Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tribeca Continued

My second Jewish Week piece on the festival is up on the website. This one is mainly about the new film from the directors of Rabies. It's pretty savage stuff, although with much of the humor that made their first film so much fun.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Two from Tribeca and a Book Recommendation

So I've already filed my second and final piece on this year's Tribeca Film Festival for Jewish Week, which means I can turn my attentions to the 98% of this year's offerings that don't have any Jewish content. And I must say that the first two films I caught up with were very nice examples of why I like this event.

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is a loving, frisky, almost giddy biographical documentary about the pioneering Bay Area poet and filmmaker, a celebration of one of the really funny and nice people in experimental film, directed by Stephen Silha and Eric Slade. How can you not love a man who advises, "When it doubt, twirl," and "Believe in the unbelievable?" Strangely enough, as the film makes clear, Broughton's joyousness was hard-won, a slap in the face at the depression that had dogged him into his thirties. "Making films saved my life," he says bluntly.

Big Joy is relentlessly honest, much to its subject's credit as well as its creators'. The film deals simply and fairly with Broughton's short-lived relationship to Pauline Kael, which resulted in a child and a sharp break. "They lived together, but they didn't think together," poet Jack Foley says simply. We hear Kael on the film's soundtrack discussing the break-up a bit more disingenuously and it's hard not to wonder how much of her infamous homophobia was the result of that event. By contrast, Broughton's second straight relationship, while incredibly complicated, seems to have been a bit more successful, but the real love of his life was Joel Singer, several decades younger than Broughton but fiercely loyal to the literal end.

James Broughton and Joel Singer

But the real centerpiece of Big Joy is the man hiimself, witty, goofy and superbly gifted. There are clips from the key films and some wonderful quotes from the poetry. The result is a film with a slightly baggy structure. It starts out using a one-man show by performance poet Keith Hennessy but somewhere in the middle that device is abandoned and simple chronology asserts itself. It almost doesn't matter; one suspects that this nod towards shapelessness would have tickled Broughton, and that is a good thing in itself.

What Richard Did is an understated Irish family melodrama about a golden boy who falls hard from grace. Richard (Jack Reynor) is enjoying the summer before university, hanging with his rugby teammates, flirting with the local girls and getting ready for the arduous double-act of playing rugby professionally while a college student. He's smart, good-looking and, from everything we see of his behavior in the film's first half-hour, a thoroughly admirable young man. With the emphasis on "young." He becomes involved a friend's girl, Lara (Roisin Murphy), and the tensions of jealousy threaten the summer idyll. Finally, something unthinkable happens and Richard must deal with the guilt surrounding his actions. Faced with the necessity to behave like an adult, he discovers that his equanimity isn't quite as impregnable as it seemed.

What Richard (Jack Reynor) Did with Lara (Roisin Murphy)

Director Lenny Abrahamson, for whom this is a third feature, has a certainty of tone and a nice eye for the comfortable ensemble. He gets lovely performances from his mostly young cast and creates one of those now all-too-familiar teen-worlds in which grown-ups are at best an awkward presence. Yet the film never falls into the post-'1950s cliches of misunderstood youth. What happens here is beyond the pale despite being rather typical, and the film is more reminiscent of American '60s suburban dramas than Rebel Without a Cause or its imitators. These kids aren't disaffected, just foolish. Unfortunately, Abrahamson, screenwriter Malcolm Campbell and novelist Kevin Power whose book is the source material for the film, seem ambivalent about their ending, and What Richard Did dissipates into the air rather than resolving itself. But before it fizzles, the film has some lovely moments, well worth a look.

Jan Wahl was not much older than the fictional Richard when he accepted an invitation to watch Carl Theodor Dreyer direct his 1955 masterpiece Ordet (The Word). Although it's a bit unclear how Wahl rated such a treat, the book he wrote about the experience, Carl Theodor Dreyer and 'Ordet' -- My Summer With the Danish Filmmaker (University Press of Kentucky), suggests that the opportunity wasn't wasted. Wahl's prose is as straightforward and unadorned as the book's title, but his recollections of Dreyer are warm and informative. It becomes evident from the outset that Dreyer didn't fit the image of the stern taskmaster and martinet that is so frequently associated with filmmakers of genius. (Think Ford or Preminger for example). On the contrary, he seems both genteel and gentle, a soft-spoken, almost introverted perfectionist who reserves his harshest words for himself. My favorite anecdote from the book concerns the use of a local newspaper to line the drawers of a dresser; Dreyer sends Wahl in search of a correct period paper from 1925 even though the only person who will see it is one of the actors. "He'll be distracted" if the date is incorrect, Dreyer explains. A charming book that is a reminder of a great film and its creator.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Glee and Joy at Film Forum/Hot Items from Israel

One of my favorite films from last year's New York Film Festival is finally getting its theatrical release at Film Forum, here in NYC. Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay will be running through April 30 and I can't urge you strongly enough to run and see it. When it played the Festival last fall, I wrote this for Jewish Week:

Once the walls of the ghetto came down, Jews began to face a similar range of career opportunities to non-Jews. Even with the burdens of anti-Semitic quota systems the Jewish people have made an impact in the physics, medicine, government, literature, the visual arts and magic.

