Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Major Birthday Greetings

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Amnesty International. I cannot imagine a more profoundly important milestone in human history in my lifetime. Forget about men walking on the moon or the Mets winning the 1969 World Series; in the larger scheme of things, one can honestly point to Amnesty as the direct spur to the pro-democracy revolutions of 1989 and of this spring, the entire shift towards greater attention to human rights as a factor in foreign policy, even if only as lip service. And I can't think of another group that so totally embodies the work of the NGO as a positive force for good in the world.

Over the years, I have come to believe that the basic rights enunciated in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the bedrock on which any decent political system must be built. When all the other certainties in my political thinking eroded with time, those principles still stand. And Amnesty has been working for them for almost my entire life.

Go here and join the celebration.

A Little Quick Housekeeping

Two items that may be of interest:

First, my piece on the Gold Coast International Film Festival is here, as previously promised.

Second, the latest on Jafar Panahi -- he's not just a very talented filmmaker, he's also a damned clever one. His new film, This Is Not a Movie, made its debut at Cannes under most unusual circumstances. You can read about it in The Guardian here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Another Film Festival?

Does the New York area really need another film festival? Personally, my first instinct would be to answer in the negative, but when my editor at Jewish Week asked me to do a little looking into the 1st annual Gold Coast International Film Festival, which opens on June 1 on the North Shore of Long Island, not all that far from where I wrote my first published film criticism 40 years ago, I felt at the very least an atavistic need to check it out. If there had been a film festival within easy driving distance when I was in high school . . . I might still be in high school.

I filed the story a couple of hours ago and will link to it when it's up on the JWeek website, but let me say a few things in defense of this new festival, as I'm sure that most of you will be as skeptical as I was. First, keep in mind that although Long Island already hosts several film festivals but, as my wife -- an Island native herself -- observes, it's called Long Island for a reason. It's 150 miles long. I can't picture driving from New York City to Albany to see a movie (unless someone was paying me an exorbitant sum). Second, the demographics of the area around Great Neck and North Hempstead are very different from the target audiences of the other LI festivals anyway.

But the real defense of this festival is its programming, which is highly intelligent, featuring a deft mixture of documentary and fiction, foreign and American independent.They have stayed away from the really obvious, nausea-inducing "audience" movies, but there are numerous films on their schedule that are genuinely entertaining, and more than a few that are challenging. Of the four they are showing that I have written about, three are excellent -- Dover Kosashvili's Infiltration, Yoav Potash's Crime After Crime and the criminally over-looked Iranian film Tehroun, by Nader T. Homayoun -- and the fourth, Just Like Us by Ahmed Ahmed, is decidedly amiable. And although several of the films on the schedule have played in other New York festivals and other venues, there is nothing here that could remotely be called over-exposed.

I'm told that the organizers of the festival have some fairly detailed transportation arrangements worked out and, as someone who commuted on the Long Island Rail Road for four years of college, I can tell you that it's not that hard to get out to this part of the island. Check out their website (the link above will take you there), and give it a thought.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Holding Pattern

Yes, I have little to say about movies this week. Or, more truthfully, most of the stuff I've seen hasn't opened yet.

Some folks, however, get to immerse themselves by going to Cannes (Cinema? You're soaking in it.) Michael Giltz, friend, colleague and fellow Ira voter, is one such happy fellow. He covered the big festival by the beach for the Huffington Post, and you can read his wrap-up, which includes a list of all the prizes (including best canine -- who knew?) and links to all his columns from the event, right here.

One film that I did see and can comment on is actually 69 years old. Alberto Cavalcanti, who surely had one of the most unusual career paths in film history, made a truly bizarre thriller during his lengthy stop in England. Although he is best known for Dead of Night, you could make a strong case for his anti-Nazi film Went the Day Well?, currently in revival in a new 35mm print at Film Forum. After a brief framing device that is, in its own casual, understated way, rather unsettling, the film quickly moves from being one of those Ealing village comedies, filled to the brim with lovable eccentrics, to a dark and violent wartime thriller with that remote village suddenly under siege from Nazi paratroopers disguised as English soldiers on manuevers. Adapted from an obscure Graham Greene story, the film is loaded with stalwart English character players on both sides of the battle (David Farrar, a personal favorite of mine, is impressively nasty as the German second-in-command, a dry run for his equally sinister good guys in Powell/Pressburger classics). Cavalcanti creates a genuinely unnerving tension between the bland surface of the community and its seething underside, and when that tension bursts out in real violence, it feels more like Peckinpah than Ealing. A fascinating piece of history that transcends mere nostalgia through sheer blunt force. It will be there through June 2.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Taiwan: The Future Secured

