Friday, December 31, 2010
As regular readers know, I won't be ready to post a true ten-best list until something like March, when the Iras finally take place. But my editor at Jewish Week asked me for a year-end wrap-up for film, which is a first, and I obliged him with what I think is a pretty interesting overview.
I regret omitting a few items of interest from that piece. I should have mentioned Frederick Wiseman's graceful and surprisingly funny Boxing Gym, and I meant to add that the year's most important re-release was the new print of Shoah. (I had a truly bizarre interview with Claude Lanzmann, which can be read here.)
It was a year that ended with at least one piece of really terrible news, the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi. As many of you will know, Panahi was out on bail until last week when he was sentenced to six years imprisonment and a ban of 20 years on filmmaking and travel abroad. His crime is for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." For more information on Panahi and others with the courage to oppose the Ahmedinejad regime, I recommend several websites:
The Green Voice of Freedom: http://en.irangreenvoice.com/
Tehran Avenue: http://www.tehranavenue.com/
Reporters Without Frontiers -- Iran Page: http://en.rsf.org/iran-press-freedom-violations-recounted-31-12-2009,33433.html
Article 19 -- Global Campaign for Free Expression: http://www.article19.org/index.html
Index on Censorship: http://www.indexonline.org/
I will be updating the blogroll and other links, and will include these for future use.
Hoping your new year is cheerier than Panahi's.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
In this year’s New Literature from Europe, eight cultural institutes have teamed up to present a series of discussions and readings featuring eight critically acclaimed European writers: Philippe Claudel (France), Kirmen Uribe (Spain), Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Gerhard Roth (Austria), Radka Denemarková (Czech Republic), Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Gabriela Adameşteanu (Romania), and Antonia Arslan (Italy). Moderators will include distinguished writer André Aciman, chair of Comparative Literature and director of the Writers' Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center and Susan Bernofsky, Guest Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College (CUNY).
Well worth your time and interest.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Friday, October 15, 2010
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Mademoiselle Chambon, by Stéphane Brizé, is even better, a warm and intelligent drama about a 40-something husband who becomes involved with his son's grade-school teacher. Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain are charming as the mismatched couple, and Brizé handles the material with a minimum of melodrama so that the complexities of the emotions stand on their own. The result is quite a lovely and nuanced film and one that I hope will find a distributor pronto.Skip the latest Bruckheimer rubbish and Sex and the Shitty 2. Go see this instead.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Incidentally, for all you non-New Yorkers or New Yorkers with disturbingly short memories, the name of the Chevron attorney quoted at the end of the story should ring bells, alarm bells. Randy M. Mastro was Rudy Giuiliani's chief of staff and then his deputy mayor, and chair of the Charter Revision Commission. Draw your own conclusions.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Sorry. I thought you were a family member.
Joking aside, let me start by suggesting you catch Daddy Longlegs, of which I recently wrote this.
On a considerably more sober note, I'd like to draw your attention to the latest assault on documentary filmmakers by a genius on the federal courts. Or as the New York Times put it,
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of United States District Court in New York granted a petition by Chevron seeking a subpoena for more than 600 hours of footage shot by Mr. Berlinger for “Crude.” The film chronicles the Ecuadorians who sued Texaco (now owned by Chevron) saying that the operations at its oil field at Lago Agrio contaminated their water. Chevron has said that Mr. Berlinger’s footage could be helpful to the company as it seeks to have the litigation dismissed and pursues arbitration related to the lawsuit. (Full story is here.)
In other words, protections normally afforded to journalists under the First Amendment do not apply to documentarians functioning as journalists, and the "rights" of Chevron, notorious human-rights violators (see this, this and this)and environmental despoilers, take precedent. If you've ever seen The Corporation, the excellent Canadian documentary film directed by Mark Achbar and Jennfer Abbott, then you will understand the strange notion in Anglo-American law that a corporation is a "person" with the rights attendant thereto. (If you haven't, you can watch it at your computer here, if you don't mind sitting at the computer for three hours.)
At any rate, although Chevron are hardly the only corporation that makes its money by working closely with vicious dictators and destroyng rainforests, coastlines and the atmosphere, they are among the more egregious sinners. This court case sets a truly deadly precedent. I'll just refer you to some folks who can speak to the issue more eloquently than I, here, here and here.
And if you are a filmmaker, film journalist or just someone who has a concern for the truth, sign onto the letter in support of Joe Berlinger, buy a copy of Crude, and add Chevron to the list of companies whose products you wouldn't touch with surgical gloves and mask.
