Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tribeca, continued

I'm sitting at a computer in the press lounge for the Tribeca festival, which seems like a logical place to write this latest dispatch, a review of Downeast, a new documentary by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. Most of the film takes place in Prospect Harbor, ME, once the home of the Simon Sardine Cannery, the last remaining sardine canning factory in the U.S. until its closing a few years ago. Now the town is filled with unemployed septuagenarians, mostly women, whose lives have lost focus and who are facing life without money, insurance, the usual things that come with having a job. The worst loss, though, is of a sense of purpose. As one of the workers says half-jokingly, "I'm too old to be trained."

At the outset of the film, Antonio Busone, a transplanted Italian businessman who owns a small chain of lobster processing plants, is trying to place a new factory in the town, guaranteeing that he will hire largely from that pool of former cannery workers. He is waiting for a $200,000 federal job creation grant; all that is needed is the approval of the Board of Selectmen. Unfortunately for Busone, the head of the Board is Dan Rice, a lobster buyer whose business would be endangered by the new factory. More than that, Rice is one of those Tea Party-types who would rather let his own constituents suffer than approve government spending.

At first it looks as if this conflict will be the center of Downeast. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to making documentary films is that you have no way of knowing what the outcome of you hard work will be until you are in the editing room. I suspect the filmmakers had no clue that Busone's entire company would become the victim of a chain of events that would see his bank freeze all his assets as a response to a client's bounced check, triggering a slow-motion meltdown that ends in utter catastrophe.

Redmon and Sabin tell this story intelligently, but the film's 76-minute running time doesn't leave room for much backstory or many explanations, and the suddenness of the collapse is even more shocking to us than  to the participants. It would be helpful if the directors could go back and insert more detail before the film gets a wider showing. As it is, they have the skeleton of a fascinating film, filled with grace notes like the shower of sparks cascading from a metal grinder as the old factory space is renovated. Regrettably, like those sparks, the film fades out much too soon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Busy, busy, busy

Here I am again.
Believe me, I'm as shocked as you are.

Very interesting item from Notebook, the daily blog of MUBI, regarding the resurgence of interest in Hollis Frampton. Almost any film that interests the folks at Criterion should interest people who read this blog.

And sad news as well, the death of Amos Vogel. Film as a Subversive Art is a book that should be on any cinema bookshelf, a seminal work for its time that is worthy of rediscovery. Vogel's role in the creation and sustaining of an American avant-garde cannot be ignored.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Momentary Break from the Movies

I'm midway through my Tribeca journey (pace Dante) but I wanted to pull your coat to an extraordinary event that is about to begin in New York City, the annual PEN World Voices festival. As regular readers know, I frequently use this space to call your attention to events and publications that help disseminate world literature in this most-powerful media nation where only three percent of published books are translations. The PEN event is one of the most exciting of such events. Among the speakers and readers on this year's calendar of events are Salman Rushdie, Herta Muller, Marjane Satrapi, Tony Kushner and the Kronos Quartet. (Huh? What have they written? Just kidding). Events start on April 30.  For more information, check out the website for the festival.

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I was reading the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, one of my favorite periodicals -- right up there with Downbeat, The Ring, The Cricketer and American Poetry Review -- and in the course of the lead essay by Bharat Tendon, reviewing new books by Patricia Meyer Spacks and Jonathan Yardley, there was a wonderful passage from Spacks's new book, On Rereading, that seemed to capture for me the pleasure of what I do as a film critic. Spacks, of course, is talking about literature, but if you make a few alterations to her words, it encapsulates perfectly the joy of this job.

 When I write about my own experience of books, though, I write necessarily as a reader of a certain kind. I am one who “takes a book apart” – a phrase often used by those who think of this activity as the antithesis of “just enjoying.” I think – I feel – I know that taking a book apart, making myself conscious of how the elements of its construction work with one another to generate emotional, moral, and intellectual effects, is itself a powerful mode of pleasure. The more I understand, the more I enjoy. The more questions I ask of myself and of the book, the more I can see; the more I see, the more I feel.
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One film-related item: my review of two new documentaries about aspects of Israeli society is up at Jewish Week. They're both quite interesting and worth a trip to the Village.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tribeca, Part 1

Here we go. A week-and-a-half of heavy moviegoing.

