Thursday, June 29, 2017

On a More Upbeat Note . . .

As you probably know, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is rapidly adding new voters in an admirable effort to address the insane gender, racial and ethnic bias of its membership rolls. I haven't heard or seen any blowback from the blowhards (I don't actively seek out the opinions of the likes of Fox News or others of their, uh, ilk) but this strikes me as an entirely positive change.

Welcome to the Academy: A Jonas Mekas selfie from Pinterest


And it has had a nice little side-effect in that the Academy has invited several seemingly unlikely filmmakers to join. From a posting on the Frameworks list (for experimental film), here are some of the proposed new members: Jonas Mekas, Penny Lane, Pedro Costa, Arturo Ripstein, Lav Diaz, Alejandro Jodorowsky and
Idrissa Ouedraogo. I was particularly pleased to see Mekas's name for obvious reasons, his championing of independent filmmakers and his own pivotal work. (Of course, it also boosts the representation of the all-important Lithuanian nonagenarian demographic!)




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Losses

A couple of recent deaths came to my attention yesterday and I wanted to briefly pay tribute to the folks in question.

I first met Roger Greenspun when I was a graduate student in the film program at Columbia, By that point he had been removed as the second-chair film critic at the New York Times, allegedly a victim of Abe Rosenthal's contempt for cinema. His primary crime, apparently, was taking the likes of Robert Bresson and Clint Eastwood seriously. (That was hardly the most significant of Rosenthal's loathesome activities as the newspaper's managing editor but the one that had the most direct impact on my circle of friends and colleagues.) Roger was an occasional contributor the The Thousand Eyes, if memory serves, of which I was managing editor, and we spoke from time to time. He was immensely generous and helpful to a struggling newcomer. Indeed, he gave me the single best piece of career advice I ever received, one which I have passed along frequently: "Write as often as your editors will let you, as long as they'll let you." In the days before the Internet, that was doubly true. He was candid and quietly wittyin our conversations; it has been several years since I saw him sitting on the aisle halfway up the incline at the Walter Reade Theatre and I missed him. Needless to say, I will miss him even more now.




Detroit has produced many great jazz musicians -- the Joneses, Elvin, Hank and Thad, come to mind immediately -- but in recent years few have shone more brightly than the mercurial pianist Geri Allen, who died Tuesday at 60. Besides being a brilliant improviser and composer, she was also an important educator, director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. For a small sample of her work, check out this YouTube clip from a recital at the Guggenheim Museum.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Don't Let This Slip Through the Cracks

One hesitates to talk about any film being Albert Maysles's last. The protean non-fiction filmmaker left behind a team of collaborators and many projects in various states of completion. But if the New York Times can call the marvelous 2015 film In Transit his final completed work, I won't argue. My only real concern is that at a modest 76 minutes this gentle, thoughtful film won't find an audience competing against the likes of Sofia Coppola and Michael Bay. Add to that the fact that it is only playing once a day at the Maysles Harlem-based documentary theater and there is a real danger of it disappearing without finding the audience it deserves.

In Transit, directed by Maysles along with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu, is brisk yet expansive.  Maysles and his co-directors follow the Empire Builder, American’s busiest long-distance train route as it goes between Chicago, Portland, OR, and Seattle and vice versa. 
 
This part of the Northern Plains States is being transformed by the oil boom in the Dakotas and the impact of that economic upturn is one of the central realities of the film. A pleasant 21-year-old says “I figure seven years in the oilfield I’ll be set for life.” The oil workers seem, on the whole, a likable if bibulous bunch and they blend in nicely with the train’s fascinating mix of working-class commuters, kids on college break and people seeking something more. There is a perky young woman, very pregnant and causing some worry for the train crew, who is heading home to Minneapolis, with the baby four days overdue, an older woman who has just been reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption nearly a half-century earlier, a church elder who knew Martin Luther King, who has a wonderfully calm and earnest talk with a troubled younger man, telling him, “You’re having this conversation on a train with somebody . . . so that you can have a conversation, perhaps on a train, with someone else who needs to talk.”