Friday, April 30, 2010
In what must be one of the most peculiar assertions ever made by a major philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead once told an interlocutor that his only problem with the Jews was their lack of humor. Lack of humor?! Must have been those Anglo-Jewish academics he hung out with.
It would be wrong to say that the Jews invented stand-up comedy, although the badkhn may well be the first stand-up (and a forerunner of rap, to boot), but surely we have contributed mightily to this particular mode of performance art, beginning in the 20th Century. One could list the Jewish stand-ups from vaudeville to the present as a unbroken line running from Weber and Fields through Jack Benny and Burns and Allen to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Robert Klein and so on.
Inevitably, such a list would include Joan Rivers, who is the subject of a new documentary that is having its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. As Kathy Griffin points out in the film, Rivers was one of a tiny handful of women who kicked down doors to get on stage and on screen and, with her conquest of the Tonight Show in the ‘60s, Rivers probably did more than any other to keep those doors open to women comics.
Of course, that is part of the story told by Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. But the focus of their film is more on Rivers as she is today, a 75-year-old woman fighting, biting and scratching to continue plying her trade. On stage, she is raucous, profane and frequently strident. Also brutally honest and very, very funny. Off-stage, Rivers is someone who lives to work, who seems utterly lost when not in motion, a person hiding and hugging a core of deep sadness and anger. As she admits herself, “If I wasn’t angry, I wouldn’t do comedy.”
Yet she repeatedly asserts to the filmmakers that she considers herself an actress, not a comic. “I play a comedienne,” she says defiantly. Over the course of the year in which the film was shot, we see her take that notion to its logical extreme, road-testing a play about her life at the Edinburgh Festival and in London. The mixed reviews in London scuttled the project, but you can feel Rivers’s intensity and commitment as both writer and star. She’s been doing this since 1966, over 40 years she proudly announces, and she isn’t going quietly. Then, she never has.
An ardent Zionist (the set of her play was festooned with Israeli flags), Rivers might not entirely recognize Ahmed Ahmed as one of her professional offspring. He’s an Egyptian-American comic and, now, a filmmaker whose first feature is a documentary Just Like Us, which chronicles a comedy tour of the Middle East he led about a year ago. He put together a multicultural roster of comedians, including both men and women from a bewildering array of ethnicities, for what would be the first comedy tour of the region and, in several of the countries included, a first-ever evening of stand-up comedy.
“Nobody has a concept of stand-up comedy in these countries,” he says early in the film. But all their cultures have humor in abundance.
And ground rules. Although surprisingly few topics prove to be out-of-bounds, especially in Beirut, where the rules are definitely not in play, for Dubai and Riyadh the performers are cautioned to “treat it like a Tonight Show setting.” That warning is observed for about fifteen minutes until Anglo-Iranian comic Omid Djalili responds to a shout of “Take it off” in Dubai with what appears to be ten solid minutes of jokes about male genitals.
The comics are for the most part quite good – Ahmed and Tommy Davidson make a particularly strong impression – but they seem as committed to the idea of using comedy to breakdown stereotypes and barriers as to working these houses for big laughs. In the course of the film, we see the first woman comic to play Dubai and the first Saudi woman comic, who appears briefly in the Riyadh sequence. The film ends with Ahmed and several other Arab and Muslim comics working a club in New York, where a different but no less powerful set of stereotypes need to be challenged. “Comedy provides a dialogue for social change,” Ahmed says bluntly.
Just Like Us is a pleasant and decidedly well-intentioned film, although it tries to do rather too many things at once, giving us a comedy concert documentary, social commentary, some lovely autobiographical passages and some amusing touristy stuff, particularly in the Cairo sequence. It is unfortunate that, for obvious reasons, Ahmed couldn’t include a Jewish comic on this trip and entirely logical that Israel wasn’t on the itinerary, since there is no shortage of stand-up comedy there, but a second excursion rectifying those omissions would be a great subject for another film.
Omid Djalili, who makes such a strong impression in the first half of Just Like Us is also represented at Tribeca by a comedy feature The Infidel. Written by David Baddiel and directed by Josh Appignanesi, this is a broad farce about Mahmood Nasir, a middle-aged Anglo-Pakistani Londoner (Djalili) whose life is thrown into complete chaos by two startling developments. His son’s fiancée has acquired a new stepfather, a stridently anti-western imam, who must give his blessing for the wedding to take place. And he has just learned from the papers left by his recently deceased mother that he was adopted and, to his utter bewilderment, was born a Jew named Solly Shimshillewitz. In his effort to sort out his own sense of identity and to satisfy the concerns of the rabbi who is caring for his previously unknown, now dying father, he needs someone to teach him about Judaism. His choice is a dyspeptic Jewish-American cabdriver, Lenny (Richard Schiff). Inevitably, things escalate from there.
