Sunday, April 29, 2007

Back to Tribeca

So where was I?

Attica is a film that I saw when it first was released in 1973. At the time I was a gung-ho radical with shoulder-length hair. (I would post a picture to prove this, but then I would have to kill everyone who visits the blog.) Here it is thirty-four years later, and 36 since the massacre of inmates and hostages by NY State Troopers and local sheriffs at the state prison at Attica and I'm a gung-ho radical with a growing bald spot and a yarmulke. Plus ca change . . .

Joking aside, I was curious how the film would hold up, particularly since I didn't have a strong memory of it from my original viewing. But I do have strong, almost ferocious memories of my rage when the all-too-brief negotiations with the striking prisoners were cut off and the D Block prison yard was turned into a killing field. In recent years, I have re-viewed many films that I remembered fondly from my anti-Vietnam War activist days and, regrettably, most of them didn't look too good to my fifty-something self.

Happily, Cinda Firestone's Attica is an exception, perhaps because it is a piece of very good reportage as well as an act of advocacy. This is never more apparent than towards the end of the film when she shows headlines from the major NYC dailies, reporting that the coroner's autopsies of the victims revealed that every single hostages who died was shot by the state troopers and local police who were sent in to retake the prison, in direct contradiction to what had been said by state officials. What makes this detail important is that it comes immediately after several people (including the late Bill Kunstler unfortunately) attacked the mainstream media for failing to report the autopsy results.

Truthfully, it is painful to watch Attica and to be reminded that Nelson Rockefeller, the governor who was responsible for the lethal decision to attack despite signs of hope in the negotations, and Russell Oswald, Rocky's commissioner of corrections, were never brought to book for those deaths. The cops were firing dum-dum bullets -- illegal under the Geneva Convention and in many states at the time -- indiscriminately. In the aftermath, there were violent reprisals against the cons that the film documents amply. And the final irony is that the demands that were being made were mostly entirely reasonable ones involving better health care, food and educational programs.

Of course, the situation today is vastly worse. America has more men and women incarcerated than almost any nation on earth and, with the privatization of prisons, the profit motive guides correctional decisions more than ever. While I was watching Attica, the thought occurred to me that if I wanted to do something concrete about the problem, it was imperative that instead of another film link, what I need to place here is links to criminal justice and penology websites. So here are a couple that may inspire you to action:

Vera Institute of Justice
The Family and Corrections Network
Action for Prisoners' Families (UK)
CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants)
The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Don't just stand there. Do something, dammit.

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Moving back to a more purely cinematic vein, we have Vivere, directed by Angelina Maccarone who is, contrary to her name and the film's title, German and not Italian. (Hey, who knew?) This is her fourth theatrical film, essentially the same story told from the points-of-view of three women grappling with love and alienation. Francesca is a taxi driver in her 20s who is holding her family -- Italian father deserted by German mother, snotty 17-year-old sister Antonietta -- by sheer will. When Antonietta splits with her rock musician boyfriend on Christmas Eve, Francesca reluctantly follows her to Rotterdam. On the way, she becomes burdened with Gerlinde, an older woman who has been the victim of a car crash -- we don't know at first whether it is an accident or a suicide attempt -- depressed because her long-time lover is breaking off the relationship, apparently to return to her husband. With each subsequent repetition of the story, we learn a bit more about the three women and how they have become intertwined with one another. And, for the first two-thirds of the film, this device works adequately. Unfortunately, when we presented at last with Antonietta's version of the story, the film falls apart; the final set of repetitions is just once too often for what turns out to be a rather slender set of events on which to hang a feature film, and Antonietta's understanding of those events is by far the least interesting of the three. More problematic, though, is that Maccarone seems to have no concept of pacing or rhythm and, by the time the film is an hour old, viewers will feel a lot older. Too bad, because she wastes nice performances by Hannelore Elsner as Gerlinde and Esther Zimmering as Francesca; the near-seduction scene between the two of them in a dingy hotel room near the harbor is by far the best moment in the film.

For more info on these and the other programs, go to the Tribeca Film Festival website.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Back to Tribeca Shortly, But First a Word . . .