"Someone who needs to talk. . . . " A quiet moment from In Transit


Superficially, with its intercutting of the bleak but beautiful winterscape of the Great Plains and the gentle procession of day-into-night-into-day, the film looks like a cousin of one of Frederick Wiseman’s epic examinations of democratic institutions. But Wiseman takes a long view, placing his subjects in an expansive chronological framework even in his films that are set over a single day, giving his attention to the big-picture interaction of these people in a larger sociopolitical context. By contrast, Maysles and his collaborators are actually distilling the essence of the passing of time, focusing on intimate moments between strangers in a celebration of our mutual humanity. Wiseman and the Maysles brothers have always been two sides of the cinema-verité coin, complementing one another in their presentation of the richness of contemporary human experience. 

At a time when the people with their hands on the tools of power in America are apparently deadset on besmirching the nation's history and humanity in ways one would have thought impossible, In Transit performs a task whose value is incalculable. It reminds us of the basic decency of people, their hopes and dreams. Needless to say, that is something that all the Trumps and Ryans and McConnells can't squelch, despite their determination to do so.

Monday, June 19, 2017

New Filmmakers NY program at Anthology This Wednesday

Just wanted to pull your coat to a promising evening of new films that run an interesting spectrum from documentary on the failure of NY's Off-Track Betting Corp. to some X-rated erotica. (Okay, maybe that isn't as wide a spectrum as I thought). New Filmmakers New York has been offering evenings of such work at AFA for many years now, and they are always rewarding as a showcase for the next-gen creators of moving-image art, if you'll pardon the jargon.

At any rate, here's the details, courtesy of the organization's website/newsletter:



NewFilmmakers

Wednesday / June 21st 

ALL SCREENINGS AT
ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES
SECOND AVE & 2ND STREET
Passes for Whole Evening only $7



6:00PM NEWFILMMAKERS DOCUMENTARY PROGRAM

Joseph Fusco FINISH LINE: THE RISE AND FALL OF OFF-TRACK BETTING
Finish Line: The Rise and Demise of Off-Track Betting' is the only documentary film to tell the story of the defunct OTB system in New York, and show why it closed, who benefited politically, and how the taxpayer ultimately paid the price for its demise.

7:15PM NEWFILMMAKERS
SHORT FILM PROGRAM


Aymeric Nicolet WILD
Michael Thomas KYLE
Steve Hally TWISTED SOBRIETY
Brandon Salerno HALF EMPTY

8:30PM NEWFILMMAKERS
FEATURE PRESENTATION


Steve Silver THE WATCHTOWER
A story of love and survival in New York City's notorious Hell's Kitchen as declining West side Irish and Italian gangs compete for their bloody share of the action.


9:45PM ALTFEST
LATE NIGHT EROTIC PROGRAM


Urvashi DAYBREAK
Jesse James and Lilith Luxe BIRTH






Saturday, June 17, 2017

News Roundup

A couple of totally unrelated news items worth sharing on this rainy (in NYC, anyway) Saturday afternoon. (I could have been watching Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood, but instead I'm taking the time to pass along these tidbits.)

Sub-Saharan Africa may be the most neglected group of film industries on the planet. That is why I take great pleasure in passing along this release from the Film Foundation and others:

THE FILM FOUNDATION’S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, UNESCO, AND THE PAN AFRICAN FEDERATION OF FILMMAKERS (FEPACI) SIGN AGREEMENT TO RESTORE AFRICAN FILMS


NEW YORK, NY (June 12, 2017) – Martin Scorsese, founder and chair of The Film Foundation, Irina Bokova, the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Aboubakar Sanogo, the North American Regional Secretary of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) joined together Wednesday, June 7 to sign a letter of agreement formalizing their partnership on the African Film Heritage Project, a new initiative to preserve African cinema.