The Infidel is frequently funny, occasionally silly and, surprisingly, relatively light on the soggy home truths and sentimentality. Djalili is a deft physical performer who brings real brio to the title role, but he also carries himself with a certain gravitas so that Mahmood/Solly never becomes a cliché. Even more important, he has a nice rapport with Schiff, whose own mixed motives and feelings give his character a bit more heft too.
With the presence of Djalili, Ahmed and the next generation of comics, the Jews no longer have a near-monopoly on stand-up (if they ever did, which is highly doubtful). Nor should they. I cannot imagine an American comedy pantheon that didn’t include Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney or George Carlin, to name only the most obvious stand-out stand-ups. I wouldn’t want to meet someone whose pantheon didn’t include them and a rainbow coalition of other funny women and men. At the risk of stating the obvious, as these films occasionally do, funny is funny, it doesn’t have a color or religion or gender or affectional preference. What it should do is speak truth, keeping in mind George Bernard Shaw’s excellent advice, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”
Then there’s the Russian mob. If Alexander Gentelev’s new Israeli documentary, Thieves by Law is to be believed, they’ll laugh while they kill you. This portrait of four gentlemen of leisure who are former (one hopes) gangsters spotlights the sort of fierce geniality that has been absent from the screen since Edward G. Robinson’s move into comic criminality in the late ‘30s, and from the printed page since Jimmy Breslin’s semi-retirement. However, this is definitely a gang that can shoot straight, when needs (or whims) dictate, and Gentelev has spent a considerable amount of his career covering them, which works to the film’s advantage. There is a certain cable-TV slickness to the film and its subjects are a bit too glib to be believed, but they are never dull. They might want to consider a second career in stand-up comedy.The Middle East provided some other memorable moments in this year's festival, few more memorable than the first hour of The White Meadows, written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof. Rasoulof's first feature, Iron Island, played New Directors a couple of years ago; it was a visually striking if somewhat stifling film about a group of poor people living on a beached oil tanker. His new film is a cunning reversal of that film's narrative topography, tracing the wanderings of a man who moves from island to island in a dream-like, often fog-enshrouded sea.
Rahmat (Younes Ghazali) rows from one salt-encrusted island to another in Lake Urmia, collecting people's tears with a couple of tiny, beautiful glass implements. His passages are mysterious, each of the islands is a strange community with customs that seem downright pagan, and the result is, for about 60 minutes haunting, reminiscent of the best of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov. The latter seems a particularly apposite parallel; both filmmakers are fascinated by seemingly pre-literate folklore-dominated social circles and both present an almost oneiric series of rites and rituals, deeply, inexplicably hermetic. Add to that the extraordinary setting of The White Meadows, a series of spectral landscapes composed of white-covered corrugations and crenellations, an eerie mix of ghostly and rocky, and you have a recipe for a work that tugs at some deeply buried, atavistic pre-memory.
The problem with the film is that, like most picaresque, the structure is more arbitrary than in other narratives and the filmmaker must find some other way to unify the work. Rasoulof has chosen to make the many episodes highly repetitive. For the first two-thirds of the film, that works splendidly, but much of the final half-hour feels exhausted, spent. Yet, when in the film's final scenes, we are transported to a palpably real modern world, with Rahmat riding a motor scooter to meet an old man in a wheelchair, the change is deeply unsatisfying. Still, The White Meadows is a fascinating exercise, and some of its images will stay with the viewer for long after the lights come up in the theater.
Concidentally, the editor of The White Meadows is Jafar Panahi who, as you probably know if you are a regular reader of this blog, is somewhere within the confines of Iran's infamous Evin Prison. The lastest development in his case is the creation of a petition by a raft of important American independent film directors and producers calling for his release. If you'd like to see the petition, you can find it here. I'm waiting for information on what else you can do in support of Panahi, but in the meantime, I recommend you go to Amnesty International's website to read a guide to writing letters in support of prisoners of conscience and drop a note to the Iranian authorities.
