Saturday, September 29, 2007

New York Film Festival and Such

It has been a truly insane couple of weeks -- between Jewish holidays, work, minor aches and pains and the like, I actually only got to one film at the press screenings for the NYFF all this week, although I certainly picked the right one to see, Bela Tarr's hypnotic, slow-motion noir, The Man From London. I'll have more to say about that and several other NYFF entries in a day or two. For my Jewish Week reviews of the new Lumet (feh) and a delightful new film from Ira Sachs (40 Shades of Blue), go here. That ought to keep you occupied for a few minutes at least.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Playing Catch-Up -- On the Moon and Elsewhere

Okay, I promised a review of In the Shadow of the Moon and the film has been playing for over a week. Hopefully you can still find it at a theater near you, because you should definitely go and see it. Purely as a sensual experience, it is enormously rewarding. (In New York City it's playing at the Loew's Lincoln Square in IMAX, and at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in plain old 35mm.)

The film's story is a simple one. In the early 1960s, in a fit of macho posturing John F. Kennedy proclaimed that by the end of the decade, an American would walk on the moon. And, son-of-a-bitch if we didn't do it. Repeatedly. Between 1969 and 1972 a dozen American astronauts walked on the surface of the moon. British documentarian David Sington interviewed every living member of the Apollo crews that made the big trip, with the notable exception of Neil Armstrong, the first human to step on the lunar surface. (Understandably, Armstrong stopped giving interviews a long time ago, and who can blame him?)

Indeed, Armstrong's absence speaks louder than any interview he could have given. He is the unproclaimed hero of the film, a man whose colleagues speak of with nothing short of awe. The rest of them -- and there are ten in the film -- are wonderfully articulate, wry and thoughtful and, although the footage of the moon missions is the big selling point of the film quite rightly, their recollections are never less than riveting.

It is seldom that I come out of a film thinking of the word 'breathtaking.' And I cannot recall ever seeing a film and turning to a colleague to say, "It makes me proud to be a member of the human race," but that was my reaction to In the Shadow of the Moon. Simply put, the film is dazzling.

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In its own, highly idiosyncratic way, The Silence Before Bach by Pere Portabella is also dazzling, albeit in a very different way from Shadow of the Moon. Portabella is a Spanish avant-gardist whose non-directing credits include producing Bunuel's Viridiana, which should give you some idea of where Portabella stood during the Franco years. The Museum of Modern Art is showing 14 of Portabella's films, beginning on September 26, beginning with Silence, a U.S. premiere, and the first of his works that I have seen.

The film opens with a Bach prelude being played on a player piano on roboticized casters, gliding elegantly through an empty gallery. Portabella offers us a wide range of Bach interpreters, including a pair of long-haul truckers who play chromatic harmonica and bassoon, respectively, a large ensemble of cellists playing one of the solo cello pieces on the Madrid subway and so on. The result is at once both a drily witty series of jokes on the malleability of screen space and a lovely rumination on the possible permutations of Bach as performed both as intended and -- most definitely -- not.

Ira Hozinsky attended a screening that I missed of two more of Portabella's films -- Vampir Cuadecuc (1970) and Umbracle (1972), a pair of documentaries about Jess Franco making vampire movies with Christopher Lee, among others. He found the earlier film quite fascinating, especially when it veers from being a "Making of . . . " docu into the horror genre itself, but professed to find the later film impenetrable. On the other hand, he notes, it is nearly redeemed by the quite unexpected spectacle of Lee singing, quite well, too. You never know, do you?

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Press screenings for this year's New York Film Festival began yesterday, although I was tied up at home with deadlines. This morning, however, I got to my first NYFF offering of the year, Carlos Saura's love letter to his Portuguese neighbors, Fados. I'll have more to say about the film closer to its public screening date in mid-October but I will tell you this much -- even if you don't see the film you really should run out and buy the soundtrack. If you have never heard anyone sing fado, you are missing one of the great pleasures of world music and if you have, this set will tickle you with its unexpected juxtapositions.





Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Throwback Jersey Nobody Wants to See

How screwed up is this?

A UK firm has just announced the release of new DVDs of Budd Boetticher's Decision at Sundown and Seminole. Now I wouldn't put either title on a list of my favorite Boetticher films (although Decision is extraordinary as a critique of the Randolph Scott character in the other films the two did together, and fascinating as an example of the way a veiled attack on McCarthyism crept into the "town western" in the '50s), but the fact that you can get them from a British firm and they aren't available on disk here in the U.S. is a reminder of the bad old days when the only people who took American genre films seriously were French or marginalized.

Just the sort of nostalgia we don't need.