I'll post a few more Tribeca reviews shortly. In the meantime, however, I want to call your attentiion to Election and Triad Election, the delicious that opened today at Film Forum.
I reviewed Triad Election at last year's New York Film Festival and here's what I said then.

Somber Classicism Trumps Lunacy Every Time

God, I must be getting old if I can write that headline with a straight face. But in the case of the new Johnnie To film, which was screened for the press on Monday morning, it's fairly accurate. I can't think of a more delirious, over-the-top piece of action cinema madness than To's Fulltime Killer, and I mean that as a compliment. The film is audacious beyond the wildest imaginings of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, a complete balls-to-the-wall piece of glorious excess (which masks a deeply sentimental worldview).

So I went to Triad Election, his latest, expecting more of the same. (No, not on the basis of one film in a 25-year-long career. I was also thinking of nutcases like Executioners and Heroic Trio.) Perhaps if I had seen Election, to which it is the sequel, my expectations would have been different, I don't know. But Triad Election is a smart, tight (85 minutes) organized crime film that appropriates some of the visual bleakness of the Godfather trilogy while exploring the same themes of crime as capitalism unleashed, the tensions between straight and underworld society, and the dangerous responsibilities that come with ascending to power. The film is meditative, almost classicist in its dark, stark repose, with rising gang power Jimmy (Louis Koo) who would rather be doing legitimate business; he's got an MBA you see. But in order to become head of his triad and curry favor with the PRC security honchos, he will be steeped in blood like a tea bag.

To doesn't flinch from the violence, although some of the worst stuff happens off-screen or in almost complete darkness. And his depiction of the world of the triads is unsentimental, cynical and corruscating. Like most of the characters on The Sopranos, these may be wiseguys, but they're definitely not wise guys. And like Coppola (of whom I am not an admirer, but credit where due), Abraham Polonsky in Force of Evil, and Francesco Rosi in many of his films, Johnnie To understands that crime doesn't arise from nowhere, that there are socioeconomic and political forces driving the Triads. The film's political analysis isn't as sophisticated as Rosi's or Polonsky's, but it's not for lack of ideas. The result is a splendidly mean little crime film that is redolent of the Warners backlot. If they sold sesame noodles there.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tribeca Film Festival, Part 1

I don’t have much basis for comparison covering the Tribeca Film Festival. My experience of festivals consists pretty much of New York, the various Jewish film festivals at which I have spoken or that I cover and the dozens of smaller niche festivals that take place in the city. I haven’t been to Cannes or Venice or Berlin or Rotterdam . . . or fill in the blanks here. So the idea of a week and a half in which over 200 films are being shown both tickles and exhausts me. That said, I must add that the staff of the festival have been gracious and the films that I have seen so far of pretty good quality. (Of course, that is partly because I have been judicious in what I choose to see.)

At any rate, now that the event has had its official opening ceremonies, I feel comfortable in running down what I’ve seen so far, particularly since I haven’t hit any real bow-wows yet. In the order in which I saw them:

My Best Friend. Patrice Leconte strikes me as a sort of Gallic version of Henry Hathaway. He is a dependable director whose filmography is filled with excellent genre pieces, most notably M. Hire, Intimate Strangers and Ridicule. He’s much too skilled a technician and surrounds himself with too many good people to create disasters. And like Hathaway, his work doesn’t bespeak a strong stylistic or thematic identity, but the results are too damned likeable to ignore. The beauty of Leconte is that there just aren’t that many solid craftspersons working in either French or American film any more. I cannot think of a contemporary equivalent of Hathaway in America or Leconte in France.

That said, it must be noted that My Best Friend is one of his slighter works, a pleasant trifle about a cold, calculating antiques dealer (Daniel Auteuil) who is bluntly informed at his birthday party that none of his colleague particularly like him. Even his partner (Julie Gayet), who seems genuinely sympathetic to his bewilderment at this discovery, is not above accepting when he proffers a wager that he can produce his “best friend” within ten days. When he meets a cabbie (Dany Boon) who seems to have a real gift for friendship, he decides to study him in the hope of learning how to make friends. It’s a slender premise, aided immeasurably by Auteuil’s cool demeanor and Boon’s goofiness. The end result is predictable but, appropriately enough, amiable. My Best Friend opens theatrically in New York in mid-July

Half Moon. Bahman Ghobadi is as close to a Kurdish poet laureate of the cinema as you can get. In films like A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq and Turtles Can Fly, he has spoken eloquently for those landless people silenced by the governments of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. His new film continues in that vein, turning its attention to the desperate efforts of Kurdish musicians to keep their traditional arts alive in the face of deracination, oppression and dispersion.

