Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

July 4, 2017

Film

Road Trips…


My Journey Through French Cinema;
Pop Aye; Dawson City Frozen Time;
Paulina

My Journey Through French Cinema (Part One)
(Dir./Writer Bertrand Tavernier)
06/23/17 New York NY Lincoln Plaza
06/23/17 New York NY Quad Cinema
06/23/17 Los Angeles CA Laemmle Royal
07/07/17 Chicago IL Gene Siskel Film Center
07/14/17 Portland OR NW Film Center
07/15/17 Nashville TN The Belcourt 
07/21/17 Minneapolis MN St. Anthony Main Theatre 
07/28/17 Miami Beach FL Miami Beach Cinematheque 
08/04/17 Santa Fe NM The Screen

To grow up in New York when the New Wave was cresting was to dive off a cliff into the ocean that is French culture. Life-altering total immersion. As luck would have it, the films were not dubbed, but sub-titled, so every tic and nuance of the actor’s craft was right there in the dark in front of you. Who could not yearn for those characters, those crooked old medieval streets pulsing with post-war social revolution? The birth of story after story played out by Bardot, Belmondo, Signoret, Montand, Moreau? And what about the writers, the directors, the auteurs?

If you missed all that, never mind: Bertrand Tavernier has captured the Wave, along with much earlier and much later French films and poured the whole catch out for us with all the passion and authority conferred by more than thirty films of his own. Tavernier admits to wearing many hats (citizen, spy, explorer and painter, chronicler and adventurer) for his road trip through French cinema, and switches them frequently. We are the lucky ones, who can lean back and share the journey with him as faces, sites, words and music unspool for his pleasure and ours. No need to swim: just sit back and watch this cosmic show-and-tell. While Tavernier is a warm and generous host, one of the great achievements of My Journey is the  way in which it clasps to its very generous bosom viewers thrilled to revisit and expand what they remember, yet bestows equal pleasure by solving the problem that weighs on all who champion a pre-digital agenda: how to mold a context that will lure the Gen X’s, Y’s and Z’s for whom the New Wave is a surfboard, rather than a dive off a cliff. Even compressed into three-plus hours (they whiz by) instead of decades, My Journey is still exhilarating.

Of course, like all filmmakers, Tavernier mourns the favorite bits that languish on his cutting room floor; there are rumors that a sequel will include them. Meantime, he makes loving (if fleeting) references to them with titles, and we feel his pain. “I would like this film to be an expression of gratitude to all those filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, and musicians who have erupted into my life. Memory keeps us warm: this film is a piece of glowing charcoal for a winter night.”

It’s also, in its delicious and ultimate Frenchness, a really cool way to enjoy a summer evening.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22hX_9BUnU


Pop Aye: (Dir./Writer: Kirsten Tan) NYC Film Forum and national
This elephant (the title character) is out of the room and on the road in Thailand with his new owner
an architect who has, like the elephant, seen better times. They are trekking back to the architect’s hometown for a visit, moving slowly but steadily toward their distant goal until a passing truck is flagged and they climb in. “You don’t look like the type who’d be traveling with an elephant,” observes the driver. “I just bought him,” says the architect. Thus begins this quirky and appealing take on civilization and its discontents, a debut feature from a filmmaker who plies the Singapore/New York nexus with her own 
singular vision and notice from Rotterdam, Sundance and Sydney.

Part of what makes Pop Aye go is the sheer improbability of the ingredients that Kirsten Tan has mixed into a delectable and slightly dry brew. Taken one at a time they would seem to defy blending. When was the last time you found an architect and an elephant in amiable partnership? Or discovered a dysfunctional family with its own take on relationships. Or a truck driver who appears and disappears from time to time (this takes place in Thailand) with an inner GPS of his own. Then there’s a holy man in flip flops who says he will soon join his brother in heaven (he read it in the stars). There are bureaucrats and farmers, ex-wives and partners with little patience for the hero and his faithful traveling companion—and always that marvelously amiable elephant.

Don’t imagine for one minute that Pop Aye can be defined as a linear story; it threatens more than once to disperse, and occasionally makes unexpected (and not always logical) leaps in continuity but, as constructed by Ms. Tan’s whimsical imagination, it’s hard to let go of its sneaky and oddly compelling logic. Surrender to its charms and you will find yourself glad you hitched a ride in the slow lane with some excellent company.

 

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Dir.: Bill Morrison)
(NYC IFC Center; LA Landmark Regent;
Laemmle Monica Film Center; Vintage Los Feliz Theatre)

There are many threads in the tapestry that is Dawson City Frozen Time, and Bill Morrison is its God at the Loom. Not for nothing does Morrison call his company Hypnotic Pictures: this profound meditation on life and death of men, movies and mores, crafted from a trove of old footage unearthed by a backhoe in Dawson City, Yukon, is mesmerizing. Prepare to be transported as it travels backwards and forwards in time, carrying you with it like some spellbound caboose on a rich and improbable road trip in black and white.

Dawson City’s population was a thermometer that measured the heat of the gold rush of 1898, and the ups-and-downs of the fever were mirrored in the photographs by Eric A. Hegg, whose images of hopefuls struggling up the glaciers remain iconic. As native Canadians whose fishing and hunting shacks were wrenched upriver to make room for the town that erased them, Dawson City waxed and waned several times. At its heart was a succession of hotels, provision stores, civic monuments, saloons and brothels catering to itinerant prospectors and, soon after, public halls to screen the movies sent out from early producers to lull and excite the population. The movies—newsreels, shorts, and long-forgotten features—mirrored the world outside, but always after the fact; Dawson City was the end of the distribution line. Since the cost of returning the films to their home base was prohibitive, the orphaned reels simply stayed put, moving in and out of basements and backyards as time passed by, wars began and ended and tastes changed. 

