Sunday, March 25, 2007

One Quick Afterthought on the Iras

There was a very amusing discussion at one point in last night's festivities (see posting below) when we began to try to name the oldest director ever to make a feature film. Right now the evidence is strong for Manoel de Oliveira, whose Belle Toujours graced last year's New York Film Festival. Oliveira was born in 1908 and will celebrate his 99th birthday on December 11 of this yaer. He has three films in various stages of production right now. I think he is clearly the winner and, delightfully, is one of the world's great directors, still seemingly at the peak of his considerable powers. I have no idea what his secret is, but I suspect that his slow start -- one film in 1942, then nothing until 1963 -- may have something to do with it; he's just been saving up all the stuff he needed to say.

Eric Rohmer, who will be 87 on April 4, is another great cineaste who is hanging on for dear life. Although he announced that Triple Agent would be his last film, he has a new one in production.

(I know someone is going to jump up and down shouting, "What about Leni Riefenstahl?" My answer to that is in two parts. First, "Underwater Impressions," her 2002 film, released when whe was 100, is only 45 minutes long and consists largely of footage she shot many years earlier. Second, and I know this is going to piss off a lot of people, I have never considered Riefenstahl a great filmmaker. There are great sequences in Olympia, but the film is much, much too long. Triumph of the Will is not merely a loathesome exercise in pornaganda; it is also one of the damn dullest "great" films I have ever sat through. What is most shocking about it is that, given virtually unlimited resources, at several points in the film Riefenstahl uses footage that was out of focus. I am reviewing the two new biographies for Jewish Week, so I will refrain from saying more since I don't want to use up my best lines.)

Of course the problem for octogenarian filmmakers is getting insurance. It's not an accident that on each of the films Michelangelo Antonioni has made since his stroke another, younger director (or two, in the case of Eros) has been involved. Antonioni will be 95 on September 29 and I suspect we have seen the last of his directorial work, although I would be delighted to be wrong.

At any rate, I'm curious to see if any readers can supply other 80+ aged filmmakers.

The Iras March On

Yes, another year has come and gone and the 2006 film awards season reaches its latest end ever. That is to say, the Iras were held last night and this is definitely the latest we've ever waited. Hey, 626 movies were released in New York City last year and it takes some time to catch up, right?

Or more accurately, we're a bunch of over-committed but lazy bastards and finding a weekend that was okay for everyone -- well, it just isn't possible as last night's depressing turnout reminds me. We had twelve voters, but only eight physically present. (Obviously those in the room felt the need to take up the slack; we finished at 1 a.m. which is the latest I can recall in many years.)

All joking aside, we have been doing this for 32 years and no single voter has attended every one of those Ira evenings. I missed one in the '70s because I was acting in a Eugene O'Neill play (one of my very few leads); Damien Bona boycotted a year in protest of our having given the Best Actor award to Eric Roberts for the egregious Star 80.

So I'd like to dedicate this posting to those of our friends who were unable to attend due to family crisis, work and family commitments or sheer distance.

The results were admirable, I think. Giving the director and film awards to the Dardennes is a reminder of those years when we were the only people honoring Fassbinder and Chabrol. And kudos to Assayas's Clean is a tribute to our willingness to seek out the neglected but worthy films that get lost in that 600-plus-film flood.

Best Picture -- L'Enfant
Best Director -- Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, L'Enfant
Best Actor -- Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Best Actress -- Maggie Cheung, Clean
Best Supporting Actor -- Anthony Mackie, Half Nelson and We Are Marshall
Best Supporting Actress -- Carmen Maura -- Volver, Free Zone and Queens
Best Screenplay -- (tie) Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, L'Enfant and Guillermo Del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Cinematography -- Emmanuel Lubezki, Children Of Men
Best Score -- Philip Glass, The Illusionist and Notes On A Scandal
Best Production Design -- Eugenio Caballero, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Costumes -- Sharen Davis, Dreamgirls, The Pursuit Of Happyness, Akeelah and the Bee

No-Prizes

Dramamine Award -- Babel
Sominex Award -- The Da Vinci Code
Mechanical Actor -- Robert Downey Jr, A Scanner Darkly, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus, and The Shaggy Dog
Mechanical Actress -- Julianne Moore, Children Of Men, Freedomland

If you want to see a more complete rundown, including the vote totals for the top five finishers in each category and an astute recounting of the thinking behind the votes, I heartily recommend Michael Giltz's post on his blog, Popsurfing.

And now, on to 2007. After all, it is nearly April. I have a full schedule of screenings this week -- okay, three of them are older films so I'm only adding two titles to my 2007 Ira-eligible list -- so there should be much to read here. With the Rockland Country JFF ending this week (I'm introducing two of my favorite films of 2006, 51 Birch Street and Family Law, on Monday and Wednesday, respectively), I should be back to my normal abnormal schedule.