Magic, you say? Well, there was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, a rabbi’s son but . . . .

Yes, there was Houdini, but he was only the most prominent of many Jewish practitioners of the mysteries of prestidigitation.

Consider the new documentary playing at one of the sidebars in this year’s New York Film Festival, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” directed by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein. Jay, who was born Ricky Potash, was first inducted into the world of magic by his grandfather, Max Katz, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Katz played an important role in shaping his grandson’s by-now legendary performing skills and introduced him to a generation of geniuses of card manipulation, billiard ball sleight-of-hand and other dazzling, if arcane, skills.

“The way to learn [magic] is personally,” Jay says early in the film. It’s an insight that is repeated frequently and illustrated both by footage of the masters with whom Jay studied and the words and artistry of Jay himself. At one point he likens the process of transmitting such knowledge to the relationship between a rebbe and his hasidim, and given the oddly quotidian nature of the tools of his trade – coins, handkerchiefs, a deck of ordinary playing cards – one cannot help but think of the hasid who said he wanted to learn how the rebbe tied his shoes.

More than that, the magicians skills are passed generationally, l’dor-va-dor, although in Jay’s case, a generation was skipped. He left home at 17 because, as he says tersely, “My parent’s didn’t ‘get’ me.” Still, he admits, they did one good thing for him; at his bar mitzvah the entertainment was the great magician Al Flosso, the “Coney Island Fakir.” It is, he says rather darkly, the only nice memory I have of them.

“Deceptive Practice,” on the other hand, is filled with better-than-nice memories. There is a great deal of the sheer fun of watching him grow up from little Ricky Potash, a 7-year-old performer of surprising poise (although his grown-up self dismisses the tricks as poor), to a shoulder-length-haired hippie in a three-piece suit working the daytime talk shows with gusto, to the wry elder statesman of today. Jay’s memories of Flosso and other mentors like Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, Cardini, Slydini and his grandpa Max are warm, charming and instructive. The glimpses we get of his relationship with his own younger colleagues are no less satisfying. It’s safe to say that for the foreseeable future the fate of the magic arts are in safe – frequently Jewish – hands. And “Deceptive Practice” is one of the only films I’ve seen this year that I wish had gone on much longer.

Meanwhile, back at the Israeli lemonade stand, the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan is in the midst of its first film festival, and the array of films on display highlights the dazzling variety coming out of the Jewish State. There is a full slate of programs, including a selection of recent short films, all over town this evening. The closing night screening of Fill the Void is a particular must, although the film will be playing at Film Forum later this year. I'd still check it out; it's a densely worked piece that will reward repeated viewings. In addition, the festival includes two bonus screenings tomorrow night at the Cinema Village. By Summer's End is a first feature from Noa Aharoni, who was an assistant on Saint Clara (which is beginning to look like an important meeting ground for a lot of current Israeli filmmakers). The World Is Funny is the lastest film from Shemi Zarhin, director of Aviva, My Love, a personal favorite of mine. You can buy tickets for any or all of these goodies here.

A Whirlwind Month

When I began this blog seven years ago (!) I had two thoughts in the back of my mind. First, I assumed I would be blogging almost daily. Second I figured I could keep doing this for maybe five years at most.

I would say something about turning it into a source of occasional income, but that would be three strikes and out.

On the positive side, one of the major reasons I have found it hard to keep up with even a weekly schedule recently is that I have so much paying work as a film critic and lecturer that the fun stuff -- and make no mistake about it, this is fun -- has suffered. No apologies. Just an explanation of sorts.

That said, it has been a turbulent month of film news and releases, made more complicated for me by minor surgery and its after-effects (something good, I promise). It has been a month in which the film world Les Blank, Roger Ebert and Bigas Luna, among others. It has been a month in which the Tribeca Film Festival has opened, and the 38th annual Iras have taken place. I've been up to my fanny in speaking engagements about which more momentarily, and there have been some interesting movies to be seen.

Let's get to work.


 Speaking of paying work lecturing on film, let me pull your coat to a couple of my upcoming appearances. As frequent readers of this blog will know, one of my occasional gigs is as a speaker at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival. The final weekend of that estimable event is coming, and I will be introducing a screening of an excellent Israeli feature, Naomi, on Saturday night, April 20. You can find all about it here.

I'm even more excited about my next upcoming gig. I'll be teaching my film appreciation class, "How to Watch a Movie" at the 92nd St. Y, beginning in early May. The Y's website is a tangled maze, so you might be better off phoning them at 212-415-5500. It's a seven-session class and I'll be showing some great films, including Griffith's True Heart Susie, Renoir's The Crime of M. Lange, Sirk's Written on the Wind, Hitchcock's Psycho and Welles's Touch of Evil. Nothing ground-breaking perhaps, but how can you go wrong with the classics?