Yesterday, I kicked off my personal festival with three programs. I don't have much to say about the experimental shorts package entitled Journeys Across Cultural Landscapes. It would be manifestly unfair to say that the best thing about the selection is the title. In fact, the program is worth seeing just for Jay Rosenblatt's latest film, "Inquire Within," four minutes of very funny use of found footage, with Rosenblatt's signature mordant provocation. As usual with his work, you could easily write a lengthy essay on this little gem, if only to ponder the ramifications of the series of false moral choices the film explores. Martin LaPorte's "Barcelona," a symphonic orchestration of still photos of that city's streets and dazzling interiors (surprisingly light on Gaudi, but what's there is dazzling), is an elegant tone poem with a charming circular structure. "All the Lines Flow Out," by Charles Lim, is a graceful meditation on the sound and undulating images of water in motion, as seen in the concrete canals and drainage system of Singapore; beautifully shot, it's a vivid reminder of why filmmakers love water. The remaining films are not without merit; "The Valley" and "Abyss of Man's Conscience" have striking images, and Joel Schlemowitz's "Scenes from a Visit to Japan" has sections that are downright brilliant, especially a sonnet-like passage of Japanese signs seen in rapid succession. But there is a palpable overreaching and, by and large, the program is rather disappointing despite its best moments.

Frederic Jardin's Sleepless Night should be a crowd-pleaser. While it is not as empty as most recent French thrillers, it is one of those exercises in pure kinesis that have taken over the nation's commercial cinemas in a valiant effort to fight off the even-more vapid American product teeming on their shores. Vincent (Tomer Sisley) is a narcotics cop whose career seems to have gone off the rails. At the film's outset, he and his partner are involved in a heist of a large drug shipment destined for Corsican gangster Marciano (a memorably droll gargoyle-ish performance by Serge Riaboukine). Marciano's response is to grab Vincent's son and demand the return of his merchandise. Nothing is simple, though, in this film. Vincent spends a hellish night in Marciano's nightclub/restaurant/casino, which seems to be larger than the Mall of America, fighting off Marciano's henchmen, his competitors, his customers and a bunch of other cops. Gradually, our understanding of the power dynamics governing Vincent's actions is significantly altered. Jardin  and co-writer Nicolas Saadia can't seem to make up their minds whether this is a character study or a 98-minute adrenaline rush. Visually the film is congested and fidgety but Jardin, to his credit, is most concerned by the play of emotions across Sisley's face, and the film is one of those rare contemporary thrillers that seems more interested in existential suffering than gore, in pain rather than violence.

It sounds funny just to explain this: Babygirl, the third program I saw yesterday, is an Irish independent drama about a single mother and her teenage daughter, a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. I assume that Macdara Vallely, the writer-director, wanted to look at a different set of streets of Northern Ireland, the setting of his first feature, Peacefire (2008). In truth, Vallely brings a fresh eye to the barrio, and his attention to the rhythms of the Bronx is one of the great strengths of Babygirl. A gentle humanist parable about the difficulties of growing up a young woman in an urban culture that valorizes male sexual prowess to the detriment of nearly everything else. Although she is the daughter in their relationship, 16-year-old Lena (Yainis Ynoa) is by far more mature and realistic than her mother Lucy (Rosa Arredondo), who has endured a string of catastrophic relationships. When the pair meet the charming Victor (Flaco Navaja) on the bus, he charms Lucy after immediately striking out with her offspring. The three leads are uniformly excellent and they are the greatest strength of the film. Vallely's subtle touch is pleasing and his rigorous avoidance of melodrama refreshing, but this does feel a bit like a Sundance-bait American indie. Still, it's a pleasant 77 minutes that never pushes its agenda too aggressively, and Ynoa and Navaja are definitely keepers.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tribeca Begins