With Edward Yang's death in 2007 and the comparative silence of Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (although in Tsai's case, it's not so much silence as the lack of interest by US distributors), it was inevitable that we should start wondering where the next great Taiwanese director is coming from. National film cultures go through lulls and streaks, like home-run hitters and EPL strikers. Of course, since so few foreign films find their way to the States (okay, it's a lot better in NYC, among other places), there is no accurate way of gauging the actual state of a film industry, short of moving there, or spending many, many hours in the region's film festivals. For those of us who actually have to work for a living, those are not viable options.

Happily -- again, in NYC -- we have the Film Society of Lincoln Center, BAM Cinemathek and so on, and in the case of Taiwan, the FSLC is doing yeoman service with an excellent series, currently in midstream, that offers not only a few of the obvious names like Yang, Hou and Tsai, but also some all-but-forgotten delights, from the acrobatic martial arts cinema of King Hu (A Touch of Zen), to the politically tinged farce of Stan Lai's The Peach Blossom Land, an unjustly neglected work that played ND/NF in the early '90s but never found a distributor.

But what about contemporary filmmakers? On the strength of his second feature, The Fourth Portrait, I'd say that Chung Mong-Hong has a good chance to be the next major voice from the little island. This tale of an 10-year-old boy who suddenly loses his father and must return to the ome of his estranged ex-hooker mother is a sober piece of neo-realism reminiscent of early Hou, but with a mathematical precision that undercuts the film's potential for treacly melodrama. Chung's approach to the material is satisfyingly cerebral, but the heat generated by his actors, especially the preternaturally self-possessed Bi Xiao-hai as the boy, brings the film's emotional temperature up a few notches. It's an excellent formula, cool director meets hot cast, to put it in McCluhanesque terms. The film is a bit langorous in the middle, but that doesn't hurt it one bit. Indeed, there are moments when one wishes Chung had taken his time even more. At any rate, if he's an example of what is going on in the Taiwanese film industry, the future of this small but powerful film culture is in good hands.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Tragedy in Iran Goes On

Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rasoulof are both in prison in their native Iran for opposing the Ahmedinejad regime, but their work continues. Each of the pair has a new film playing at the Cannes Film Festival this month. The titles are depressingly suggestive, "Goodbye" from Rasoulof and "This Is Not a Film" from Panahi. I cannot stress enough the necessity for anyone concerned with cinema -- or humanity -- to publicly express their support for these men. In the meantime, you can read a bit more about the new films here. And there are petitions available on-line, and Facebook pages for each of them. Panahi's is here, Rasoulof's here.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Families, Caves and Israeli Natural Wonders

Before I write another word, I want to urge you to haul your tired butt down to the Quad Cinemas (if you're in NYC) and quickly catch a family drama that opened there today, Marc Meyers's second feature film, Harvest. American indie films that open in small venues in this town tend to vanish quickly and I fear that this one will not be an exception. It's not the greatest film since Griffith, but it is a lovely and accomplished work that will reward your time and patience. My full review is here.

There are also some interesting offerings in this year's Israel Film Festival. I've already given a link to my first of two articles on the event in Jewish Week. Here's the second one. Incidentally, for anyone who is interested, I'll be moderating a panel discussion with several of the directors represented at this year's festival on Saturday night, following the 7:15 p.m. screening of Avi Nesher's The Matchmaker (at the AMC Loew's 84th St., 84th and Broadway).

Finally, and this probably should have been first, but you know how I am, here's my candidate for film of the year, so far, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I am not well disposed towards 3-D movies as a rule. I've seen a lot of them and most directors use the format as a gimmick. But Herzog found a subject that is uniquely well-suited to 3-D, a cave in France that features the oldest known cave paintings, much older than its famous brothers in Lascaux and elsewhere. The locale is precarious, so access is extremely limited. The works are quite extraordinary and ought to be seen. Herzog was given unprecedented access and the result is a wonderful and typically idiosyncratic blend of Herzogian free-associating and beauty. Because of the ways in which the unknown artist(s) used the undulations of the cave walls as part of the paintings themselves, these images cry out for 3-D. Herzog uses the process brilliantly, and I must admit that, except for a little wobble of motion sickness at the very beginning, I was utterly enchanted with the latest incarnation of three-dimensional cinema. Don't waste your time seeing this film flat; it absolutely must be seen in 3-D. And it absolutely must be seen.