Morrison has a field day with this treasure, marked as it is by decades spent in the permafrost, scratched and flaring, the ghost of movies past (some believed lost entirely until the backhoe dredged them up). But there’s another text that holds it all together: the repeated rise and fall of Dawson City as it fights to stay alive; the transformation of gold mining from manually panned nuggets to digs run by shadowy figures from the world beyond—in fact, the Guggenheims, who bring in big machines to do the job until all the veins are stripped. Newsreels faithfully record strikes and Sacco and Vanzetti, the Black Sox scandal, inventions and progress, always behind the times. And, with his hands deep in movie gold, Morrison sprinkles the film with nuggets of factoids like spices: the founding of Donald Trump’s family fortune by his grandfather, who ran an inn (cum bordello) in nearby White Horse, or what happened to some of Hollywood’s forgotten stars.

Respectability came to Dawson after a while, along with civic structure and society. Not since Edgar Reitz’s Heimat has communal evolution been put under a microscope so cleverly or, in this case, so imaginatively. But, in the end, it remains dreamlike, a leisurely (but rigorously edited) road trip through history in black and white, embraced by Alex Somers’ music and John Somers’ sound. Definitely to be savored. 


https://vimeo.com/180648695

Paulina (Dir: Santiago Mitre) Spectacle Theatre
The question should be how did a film whose many awards include the Grand Prize and FIPRESCI at Cannes find its way to the Spectacle Theatre in Brooklyn? Spectacle is “a volunteer-run microcinema, screening rare and under-appreciated films seven days a week. It is also a spot for radical polemics, in-house edits, live scores, original posters, and filmmaker appearances. We are an ex-bodega of enchantment, a semi-social society, an anti-commercial Atlantis. All screenings are $5 unless otherwise listed.“

Although Paulina is based on an earlier film (La Patota – The Gang) it is Dolores Fonzi’s performance
in the title role that dominates a very complicated story and keeps you thinking about its chronology and narrative reversals. The script tackles enormous issues of political and social justice even as it focuses on the moral positions of its principal and supporting players and their changes of heart and mind. One of the lines that connect the dots shows that random events can change lives forever, and that simple misunderstandings can trigger dominoes that will continue to collapse. Without Fonzi’s power to anchor the story, it might scatter, despite Santiago Mitre’s skill and the cast’s agility with shorthand. And many of its theories are revealed in arguments between Fonzi, (a talented judge-in-training), and her father (a respected and influential jurist), who are equally matched and equally stubborn.

The ideas and characters remain in memory, however, after Fonzi is seen resolutely marching down the road toward her destiny, chosen by her own design.

 

 

Cooper’s London

May 29, 2017

 

Books/Music

Stop, Read, Listen:

Glenn Frankel, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, 379 pp, Bloomsbury.

This book is a fascinating companion to Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, which was a fairly comprehensive general history of that era of scoundrels and evil opportunists thought of as McCarthyism. But, at its centre, there remained the appallingly blinkered and self-righteous House Un-American Activities Committee (affectionately known as HUAC)a Senate tribunal that rode roughshod over the US Constitution much longer than McCarthy managed to. Glenn Frankel’s compelling book, nicely produced and published by Bloomsbury, focuses mesmerizingly on the relationship of HUAC to Hollywood, and also on the impact this had on the making of the classic Western movie High Noon and its gripping subtexts. Frankel sees the script of High Noon as a clear reflection of the climate of the Red Scare in Hollywood at the time. The hero of the book is Carl Foreman, who conceived the story and then adapted it as he came under increasing pressure from HUAC to testify and to name names. Indeed, in the end Foreman had to flee to England to work.

Featured players include Gary Cooper, the ailing star of the film, who took on the project at a time when he felt a strong need to resurrect his reputation as an actor; director Fred Zinnemann, whose commitment to the project was in itself bold; and the producer, Stanley Kramer. You get the full background story of each of these men, and many more involved in High Noon and in the persecution of Hollywood’s left wing.

Frankel’s work is well-written and a real page-turner, probing the background of the Hollywood film industry itself to show why Hollywood was so vulnerable to the pressures of HUAC in the late 1940s. This book is also a superb companion piece to the recently filmed Trumbo; certainly all the people who figure in that tale turn up as major or minor characters in this one, too, So you get to revisit the self-serving bigotry or narrow-minded pusillanimity of people like Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Adolph Menjou, Richard Nixon, and all the senators who contributed to the insanity that was the Blacklist. High Noon clearly delineates how the Blacklist happened and its fallout—yet some people still insist it wasn’t as bad as all that, or even that it never really existed at all. And High Noon mounts an attack on the Blacklist Deniers and takes a significant stand based on the actual facts, not the alternative ones. You also get sound and thought-provoking insights into how much people thought they were acting for the good of the country, fighting to save America from being overthrown by the Red Menace. The paranoia, at times, seems almost to leap off the page but so does some strong sympathy for the gulled and a great deal of understanding for both sides.

By the end of the book, you have the complete story of the making of High Noon, seen very much through the prism of the HUAC investigations of Hollywood. The book serves its double interest fully and convincingly throughout. There isn’t a dull or unnecessary page; the tale is told tautly, like a thriller.

Informative, well-written and still relevant, this is an excellent study of the impact on Hollywood and the arts of the mentality that drove HUAC and overcame the protests of people who could see through it, but had little hope of doing anything substantial about it. Those who tried to combat HUAC and the Blacklist include some pretty bold-face and surprising names: Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and Gregory Peck, among others. And then there are the tragedies of people like John Garfield. You are made both to understand and to feel their frustration.

I learned a lot from High Noon. I ended up, to my surprise, developing more comprehension of and of and even sympathy for Gary Cooper, who is usually labelled as an arch-Conservative; even greater admiration for Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman in particular than I had had before; and some disappointment about Stanley Kramer and how he behaved during the worst years of the crisis.