Long live the Iras and all who vote for them!

Friday, March 23, 2007

This, That and the Other Thing

Consider this a general housekeeping post. I've been spending more time in Rockland County than at home the past week, introducing four programs, with two more yet to come. So I have seen very little other than the films on offer there. And of the six I'm speaking about for the JFF, four of them I've already covered here, and the other two haven't opened theatrically yet. So, rules and good manner being what they are, I'll wait to offer a full review of either King of Beggars or Steel Toes, other than to say that the former is better than I'd feared, a painless dose of action cinema, while the latter, a Canadian first feature by David Gow and Mark Adam, is a startlingly good two-hander with stunning performances by David Strathairn and Andrew Walker. I also saw Black Book, Paul Verhoeven's first Dutch film in 23 years. I'll reserve comment until my review appears in Jewish Week when it opens on April 6.

A few pieces of news worth relaying. First, my pal Michael Giltz is making noises like he wants to shut down his eminently worthy blog, Popsurfing, although he certainly isn't acting like that. For a guy who's getting out of the blog game, he sure is posting a lot. Hopefully if enough of you drop him a note, he'll change his mind, although I think checks and cash would be more helpful.

And while I'm on the subject of the 'Net, I received an e-mail from the gentlemen who run the Jacques Rivette site, Order of the Exile. The important news is as follows:

March Update
Beginning a trend of adding new material on the 22nd of every month, the March update makes a number of new additions along with a gang of navigation/design tweaks. There is a new bibliography section online, and a newsletter that interested parties can sign up for above. The picture at the top of this page comes from a recent screening of Paris Belongs to Us in North Carolina, USA.

Down to business, these are the new pieces now available:
  • "Jacques Rivette" (Interview) by Carlos Clarens and Edgardo Cozarinsky (1974)
  • "Letter on Rossellini" by Jacques Rivette (1955)
  • "Phantom Interviewers Over Rivette" (Interview) by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lauren Sedofsky, Gilbert Adair (1974)
  • "Tih-Minh, Out 1: on the nonreception of two French serials" by Jonathan Rosenbaum (1996)
  • "Work and Play in the House of Fiction" by Jonathan Rosenbaum (1974)
  • "Jacques Rivette's Classical Illusion" by Philip Watts (2005)
So click on over and check them out.

And, as Michael notes on his blog, the Iras are this weekend. In fact, I'm hosting them. The ever-charming Margo is in Chicago for a crafts class, having completed the first pass on the galleys of her forthcoming book (Talking Hands, which will be published this summer by Simon and Schuster). Walter and Stella are undoubtedly preparing an appropriate welcome for the expected and honored guests. (I guess I should change the catbox, huh?) I have a last-minute moderating gig tomorrow afternoon and, given the amount of real housecleaning that remains to be done, not to mention buying snacks and such, the odds are pretty strong that I won't get to see any more films before the other voters arrive.

That said, here is my ten-best list for 2006, based on 122 films seen:


1. Children of Men – Alfonso Cuaron
2. L’Enfant – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
3. The Case of the Grinning Cat – Chris Marker
4. Heading South – Laurent Cantet
5. Fateless -- :Lajos Koltai
6. Changing Times – Andre Techine
7. The Ister – David Barison and Daniel Ross
8. The Bridesmaid – Claude Chabrol
9. The Aura – Fabian Bielinsky
10. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu – Cristi Puiu

Honorable Mention (in no particular order):

La Petite Jerusalem, The Moustache, Le Petit Lieutenant, Free Zone, Clean, Family Law, 51 Birch Street, Climates, 49 Up, "My Dad Is 100 Years Old," Bestiary: Five Short Films, The Case of the Grinning Cat, Mendy: A Question of Faith, A Cantor’s Tale

Like I said in January, a pretty good year, especially considering that I didn't see the Almodovar, Letters from Iwo Jima, the del Toro or a few other prime candidates for enshrinement.

I'll post the results of the Iras Sunday, assuming the house is still standing.

Friday, March 16, 2007

All Quiet on the Upper Western Front

Between the run-up to the Iras (which take place March 24) and the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival (which starts Saturday evening), not to mention a brutal case of jet-lag amplified by the beginning of Daylight Savings Time, I haven't seen anything at New Directors/New Films this week and am very unlikely to remedy that failing. In fact, I haven't really seen any new films in a couple of weeks.

However, I can recommend the double-bill currently on display at Film Forum, Blockade and "Amateur Photographer. "

Here's what I wrote for Jewish Week (not on their website, unfortunately):

Gerhard M was an avid amateur photographer. It was a hobby that helped him document his daily life in Nazi Germany and his activities on the Russian front as a member of one of the Nazis’ infamous Field Order police units. It also got him convicted of war crimes and executed in 1952.

