Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Quick Head's-Up

Thought that if you are reading this blog, you'll enjoy my tribute to Theodore Bikel for Jewish Week.
Bikel's acting career is a perfect antidote to the Method actors who were dominating the screen at the same time. Watching Brando is like watching a workshop -- you can't wait to find out which interpretation of the role he'll finally decide to offer; naturalistic actors like Bikel just decide who the character is and live it.

Back with some actual film reviews shortly!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Bit of Film History and a Bargain

Thanks to Fandor's daily news flash, which I recommend unequivocally, I learned a few minutes ago of a terrific DVD package that readers of this blog will want to grab quickly. As many of you may recall, a few years ago the New Zealand Film Archive discovered a print of the long-lost 1927 John Ford feature Upstream. Given the small percentage of Ford's silent films that have survived, the rescue of any of them is noteworthy and I, for one, was ecstatic. Ecstasy is often blunted by the concerns of day-to-day living -- not to be too ponderous about it (okay, it's too late) -- and I promptly forgot the whole thing until I saw an item on the Fandor site announcing the availability of a DVD, American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive. The entire package retails for only $25 (and can be had cheaper on Amazon, if you don't have any moral qualms about Jeff Bezos and Co.) or you can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Fund and get it free. At any rate, there's more info here and the NFPF site is well worth a look itself.

Friday, July 17, 2015

If It's Sunday, Bring an Umbrella

I'm starting to prepare for my fall class at JASA, which will be a collection of a dozen underrated British films ranging from Picadilly (1929) to Raining Stones (1993). Consequently, I've been looking at the twelve films I chose and getting a vivid reminder that, Francois Truffaut notwithstanding, there are great British films, albeit not as many as one would wish. Somehow with the Ashes being contested right now (and England getting well and truly waxed by the Aussies at Lord's this week), it seems appropriate to have just seen Robert Hamer's splendid 1947 noir It Always Rains on Sunday.

Tommy and Rose in Happier Days

Like most films noirs, it's a bleak number in which nobody gets what they want and everyone gets what's coming to them. Although the central plot is almost ridiculously straightforward -- Tommy Swan (John McCallum) breaks out of prison and heads for London's Jewish-dominated East End, home of his old girlfriend Rose (Googie Withers) -- but this is an ensemble piece in which Hamer moves deftly and gracefully among a half-dozen storylines and twice as many significant characters. In a sense, It Always Rains is really a film about a soon-to-disappear neighborhood, Bethnal Green when it echoed to the sound of Yiddish and the streets were filled with peddlers, a working-class neighborhood reminiscent of New York's Lower East Side. (Like the Lower East Side, the East End merely exchanged one striving ethnic group for another with the Latino population moving onto the bottom rungs of the Manhattan socioeconomic ladder and the South Asian and West Indian poor as their London counterparts.)

Urban Claustrophobia in the Rain

One might not think of Ealing as a studio for film noir, but the mix of eccentric locals and salt-of-the-earth working poor is as typical of the studio as any of their comedies, which usually boast the same blend. When you note that the screenwriters include Hamer (whose next film would be Kind Hearts and Coronets), Henry Cornelius (Genevieve) and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail (who also worked on Ealing vehicles for comics Will Hay and Tommy Trinder), then the frequently playful tone makes more sense. MacPhail, in particular, was a favorite of Ealing honcho Michael Balcon (perhaps not coincidentally, himself a Jew), and Ealing has always felt to me like a family operation writ large, sort of a super-sized version of a John Ford set with everyone falling easily into familiar and familial roles.

It certainly worked that way for McCallum and Withers, who married after the film was completed and remained happily hitched until his death in 2010 at 91. There is an unmistakable chemistry between them, edgy, even a little barbed, but utterly sexual, and it gives the film almost as much drive as Hamer's liquid direction.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

And another good guy bites the dust . . . .

RIP Sergio Sollima, director of such hard nuggets of politically driven action cinema as The Big Gundown, Face to Face and Violent City. At 94, he was one of the very last of the Italian filmmakers who gave us the westerns of the '60s and the crime films of the '70s. These guys were the product of a society that was much more fragmented and polarized politically than the U.S. in the same period. (You're probably thinking "more fragmented than the U.S during Vietnam?" Compared the Red Brigades and their train-station-bombing fascist counterparts, yes.) That reality was reflected in the films they made. Italy in the period was like a 

 Who you callin' ugly, chump?
gigantic version of the Warner Brothers backlot during the Depression, recycling and reinventing popular genres (mostly American) with ferocious abandon. Although Leone rightly got most of the attention, it was the second-tier guys like Sollima, Corbucci, Lizzani, DiLeo, who made the wheels turn, and they were anything but untalented.That said, there's an excellent appreciation of his life and career at IndieWire, written by Dennis Cozzalio.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Iran's Ongoing War on Its Filmmakers . . . .