This is a book that manages to be informative, infuriating, educational, dramatic and entertaining all at the same time. It also gives you a wonderful journey through the background of Hollywood from the silent era onward. I recommend it highly to anyone who relishes being surprised by how much richer the subjects at hand were than they might have suspected.

Fearless Prediction:
MAKI SEKIYA, Future Perfect

What can you do to promote a completely unknown musician who, you think, is world class and ready for a world-conquering career? At the insistent invitation of a friend, I went to a piano recital in Oxford in an out-of-the way church, to hear some of the most astonishingly wonderful playing in every way that I’ve ever heard in my life. It was like hearing Emil Gilels or Sviatislav Richter or Artur Rubinstein for the first time; an artistry that went beyond the instrument and its limitations. Maki Sekiya is surely the Clara Schumann of our era! Yet this artist is a tiny woman, very self-effacing, able to charm the audience with little spoken introductions. And absolutely a giant at the piano.

Sekiya deserves to be heard by everyone, everywhere. She played music from William Byrd through Beethoven, contemporary Japanese music, Debussy, and Guido Agosti’s transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and in every case she seemed to be channelling the composernot in any way getting between the audience and the music—while creating unique interpretations that were totally fresh and gripping. In every case she had a sure sense of the style, of the idiom of the individual creator. She has her own voice as a musician that is recognizable and remarkable without, somehow, in any way imposing herself on the music. She simply is the music when she is playing it.

Technically, it was an outstanding performance in every way. In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 21 in C Major, Op 53 (the Waldstein), Sekiya started at speeds that were faster than I’ve ever heard but still with a and energy that demanded attention. Though the Adagio was a spiritual dream, in the Prestissimo she somehow tied the whole thing together, referred back to the beginning, and put the final polish on a flawless jewel. Her touch is defined by the complexity or simplicity of what she is playing, and she deploys both the sustaining and loud pedals to burnish her interpretation; she is a mistress of nuance. This artist has a rare sense of the architecture of every piece she plays and enables you to hear it as a coherent, complex whole. In the quiet passages she can take the huge risk of playing so delicately that you almost fear the notes will not sound; yet she is able to play louder and more forcefully than seems possible when the music requires it. Also, I have rarely been in an audience that was seduced into paying such rapt attention to every note, every pause, throughout the evening. Without flamboyance, without showing off for a moment, this was absorbing and completely compelling music-making. We were in the presence of someone very special, and we all knew it.

Sekiya has studied at the Purcell School in the UK and also in Russia, and she has managed to blend perfectly Japanese delicacy and attention to detail, Western urgency and Russian energy. The playing was both emotionally affective and brilliantly intellectual all at once. The lapidary sheen of her pianism is astonishing; the wit and intelligence breathtaking.

The concert was at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was turned into an arts centre not long ago, with fine acoustics,worthy of the evening’s program. But Sekiya’s talent demands a world stage – Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Bunkamura in Tokyo. For the moment she is living the life of a wife and mother in Oxford and teaching piano there, and we are very fortunate to be able to share such astonishing and inspiring musicianship. She is developing a local reputation. The church was packed out; and of course, she got a standing ovation at the end of her recital and again after playing a breathtaking, magical Debussy Claire de Lune for an encore. Again, it sounded totally fresh, almost as if I was hearing it for the first time, familiar yet original.

So make note of the name Maki Sekiya, pianist extraordinaire. I am going to see if I can find a few samples of her playing to put up on this web site from the concert I heard (because it was recorded), and possibly also do an interview to discover Maki’s plans for the future. Keep watching this space! Meantime, here’s a preview of things to come:

Apollo’s Girl

May 24, 2017

Film/Theatre

 

Dead or Alive:
Afterimage; Obit; A Doll’s House Part 2

Afterimage (Dir.: Andrej Wajda)
(Opens May 19 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
May 26 in LA at Laemmle Playhouse 7;
May 26 in Chicago at Gene Siskel Film Center)

The Polish film schools were always spoken of in hushed terms when I really began looking at foreign films. Their graduates seemed to have absorbed technical virtuosity in order to express a profound understanding of human nature; the films were as rich as they were beautiful, the scripts dimensional, the characters endlessly fascinating. And, no matter what kind of story they were telling, their was an element of realismus that made immersion a foregone conclusion. The very first Polish film I saw was Landscape After Battle, Andrej Wajda’s Palme d’Or Cannes nominee in 1970; I was permanently hooked.

No filmmaker’s art has imitated life as often as Wajda’s, but his 56 works reflect his long and complicated life rather than imitate it, and Afterimage (his final film) premiered at TIFF in 2016, a month before Wajda died at 90. It is one artist’s uncompromising look at another uncompromising artist, Władysław Strzemiński, Poland’s giant of the avant-garde, founder of the country’s museum of modern art, revered teacher and thinker, and author of Theory of Vision. But a listing of his achievements in no way represents the power of Wajda’s portrait, or of Boguslav Linda’s turn in the role. You can’t stop watching him, or listening to his ideas. The Communist officials detest him as much as his students love him, taking great risks in order to help him finish his book before the apparatchniks shut him down, one increasingly cruel step at a time. But the artist refuses to give way.

Wajda has created a fitting valedictory for his own life, and for Strzemińskis, the sadness of which is always outweighed by the power of the film and the magnitude of the portrayal. Don’t let this one get away!

Obit (Dir.: Vanessa Gould)
(In NYC at Cinema Village; Music Box Theatre, Chicago;
Laemmle Fine Arts, LA; wide release a/o 5/19/17)

No matter what you may think, Obit has nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life. Spend some quality time with its quirky crew of New York Times obituary writers; share their MO and deepest thoughts on the mortality they confront every day (and often, when there’s late-breaking news) far into the night. It’s spellbinding!