“Amateur Photographer,” a striking new short film from Russia, recounts his story in his own words and imaged. Irena Gedrovich found the diaries in the old KGB archives and used them to create a bleak, damning portrait of an ordinary man who was an unthinking participant in mass murder.

The Gerhard (his last name is apparently lost) who emerges from Gedrovich’s film seems to be a true believer, a Hitler Youth graduate who parrots the Nazi line easily, writing of his “fighting for freedom,” as easily and calmly as he describes shooting a Jew in a marketplace for asking for firewood or helping to shoot 800 Jews in another town.

Gedrovich’s use of this original material is highly intelligent, with her manipulation of Gerhard’s images undercutting the banality of his prose. He seldom comments on his activities, so it falls to Gedrovich to offer her own silent commentary as Gerhard photographs atrocities like a tourist at a petting zoo.

Sergei Loznitsa, another Russian documentarian, had access to equally striking film footage for his hour-long film Blockade, which is playing with “Amateur Photographer.” Drawing on the only extant movies of the 900-day siege of Leningrad, about three-and-a-half hours of newsreels shot during the events of Setpember 1941-January 1944, he constructs a highly compressed but brutally effective narrative of a city fighting for its life under the direst of circumstances.

It is one of the great clich├ęs of military history that anyone who invades Russia must fight not only the Russians but also the brutal winter weather. Quite true, of course, but the Russians have had to suffer under the oppressive snows and sub-zero temperatures as well. One need only look at scenes of the frozen, almost deserted streets of Leningrad during the siege, the scattered, blanket-covered frozen bodies dotting the cityscape, to realize how hard conditions were.

Loznitsa organizes the footage at hand brilliantly, creating a series of self-contained episodes of the city at war, often finding a certain awful beauty in the images caught by the newsreel cameramen. There is the almost musical billowing of smoke and flames from bombed buildings or a startling shot of a library on fire with pages of books fluttering away on the wind like a cloud of migrating butterflies.

Wisely, Loznitsa has eschewed either voice-over narration or musical accompaniment. He told an interviewer, “If I put in a voiceover, I offer my view, and that means I exclude the possibility of the viewer having his own view.” But it is also a decision that allows him to find the musical rhythms of the film in the camera movements and cutting and in the soundtrack, composed of ambient sounds.

Taken together, these two films are yet another vivid reminder of the horrors of modern mechanized war, of man’s incredible propensity for cruelty and of the power of film and photography to document both.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Back Home Again (Not in Indiana)

In fact, I slept through Nebraska.

Santa Barbara is an idyllic locale, with that splendid but rare combination of ocean and mountains. It's a well-to-do community that takes its appearance pretty seriously and, as a result, is quite pretty (except for the oil rigs off the coast). Definitely a great setting for a film festival, albeit a smallish one. I spent two lovely days being told how smart I am, which is nice for any writer, even if I don't entirely believe it.

As for the films, a nice little selection, although few of them are new. The Israeli drama Out of Sight, by Russian emigre Daniel Syrkin, is definitely worth a look. And you can catch it (and me) at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival this weekend.

Syrkin's previous directorial work has been for Israeli TV. Out of Sight, his first theatrical feature, is an adroitly crafted film, a sort of psychological thriller about a blind doctoral student who returns home to Tel Aviv from Princeton for the funeral of her cousin and best friend, an apparent suicide. Since the cousin left no note, it falls to Ya’ara to find out why an attractive and seemingly happy woman in her early 20s would kill herself. The answer will probably be apparent to most viewers before the film reaches its midpoint, but Syrkin is less interested in the plot twists (reminiscent of an episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”) than in issues of trust and betrayal. With this well-made, five-finger exercise out of the way, it will be interesting to see where Syrkin goes next.

At any rate, if you are in the Santa Barbara area -- lucky you! -- you should keep an eye on the SBJFF. I also spent a long time reading through the brochure for the Santa Barbara Film Festival, which takes place earlier in the winter; it's pretty impressive, a large-scale event that reminds me a bit of Tribeca.

As for the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival, I'll be introducing at least four, possibly five films and there are some really excellent movies on display here. You can find more information here.

Nice to be home.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

King of the Road; New Directors on Display

I'm not sure how Abbas Kiarostami fits into the "contemplative cinema" paradigm, but I suspect he does somehow. There is a fair amount of "mere" architecture and landscape in his films but, as in the cases of other practitioners of this model, they serve a distinct purpose. For Kiarostami the key venue is the road. Most if not all of his films are journeys, usually with a purpose that is only revealed gradually. Right now, the Museum of Modern Art is engaged in a satisfyingly comprehensive program of his film and video work and an exhibition of his photography, which is highly atmospheric, as you might expect. (There's a series called Roads and Trees, which could be the title of any of his films.)