I have written in this space many times about film people who are prisoners of conscience around the world, but it seems as if an inordinate number of these cases take place in Iran. Perhaps that is merely one more tribute to one of the world's most creative film industries. Reminds me of the story Mark Twain tells about an editor friend who, when asked about an incident in which he was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, replied: "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I'd have just as soon walked."

The latest bludgeoning of freedom of expression in the Iranian film community is the sentencing of writer-producer Mostafa Azizi. Azizi is currently in Evin Prison, having been handed an eight-year sentence for "insulting the Supreme Leader," among other charges. For more information and a guide to writing to push for his release, go here.

Get this man out of prison!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Bit of a Let-Down from Eran Riklis

Among the prominent Israeli directors to have emerged in the past two decades, Eran Riklis is perhaps the one with the most uneven output. His best work -- The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree certainly come to mind -- is quite good indeed. He made a string of disappointing films after Cup Final, his first success, but lately he has been turning more predictably interesting films, laced with a warmth and humanity that reminds me often of Leo McCarey.

So his latest, A Borrowed Identity, which opened theatrically today, really is unfortunate. It's not terrible, but it feels rather studied. When it played the Israel Film Center Festival this spring I wrote this:

Eran Riklis opens the event with the New York premiere of  A Borrowed Identity, scripted by popular Israeli Arab novelist Sayed Kashua from the writer’s novel Dancing Arabs. . . . A Borrowed Identity, like its literary source, is a bildungsroman that traces the youth of a young Israeli Arab, Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) as he picks his way through the minefield of ethnic identity and Jewish-Arab conflict. Although there are moments of levity, Borrowed is essentially the latest installment the director’s ongoing search for the human side of the crisis. As in his best films. . . Riklis is trying to find the some reason for optimism but the material stubbornly refuses to provide one. Instead, it is his own dogged commitment to a cinematic humanism that is the most hopeful element in the film. 

Better than the Material:
Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) and Edna (Yael Abecassis)

Although A Borrowed Identity pivots on the literal event invoked in its title, the name of the film also serves as a reminder of the uniquely ambiguous status of the Israeli Arabs. Eyad encounters the expected racism in the larger society, but finds allies among his classmates at the elite arts school he attends in Jerusalem. He also becomes involved with someone even worse off than he, Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), whose muscular dystrophy has already put him in a wheelchair. The problem with “A Borrowed Identity” is that, despite some nice very acting, the film is sluggishly paced and too often feels like a rather obvious version of a ‘50s problem picture. And yet, against all odds, the final fifteen minutes is genuinely moving, as Riklis’s complex language of camera movement pays emotional dividends.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Listen to the Silent(s)

Now here is a film series that looks like a lot of fun and adds titles to the general mix that could include some potential rediscoveries. The Czech Center is offering a "Rooftop Cine-Concert Series" Tuesday evenings this summer that will include a nice selection of Czech and American films from the late silent period, one pre-code classic (Sternberg's Blonde Venus, a typically delirious Dietrich vehicle) and one 1937 ham-and-egger, Sam Wood's Madame X  (which makes the cut because it includes uncredited work from Gustav Machaty). All the silents will feature live musical accompaniment, the most exciting of which, to my mind, are the presence of jazz great Henry Grimes playing for A Woman of Affairs (Clarence Brown), Jiří Bárta playing cello at An Old Gangster's Molls, a 1927 Czech film directed by the euphoniously named Svatopluk Innemann, and Ben Model accompanying Machaty's Erotikon. The combination of silent films with live music and the presence of several Czech films that are virtually unseen in the U.S. makes this one a keeper. Add a little summer moonlight, dance music before the film and is sounds like a very pleasant evening in New York.

Karel Schleichert and Ita Rina get ready to drink the Kool-Aid in Erotikon

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sir Christopher Lee, R.I.P.

It gives me real sadness to say that Christopher Lee died this week at 93. Although the obits will talk about the Rings trilogy and the gravitas he lent to the deplorable Star Wars prequels, I prefer to think of him for much of his work for Hammer Films, which he frankly disdained. I can understand his impatience with the subject -- for a long time it was the only thing he was ever asked about -- but some of the Terence Fisher films, particularly the early Draculas and most of all The Devil Rides Out, are really splendid and he is superb in them.