Once a Siberia for writers, the department has been revitalized by a deep sea change: some of the Times’ best and brightest are at the machines and in the morgue there (I still treasure my fading copies of William Grimes’ forever fabulous chicken pieces*), doing battle with deadlines, word counts, reluctant sources and perfectionism with every tribute. In this passing parade, everyone—everyone— plays their part, from Poppa Neutrino to the man who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; from Pete Seeger to JFK. And don’t forget the guy who dedicated his life to repairing manual typewriters, as Margalit Fox recalls their sound, “It’s this music that this man who knows the old songs was helping to keep alive.” Or Jon Pareles paying tribute to a jazz great: “It’s a definition of why art and artists make us remember…..the stilled voice, the fingers that don’t move any more. They’re talking to us, changing the way we think. You don’t want to think of them as perishable.”

The sheer mass of the resources is clear in the morgue…..aisles, shelves, cabinets bursting with the print and image fallout of lives going back to the 19th century (“If,” as archivist Jeff Roth observes, “you can find them.”) Roth is the fierce keeper of these many flames, the sole survivor of a department that once had 30 colleagues. The keys to the kingdom are in Roth’s head; wish him a long and healthy life…

You will find rue and joy in Obit—a little sorrow and a lot of hilarity— among the scribes who have a way­ with words and the ever-growing horde of characters they immortalize (without ever being able to meet them) as they struggle to make each one unique. The quotes are seductive as they speed by. How many treasures had to be abandoned on the cutting room floor? One can only imagine the pain that director Vanessa Gould and editor Kristen Bye must have known as they had to compress and delete one essential after another.

Seeing Obit made me think of George Stevens’ Jr.’s biopic about his father. It ends with a shot of Brandon De Wilde calling out after Alan Ladd, “Shane, Shane–come back!” The subjects of Obit won’t come back but, as one biographer explains, “We try to weave a historical spell—to enchant the reader– to do justice to a life. It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.” You will meet them in Obit, a dazzling bunch, and soar in their company. That’s the takeaway.

(Meantime, read these. You will thank me…)
*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/21/dining/it-came-it-clucked-it-conquered.html

*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/04/dining/lost-one-black-chicken-owners-bereft.html

A Doll’s House Part 2 (Dir.: Sam Gold; Author: Lucas Hnath)

If you’ve been lucky enough to follow Lucas Hnath’s work, you will know that he just can’t resist a good argument and that most of his plays are built around at least one. Hnath is also a prodigious learner. Having ingested competitive athletics for Red Speedo; physics for Isaac’s Eye; religion for The Christians, he has now turned his gaze on gender issues by arguing up a sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—that original battle of the sexes discourse—that simply raises the ante. This time, Hnath talked to some leading feminists to get it right read it here and this time everybody wins, especially the audience, who can see a spectacular cast (Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jane Houdyshell and Condola Rashad) acting up a storm.

Despite the play’s darker, still-unresolved issues Hnath is serious about, his sly humor erupts at intervals; you’ve got to watch him like a hawk because just as you become embroiled in the follies of each character, Hnath (and/or director Sam Gold) will snatch you up with a giggle or a belly laugh. It’s always intriguing, and has been nominated for eight Tony Awards. The bad news: it’s a limited run, set to close on July 23. You’ve got two months to do something about it.


Apollo’s Girl

May 14, 2017

Film

Exiles: Away From Home…

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
June 16 in LA at Laemmle Royal)

For a rich and deeply satisfying look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. Schrader has chosen a cool, objective approach to her subject, which frames the white heat of politics and culture threatening to burst into flame in every sequence, and hooks you from Scene One.

The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives, both of whom accompanied him abroad en famille), and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader, famous for her role in Aimėe & Jaguar, applies all her acting smarts to her cast’s talents and draws a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich.

Because the technical, aesthetic and dramatic elements are always in perfect balance, and the tensions between Zweig’s inner life and his public persona heighten the intensity of the portrait, it’s as close to total immersion as you can get without actually having been there. Surely you will be inspired to move on to Zweig’s novels and essays, which made him the most successful writer of his time and have continued to remain the basis of dozens of films right up to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel of 2014. (P.S.: Pay attention to the way the end of Zweig is shot. Fascinating choices!) Deservedly Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

ELIÁN
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Cinema Village;
June 2 at O Cinema Miami Beach)

Full of turbulence and moving at warp speed, Elián will keep you breathless and on the edge of your seat right up to the end of the narrative: Elián Gonzalez was only a little boy when he was found alone, clinging to an inner tube, in the ocean between Havana and Miami. The boat on which he had traveled with his mother, her boyfriend and dozens of Cuban refugees had sunk, and his mother had drowned. Overnight, the beautiful child became a sensation—television crews and reporters swarmed the house where he lived with the Miami aunts, great-uncles and cousins who had claimed him. The media circus exploded into a cause célèbre for Miami’s Cuban exiles, always at the boiling point, and for the many public officials who joined the efforts (pro and con) to grant American citizenship to Elián and to prevent his return to Cuba, where his father (who had learned he was gone only after the boy and his mother had fled under cover of darkness) had immediately sought to reclaim his son.

Photo by Shaun Best REUTERS

Eventually, members of Congress and Janet Reno (then Attorney General) determined Elián should live in Cuba with his father. The fire and brimstone that accompanied every twist in the story were shocking in their ferocity. There were daily confrontations on the streets of Miami and Havana; instead of cooling with the passing of time, the violence escalated, with demonstrators, police, Federal agencies, religious institutions and—always—hordes of media pouring accelerant on the flames. The ugliness lasted six months, until Elian’s father flew to Andrews Air Force Base to join his son after Federal agents stormed the home in Miami where Elian, hiding in a closet, was literally snatched from the arms of the fisherman who had originally found him. The entire affair could not be forgotten; its after-effects impacted the presidential election of 2000, and US foreign policy for over a decade.