“I’m proud to be partnering with FEPACI and UNESCO on this critically important project,” said Martin Scorsese, “and I’m excited to have already restored the first film of the program. I believe that cinema is the perfect way to open up one’s mind and curiosity and share different cultures with people around the world. Working together, we can help ensure that Africa’s richly diverse cinematic heritage will be preserved, restored, and made available.”



In the context of UNESCO’s International Coalition of Artists for the General History of Africa, and working in association with their partner and FIAF member archive Cineteca di Bologna, the project will locate and restore an initial selection of 50 African films, identified by FEPACI’s advisory board of African archivists, scholars and filmmakers. Initially launched in February at the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the alliance has completed its first restoration: SOLEIL O (1969), directed by Med Hondo, considered to be one of the founding fathers of African cinema. The restoration premiered recently at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.




L-R: Mahen Bonetti (Founder and Executive Director, African Film Festival Inc.), Aboubakar Sanogo (North America Regional Secretary, FEPACI), Martin Scorsese (Founder and Chair of The Film Foundation), Irina Bokova (Director-General, UNESCO), Yemane Demissie (Associate Professor, New York University)
Photo credit: Dave Alloca/ Starpix
Courtesy of The Film Foundation


An extensive survey to locate the best existing film elements for each of the 50 films will be conducted in African Cinémathèques and archives around the world. Following restoration, these films will be distributed worldwide at festivals, museums, universities and other venues and made available via digital platforms and other formats. 

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Much closer to home, the excellent avant-garde documentarian Lynne Sachs has an interesting program in collaboration/conjunction with fellow filmmaker Mark Street on view on Saturday, June 26 at the Microscope Gallery (1329 Willoughby Avenue, #2B, Brooklyn). She can explain it better than I can:

Link to Microscope Gallery:
Link to Advance Tickets:


Both of us have been making experimental films for more than three decades.  We've been together as a couple for almost that long.  So it is with curiosity and a tremor of fear that we embark on an unusual filmmaking project that involves each of us remaking a few selected short films from the other's body of work.   The remake production process will start with picking up the camera and reacting to the other person's selected films with a combination of humor, insight, irony, pathos and perhaps critique.


We will screen some of our older short films along with new remakes of those films (not shot-by-shot, but using the original film as inspiration).  Lynne may pick up on an element of Mark's film that he didn't even know was there! Mark may choose to ignore the content of one of Lynne's films in favor of a formal excavation. This will be an evening of doppelgangers, updates and sly renovations. The films will be shown in tag team fashion: a clip from Lynne's completed 2001 film leads into Mark's 2017 remake; Mark's completed 2015 film is followed by Lynne's 2017 remake and so on.


We will close out the program with a short film we made together as the XY Chromosome Project, the collaborative project we created in 2001.  After the screening, we will invite a conversation about form, context, time, gender and more --  contemplating the frisson that emerges between an older work and its newer progeny.


From Boom to Bus (er, Limo)



This is the sort of juxtaposition that film critics gag for. On the one hand, we have Il Boom, apreviously unreleased satirical comedy from 1963, directed by Vittorio de Sica from a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, the pairing that created such pillars of neo-realism as Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine. On the other, The Journey, a new filmabout the negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace,more or less, to Northern Ireland, with Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, respectively. (Also at the IFC Center.) A half-century old film whose themes of greed and the fecklessness of the rising bourgeoisie are more timely now than they were when the film was made, and a period drama made topical by the outcome of last week’s UK elections that seem to be dragging the Democratic Unionist Party into a hard-right coalition with the Tories. 

And three male lead performances that demand audience attention, even if neither film is an unalloyed joy. 

I tell you, the job doesn’t get much easier than this: black (-and-white) to the future and a glossy heritage production that is newly relevant. 

I don’t even feel the urge to resist the obvious because it’s also a totally logical pairing of films and themes and, in a screwball way, the complement one another.