With its refreshing mix of younger directors, narrative and documentary and a serious mandate to go global, the Tribeca Film Festival has rapidly become one of my favorite events of the New York film year. (The fact that they make life incredibly easy for journalists doesn't hurt, of course.) The goofiness of deadlines for print publications means that both my Jewish Week pieces on the festival are already up on the JWeek website (here and here), even though the festival doesn't really open until tomorrow morning. I also have a review up of a new Holocaust documentary aimed at middle-school kids or thereabouts; going back to my days of teaching in my synagogue's Hebrew School, I could have used such a film then. Hopefully the next two weeks will be filled with postings about Tribeca. There certainly is no shortage of interesting stuff going on there. (Check out their website for more info.)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Another Filmmaker in Jeopardy

You can add another name to the list of filmmakers persecuted for their use of cinema as a device for telling the truth. Dhondup Wangchen isn't as well known internationally as Jafar Panahi or Mohammed Rasoulof, both currently prisoners of the Iranian government. Indeed, I had never heard ot Wangchen until I received an e-mail from Amnesty International about his current plight, and have never seen his work. As Amnesty explains:

Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen is serving a six-year prison sentence in China for "subversion of state power" -- simply because he dared to speak out about Tibetan human rights through his filmmaking. Demand his release now!

China has detained hundreds of Tibetans for peacefully exercising their human rights or for taking part in protests since 2008. Recently, Tibetan activists have set themselves on fire in protest of restrictions on basic freedoms and punitive security measures. The Chinese government has responded to the protests with mass arrests, imprisonment, and possible killings by security forces.

Dhondup Wangchen suffers from Hepatitis B and has not received the medical treatment he needs. It has been difficult to obtain reliable information about his condition.

This is a bit more serious than fighting with your producer over final cut. I urge you to go to Amnesty's action page and add your voice to the chorus of disapproval.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Wajda in the '50s

My '50s round-up continues apace. Yesterday I saw the first two of Wajda's War Trilogy films, his first two features. A Generation, his debut, is messy, with a problem of point of view -- Wajda can't make up his mind whether he wants to (or has to) make a film about how his protagonist Stach (Tadesuz Lomnicki) will be transformed by exposure to Marxism and the love of a good (Communist) woman from a juvenile delinquent into a mature Resistance leader or a study of the more interestingly neurotic Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar), whose deep existential dilemma sends him in and out of the Resistance. Needless to say, Wajda (and we) find the latter more interesting, but the lack of a coherent through-line hinders the film. On the other hand, there are some terrific moments in the film, you can see a nascent great talent in embryonic form. The film opens with a stunning tracking shot of the slum neighborhood in which Stach lives, and some of the setpieces, particular Jasio's death, are impressive as hell.

I don't know what Wajda was eating for breakfast between making A Generation and his second film, Kanal, but I want a case of it. As promising as the debut film is, it doesn't prepare you for the dark and startling masterpiece that he follows it with. Kanal is remarkable. It's a brooding, depressing work with a certain underlying absurdism -- not in the least bit funny -- about a battered unit of the Home Army during the last week of the Warsaw Uprising, chronologically a few months after the action in A Generation. It's not a "lost patrol" type thing, the unit as over 40 members at the outset of the film and Wajda really only individualizes a dozen or so, but the gradual eroding not only of the company's numbers but of their moral stature and sanity is chllling. It's one of those films in which no good deed goes unpunished and nearly everyone dies. Bleak stuff from the very start -- another breathtakingly complicated tracking shot, this time giving us the unit for the only time that they are even remotely a unified body of fighters, yet already we can see the cracks in the community, such as it is. The film was apparently not well received in mid-50s Poland because it calls into question the mythos of the Uprising, challenges the assumption that this was a heroic last stand rather than an utterly futile and self-lacerating act of collective suicide. Reminds me a little bit of Ford's Fort Apache, except there is no one left to enunciate the legend, and the heroism of the unit is always dubious. A great film that probably will retain a place on my list nine months from now.