Benefitting from a wealth of footage (which spares us none of the competing opinions and shameful frenzy of the many participants), Elián is still remarkably even-handed. Not only in exposing the disturbing zealotry of the exiles in Miami (which caused the INS the Border Patrol to stage the armed rescue raid that terrified the little boy), but in Cuba as well. Through no fault of his own, Elián had became a pawn in the United States as a symbol of “democracy”, and then again in Cuba where, after his return, he was “adopted” by Castro as a symbol of Cuban ideals.

Despite the heat of its subject, this film is told and made by experts who really know their stuff: Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden have, between them, filmed and written prize-winning material that is both intensely emotional and impeccably researched. As I discovered while digging through the internet, Golden published a piece in 1994 (it haunts me still) read article here about how the US destroyed the then-state-of-the-art Cuban health care system, several others about Elián Gonzalez, and a series on the abuses of Guantanamo.

There is no question that Elián will roil your heart and your mind as you are horrified by the brutality of the forces pulling at the traumatized six-year-old. The film also spends quality time with the grownup Elian, who seems to have weathered the storms of politics, just as he once weathered the shipwreck that left him without a mother and at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Whatever your feelings about the issues, you will be shaken by this chapter of very recent history whose ending still remains to be written. Don’t miss it.



Apollo’s Girl

January 11, 2017

Film

apollo-and-lyre

NY Jewish Film Festival
(January 11 – 24, 2017)

Film Society of Lincoln Center/Jewish Museum
http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/new-york-jewish-film-festival/#schedule

nyjff-logoNYJFF 2017 has a big palette; color it interesting. Opening day/night’s film is Moon in the 12th House (director Dorit Hakim will be present at both matinee and evening screenings), a look away from more familiar Israel-specific military and settlement issues to a very contemporary and personal tale of two sisters who inhabit very different lives. Their dilemmas resonate far beyond their homeland, mirroring family conflicts familiar throughout the West. Hakim observes and probes deeply into her characters, with her cast working hand in glove to demand 12th-houseour attention (Yuval Scharf and Yaara Pelzig as the sisters are superb). This is an important film for everyone who cares about the basics of how parents determine the paths their children take, the consequences of their choices, and the possibilities of redemption in challenging circumstances. Rooted in tradition, these young Israelis learn how to shape-shift into adult lives in a non-traditional world. Highly recommended.

One of this year’s features is a slate of exceptional revivals, with a big palette all their own. Threepenny Opera (Pabst, 1931), based on the Brecht-Weill musical of 1928, itself a lineal
threepennydescendant of
John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera of 1728, is not to be missed. While Gay’s version offered a charming pastiche score of popular songs, hymns, and opera tunes, it’s Weill’s original score that remains the gold standard. Its powerful bite has not been matched. Of course all three versions have their own backstories, but for a telling account of the mother of all behind-the-scenes movie dramatics, marvel at Tony Rayn’s account https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/614-the-threepenny-opera-doubles-and-duplicities. It will seem like today’s news. While the film as seen now omits many of Weill’s matchless ballads, it offers a glimpse of the phenomenon that was Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife and muse), and a sense of what made Berlin the international capital of attitude and art between the wars.

valeskaNur zum Spass, nur zum spiel—Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert (Volker Schlőndorff, 1977). A look back at the queen of eccentric dance and stage and film acting, famous in the same Berlin and then a refugee who fled to America and survived by washing dishes and running a series of cabarets staffed by then-very young busboys like Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams (among others). A rebellious standout even in Berlin, Gert appears in the Threepenny Opera (in a small role), but deserves Schlőndorff’s attention to reveal her truly revolutionary and original talent as a real ancestor of Punk, way ahead of its time.

THE PRODUCERS (1968) GENE WILDER, KENNETH MARS, ZERO MOSTEL PRDR 002CP MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

And make space for The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) on the big screen. Forever fabulous, it’s the only way to immerse yourself in the outsize phenomenon that was Zero Mostel, and his partner in crime Gene Wilder, aided and abetted by Mel Brooks. Treasure those laughs…

For one more look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), attend Closing Night to see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: zweigFarewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Babara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives); and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader (famous for her role in Aimée & Jaguar) applies her acting smarts to her cast’s talents, and gets a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich. (P.S.:Pay attention to the way the end of the film is shot. Fascinating choices.) Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

peshmerga

Returning to the present, don’t miss PeshmergaBernard Henri-Lėvy’s documentary about the eternal struggle of the Kurds to prevail against IS, as the war rages through Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey with no end in sight. The Kurds are determined to create Kurdistan for themselves, and we will have to wait until their multi-sided battles have been resolved to see the future. This is war up close and personal, being observed by one of France’s leading writer/philosophers.

kentridgeSince William Kentridge is unquestionably a prolific, articulate, original and utterly charming subject who talks and performs as well as he paints, draws, and makes film, attention must be paid to Andrea Patrieno’s account (Triumphs and Laments) of the artist’s murals (reflecting Rome’s history) painted on the banks of the Tiber, where they will ultimately be washed away by the river’s ebb and flow. Kentridge is a subject hard to get enough of, and time spent in his company is time to be cherished. Grab it while you can (Patrieno will be present for Q & A at both screenings).

Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon (Andrea Simon) This is a truly stunning work on every level, from an accomplished filmmaker with a subject made for her talents. Even in the Festival’s august company (Kentridge, Zweig, Gert), the 94-year-old Wagenstein dominates the screen. Described by a supertitle (“94 years; 52 films; 3 wagensteinrevolutions”) he offers up his life with a heady brew of humor (“I am a Marxist because of the Marx Brothers”), humanity, and survival skills that you will hate to abandon at the film’s end.

