Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Swamped, But Here Are Some Suggestions!

The fall semester has begun at BMCC so I'm a bit snowed under (wishful thinking in this heat, of course). Too bad, too because it has been an interesting few days in film in NYC, But in brief, here are a few hot (sorry, I can't avoid it) suggestions:

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, playing through September 4 at Film Forum; as some of you may recall, I was a sportswriter for 15 years and although tennis has never been on a list of my favorite subjects, Johnny Mac was always worth watching. For all his supposedly bratty behavior, he was a fascinating player whose game was based around finesse, intellligence and some magical shot-making. This French documentary, directed by Julien Faurut, combines a portrait of McEnroe at his peak with Markeresque ruminations on the game and how it stresses and warps personality. Any film that quotes Serge Daney (whose writings inspired the name and, I hope, tone of this blog) on tennis is worth your time.

McEnroe: Man Making a Racket

Andrei Rublev may be the greatest of all Andrei Tarkovsky's films. (I would probably push for Stalker, although Nostalghia is a personal favorite). Rublev is the one in which his thematic concerns, his mysticism edged with pessimism, most clearly emerge without derailing the film's forward momentum. As a film about the motivations that drive artists, it is at once oblique -- we never see Rublev working on his brilliant icons -- yet decisive. The lengthy final movement of the film, centered on the casting of a giant bell, process that Rublev witnesses with a certain fascinated detachment, speaks as directly to his own muses as anything in the film, and is dramatic, beautiful and stirring as any sequence in Tarkovsky's canon. The new digital restoration on view at Lincoln Center into the first weeks of September is a vivid, crisp reminder of the smoke-filled, rain-soaked world of Tarkovsky and a fitting tribute to a singular filmmaker.

Rublev: Iconic

Chris Weitz might seem an odd choice to direct a thriller about the abduction of Adolf Eichmann, but Operation Finale is a tough-minded throwback to the kind of densely layered genre piece that used to be the bread-and-butter staple of American film. My review of the film is here. 

Blue Iguana: Schwartz and Rockwell in Cahoots

Finally there is Blue Iguana, a cheerfully ramshackle crime comedy bolstered by the undeniable charms of Sam Rockwell playing a career criminal with more guts than brains, imported to London for a single heist along with his dumb-and-dumber friend (Ben Schwartz), at the behest of a smart, repressed lawyer (Phoebe Fox). Needless to say, the initial action goes wildly wrong, leading to a series of increasingly violent face-offs with a gang of none-too-bright denizens of the British capital's underworld. Much gross-out humor ensues and a lot of Tarantino-esque violence. Writer-producer-director Hadi Hajaig keeps the action moving at a healthy gallop, so much so that you don't notice the large structural holes in his original screenplay until hours after the film is over. The result is surprisingly funny and generally entertaining, although the action sequences are more slick than precise and the entire thing makes less than a lot of sense. Rockwell and Fox carry a lot of the load with their cautiously flirtatious rapport.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Out in the Desert, Under the Stars

The Atacama desert in Chile is probably the most arid place on earth not at the poles. It averages about six inches of rainfall annually. It is situated at a high altitude. There isn’t a lot of human population, no big cities or highly developed roadways, so there is almost no electric light after sundown. But it does have vast expanses of open sky and, consequently, is an amazing place to watch the night sky. 

Or to film it, as Cielo, a new documentary by Canadian filmmaker Alison McAlpine, proves repeatedly. (Playing at Film Forum for two more days.)

Cielo is alternately beguiling and frustrating, a compact 78 minutes of frequently glorious images of the night sky from the magnificent vantage points the Atacama offers. Interspersed with those images are brief interviews with the human denizens of the desert, an odd mix of scientists drawn to the desert’s multiple observatories by its unique perspectives, and a collection of marginalized people living as veritable scavengers in this most unforgiving of settings.

 The Atacama and one of its observatories at twilight The show begins shortly.

As long as the celestial and the mundane are her focus, McAlpine’s film is a rewarding blend of the visual fireworks and personal quirkiness. But when her narration turns introspective the film is lugubriously querulous or ponderously philosophical. 

Happily, such moments pass relatively quickly and we are left with the spectacle of time-lapse footage of the starscape in motion, juxtaposed with the tranquil placidity of the seemingly unchanging earth. McAlpine uses the visual tension between the two to create a vivid foreground-background relationship that is at first puzzling, then dazzling. (Intriguingly, RaMell Ross utilizes the same effect to rather different ends in Hale County This Morning, This Evening, opening in September.)

Despite the occasional hiccup, though, Cielo is a frequently engaging visual valentine to the universe which, these days, could use some applause.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Another Filmmaker in Jeopardy

As some of you will recall, I periodically post information on this site about members of teh international film community who are imprisoned (or worse) as a result of action by repressive states. Regrettably, there is another such case in the news (in Europe) today. Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov is a prisoner of the Russian government, currently incarcerated in Siberia. He has been on a lengthy hunger strike with a terrible impact on his health. This week a group of some 120 filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, David Cronenberg and Ken Loach, have issued a call for his release.

You can read more about the case here.

