Once Removed.  You can find information on screening times here:
and my interview with Berliner is here:

Ooh, Scary -- Alan Berliner in Pamplona, Hypnotizing the Spanish Audiences

As regular readers know, I've become an ardent advocate for the wider dissemination of literature in translation. In addition to the growing number of publishing houses that specialize in this area -- and I cannot overpraise Open Letter Books, Archipelago Press, New Vessel Publishing and countless others -- I want to draw your attention to a fascinating project (w/blog, of course) of a young woman reader in England. The very useful Publishing Perspectives website has a story on her here with links to her blog and her book list:

And you could do a lot worse than to check out Publishing Perspectives on a regular basis, particularly if you are a writer.

As we know, I won't make any promises about regular appearances in this space, but I'm hoping that the fall will bring more to write about.

C'mon Spurs, crush Chelsea!!!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Too-Blue Jasmine

This review was written for the Jewish Week but, for reasons unknown to me, has never appeared. I am sufficiently concerned to be on the record on the film to come out of hibernation to post it here. I hope that this means I'll be back in this space on a more regular basis this fall but I know better than to promise such a thing. In the meantime, my seemingly unending battle with Woody Allen's film-making career continues:

Every filmmaker has his or her comfort zone, a subject or genre or setting that is easy and comfortable to work in. And like the proverbial clown who longs to play Hamlet, most filmmakers yearn to do something different and, well, uncomfortable. Sometimes the results can be stunning, sometimes not. (Think of David Cronenberg’s most recent films, the brilliant “A Dangerous Method” and the tepid “Cosmpolis.”) Regardless of the end-product, it’s an admirable impulse for any artist to want to stretch.

Sometimes it can feel like a necessity. Woody Allen, to his credit, continues to turn out films every eight or ten months. But his last two offerings, “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome With Love” felt attenuated and decidedly minor. As the song says, a change would do him good.

“Blue Jasmine,” his latest film, probably wasn’t the right answer. It certainly takes him outside his comfort zone: although a bit of the film is set in New York it eschews the Upper West Side for Park Avenue, and more of the film takes place in San Francisco than here. The culture clash at the heart of “Blue Jasmine,” a collision between the ultra-rich and the white working class, certainly is outside his usual beat as well. Allen has essayed drama before, albeit with rather less success than he has enjoyed even with his darker comedies, but this is probably his first writer-director credit on a film that attempts the daring double-act of a complicated flashback structure and an unreliable narrator who is not played for laughs. Perhaps it’s all a bit too much of a stretch.

The film tells the story of once-wealthy Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), whose husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) turns out to have been another Bernie Madoff-type financial scoundrel. Among the people he fleeced were Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins in a replay of her performance in Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky” that is the best thing in the film) and husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). Now stripped of nearly everything – husband, son, home, money, possessions – Jasmine (nee Jeannette) turns to Ginger for shelter. She immediately clashes with Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and her tenuous grip on reality loosens dangerously.

Allen has never been particularly adept at working outside his own class milieu. On those occasions when he has visited people farther down the economic ladder successfully it has either been in a period setting (“Purple Rose of Cairo”) or on the fringes of show business (“Broadway Danny Rose”). In either case he can imagine a studio-era version of the working class with little reference to reality. “Blue Jasmine” is filled with downscale types (Hawkins, Clay and Cannavale foremost) but they are never remotely believable and Allen seems without a clue how these people live.  We never know what ethnicity they are, except for a rather cheap joke at Augie’s expense when he extols the virtues of a friend’s singing, then reveals the would-be vocalist’s baroque Italian-American surname. It wouldn’t matter if there was some other kind of specificity to replace the missing ethnicity, but all we have our relatively faceless blanks, delivering rather flavorless dialogue. Having cast a Jew (Clay), an Italian-Cuban (Cannavale) and an Englishwoman* playing something generic, Allen leaves us to fill in those blanks ourselves. But if the working-class milieu is lacking in texture (even the usually reliable Santo Loquasto lets us down with production design that is fussy but unforthcoming), then the culture clash at the center of the film is meaningless.

Most of all, though, “Blue Jasmine” lacks a coherent point of view. It’s fine to focus on a central figure who is becoming an increasingly unreliable narrator, and to hold back a key piece of information that would undermine her in the eyes of the audience until her most vulnerable moment. But Allen never really establishes his own attitude towards Jasmine in either the writing or direction of the film, and the character really has no center; Blanchett works through each scene point-to-point, using her considerable technical skills to keep us watching as she ostensibly gets crazier and crazier, but at her center Jasmine is a series of contradictions. Allen drops a few clues – both she and Ginger were adopted, but by whom and to what end – but he fails to elaborate.

As a result, the center of “Blue Jasmine” is a void.

*My good friend Deborah Beshaw-Farrell suggests that I have misidentified Blanchett, who is Australian. I believe that I was actually referring to Hawkins here. However, it does bring to mind another problem with both Hawkins and, to a lesser extent, Blanchett, which is the infamous middle-of-the-Atlantic American accent that British actors seem to inevitably produce when cast as Yanks. 


Moving along to more appealing and useful topics, allow me to direct your attention to a valuable on-line research resource, the Media History Digital Library, which is located at Their focus is pretty much what the name suggests, providing a clearinghouse for media publications, including searchable collections from Variety, Photoplay, Motion Picture World and lesser-known trade mags like Business Screen. Highly recommended!



Finally, one of the most interesting films of the summer is Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer's approach to documentary is unconventional but surprisingly effective. I did an interview with him that I think you will find quite provocative. You can read it here