However, if you want to find out more or to order these and many, many other worthy DVDs, I heartily recommend a trip to the DVD Beaver website, a fount of information on DVDs, DVD players and other such mechanical contrivances, not to mention a wealth of hearty film debate of the sort I don't get to hear much anymore. And that is the kind of nostalgia I do need.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Life Without Disks

Well, I had the interesting experience of not having a working DVD player for about a week. Actually, I have a working miniplayer but the screen is too small for both Margo and I to watch it comfortably and the video jacks from the regular player don't fit the portable quite right, so that turned out not to be a viable option. Eventually, I did what I should have done in the first place, which was to unhook our Coby all-region and clean it internally -- just a blast or two of air -- then smack it sharply on its little head when it told me there wasn't a disk inside. Tonight, things were back to normal. Mind you, the entire thing costs $25 so if it died after a year, which is about how long we've had it, I would have shed no tears. It's just that this week is so fraught with deadlines and other time constraints that I knew I probably wouldn't have time to go downtown to the bargain store where I bought this one until after Rosh Hashanah.

But it was an interesting experience, as a I said, if only because I was reminded of how small the actual difference is between disk and tape -- until you start thinking about things like extras, a good, workable freeze-frame, slo-mo, zoom and, oh yes, there is the little matter of visual quality. Still, with a really good print -- like the Westerns channel's print of 3:10 to Yuma -- you get a pretty acceptable image. I know that this statement will alarm and annoy the purists, and they aren't wrong, of course. But at least I now know that if I have to survive without a working DVD player for a week, I can do it.

As long as I'm not working on anything, because all the screeners sitting on my TV right now are disks, not a single tape. That's just fine, too.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about a film that I saw on the big screen and a damned good thing too. In the Shadow of the Moon, which opens Friday, is a film whose entire raison d'etre, whose total impact, will be rendered meaningless on your TV, no matter how goddam big it is. And it is a film that should be seen, if only for pure sensory pleasure.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

3:10 to Macao

The B.W. and I were watching Delmer Daves's 3:10 to Yuma the other night. I wanted to take a look at it before the Mangold premieres next week and I haven't seen it in over 30 years (or maybe never, it certainly didn't ring any bells while we were watching it). The Westerns channel had shown what turns out to be a really lovely print, and Charles Lawton's cinematography and Frnak Hotaling's art direction are really quite nice, so we saw it under optimum conditions for home viewing, except that it was a VHS tape off the cable signal.

What came as a complete shock to me was how good the film itself is. On the one hand, it is very tightly scripted, acted, directed, a terrific miniature. But more than that, Daves gets levels of nuance out of Glenn Ford that I never dreamed were there, and a rather steelier performance from Van Heflin than i expected, with the result that the film has an emotional and moral complexity that really surprised me. Mangold will have his hands full matching this.

I was particularly interested, though, in the hotel set on which most of the second half of the film takes place, a two-story room with a balcony running all around, rooms off the balcony, and two large staircases at either end going down to the lobby. The reason I note this is not out of some fetishistic fascination with Hollywood architecture but because it reminds me so strongly of the main hotel set in Johnny To's Exiled, a very, very entertaining gangster homage to the American western. When I saw Exiled a few weeks ago, I was immediately taken by the film's obvious references to Sam Peckinpah and , in particular, The Wild Bunch. the thematic concerns are clearly there -- the sense that the "frontier" has moved into the past, that the code of the heroes is antiquated and the world is poorer for it, the Peckinpah fascination with uneasy alliances bred of necessity, the aesthticization of gun violence. But what I hadn't seen at the time was the references to the Delmer Daves film.

Exiled has a simple enough plotline. Wo (Nicky Cheung), a highly respected hitman decides to retire to Macao so that he can give his wife and baby a normal life, but the mob doesn't want him to do so. He is now being stalked by former friends Blaze and Fat, sent to kill him, and former colleagues Tai and Cat who have come to protect him, but all of them have plenty of history with him and no one is happy about the contract. In the meantime, the return of Macao to China (it's 1998) is the signal for a turnover in the mob hierarchy in town, which complicates the alliances being formed aruond our protagonist. Eventually, all five of the hitmen join forces to disrupt the various lines of power, etc., etc.

To handles this material with more bravado and less brooding than in Triad Election, which is the richer, denser film. But Exiled has such panache and energy and uses screen space so inventively in its big setpieces (of which there are several, all of them delicious), that it is only after the dust and gunsmoke have cleared and you are outside the theater that you find yourself thinking, 'wow, that was a lot of fun but, but, but. . . .'

So where does 3:10 to Yuma come in? Both films are predicated on a series of uneasy relationships that are based either on financial need or an overwhelming sense of responsibility based on debts incurred in the past. Each of them pivots on the spatial relationships -- inside/outside, private/public -- of the hotel, its lobby, rooms and internal balcony and stairs. And each is razor-wire-taut.

Exiled is playing in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika Film Center. It's good, noisy fun, to say the least.