Amnesty International has  a very detailed page about the case. and I should apologize for implying that the U.S. press has been silent. The New Yorker, among others, has covered the story at length.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

In Black and White

Spike Lee has always seemed to me a problematic filmmaker. On the positive side, he is one of the rare mainstream American filmmakers who is always making movies about ideas, contemporary issues of pressing importance. He is smart, clever and funny. He works with a brilliant cohort of collaborators, most notably Terence Blanchard and a series of great cinematographers, most recently Chayse Irvin. He keeps plugging away regardless of box-office figures, trying his hand at non-fiction as well as fiction features, shorts, music videos, whatever comes his way. And he is not averse to re-examining his own past; the series version of She’s Got to Have It rectified the feature film’s appalling misogyny. Indeed, his sexual politics have become more nuanced and in recent work progressive.

The same may be said of his attitude towards Jewish-Americans, if his latest film, BlacKKKlansman is any indication. His treatment of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), one of the undercover cops who busts up a burgeoning Klan group in ‘70s Colorado Springs, is intelligent, subtle and as complex as anything in recent American indie film in its examination of the contradictions of ethnic identity in the hyphenated world of the USA
Putting aside my previous ideological quibbles momentarily, the biggest problem I have had with Lee in the past is that he really doesn’t seem that interested in making narrative films. He reminds, oddly enough, of Andrei Tarkovsky whose less successful films seem to sputter when his lyricism overwhelms a film’s forward momentum. When Tarkovsky found a narrative framework that would not only accommodate but actively incorporate his heightened imagery, the result was pure genius, as can be seen from his best work, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Nostalghia and Stalker. Then the oneiric obsessions become the narrative.

Lee’s best films – I’m thinking of Clockers, Inside Man and BlacKKKlansman – are those in which his political/sociological concerns find a place within the framework of genre, the crime film in each case, with strong narrative lines that gracefully accommodate artful digressions into the imagery of Black Pride, blunt satirical riffs and – most tellingly in the new film – the crimes of film history. 

Before he introduces his protagonist, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) the first black cop in Colorado Springs history, Lee opens with the monumental crane shot of the Confederate hospital from Gone With the Wind, then steers us into a pastiche of ‘50s Klan propaganda (with faux-Trump Alec Baldwin as the KKK mouthpiece, not subtle but effective). Later in the film, he will intercut particularly loathsome footage from Birth of a Nation with a cheering roomful of ‘70s Klan members.
Frankly, it’s nice to see someone pointedly draw attention to the darker resonance of these two films. I hardly think that anyone needs to be reminded of the poisonous nature of the Griffith film, perhaps the most toxic masterwork in film history. But the sentimental popularity of the wildly overrated Gone with the Wind has obscured the reality that Selznick’s magnum opus is a hateful piece of racist propaganda on a par with Veit Harlan’s Jude Suss. (I also would argue it’s the single most over-praised film of all time, a tedious farrago made bearable by Max Steiner’s score, William Cameron Menzies’s design and Clark Gable’s performance.) Incidentally, the only reason I don’t add Leni Riefenstahl’s films into this hideious mix is that I find them tedious almost beyond endurance; at least Selznick didn’t use slave labor from concentration camps in the making of his work.

That said, I heartily agree with A.O. Scott that BlacKKKlansman is one of Spike Lee’s best works to date, an unflinching examination of the difficulties of coping with racial identity for oppressed people, whether African-American, Jewish-American or female. The film’s coda, linking the old Klan with its new avatars, is swift and smartly judged.

In a much gentler vein, I want to pull your coat to a music documentary that was released on DVD this past week, Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie. Abercrombie will be familiar to jazz fans for his expansive, sweeping guitar playing with its echoes of Eastern mysticism, French Impressionist composers like Debussy and an insistent swinging pulse that reminds listeners that this is, above all, jazz playing of a high level. 

Towards the end of the film, directed by Arno Oehri, Abercrombie speaks movingly of the fire that destroyed his home in the Hudson Valley. He and his wife escaped unscathed but lost almost everything they owned – guitars, pianos, recordings, memorabilia, clothes. As Abercrombie says, “It was all just stuff,” but the sense of having a home, of being rooted in place, was destroyed too.
Intriguingly, that sense of displacement runs throughout the film itself, as Oehri  insistently focuses on cityscapes, transportation and pure movement when not showing us Abercrombie at work and at play. At first, these passages seem to be nothing more than reminders of the nomadic existence of the gigging musician, but gradually they become something more, a liturgy for modern life as an advanced form of rootlessness, and when Abercrombie tells about the fire, the many pieces of the film’s mosaic structure form a fully developed portrait of the musician uprooted.

Most of all, we are given the immense pleasure of spending time with Abercrombie, a wry, self-deprecating personality with a dry wit, and of hearing him playing in peak form. The film was made shortly before his death in August 2017 from a heart attack, which makes it a rather bittersweet valentine, but one that reminds me of how much his music has pleased me since I first discovered him in the 1970s. 

Open Land: Meeting John Abercrombie is available from his long-time record label, ECM (www.ecmrecords.com)

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...