For an embattled culture struggling to stay alive, the loss of any artist is devastating. Although it starts out as farce, sort of a Kurdish version of The Honeymooners with Kako (Allah Morad Rashtiani) as a sort of Ralph Kramden figure, a daft but utterly loyal retainer of Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari), the legendary Kurdish composer and musician who wants to make one last concert appearance in Iraq now that Saddam Hussein is gone. Kako commandeers a friend’s bus and, with one of his chickens and a defective video camera in hand, he sets out to help the old man collect and transport his ten “sons,” the musicians upon whom he relies to continue the traditions. For the first half of the film, then, the keynote is broad comedy, with even Mamo’s premonitions of disaster and death being played for uneasy laughs. But once the musicians are assembled and they reach the Iraqi border (with a female singer hidden inside the bus), disaster strikes and the film suddenly is transformed into The Lost Patrol, with the musicians being picked off one by one.

Ghobadi is a master pictorialist, and Half Moon is filled with startlingly beautiful images of small towns that look like they have been literally carved out of a mountainside and lush, mist-enshrouded valleys. Yet the film’s palette is surprisingly grim and the land seemingly unwelcoming, a gray and pallid place in which the women’s clothing provides the only splashes of bright color. Like Ford, to whom he owes an unspoken debt, I think, he plays off this seeming paradox to encapsulate the fading hopes of a displaced people in a world that remains deeply hostile to their dreams. I think Half Moon doesn’t entirely work; the shift in tone is rather disconcerting and one wishes there was a comparable formal shift accompanying it. But the film is memorable all the same. (Incidentally, Ghobadi has an excellent website of his own.)

Lady Chatterley. Where has Pascale Ferran been for the last ten years? Her first feature, Petits arrangements avec les morts, was a wonder, her second, L’Âge des possibles,, I remember as something of a disappointment, but I’d be lying if I said I could remember anything more specific about it. Then she vanished from the radar here. She has a 1997 screenplay credit, Eat Your Soup, directed by Mathieu Amalric, then nine years of silence. So it was with as much wonder as anticipation that I awaited her new film Lady Chatterley, which had already won five Cesars including Best French Film and Best Actress for Marina Hands in the title role. More significantly, the reviews were uniformly enthusiastic and I have to admit that the mere fact of that silence aroused my curiosity deeply.

I am happy to say that the wait was worth it inasmuch as the film is one of the best of the year to date, a really lovely, thoughtful and intelligent adaptation of Lawrence, based more on the second version of the novel, John Thomas and Lady Jane, than on the final one. Stripped of the verbosity of the latter, the film is constructed brilliantly as a dialogue between humanity and nature, with the passage of the seasons echoing the growing relationship between Parkin and Connie Chatterley. Intriguingly, Ferran’s version of the story is surprisingly sweet and almost chaste. We do not see the two lovers naked together until two hours into the film (which runs 168 minutes, although you’d never know it because the pacing is so adroit). Hands is quite fetching and her Connie sets the tone for the entire film, slowly blossoming and completely enchanting. And by forgoing much of the Lawrentian attitudinizing, Ferran moves the film away from his more absurd sex-and-blood-and-soil maunderings into something almost Wordsworthian in its natural ease and grandeur. Lady Chatterley opens theatrically in New York in June.

A full day of screenings today, plus I have to go to a class in the evening. As you may be able to tell, it's past 4 a.m. right now, so I will continue this later. Next up: a depressing stroll down memory lane to Attica, and a fraught taxi ride to Rotterdam in Vivere.

A Drumroll Please . . . Tribeca 6

So the sixth annual Tribeca Film Festival has opened and I have to say that on the strength of the seven or eight films I've seen already, the event is its own best defense. I've written on three of the Jewish-themed films in this week's Jewish Week, and don't have much to add to what's written there, except to say that if you can only see one film in the festival, My Father, My Lord is the film you should see. Given it's 73-minute running time, it may have trouble getting a theatrical release, although it may turn up at the Israel Film Festival, which will be coming to town in June. But this is a truly brilliant first feature by David Volach and you should take whatever opportunity presents itself to see the film.