Monday, April 26, 2010
There has always been a fascinating tension in Jordan's work between a fairy-tale element in his storytelling and his choice of subject matter, and a flaky, perverse sexuality that underpins that tone. Ondine is one of the most likeable of his excursions into these intertwined realms. Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is a fisherman in a small Irish town, a recovering alcoholic with an ex-wife who still drinks and a precocious 11-year-old daughter, Annie (Allison Barry), whose kidney failure has left her in a wheelchair. At the beginning of the film, he is hauling in is nets after what looks like yet another day of failure when he sees that his catch includes a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda). Once revived, she seems to have total amnesia. Is she a selke, a Scottish sea-nymph? Annie is convinced and soon so is her father. On the other hand, mom's Scottish boyfriend (Tony Curran, in a charming but too-brief appearance) is skeptical; "So she swam from the Orkneys to be here," he gently needles Annie.
Jordan's fairy-tales have a way of colliding with the real world, which is where sexuality rears its familiar head in his films, and Ondine is no exception. Perhaps one should have expected as much, because this is one of the most sombre-looking fairy stories in film history. From the film's very first shot, images are shrouded in drab mists, overcast skies predominate and Jordan's palette consists mainly of gray-blue, blue-gray, gray and more gray. The lush green of the countryside is washed-out and interiors are either deeply shadowed or dully antiseptic.
This is the post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, and the casting of Farrell underlines the economic and emotional fall. Farrell projects a deep melancholy even in his most energetic roles and here he is a surprisingly passive figure, buffeted by forces beyond his control or comprehension. Syracuse is a committed twelve-stepper -- he goes to confession because "this town is too small to have an AA chapter" -- and he has definitely surrendered himself to a higher power. It's a sweet performance, detailed and finely worked, and his interactions with Stephen Rea as the local priest and the women in his life are among the highlights of the film. Jordan is happy to sit back and let the energies of those interactions carry the film rhythmically, and the result is a charming work with surprising emotional heft.
An aside: Ondine would make a fascinating double-bill with John Boorman's unreleased A Tiger's Tale, a more explicit reflection on the Irish economic collapse. Both films are visually and emotionally dark folktales in which the sea plays a major part. In a sense, the Boorman is an urban counterpart to Jordan's more rural tale, and between them they capture the tensions underpinning Ireland's difficult transition from countryside to city. Besides, the pairing of the two films would be a tacit reunion of Farrell with Brendan Gleeson, echoing their wonderful double act from In Bruges.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
And, of course, the Tribeca Film Festival is right around the corner. I will have a lot to say about that both here and in Jewish Week.
In the meantime, let me pull your coat to a couple of films that I mentioned recently. Everyone Else is an impressive second feature by German filmmaker Maren Ade. It's a leisurely drama with a lot of wit, focusing on a couple who are vacationing in the sun and pondering the future of their relationship. Although they seem perfectly happy with one another and with their lives and careers back home, the seams and cracks begin to show when they compare themselves to the people around them. Ade gives this an agreeably meandering pace that seems to reflect not only the aimlessness of a vacation but also the diffuseness of her protagonists' lives. It's an intelligent and deeply likeable film, not a quality one sees enough of these days.
Beyond the Burly Q, which opens here on April 23, is also a film that meanders quite a bit. In fact, Leslie Zemeckis's documentary feature about the golden age of burlesque has only the loosest of structures. But the material and the interview subjects -- a veritable who's who of the grande dames of the burlesque stage, as well as family members -- are so delightful and the subject so engaging that it almost doesn't matter. For sheer fun, this is a winner, although I wish it had been tighter and better organized.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
I'll have more pleasant things to say about some other new films shortly. But without pre-empting my longer analysis, allow me to enthusiastically recommend Maren Ade's Everyone Else, currently at the IFC Center in New York; It Came from Kuchar, Jennifer M. Kroot's very amusing documentary portrait of George and Mike, the Brothers Kuchar, at Anthology Film Archives; and Behind the Burly Q, Leslie Zemeckis's baggy but entertaining paean to the lost art of burlesque. I saw all three in a single, very happy day. If all my days were like that one I'd be grinning like an idiot all the time. (Don't say it. Just don't say it.)
Monday, April 05, 2010
If you see any.
I merely offer that observation as a reminder that the wheels of justice grind very slowly in the international arena, but constant pressure and attention do produce results more often than not.
All this is by way of introducing the latest information on the status of Jafar Panahi, who has been imprisoned by the Iranian government for more than a month. According to an update on the New York Times website, Panahi is beginning to show signs of ill-health, having been moved to a very small cell and denied any exercise.
For more information on the situation in Iran, among other places you can check out this site.
Thursday, April 01, 2010
I'll try and get to New Directors/New Films in the next day or so. Watch this space.