Simon benefits from an archival deluge of Wagenstein’s films and documentary footage covering most of the 20th century. But most of all she benefits from Wagenstein himself, an international treasure whose memories and personality are every filmmaker’s dream. I shudder to think of how hard her choices must have been, and mourn the thousands of feet of footage that had to be left behind, even as I celebrate the brilliance of her decisions and the film she has made from them packed into only 84 succulent minutes. Angel Wagenstein has everything, and you will regret it if you can’t find a ticket for its single screening (Sunday, January 22 at 8:30 PM, Walter Reade). Andrea Simon will be there afterwards for a Q & A, likely to be as rich and as interesting as the film itself.

Apollo’s Girl

December 25, 2016

TV/Film

apollo and lyre

A Little Night Music

I’m starting very small–still recovering from the election—so have two tweet-like recommendations: first, Rachel Maddow’s recent interview with Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC broke every glass ceiling ever. It’s not about whose ideas you preferred, but about two women, phenomenally well-matched for debate, creating a paradigm for (relatively) civil combat. On the biggest issues we will be grappling with 24/7 after January 20. Frankly, it was hypnotic!
MSNBC interview

There was a consistent effort to actually listen to each other before attempting decapitation with tightly focused ripostes, and a crackling intelligence that never descended into campaign speak. The last time we saw its like was the early days of the Vidal/Buckley mano a mano, and those two were definitely White Men in a very elegant duel that remained alive for a long time.

Second, La La Land. It was the life-enabling piton for climbing out of the post-election abyss, and while you are likely to be enchanted by it (the 8.9 IMDb readers’ score and 93 Metacritic’s are hard to contest), I can only add  that if babies can now be produced with the DNA of three parents. La La Land is definitely the love child of Russian Ark, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Shall We Dance. Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy and go see it. And then urge Damien Chazelle to run for president. landscape-1468420673-la-la-land-4

Apollo’s Girl

September 8, 2016

FILM

apollo and lyre

 

 

Coming and Going and Still Here…
+ Things to Come (TIFF)

But first, drop everything and plan how to catch ALL of Kryzstof Kieslowski’s decalogoDecalogue between now and October 6 at the IFC Center. This Polish masterpiece was made for TV in 1988 and is seldom shown in its entirety. Based loosely on the ten commandments, it is hardly a schematic theological exercise but, rather a probing adventure into human nature, politics, and art played out in ten installments whose kiescharacters weave in and out of the extended narrative. Absorbing. Brilliant. A cinematic omakase that will leave you remembering much and wanting more.  ifc center
(NB: Its Metacritics have given it a solid 100 across the board!)

The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Dir.: Lars Kraume) Lincoln Plaza Cinema ThePeopleVsFB_RZ_01.inddDo not be misled by the deliberately retro style of Fritz Bauer, set in the post-WWII era of Germany’s long march to respectability via the Nuremberg Trials and attenuated hand-wringing mea culpas by many former Nazis; their leadership in government and industry was deemed essential for the country’s future. Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), a Jew who was released from a concentration camp and exiled to Denmark has returned to Germany to mete out justice to as many of the guilty as he can, while struggling against the opposition of his colleagues and (it is implied) even the United States.

But he is stubborn, aggrieved and persistent; when he finds evidence that Adolf Eichmann is still alive, he’s determined to bring him to trial in Germany. 

The film soars as Bauer, increasingly stonewalled by his own government involves Israel’s Mossad and Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), a young prosecutor in his division, in his mission. There are death threats. There are complications (Bauer is homosexual; so is Zehrfeld) as their colleagues become enemies and prosecute them to derail the investigation. Israel co-opts the Eichmann trial and Bauer is accused of treason. More than a heady brew, the high-stakes twists and big surprises of the story tighten their grip as they accelerate to the finale. The excellent cast (especially Klaussner and Zehrfeld) delivers all the way. And of course the curtain-raising leads us to ponder what further chapters of post-war Germany still remain backstage to be revealed another day….


fatimaElinor Bunin Munroe Film Center;
 Laemmle Royal Theatre, LA
Fatima  (Phillipe Faucon) is a real honey; one of many entries about Muslims adjusting to (and changing) French culture. In its quiet way, the lives of a divorced mother and her two daughters make a great impact because of the film’s modesty—its whisper is stronger than any shout. While one daughter is a rebellious teenager who turns her back on her first culture, the other struggles to become a doctor. The mother (Soria Zeroual) supports the family with cleaning jobs as she navigates the rigidity of the Muslim community she remains part of, while determined to give her children a future. She keeps a diary (in Arabic) that reveals the keenness of her sensibilities, and studies French to be able to live more fully in her new home. The film’s last image (devoid of any show, any effects) is simplicity itself; yet carries a soaring emotional charge that simply explodes in joy.

Author: The JT Leroy Story (Dir.: Jeff Feuerzeig)
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film  Center/Landmark Cinema

You will start off being beguiled by the Amazon Studios animatedjt-leroy preview and then hop on the roller-coaster that the film sends hurtling down the tracks. This film has everything—a story that you can’t possibly make up; some Very Big Names who play their parts in it; more than a few professionals who are completely convinced that it is all true, true, true; and a tight band of core players who put, and keep, the roller-coaster speedinguntil they don’t. It’s an extended case of not mistaken, but completely forged identity, with a reveal that explains why it happened in the first place. The hero/ine? A not-so-fun-house of an author (with very real talent for putting words on the page) who can’t help hitting the best-seller lists and being signed for a movie deal. It’s very, very complicated. At times exhilarating, more often (as the details begin leaking out) very, very sad. But always intriguing. A documentary? A fiction? You decide…

Things to Come (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Løve) arrives at TIFF trailing thing-to-comeawards from Cannes and Berlin, and likely in line to pick up many more; Love’s  fifth feature film is on solid ground. Her works are markedly different from one another in tone and emphasis, but always created from what she knows; Things to Come is no exception. 