The other film that really has impressed me so far is Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley, which has already garnered numerous Cesars and a lot of deserved rave reviews. It is definitely on the must-see list, but it is opening later in the spring. I'll write about Lady Chatterley and several other films from the festival over the next few days, but I have to be up and at a 9 a.m. screening so this will have to wait.

In the meantime, by all means check out the Tribeca schedule at their website.

And a quick but unrelated aside. The gents at Order of the Exile, the excellent Jacques Rivette page inform me that their April update is online:
  • The April update has a translation of the 2007 Berlinale press conference on Rivette latest film, "Don't Touch the Axe." It's all the buzz in France; there are rumors that it's one of his best, if not contemporary French cinema's, in years. Plus some very candid moments with John Hughes, carried over with kind permission from the e-journal Rouge.
I knew John; he was one of the great characters in New York film and is greatly missed. But that's a story (or more) for another time.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Slight Digression Before the Tribeca Film Festival Opens

Another sign that the apocalypse isn't coming nearly fast enough: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which I have always considered one of the nation's better daily newspapers -- and I read it online several times a week -- has announced that it is doing away with the position of book review editor. One assumes that this is the beginning of the end of one of the better literary pages in the country.

Needless to say, as a book author and as an avid reader, I am mightily pissed off (to put it as politely as I can manage at the moment). As I said in an e-mail to some 40 colleagues moments ago, every time I turn around some son-of-a-bitch has his hand in pocket, fishing around for my wallet. This is just the latest in an ongoing string of bad news regarding newspaper coverage of new books.

Happily, the National Book Critics Circle (and in the interest of full disclosure, I note that I am a former member) has organized an on-line petition drive to try to get the AJC to reinstate the position. By all means, go here and sign the petition. And urge your friends and colleagues to do the same.

And if you feel the sudden urge to make your feelings known to the powers that be at the Journal-Constitution, write to the AJC's editor Julia Wallace (jwallace@ajc.com) and the publisher, John Mellott (jmellott@ajc.com), and advocate for the continuance of a book page in Atlanta with a diversity of voices, not simply fed by wire copy from the AP or New York Times.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Latest Sign that Apocalypse Isn't Coming Fast Enough

From Dave Kehr's excellent blog, the news that Cathy Schulman, head of the new Mandalay Pictures, which I guess is going to be a boutique label attached to Universal, is planning a remake of The Birds. Of course, she wouldn't dare dis' Hitch, but she's planning to give her version a contemporary spin: it's going to be an eco-thriller.

Thank God. I was afraid it was just going to be one of those pointless lessons in moral authority like he used to make. You know, the ones that no number of monkeys with viewfinders will be able to duplicate, no matter how many years they spent in film school, making music videos and directing TV pilots.

It does, however, prove yet again that an infinite number of producers with an infinite budget and expense account will always produce an infinite pile of crap.

I mourn for this industry.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

How Much is Too Much?

Excellent story in the Los Angeles Times on the subject of skyrocketing movie budgets (Many thanks to Scott Kirsner of CinemaTech for noting this one.) It seems that while shooting the deadly bore Sahara, Breck Eisner staged and shot a scene in which an antique plane crashes in the desert. But it never made it into the movie. That 46-second clip cost the studio more than $2 million.

Now that is not particularly startling, not even necessarily the mark of an industry out of control. But Sahara is a movie that lost an estimated $105 million (although the Hollywood accountants claim it only lost $78 million; whew, that's a relief). And it's a film that had ten -- count 'em -- ten screenwriters. (Incidentally, one very amusing sidelight; Sahara is based on a novel by Clive Cussler, who also wrote Raise the Titanic!, another catastrophic money-loser. Surely this must be a record of some sort.)

At any rate, the LATimes piece is quite lengthy and fascinating reading. (Much more compelling than the crap that Cussler churns out.)