Monday, March 22, 2010
And with it comes the joyous news that my first book, co-written with my friend and colleague Charles Salzberg, is back in print after an absence of 17 years. On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place: Baseball's Worst Teams is, if I say so myself, a masterpiece. And now that the health-care bill has passed, you can read the book without fear of laughing yourself sick.
If you are looking to buy a copy, you can find it here or here.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
I've been spending most of my time at screenings of of the programs for New Directors/New Films and I can honestly say, without dropping any state secrets, that there are some excellent films therein, coming from young directors. I'll provide more details next week when the event kicks off.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Oh, yeah, we voted our own film awards and, if I say so myself, we acquitted ourselves with more grace, wit and intelligence than many of our colleagues and the various industry groups. If you want to read a more thorough recounting (literally), check out Michael Giltz's blog, Popsurfing. (There's a link to your left.)
However, here are my the final results in all the categories, with my own first-place choice in parentheses:
Best Picture: Hunger (Still Walking)
Best Director: Olivier Assayas -- Summer Hours (Hirokazu Kore-Eda -- Still Walking)
Best Actor: Sharlto Copley -- District 9 (Issei Ogata -- The Sun)
Best Actress: Catalina Saavedra -- The Maid (Penelope Cruz -- Broken Embraces)
Best Supporting Actor: Liam Cunningham -- Hunger (Cunningham)
Best Supporting Actress: Anna Faris -- Observe and Report (Edith Scob -- Summer Hours)
Best Screenplay: Olivier Assayas -- Summer Hours (Hirokazu Kore-Eda -- Still Walking)
Best Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt -- Hunger (Raoul Coutard -- Made in USA)
Best Production Design: Philip Ivey -- District 9 (Yelena Zhukova -- The Sun)
Best Music: Marvin Hamlisch -- The Informant! (Alberto Iglesias -- Broken Embraces)
Best Costumes: Janet Patterson -- Bright Star (Hope Hanafin -- (500) Days of Summer)
And here, at long last, is my ten-best list for 2009 (based on 76 films viewed -- my worst total since 2000m, unfortunately, but it was that kind of a year for us):
1. Still Walking – Hirokazu Kore-Eda
2. Summer Hours – Olivier Assayas
3. 35 Shots of Rum – Claire Denis4. Hunger – Steve McQueen
5. (500) Days of Summer – Marc Webb
6. The Sun – Alexander Sokurov
7. La Silence du Lorna – Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne
8. Broken Embraces – Pedro Almodovar
9. The Beaches of Agnes – Agnes Varda
10. The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow
Honorable Mention: Police, Adjective, Duplicity, Katyn, The Cove, Empty Nest, Fados, Laila’s Birthday, Shall We Kiss?, In a Dream, Unmistaken Child, Made in USA.
1. The Son – Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
2. Colossal Youth – Pedro Costa
3. “The Heart of the World” – Guy Maddin
4. 2046 – Wong Kar-Wai
5. Goodbye Dragon Inn – Tsai Ming-Liang
6. Untold Scandal -- Je-Yong Lee
7. Notre Musique – Jean-Luc Godard
8. Syndromes and a Century – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
9. My Father, My Lord – David Volach
10. I’m Going Home – Manoel de Oliveira
This was a remarkable decade and getting this list down to a mere ten was downright painful. If you look at how our voting went, you'll get some sense of the great films I was forced to leave off my own list.
1. The Son
2. Zodiac -- David Fincher
3. Yi Yi -- Edward Yang
4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford -- Andrew Dominik
5. Edge of Heaven -- Fatih Akin
In the Mood for Love -- Wong Kar-Wai
7. "The Heart of the World"
8. Mysterious Skin -- Gregg Araki
Bus 174 -- Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda
10. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu -- Cristi Puiu
Head-On -- Fatih Akin
Spirited Away -- Hayao Miyazaki
13. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days -- Cristian Mungiu
The Dreamers -- Bernardo Bertolucci
House of Sand and Fog -- Vadim Perlman
These are exciting lists. All of the filmmakers listed are, with the exceptions of Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci and Manoel de Oliveira, are young filmmakers or mature filmmakers at the peak of their powers. The lists suggest some of the geo-economic shifts in the film world, with east Asian filmmakers, directors from Romania and the Middle East giving a massive transfusion of fresh talent to the art form. The most glaring omissions are the lack of women directors (although several of them turned up on individual best-of-decade lists) and Latin Americans (with the exception of Bus 174).
Things are definitely looking up. Or as the newspaperman in Hawks's The Thing should have said, "Watch the screens! Keep watching the movie screens!"
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