For Kiarostami the road is not a metaphor, the journey is not an allegory. These are concrete realities, situated in a precarious world that is frequently disrupted by earthquakes, hostile animals and screaming, narcissistic children. He approaches these phenomena with a deceptive simplicity -- stationary camera, long takes when possible -- and a human decency that puts him somewhere among Renoir, Ozu and McCarey. His road trips are a hard slog along oftimes damaged roads, but the sound of the wind in the trees and the sight of mountains in the distance is a beautiful payback for the effort.

The Kiarostami film series will be running at MoMA through March 19, the media installations will be there through May 28. The photo exhibit is at P.S. 1 through April 29.

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Press screenings have started for New Directors/New Films, the annual spring fling by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. I'll have more to say next week, when can actually get to some of the screenings. Last week, I was laid up with some bizarre combination of a stomach bug and what I fear is a nascent kidney stone (I had one of those monsters five years ago, so apparently I'm do for a recurrence; how do I get to be so lucky?). The result was that I saw nothing of the first seven films. And I will be in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara the rest of this week and Monday; I'm the critic-in-residence at the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival (and if you're interested in catching my act, go here for information). After that I fully expect to see all -- well, most -- of the remaining ten films in the series.

That said, I must admit that the two films I have seen so far, the Iranian drama Gradually by Maziar Miri, and an American indie comedy, The Great World of Sound, directed by Craig Zobel, have been pleasant experiences and, I hope, harbingers of things to come.

Gradually is a film that apparently has been banging around the halls of Iran's artistic bureaucracy for a while. Miri's background is in television, where he graduated from editing to directing, and Gradually has a few of the rhythmic tics that I associate with features by ex-editors. The film's over all pace is a bit sluggish and the final third feels a bit hurried. How much of that is the result of re-editing (this film has had running times of 74, 77 and 81 minutes) is hard to say. But there is definitely something going on here that is worth a look.

The plot of Gradually is fairly simple. Mahmoud (Mohammad-Reza Foroutan) is a welder who works several hours away from his Teheran home on the construction of a new railroad line. He is abruptly called home when his wife, who has a history of unnamed mental illness, disappears with their little girl. He sets out to find her and gradually becomes aware that she has become the subject of neighborhood gossip. When a corpse that resembles her closely turns up in the local morgue, Mahmoud reluctantly identifies it as her. Regrettably, after that, the film veers away from this straightforward story-line in ways that disrupt the narrative flow of the film. Things take a turn for the worse when Miri inexplicably shifts point-of-view in the film's last third. Yet there is an undeniable talent at work here. The acting is uniformly excellent, particularly by Faroutan, who looks like the young Burt Reynolds, and the film has texture to burn, which makes its moodiness quite effective. Miri is a director who bears watching.

So does Craig Zobel, who directed and co-wrote Great World of Sound. The title refers to a putative record company that hires several feckless young men as salesmen for its rather dodgy program of identifying and recording would-be musical stars. Needless to say, the entire gig is a glorified pyramid scheme with the "owners" of the company holding back paychecks while the salesmen try to get their marks to part with $3,000 a head "as a sign of your commitment to making this record and having a real career." At the center of the film is Martin (Pat Healy), who is, if anything, even more of a loser than the other salesmen or the (mostly talentless) musical acts. He's partnered with Clarence (Kene Holliday in a star-making performance), a preternaturally glib African-American who seems to be doing all the heavy lifting in their double act. Gradually the competing forces of conscience and the scam artists need for a quick getaway destroy Martin and Clarence's dreams as surely as those of their victims.

Great World of Sound starts out like a middle-period Altman film, glibly cynical about the back-slapping Rotarian-types who populate this wood-panelled hell of lower middle-class daydreams, and genuinely funny in its depiction of the Home Shopping Network world of its inhabitants. As the film gradually darkens in tone, Zobel's hold on it remains fairly firm, although making the endlessly self-flaggelating Martin the center of the film is a bit hard on the audience. There are some bravura coups de cinema, brilliant choices made by production designer Richard Wright, and excellent performances throughout. Great World of Sound has real sympathy for its large-economy-size losers. As a comment on the obsessive desire for celebrity by Americans, it is deft and funny. Highly recommended.

You can find more information on ND/NF here. And I'll be covering more of the festival next week.

I will probably be blogging a bit from the road -- I mean, hell, I'm going to be in Hollywood, right?

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Quick Note (for a change)

I received an e-mail the other day that should interest some of you. Cahiers du Cinema is going to do an English-language edition, which will appear on-line starting 3/9 at www.e-cahiersducinema.com. Right now it's a blank page that says "site under construction."
They are also doing an hard-copy version which is supposed to be on newsstands on the 7th.
For those of us who have been paying about $10 a month for the French edition and then struggling through each issue with our feeble college French (okay, it's not that hard, but I know I'm missing tons of nuance), the idea of a $5 version of the same in English is a double relief.