We were very, very amused:
Victoria Regina (Mollie Maureen), Mycroft and Sherlock (Christopher Lee and Robert Stephens)
in Wilder's masterpiece, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

I actually met Lee once at a press conference after a screening of the Bond farago, The Man With Golden Gun. I asked him about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, of course the best film of his career and he brings a great deal to it, and he lit up like the Blackpool Illuminations. He clearly was sick of hearing about the Hammer films and bored with the Bond tour and, as he said to me, working with Wilder was one of the great thrills of his career.

At any rate, if what some believe is true, I'm sure Peter Cushing is working on a bang-up welcome for his old friend. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Redt Yiddish!

That means "Speak Yiddish!" for all you foreigners. 

The National Yiddish Theater -- Folksbiene is sponsoring a dizzying event celebrating Yiddish culture in all its multifarious forms in New York City June 14-21, and I have stories on both the musical offerings (and here) and the some of the film programs in this week's Jewish Week. Called Kulturfest, the week-long program includes some tantalizing cinematic offerings. In addition the ones I mentioned in my brief story, I would also draw your attention to the screenings of Emmanuel Finkiel's Voyages, a lovely film about French-Yiddish culture which played theatrically in NYC, and two films by the wonderfully polymathic Yale Strom, who is something of a kulturfest himself. I am particularly fond of his 2002 documentary L'chayim Comrade Stalin, a recollection of the bizarre events surrounding Stalin's decision to establish a republic for the Jews in the middle of nowhere, the only "nation" in history whose official language was Yiddish.

Guess who! A Yiddishist he wasn't.

Overall, Kulturfest is a groaning table of delights, laden with music, theater and cinema. The schedule is too complicated for me to even begin to enumerate, so I direct you to the website for the event. And hope that this will become an annual shindig.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Despair and Conflict

It's that time of year, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is up again at Lincoln Center starting June 11, bringing with it tales of tragedy and, occasionally, triumph. It's the only film festival I know that the better the films are, the worse you feel afterwards. As always there's a full slate, mostly documentaries ,although these days that can mean a wide range of kinds of non-fiction film. Indeed, my Jewish Week piece on the two Middle Eastern-set films are pretty indicative of how much the meaning of "documentary" has expanded. You can read about those films here, and can find out more about the entire festival here


Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Smack the Pony

One of the better new movies of 2015 opened this past weekend, the Safdie brothers' Heaven Knows What. It is an impressive follow-up to Daddy Longlegs (AKA Go Get Some Rosemary), a film that moves them well out of the mumblecore orbit into a darker neo-realist strain. When it played last year's New York Film Festival, I wrote this in Jewish Week:

Josh and Benny Safdie have been the center of a collective of talented young filmmakers based here in New York, and their own highly variegated work has been a prominent part of the output. They dabbled in documentary most recently, but their last fiction feature, Daddy Longlegs, was memorably intense, working its way from a light-hearted family saga to something much darker and troubling. Needless to say, they should be on the radar of anyone interested in contemporary film. And with their new film Heaven Knows What they have made a great leap forward.

Heaven Knows What is a harrowing trip through a brief period in the life of a homeless junkie, played with astonishing nuance by writer Arielle Holmes. Holmes is not an actress, but the film is based on her memoir and she clearly has achieved the necessary distance to remember and recreate the hellish life she has left behind. Not, perhaps, recalled in tranquility, but certainly recalled in vivid detail. 

More than one way to get clean: Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What

Harley (Holmes) is madly, damningly in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a fellow addict who is only interested in his next fix. When she offers to commit suicide to prove her love, he encourages her to make good on the threat. She survives and is soon back on the streets, hanging with a motley gang of drug fiends, drunks and losers, led by dealer-user Mike (Buddy Duress, apparently a legendary street character himself). Then it’s the agonizingly repetitive life of getting high, searching for the next fix, getting high again and on and on. 

The Safdies make this material profoundly compelling. Using a visual style that echoes the quasi-neo-realist drug movies of the early ‘70s (think Panic in Needle Park but with even less gloss), but without recourse to hand-held camera, relying instead on long lenses and static set-ups that give the film a distanced, occasionally hallucinatory look, they find a striking balance that eschews both voyeurism and preaching. There are a few moments of dark humor, as in the scene in which an oddly supportive Hasid offers Harley money so that she can stay high; she replies quizzically, “I’m not Jewish or anything.”

But mostly this is a bleak world in which a recurring scene of Harley and Ilya embracing in extreme close-up is so ambiguous that one cannot tell whether they are making love or trying to strangle one another. Such is the chilling reality that the film captures so adroitly.

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...