Friday, September 26, 2008

Just a Quick Note

I swear on the proverbial stack (of Bibles? Pancakes? I like the idea of swearing on pancakes but I'd hate to have to clean maple syrup off my sleeve), that I will start blogging NYFF entries shortly, maybe even later today. But in the meantime, as promised earlier, you can find my piece on Waltz with Bashir and Lola Montes (wanna guess how I linked those two?) at Jewish Week.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Beating the Tarr Out of Cinema

The Museum of Modern Art, bless them, is offering a series of one-week runs to several interesting films that failed to find distributors. The first of these, Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, directed by film critic Todd McCarthy, has a couple more days to run. It's an ode to the kind of cinephilia that is almost dead, a community feeling that can only be felt when a group of people attend a screening of a great film. You don't get it sitting by yourself in the living room with the DVD player. Rissient himself is a slightly enigmatic figure who began as a film buff and ended up as a distributor, director and consultant to many important film festivals (including Cannes). McCarthy tells this story through a combination of interviews with Rissient himself and many, many famous filmmakers who he has shepherded through the shoals of European film distribution and exhibition. The film itself is a bit too long (I could have done without the guided tour of Rissient's hometown), and pitched to a tiny group of people like me, but if you are reading this blog, you will probably get a kick out of it.

Today, the Museum is premiering Bela Tarr's most recent film, The Man From London. I reviewed that one here, when it played last year's New York Film Festival, appropriately enough, and here's what I said back then:

The Man From London (Bela Tarr). This could be the Bela Tarr film for people who hate Bela Tarr; it’s an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Fred Keleman, a modern-day noir without the smartass cynicism that has disfigured most of the neo-noirs. In short, it’s a real throwback to the moody, fate-drenched worlds of Lang and Wilder in the ‘40s and, at slightly over two hours should be accessible enough for anyone.

What hasn’t changed about Tarr, and what I love about his films, is the slow unfolding of screen space and the extraordinary care with which he uses camera movement to explore his visual universe. The opening shot of The Man From London is a masterpiece of slow disclosure, encapsulating the entire plot in a seven- or eight-minute take that links a ship at the docks, a control tower, two little jutting pieces of land and the city of Bastia, a desolate harbor town. We see a man toss a bag of smuggled money off the ship and two men fight over the loot, all from the point of view of Maloin (Miroslav Krobut0, a shabby, exhausted railroad worker. Once he inserts himself into this drama, things can only go from bad to worse in typical noir fashion, but Tarr works out this tale of retribution and redemption with the pitiless inevitability of Fritz Lang, tempered by the compassion of Jean Renoir and illustrated by his own trademark gliding camera movements and well-concealed sense of humor. This may be Tarr’s most accomplished film to date, not an omnium-gatherum with the power of Satantango perhaps, but a shrewd usurping of genre prerogatives for his own purposes. An undeniably great film by one of the best working filmmakers in the world today.

I seem to be the only critic in New York who likes the film, but MoMA is impervious to such petty considerations -- hey, they fill the place regardless of what films they're showing, right? So you have a week in which to see it and, by all means, do so.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Busiest Time of Year

For me, it's not Xmas or Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. It's the insane weeks in which the New York Film Festival's press screenings coincide with the High Holy Days and the only things I do are seeing films and rehearsing with the Beth Am Choir.

Okay, not quite the only things I do. In fact, the current issue of Jewish Week includes reviews of three new films, here, here and here. I heartily recommend Loins of Punjab Presents, as you can tell from the review.

No new Godard film in this year's festival, but if you're jonesing for Jean-Luc, check out his "trailer" for the Viennale, which can be seen here; just scroll down and on the bottom left, you'll see a link marked 'trailer."

So far I've seen three films from the festival and each is a major winner: James Benning's RR, which is part of "Views from the Avant-Garde" event, the new Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours, and Ari Folman's animated feature about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Waltzing with Bashir. Hopefully, I'll find the time to discuss the Benning and Assayas here in the next day or so. Obviously, the Folman will get the full Jewish Week treatment.

And, as Samuel Pepys would have it, so to bed.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

News You Can Use (or Ignore -- Do What You Want)

I'm dashing this one off in a hurry; hopefully, I'll have more to say later in the weekend.

Let's start with some serious and disturbing news. Here's an Egyptian case that isn't getting any ink in the mainstream press, here or in Europe. Back in mid-August, one of the lawyers affiliated with the Egyptian National Democratic Party who is a specialist in Hesba cases (which claim be doing a service by eliminating what is harmful to Islamic society) against authors and artists demanded the flogging of an Egyptian female movie director and sent an official warning to the Sheikh of Azhar demanding the execution of such request. My source on this is the excellent Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. They wrote:

The Hesba lawyer offered the Sheikh of Azhar eight days to execute the flogging of the prominent Egyptian female movie director, Enas El-Dighaidy, eighty lashes because of a movie she directed called ¨Diaries of a Teenager Girl¨ claiming that the film defames Egypt.

It is worth mentioning that this same Hesba lawyer demanded, in one of his previous court cases, the cross-cutting of an Egyptian actress because she refrained from wearing a veil. He was also one of the lawyers who demanded to put Ibrahim Eissa, Chief Editor of Aldostour Newspaper, on trial in the case known as ¨the President’s Health Case."

ANHRI stated that Hesba has become a nightmare for authors and artists. Such Hesba cases could not have increased without the blessing of the government and cooperation with the Hesba lawyers. Such an attitude by the government allows for a heavy hand on brave journalists and bloggers who are still paying a high price for allowing us to enjoy a small margin of freedom of expression.

There are worse things than having your film edited or shelved.

For example, and a little closer to home, American documentary filmmaker Andrew Berends is still under arrest in Nigeria for alleged espionage. Berends and his interpreter Samuel George were arrested last Sunday. They were provisionally released for the weekend yesterday but are still "under arrest." For more information about the case, go to the blog that has been created by Berends supporters. If you haven't written to your Congressperson in support of Berends, there's no time like the present.


After a couple of items like that, it seems almost foolish to return to the ordinary film world, but movies go on being shown and it's up to the likes of your humble servant to sort the good, bad and ugly into their respective bins.

My fall film preview for JWeek is on-line here. You'll find an interview with the estimable Claude Miller, whose excellent new film A Secret opened yesterday, and a brief rumination on Amos Gitai's documentary work. And you'll find a list of other fall film offerings with Jewish themes here.

Although most DVD-oriented film fans are straining at the leash for the Murnau/Borzage at Fox box (yeah, I am too), I'm actually more excited by the Columbia Randy Scott/Budd Boetticher package, which features the best five films of that collaboration, all of them in the right aspect ration, etc, plus the usual extra material. Read it and weep for joy here. I am not exaggerating when I say that these are five of the best American films of the '50s. (Of course, I've been a Randy Scott fan since I was a wee tyke, lo these many years ago.) And for more on the Fox package, go here.

On the large screen, there are a couple of exciting retrospective programs in the offing in NYC this month. BAMCinemathek is hosting a 16-film Howard Hawks series, including some less-frequently screened items like Tiger Shark, Monkey Business and the painfully underrated The Big Sky. The series opens September 15, about the time that yours truly will be settling into the grind of NY Film Festival screenings (what a tough life). In the meantime, Anthology is offering a series of films by Vojtech Jasny, the regrettably neglected godfather of the Czech new wave, beginning with All My Good Countrymen on September 19.