Thursday, March 24, 2011

Taylor and Leacock R.I.P., Plus Schnabel's Latest

Hard to imagine a film article that would mention both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Leacock, but they are currently sharing obituary pages all over the world (if there is any justice). Taylor is truly the last of the great movie stars of the studio period. (Except for maybe Mickey Rooney and Kirk Douglas, who else is left?) Never a great actress, although she is a luminous presence in Jane Eyre, Father of the Bride and Father's Little Dividend, she was a good person who did enormous charity work in support of people with AIDS, among others, and for that alone she deserves to thought of kindly.

Leacock, as my friend and fellow Ira-voter Howard Karren rightly observed, is important more as part of the first wave of American cinema-verite filmmakers than for his own films alone. But his work with D.A. Pennebaker and on his own is memorable and significant. At the very least, he deserves a Good Conduct Medal with oak leaf cluster for his arm wrestling with Jean-Luc Godard on the Stones movie (choose your title to fit you side in the battle).

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Julian Schnabel has yet to really impress me as a filmmaker. I find his work visually disorganized, if well-intentioned. His latest film, Miral, is guaranteed to raise hackles in certain part of the Jewish community here and in Israel, where it is set. My review can be found here.

And the 40th edition of New Directors/New Films opened at the Museum of Modern Art this evening. I'll have my assessment of the few films I managed to see in the next day or two.

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Finally, as some of you may know it's almost Ira time. The New York Independent Film Critics Circle -- the most rumpy (and rumply) of rump groups, is meeting Saturday night in an undisclosed location far away from the prying eyes of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Better Business Bureau. I'll report the results as soon as I sober up-- excuse me, wake up on Sunday.
For those of you who can't get enough of such matters (and who can't!?) I urge you to check the joint blog of Alex Lewin and Aaron Rich, the next generation of Ira voters (or should we call them Iras 2.0; the Reboot?).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

War Zones Make Lousy Playgrounds

Two new films, both opening Friday, put children at the heart of adult terrors. My review of them is here.

I've seen four of the films in the New Directors/New Films series so far, but nothing that has jumped up and grabbed me by the shirtfront shouting "See me!" I'll fill you in with more details over the weekend, by which time I hope to have raised that number a bit.

In the meanwhile, the most exciting news of the spring may be the Dziga Vertov series that will be playing at MoMA beginning April 15. (Don't forget to pay your taxes, comrades.) With guest presenters that will include Ken Jacobs, Willliam Kentridge, Guy Maddin and Peter Kubelka, a roundtable discussion on Vertov's work and the premiere of Michael Nyman's "remake" of Man With a Movie Camera, this looks pretty good. But the most important aspect of the program is that the museum is touting it as "the most comprehensive retrospective" of Vertov's films ever shown in the United States. Fourteen of the Kino-Week programs will be having their US premiere, and a newly restored full-frame print of Movie Camera will be shown. Skip the latest gross-out bromance and the next Jennifer Anesthesia romcom, and see some real cinema goddammit.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Some Films Are Better Left Undistributed

This will be brief because I have almost nothing positive to say. While the 2011 version of New Directors/New Films is press-screening this week and next, one of the selections from last year came squirreling into town stealthily. If I hadn't read Stephen Holden's fawning review in today's Times, I wouldn't have noticed that Eric Mendelsohn's 3 Backyards had managed to find its way into theaters. As you can imagine from that opening, I am less than thrilled by Mendelsohn's film, a turgid collection of three barely related stories of life in the 'burbs that plays like bad imitation Cheever. (And since I have recently been rereading Bullet Park, I have the splendid original in my head for ready comparison.) Despite an excellent cast headed by Edie Falco (who is quite good in a painfully underwritten turn as a housewife who latches onto a movie star living nearby for the summer) and Elias Koteas (as a disaffected businessman whose life is altered by a momentary glimpse into real tragedy), the film is studied, arch and slight of impact. There are many worthier films out there that haven't found a distributor; it's a damned shame when something this trivial is released in their stead.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Unlikely Documentary Subject, but . . . .

The internal connivings of state legislators are seldom a subject for surprise. (Hey, another power in the NY State Senate is facing indictment, according to today's 'papers.) But a little corruption is preferable to a completely rigged system, and that is what most state legislatures are aiming for in the year after a new census. Gerrymandering of congressional districts isn't exactly a new subject either; Eldbridge Gerry, who gave the term his name, was governor of Massachusetts in 1812 when he signed the first blatantly crooked redistricting scheme in that state's history. Anyone who watched the machinations of Tom "The Convicted Felon" DeLay vis-a-vis the Texas state legislature has an inkling of what is at stake and what can happen to the most elementary rules of fair play. Still, it's an unikely subject for a documentary film, which makes Jeff Reichert's new film Gerrymandering a wild card. Typically, the film has not found a theatrical distributor, but it is turning up in community venues around the country and is available on DVD from the filmmakers. The latest public screening is scheduled for New York City on Thursday March 17, 6 p.m. at Congregation Rodeph Sholem (7 W. 83rd St.). A panel discussion will follow. The event is hosted by two New York state legislators who have been very involved in this issue, State Senator Adriano Espaillat (coincidentally, my state senator) and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

I always berate people who don't vote by noting that at any moment somewhere in the world, someone is -- literally -- dying for the right that they are neglecting. Of course, if the deck is stacked, the meaningfulness of that right is diminished, if not destroyed.

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Meanwhile, back in the relatively benign world of motion pictures (Hey, we don't got no Charlie Sheen or Galliano in MovieWorld. Just Mel Gibson), allow me to pull your coat to a lovely little documentary on a more visually compelling subject than state legislatures, avant-garde art, its suppression and preservation. The Desert of Forbidden Art, which opens tomorrow, is a frequently ravishing and often amusing tale of the unlikeliest cache of great art in modern times, a back-of-beyond collection saved from Stalin by a failed-painter-turned-archeologist-turned-art-dealer. My review is here, and I recommend the film wholeheartedly.

Ronit Alkabetz, the excellent Israeli actress, is something of a work of art herself, a star-in-the-making who channels the unconventional spirit of the great Barbara Stanwyck in her best work. Alkabetz is the center of this year's Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, and you can read my take on her and it here.