About two-thirds of the way through Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City, 1900-1922, an historian recounting the terrible atrocity in which hundreds of the city's Greek residents were forced into the waters of the harbor by the burning of the city and violence of the Turkish troops rampant there adds a vignette of Turkish boys swimming amongst the corpses, cutting off ears and fingers in order to steal jewelry. It is a chilling detail, but one that I found as I watched the film just one step too far from what had been, up to that point, a compelling and comprehensive documentary film about a tragedy about which I knew very little. The story may very well be true, but in a context that is fraught with controversy, claims and counter-claims among Greek sources, Turkish sources and many others, it feels like the infamous images of the Boche bayoneting Belgian babies, Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti babies to their deaths in order to steal incubators, and countless other manufactured atrocity stories. There is virtually no gainsaying the tragic truth of what happened to Smyrna, that the city, once a citadel of cosmopolitanism, was reduced to ashes by Turkish troops and its substantial Greek population killed or driven into exile. And Maria Iliou's documentary film recounts this story briskly, effectively and movingly. But this one detail seems to raises a warning flag for me, a warning flag that could easily disrupt the power of this otherwise admirable piece of filmmaking.

 Smyrna's harbor in happier times

Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive, with my natural sympathies being infiltrated by the cyncism that is bred by the antics of pernicious PR liars like Hill & Knowlton, who were responsible for the incubator story, in case you've forgotten. At any rate, I offer this cautionary tale as a caveat. Otherwise, Smyrna is an excellent example of how a filmmaker can recreate an historically significant moment through the judicious use of source materials, highly intelligent and engaging historians and period photos and footage. Thge story is a profoundly tragic one and, with that one little proviso, well told. The film is playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City.

Also playing at the Quad are a pair of Jewish-related films, one documentary, the other a rather fizzy but insubstantial comedy, which I reviewed in Jewish Week. The Revolutionary is well worth a look, Paris-Manhattan rather less so.

While we're on the subject of Jewish Week reviews, let me draw your attention to a new documentary by Marian Marzynski, the director of Shtetl. His new film, Never Forget to Lie, is having a sneak preview at the Museum of Jewish Heritage next Sunday and will be shown by PBS on Tuesday, April 30. It isn't as ambitious as the three-hour Shtetl, but much more personal and quite lovely.

And, as noted above, the Tribeca Festival opened this week. My first piece in Jewish Week on the event can be found here. I'll be blogging from the festival intermittently over the next couple of weeks. Each year the event gets a little bit better but the one thing that has been consistent in the time I've covered it is the graciousness with which the festival staff treats working journalists. It may mean nothing to my readers but, understandably, it matters to me. (Actually, it should matter to you; these nice people make it easier for us to see movies, which means I can tell you more about what's playing, etc.)


A few quick links to bring you up to date on events I mentioned at the outset.

My friend and colleague Ed Sikov has one of the best of the many appreciations of Roger Ebert right here.

Speaking of fellow Ira voters, we held our celebration of all things cinematic in Provincetown last month,and a good time was had by all, of course. As I have noted in earlier posts, we selected our 100 best films of the 1950s this year, in addition to the 2012 awards, and the results were certainly interesting. You can read all about it, thanks to Michael Giltz, with whom I share tabulating duties on the decade lists (he supplies the math genius, I contribute the mistakes). Michael has been good enough to post a veritable history of the Iras, well, all the winners anyway, on his own blog, Popsurfing. He also lists our 1950s choices in order of group preference.(Hey, it's not my '50s list, but it's pretty good.)

Speaking of my lists, at long last here's my 2012 list, based 88 new films seen (one of my slower years, admittedly).

The stark beauty of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the best film of 2012

  1.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – Nuri Bilge Ceylan
  2.  This Is Not a Film – Jafar Panahi and Mohjtab Mirtazeh
  3.  The Miners’ Hymns – Bill Morrison
  4.  The Kid with the Bike – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
  5.  Abendland – Nikolaus Geyrhalter
  6.  The Loneliest Planet – Julia Loktev
  7.  The Forgotten Space – Allen Sekula and Noel Bűrch
  8.  Habemus Papam – Nanni Moretti
  9.  Footnote – Joseph Cedar
 10. The Rabbi’s Cat – Joan Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux

Honorable Mention: Amour (Michael Haneke),  Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari), Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman), Bernie (Richard Linklater), The Deep Blue Sea (Terrence Davies), Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), Hitler’s Children (Chanoch Ze’evi)

Not a great year, perhaps but a year with some great films. I like to approach that question in the spirit of Marty Blake, the former NBA head of scouting who died a few weeks ago; when I was still a sportswriter and interviewing him in a year of a "weak" pro draft, he told me, "There are Hall of Famers in this year's draft; there always are. We just don't know who they are right now. Take another look in ten or fifteen years."