One of its many great pleasures is its wholehearted embrace of the life of thought by a filmmaker who has lived it; another is the appearance of Isabelle Huppert as a thinker (and doer) who thinks, and does, as intuitively as a hummingbird seeking nectar. Never still, Huppert runs through her days almost on tip-toe, navigating her family, her friends, her home and her university, while levitating a character both enormously appealing and enormously deep. She does light and shade and the transitions between brilliantly, seamlessly, in a role that seems to have been written for her, but also huppertcreated by her from moment to moment. It’s an extraordinary performance. At 63—just look at her!— with 131 films to her credit, she is ready for many more. And Hansen-Lǿve (at 35) has barely scratched the surface of her films to come. She has a flawless instinct for the arc of her characters, a love for their complexities, and is unlikely to run out of them anytime soon. Things to Come will open later this year. Watch for it…..

Cooper’s London

July 4, 2016

Politics/Theatre

!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

 

 

Shakespeare Lives!
The Brexit/Regrexit Plays

Forget the West End and regional theatre; forget the RSC and National. The UK at the moment is broadcasting the Greatest Show on Earth 18 hours a day, unspooling with real style, gusto and endless twists of plot. It’s called the Brexit Play. It features major and minor politicians (some of whom are becoming stars, and others who were stars ) who look as if they are about to burn out. Some Farron-591646people, like Tim Farron (who runs the Liberal Democrats—all eight of them that made it into Parliament in the last election) is trying to start a contemporary play to compete, which I call: Regrexit. If he succeeds, we will also see the annoyed 48% of the country’s voters (Remain!) trying to reverse the decision of the 52% (Leave!) the EU.

I could write an essay on just how bad it is for the arts, and for entertainment, too, but you can probably figure it out for yourself; the whole issue has itself become the world’s arts and entertainment this summer.

michael and sarah. gove
Recently, TV pundits were comparing
Michael Gove (Conservative MP) to Macbeth, Mrs. Gove to Lady Macbeth (without the laughs), and Boris Johnson (twice Mayor of London) to Duncan. Julius Caesar seems to be playing itself out on TV screens as well, with some people appealing to the mobs to crown their Caesar, and others crying to the Brexit voters: “You blocks, you stones, you worse-than-senseless things. Knew you not Pompey?”

Mind you, we are not entirely certain who’s acting Pompey right now. It sure ain’t Jeremy Corbyn (the Labour Party opposition leader), with his lean shanks corbynand slippered pantaloons, still at this writing refusing to leave the stage though “Exit pursued by bear” has been in his script for days. He is also being likened to King John, who provoked his nobles and eventually signed Magna Carta against his will (are you listening, Jeremy?). Frankly, it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare is still living at this hour and somehow foresaw it all.

POLITICS Heseltine/BackbenchWe had John of Gaunt of Richard II on TV today in theperson of Baron Heseltine (the Conservative who unseated Margaret Thatcher), pleading for “this England, this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-Paradise, this fortress built by Nature for her self”, and for its prime and moral position in Europe.

Daily, as if creating scripts for new History Plays, or merely echoing them, we have betrayals, and we have evidence of
theresa mayloyalties; we have great shifts of support
for one would-be political monarch after another, from one moment to the next. And we may just have another female Prime Minister soon, the redoubtable Theresa May (for now, the Conservative Home Secretary), playing, according to her supporters, our very own sane and stable Paulina of The Winter’s Tale.

Of course, the most memorable and powerful speech on behalf of remaining in the EU was made at the 11th hour (and wonderfully!) by the actress Sheila Hancock. I do hope it surfaces on the Internet.

Mingy and stingy old ITV has been blocking her speech for copyright reasons. Now if only she had said her piece on the BBC! (Which, of course, is under threat from the Conservatives, but that is another story from another place.)

Right now the beleagured UK is living through what the Chinese call “interesting times”. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s a political thriller; it’s a political farce; it’s also a soap opera and high drama, all at once. Europe is seriously pissed off with the UK, cameron-hands-2and especially with our PM, David Cameron, who swore over and over that he could win this. “If you are not 100% certain you can risk it, David, do not do it,” they advised. Years ago, thatcher1Margaret Thatcher was pressured into holding a referendum by her Euroskeptics but never would; David Cameron believed he knew better. He was told not to have a Referendum; he went ahead, leading the Remain! Campaign, and he did not win. And so his little Conservative Party squabble cost him his job and his legacy— and is costing the whole of Europe dearly. We may end up not only with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, but also the withdrawal of Scotland and Ireland from the UK. (Shakespeare was no stranger to bad decisions: Brutus thought Cassius knew how to preserve the Roman republic. Chaos ensued.)

These are similarly parlous and chaotic times, and this is (do not think I am exaggerating) the worst Constitutional Crisis in what feels like forever—some say since our Civil War and Cromwell. demonstrationsThere is also the fear that David Cameron’s ill-considered attempt to bring the UK equivalent of Tea Party Republicans to heel has unleashed xenophobia of a very high order, and the racism that escalates daily as well. Has he put our toes on the first step of the ladder of Fascism? It sounds exaggerated; but people old enough to remember the 1930s are telling me that this is exactly what it felt like when it all began, and that Hitler sounded as plausible and not-so-very-racist as, let us say, Nigel Farage (England’s new Oswald Moseley?), leader of the UK Independence Party.