De Sica and Zavattini were always men of the left, albeit a soft, humanist left that placed little faith in institutions or solutions. At the heart of their best films of the 1940s, there is a powerful intersection of family melodrama and liberal politics, groping towards some sort of class analysis but always caught out short by an overwhelming sense of despair. The motor that drives those films is their full-blooded embrace of the neo-realist ethos, a wholehearted commitment to working with non-actors, locations shooting with available light and the immediacy that comes from placing untried performers in situatins that are pretty close to their own daily reality. They are happy to embrace the downward spiral of their narratives and as a result, their films are genuinely “male weepies” as someone (I believe it was Raymond Durgnat) called the films.


 An eye for a guy (Alberto Sordi)?


And they are overwhelmingly male-centered. Think of how quickly the female characters in Bicycle Thieves disappear from the narrative. Like most of the films that come before and after it, the film is about incompetent fathers, literal and figurative, and the weaknesses of masculine institutions like the Church, the police, the Communist Party. 

Alberto Sordi, who stars in Il Boom, is made to order for this universe. Sordi is a paradigmatic tottering tower of male insecurities. From his early work with Fellini in The White Sheik and I Vitelloni, through his brilliant turns in Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso and Nanni Loy’s Why?, Sordi is the embodiment of the preening but ineffectual male, a twitchy, neurotic Babbit who swings between overweening, blustering pride and self-abasing confession in the face of failure. There is something weirdly Nixonian about him with his rapid mood swings, near-teariness and five o’clock shadow.

The feminine principle (Gianna Maria Canale)

Sordi’s ingenious performance in Il Boom is ample reason to see the film. He is virtually never off-screen, and his unerring drive towards self-immolation is darkly funny, a sort of chaotic, perverse inversion of Harold Lloyd, all forward motion, much of it pointless, all of it self-defeating and destined for disaster.

In Il Boom, Sordi plays the sort of go-getter (or, more accurately, a go-not-getter) who infests the seamier precincts of the Italian “economic miracle.” His is a sort of quasi-corporate middleman, vaguely corrupt and always in debt, perpetually one deal away from wealth or catastrophe. Picture Sammy Glick played by Peter Sellers and you have some sense of the character. From the film’s outset he is so deep in debt that he faces losing everything, including his wealthy wife (Gianna Maria Canale). Desperately he turns to friends and colleagues looking for loans but he has built such a secure façade of success that no one believes he’s serious. Finally, he throws himself on the (non-existent) mercies of a textiles tycoon and his manipulative gorgon of a wife; they are prepared to make him a deal, swapping a large sum of cash for . . . one of his eyes. 

It’s the sort of metaphor-made-horribly-real that Bertolt Brecht loved, and de Sica and Zavattini happily play it for a sort of black farce. The problem is that once this premise is finally brought to the fore, about halfway through the film’s brisk 88-minute running time, there really isn’t anywhere else for it to go. There are some particularly inventive moments of Kafkaesque wit in the hospital towards the end of the film, culminating in a doomed attempt by Sordi to blackmail his way out of the deal, but the end is signposted and foreordained, all but inescapable.

The film is on surer ground in the first half, with its mordant depiction of a “dolce vita” of staggering mediocrity, a vivid display of conspicuous consumption of every sort that is a bleakly funny reminder that having fun is an all too serious business. Il Boom feels more timely in the post-Cold War America of the ‘90s and beyond than it may have in ‘60s Rome. With its joylessly “happy” couples it anticipates the emptiness of Bret Easton Ellis and his ilk, except that its ironies and actually witty and Sordi is charming in a way that his American equivalents never are.

The timeliness of The Journey is more obvious, although not what the filmmakers intended I’m sure. The fiasco that was the Tory election campaign has ended with Teresa May desperately relying on Ian Paisley’s old party, the DUP to build a feeble coalition that will probably be short-lived. As a result, media attention has fallen on the Unionists, and the result has been to call attention to the fact – hardly news to anyone who knows the history of the Troubles – that the DUP lives by the worst sort of reactionary, fundamentalist ideology. They are anti-LGBTI, climate-change deniers, harshly opposed to abortion under any circumstances and, despite the changes brought about in the peace talks, still ardently nationalist. 