The one question I would love to see someone ask is why you would entrust Breck Eisner with a multi-million-dollar epic; his previous directing credits included: Recon (1996), the pilot of the short-lived series The Invisible Man, an unknown number of episodes of Taken, and a 2003 film called Thoughtcrimes that has a cast of names that I don't recognize. Subsequently he has directed a telefilm, Beyond, and been announced for the Creature from the Black Lagoon remake. In short, there is absolutely nothing in his filmography that suggests he could direct a large-budget feature. No, wait, he was a production assistant on Tango and Cash; that must have been it.

There is a famous story told by John Gregory Dunne in his first major book, The Studio, about Fox putting Richard Fleischer in charge of Tora, Tora ,Tora!, which was a $20-million film, an astronomical sum in 1969. He asked a producer -- I believe it was Joe Pasternak -- why they would give him that project since his previous film had been a $20-million flop. Pasternak's reply, "Because he's made a $20-million film." The logic, if you stop and think about it, is not as absurd as it sounds. Fleischer had proven -- repeatedly, in fact -- that he could bring in a hugely complicated film with a lot of expensive action on budget. Eisner hadn't.

Of course, if my father was Michael Eisner, I might be directing a multi-million-dollar epic. And to be absolutely fair -- which, dear readers, you know I always am -- the film did produce over $200 million in revenues, which for a less bloated film would have been extraordinary.

One of the fascinations of the article is the ways in which the studios balance their budgets on the backs of individual films; I vaguely recall a story about Steven Spielberg at the outset of his career at Universal -- although it might have been any of a dozen directors at several different studios in the '70s -- realizing that there was some unspecified cost factored into the budget for a film -- call it ten percent if you like -- that was the studio's way of paying off all its non-production expenses. Said director was, needless to say, unhappy since, if the movie lost money, it was his scalp that would be taken.

But the fact of the matter is, quite simply, very few of the most bloated films actually realize a profit (and if the studios don't want anyone with points to see a dime, their accountants can make even that profit disappear).

In the 1970s, when the average studio film was budgeted at $15 million, Neil Simon expressed his dismay, "Fifteen million dollars! That's not a movie, that's a hospital." When a film can lose $78 million, or $105 million, then there is something so wrong with this industry that it defies any analogy that Doc Simon can propose.

Sahara cost (according to the article) $281.2 million dollars. That's not a movie, that's housing for half the homeless people in LA.

Or, to play fair and keep the money in the industry family, that's not a Breck Eisner movie, that's about ten times Sam Fuller's entire career.

How D'You Like Me Now?

A couple of months ago I received an e-mail from a reader (actually a source on a non-film story who had followed the link given at the end of all my e-mails; if you can't plug your own blog, who can?) who said that the color scheme of Cine-Journal was a bit hard to read. I'm not sure what he was referring to, but I kept that thought in the back of my mind, a space that resembles the world's messiest attic. This evening/morning (it's 3 a.m. right now in NYC) I had nothing better to do other than perhaps watching a half-dozen films that I have to write about this weekend, so I decided to take him at his word. This marks the third different look for this blog. I bet that Dick Cheney hasn't changed his mind that often in the past 70 years.

If ever.

Comments are welcome (another departure from Cheney/Bush policies).

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Trouble in a So-Called Paradise

The very talented Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Mysterious Object at Noon, Tropical Malady, Blissfully Yours) has run into a serious roadblock with his latest film, Syndromes and a Century. Unless he authorizes four cuts in the film, the Thai censorship board will not allow it to be released in his native country. At present, the censors are essentially holding the print of the film hostage. Weerasethakul has said of the dilemma:

“I, a filmmaker, treat my works as my own sons or my daughters. When I conceived them, they have their own lives to live. I don't mind if people are fond of them, or despise them, as long as I created them with my best intentions and efforts. If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country for whatever reasons, let them be free. Since there are other places that warmly welcome them as who they are, there is no reason to mutilate them from the fear of the system, or from greed. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.”

There is an on-line petition protesting these cuts and the generally hidebound procedures for clearing a film for commercial release in Thailand, which you can find at http://www.petitiononline.com/nocut/petition.html

I am an admirer of Weerasethakul's work, but even if I weren't I would sign this petition. Indeed, I'd do that for any filmmaker, even Mel Gibson or Leni Riefenstahl (although I sure wouldn't be happy about having to defend those two).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playground: Two New Films and One Old One

You want busy? I’ll give you busy.

First, check out the absolutely fascinating entry in yesterday’s CinemaTech blog from Scott Kirsner. It’s a précis (with link) of a piece in Variety about the ways that digital shooting has changed actors’ working methods. This, I’m sure, was completely unexpected and, as an amateur social historian I find it quite interesting. Granted, Mel Gibson and Tony Bill are hardly the directors I would choose as a template for the industry, but the changes are real.

If you don’t think so, take a look at Red Road, an impressive feature debut for Andrea Arnold, which opened yesterday. In fact, I don’t believe Red Road was shot on video (although these days I can’t tell anymore), but it is a film in which video screens are an almost constant presence, another character as it were. Jackie (Kate Dickie, who is almost never off-screen and is first among equals in a brilliant cast) works for the Glasgow city government as a closed-circuit TVoperator and monitor, watching the streets for signs of emergencies-in-the-making, particularly criminal activity. One day she sees a startlingly familiar face, a paroled criminal named Clyde (Tony Curran), whose relationship to Jackie is only revealed about two-thirds of the way through the film. What is clear is that Jackie has payback in mind and she slowly searches for a way into his life.

Arnold, who also wrote the film, takes the seemingly routine revenge film into some highly unexpected territory, and the result is entirely successful as a genre piece, but her ambitions, which I think she realizes quite well, are for something more. What I found riveting throughout the film is the way in which she manipulates her mise-en-scene to give the film some of the same look as the video monitors that surround Jackie at work. We are given the same series of restricted views of the characters and their motivations that Jackie has when she spies on her fellow Glaswegians, and the sense that one never has enough information – visual or psychological – gives Red Road a great deal of its forcefulness.

What troubled me while I was watching the film is something fundamental to my own aesthetics, something Red Road challenges quite intelligently, i.e., the primacy I have always given to long takes as a vehicle for exploring psychology unfolding in “real” time. Arnold has made a carefully calculated choice, eschewing long takes (although the film is not cut as fast on the eye as, say, something by Michael Bay or someone else of his ilk), and breaking up key emotional scenes. It’s a choice that, as I say, pays off brilliantly. But I admit that I was sitting there thinking, “But this shouldn’t work, should it?” Yeah, like the shower scene in Psycho or the final gunfight in Madigan shouldn’t work. (Red Road is playing here and here in New York.)

Sometimes you can be too closely wedded (or should that be “welded”) to your favorite ideas.

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I suppose one might say the same thing of Alain Resnais, whose new film Private Fears in Public Places also opened yesterday. Private Fears is another of Resnais’s studies of theatricality, albeit much subtler and infinitely more satisfying than Not on the Lips (a film whose ostensible charms are lost on me). Working from a play by Alan Ayckbourn, who is one of those farceurs whose crackling timing hides a deep melancholy, Resnais comes up with something more deeply felt, more pained than anything of his since Providence, and that’s a while ago.

The film has one of those complicated plots interweaving six people, three men and three women, who are interwoven in a dizzying series of near-algebraic permutations, some romantic, some not, circling around themes as familiar in Paris as they are in New York: real estate, sexual attraction, loneliness and the fear of dying alone. These are no longer the young and elegant characters of Resnais’s early films, swapping gnomic bon mots and smoldering glances while his camera glides warily around them. The emotions in Private Fears are quite real and very intense. Resnais’s camera is still graceful but perhaps less wary; the sets are still as theatrical as they were in Marienbad and Providence, yet there is a discernible real-life Paris in the film, constantly shrouded in a steady snowfall that is so pervasive it even appears on screen during the dissolves that mark the end of each sequence. The result is a beautiful, but overwhelmingly extraordinarily sad film that lingers in the memory, as Resnais’s best work always does. (Private Fears in Public Places is playing here and here in NYC.)

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Finally, allow me to share the fruits of one of my other lines of work that briefly touches on the world of film. I was interviewing the magnificent Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase and the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem for a Jewish Week story yesterday morning. She is participating in a concert that includes the April 22 world premiere of a new piece by Debra Kaye based on two of Aleichem’s marvelous short stories (go here for more information). At the end of the interview Kaufman, who is a very, very spry 95, asked me if I didn’t have more questions. So I asked her what it was like working with the Alan J.Pakula-Robert Mulligan team on the film version of her book.