World's worst road trip? Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall want to know "When will we be there?" 


The premise of the film, directed by Nick Hamm from an original screenplay by Colin Bateman, is that during the 2006 negotiations Paisley must take a plane back to Belfast for his 50th wedding anniversary party. As part of the rules governing the peace talks, Sinn Fein’s lead negotiator McGuinness must accompany him as a deterrent to assassination. Mainpulated by British Intelligence (personified by John Hurt in one of his last performances as a Yoda-like sage), the two are confined to an armored limo that will take them to the airport while giving them an unexpected couple of hours alone together, with only a young driver (Freddie Highmore), who is actually an MI-5 op.

As you might expect, this becomes an opportunity for Meaney and Spall to show off their considerable array of acting tricks. Although he is crucified by large steel-rimmed glasses, false teeth and a Belfast accent this is at once impressively accurate and yet distracting, Spall manages to steal most of his scenes; Meaney has the less obvious toolkit but makes much of it and when the two are sharing the screen he holds his own, subtly and impressively.


A forest in the middle of their journey (Spall and Meaney)

The problem with The Journey is pretty basic. Bateman’s script attempts to boil down several hundred years of complex history and several years of complex negotiations into 95 minutes of rather oversimplified talk. Some of it is good talk. Bateman’s wonderful BBC series Murphy’s Law was a vivid calling card that introduced him to American audiences as a clever writer and deft constructionist. But apart from the lead performances there is something superficial and mechanical about the film, starting from the script. As a result, the film reduces its fraught subject matter to a pair of dueling foxy grandpas playing at comic one-upsmanship, and its climax to whether or not Spall’s Paisley can crack a joke. For someone who began his career in the London fringe scene before moving on to the RSC, Nick Hamm has a depressingly literal-minded approach to the film’s mise-en-scene, falling back on the overdetermined symbolism of an abandoned church and graveyard for key scenes of the film.

Still, there are those two clever vaudevillians to watch, Messers Spall and Meaney, and their charms might keep you from remembering who they are supposed to be and who the DUP really are.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

As Promised, the Prodigal Returns (Now, about that fatted calf . . .)

After an eventful year that included a lot of teaching, four herniated cervical disks (fun for the whole family), a bedbug infestaion (more fun and loads of serious expense) and a national election about which the less said the better, here I am again back at the old lemonade stand. (Yes, we frequently use real lemons, but I'd rather talk about the good movies I see.) As the new media economy devours print journalism and pukes it up whole as another Murdoch enterprise, I realized that I both wanted and needed to writing about something more than Jewish film which, needless to say, my gig at The Jewish Week, doesn't really permit.

Although I enjoy using my Twitter feed (@GRCommunicati13), it's not exactly a brilliant communication device, not even in the hands of a bold practitioner like our President Agent Orange. A 140-character limit doesn't leave room for much nuance. Notwithstanding the death-of-cinema whiners, there are plenty of complex and intelligent films being released right now that deserve more than a tweet.

There continue to be film and media stories that cry out for comment and/or wider dissemination. New movies keep escaping from the film asylum, old movies present new readings. So here we all are again. As long-time readers of this blog know, my promises of diligent updating are worth less than tips from Donald Trump's hairdresser, albeit more artfully phrased, so I won't tell you how frequently I'll be posting. Let us all hope it happens more often than someone hitting four home runs in a major-league game (take a bow Scooter Gennett, if only for that very 1920s name).

In the meantime, here is my latest from the Jewish Week.



Monday, June 12, 2017

COMING SOON TO A THEATER NEAR YOU!!!

Yes, like Nixon, I'm back, tanned and rested and ready for a fight.
There have been a few changes made, and I'll detail them very soon.
For the moment, all you need to know is that I'm red and ready.


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...