“It was very strange you know,” she said. “The film was shot during the summer in a New York school, which was completely empty otherwise. Here are all these people bustling about. Why? Because one day I sat down at a typewriter with a blank piece of paper. And all this happened because of that. It was a strange sense of power.”

She also recalled with amusement the wrap party at the end of shooting. It was held in the school gym and set up to look like a high school graduation with purple-and-gold decorations to match the fictional color scheme of the school and a stirring rendition of the school’s alma mater. So stirring, in fact, that Kaufman said that she suddenly felt tears running down her cheeks as she sang along.

“Wasn’t that silly,” she said with a chuckle. “After all, I had invented the purple-and-gold and wrote the alma mater myself.”

As for the film, she pronounced herself more pleased than not with the result. “It was my baby but this baby was had blond hair and mine had brown hair,” she said, referring to Sandy Dennis who played the character based on Kaufman in the 1967 film. “And she was prettier than my baby, too. I pleased that they didn’t vulgarize it, which is always a danger with Hollywood. They treated it with respect.”

Not something you hear from authors every day of the week.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Things Are Starting to Heat Up

It's getting busy in here. Lots of new films coming that I am itching to write about. For the moment, let me refer you to my review of Black Book, the new Paul Verhoeven, which left me decidedly lukewarm. The review is in this week's Jewish Week and can be found here.

There'll be more to follow in the next day or so.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Worst Film of 2007 -- I Hope

In one of those deathless epigrams that he is so good at offering, Jean-Luc Godard once said, "When a masterpiece has a commercial success it is based on a misunderstanding." But what does it mean when a truly awful, deeply stupid and hateful film is a commercial success?

That was the first question that crossed by mind as the credits began to roll on 300, which I had the misfortune to see earlier today. The film opened with a March-record $70 million week and has remained a steady earner. I don't want to think about what this means.

As you undoubtedly know by now, 300 is the live-action version of Frank Miller's glorified Classics Illustrated graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae. As filmed by Zack Snyder, the film is a shrill, noisy and cluttered epic filled with some of the worst acting since the glory days of Steve Reeves. If only Snyder were as inventive as Vittorio Cottafavi, the hilarious posturing of Gerard Butler (he of the shifting UK accent that surely covers all the counties of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and the Isle of Man), Lena Headey and Dominic West and a cast of dozens. The screenplay is graced with an utterly redundant and thoroughly unnecessary voice-over narration. The dialogue is straight from the Hollywood school of Ancient Greek bon mots. The direction is finicky and foolish. Snyder repeatedly disrupts the flow his action sequences to freeze-frame specific images in what I can only assume is a ham-handed homage to Miller, and the decision to shoot the entire thing in various sepia and blue tones renders it all the more two-dimensional. As a piece of filmmaking, it's a collection of the sort of half-bright ideas that minor talents frequently latch onto and worry like a dog with a favorite squeeze-toy.

Fine. Another crapola action film designed to appeal to dull subnormal teenage boys. Put it on the shelf next to Robert Rodriguez's entire output, particularly Sin City.

Except that this tedious bilge is also shot through with the ideology that has distinguished the White House's most repellent propaganda efforts, with all the Persian bad guys being people of color (or cartoons of color), lesbians, depraved syphilitic products of inbreeding ad androgynous folks with multiple body-piercings. And the rhetoric of the Spartans speaks most explicitly of a clash of civilizations between the forces of "freedom" and the hordes of Asia, enslaved and led by Persia, i.e., Iran. Of course, "free" Sparta is a nation where women exist solely as breeding stock, even the queen, and where the tolerance of dissent allows the evil Theron (Dominic West desperately looking for the Baltimore PD to rescue him) to subvert the national weal. Spartan men exist mainly to be warriors, the weak are thrown into a crevasse to die.

The end result is what a Nazi propaganda film would look like if it had been drawn by Tom of Finland. Except that Tom had a sense of humor, which this film most definitely lacks. 300 is the last gasp of the morally and strategically bankrupt ideology of the Bush neocons, a repellent and cretinous film. God help me if I have to watch anything worse the rest of this year.