Farage, who has been working tirelessly for 17 years to bring the UK out of the EU, abruptly resigned from the party on July 4th, ten days after his triumph. Perhaps he is Richard II to someone’s Bolingbroke. Perhaps he and his henchmen are not Hitlersjust little Fascists much diluted. (Mind you, Hitler had plans for genocide and territorial expansion.) I suspect that the problem with Farage and his fellow bigoted Brexiters all along has been that they have no plans at all! farageThey just don’t like immigrants or the EU any more than Henry V liked the French, or the Yorkists liked the Lancastrians with whom they fought the Wars of the Roses. Never mind that this is no reason to leave it, but a reason to reform it; never mind that you are encouraging a country to betray all its friends and neighbours, remove its influence at a crucial time, and diminish its moral standing in the world.

Don’t believe the propaganda. The EU is democratic; the only laws we are living under promulgated by the EU were first debated and voted for in their Parliament (where we have MEPs), then agreed to and adopted by our Parliament. The EU asks only for a fair share of “fees” to belong to their club; the reason the UK was the fifth-largest economy in the world (well, until last week) was precisely because of the growth and development achieved during the past 43 years as the EU’s partner. Basically, as in Julius Caesar, Brexit’s rationale was all a lot of demagoguery and downright lies used to provoke the crowd: “Friends, Romans, countrymen: we come to bury the EU, not to praise it!”eu

There is a mythical £350 million we send to the EU every week that is actually more like £128 million when you consider rebates and so forth. This is the UK’s fee for belonging to the EU club; this is our tax. People who complain about those who will not pay their fair share of taxes in the UK also complain about Britain’s paying its fair share of tax to the EU; they choose to ignore not only the quantifiable benefits but the unquantifiable ones. One example: the UK has a huge lead in and great respect for its scientific research. For every £4 we put into the EU budget, we actually get back £6.5 for projects that also link us to, and are done in co-operation with, other EU countries. And, for the arts, include experimental theatre groups subsidized by the EU; exchanges of artists to work and exhibit their work within EU countries; cross-cultural musical festivals and shows. All that and much, much more is about to go, too.


donald trumpBut why should I bore you with our little troubles when you have an even greater clown to entertain you for months to come in the Presidential race? Perhaps sadly, we have just had our own boris johnsonblonde clown with a comb-over (Boris Johnson) withdraw from the race for Prime Minister. But never fear! He is very ambitious and a talented entertainer. He loves a crowd. You can’t keep such people down. He will probably pop up again in some other role very soon.

lear's foolUnlike like the Fool in King Lear, who ends up dying for telling the truth, and who disappears halfway through the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apollo’s Girl

June 18, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

Open Roads: Just Gone,
but Not Forgotten…
HRW: Right Here, Right Now

What’s not to love about Open Roads? Always overflowing with joie de vivre, poetry and violence; with the occasional historical film to open roadsrelish, and resonant with the humanity for which the Italians are famous. Of course it can come at a price—heightened decibels―but two of this year’s standouts at the Film Society of Lincoln Center were whispers, far more powerful than any shout.

.Arianna, a narrative feature debut by Carlo Lavagna, was a real jewel, as unexpected as it was tender and perplexing, lofted by an extraordinary actress—Ondina Quadri—whose candor and Ariannasubtlety matched the script. The story of young intersex woman unfolds with considerable full-frontal nudity and sexual exploration. Could it have been exploitative? Certainly. But not in Arianna. What might have been distasteful with another director seems here compassionate and always respectful of the people (and especially the person) whose lives have been constrained by a secret: parents who deeply loved their son and wanted to save him from the cruelty he would suffer if they didn’t act on his behalf. And the son himself, turned surgically into a daughter as a young child before he could understand what he might expect. And most of all, the remarkable Ms. Quadri who remains luminous, mysterious, and entirely appealing throughout the film. Her journey is both heartbreaking and reassuring as she finds the strength to accept herself and whatever future that may lead her to. So far, Lavagna has been nominated twice: for Best New Director, and Best Feature Film; there will be more. Quadri has won two awards at Venice for Best Actress in a Debut Film, and is currently in the forthcoming Il Nido

Banat (Dir.: Adriano Valerio) This, too, is a feature debut–by Valerio, whose handful of shorts include several nominations,banat and a Special Mention win at Cannes. His work as writer and cinematographer before Banat has sharpened his talent for shaping a narrative with images from long shot to closeup, like windows into the characters he has carved into his narrative. It is an unlikely love story, catching fire quickly and sustaining it as the lovers move from southern Italy to a run-down farm in Romania and cope with the displacement. Their relationship is sexual, affectionate and playful in equal measure. Valerio’s talent extends to watching over his cast; they are fully dimensional in the brief scenes that develop their story almost like a storyboard, allowing you to fill in the spaces between the frames. You will, and you will want Ivo (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and Clara (Elena Radonicich) to keep the heat alive long after the credits roll.

Human Rights Watch (https://ff.hrw.org/)


hrwThere were women everywhere throughout HRW, behind the cameras and captured by them; perhaps the most unlikely a Chinese heroine (Ye Haiyan) nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow. Her journey (more properly called an ordeal) traces her evolution from country girl to prostitute to ardent activist in a country where activism is sure to be treated more harshly than sex-for-money—illegal, but pervasive. It began with the news of an elementary school principal who had taken six of his students to a hotel. As we learn, the sentence for child prostitution in China is less than that for rape. Ye Haiyan’s response was to stand with a sign reading “Hey, principal—sleep with me; leave the kids alone.” As the storm swirling around her and first-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang gathered, the government’s Goliath geared up to demolish them. Wang was physically assaulted more than once, and Ye Haiyan was hounded from one town to another. During one attack, she and her belongings were dumped out all over a highwayand left there. Perhaps Hooligan Sparrow is technically rough, but Wang (literally shooting from the hip) was strong enough to capture the fierce emotion and courage that will be sending this Sparrow around the world.

 Sonita (Dir.: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami) Although technically a documentary, Sonita is a hair’s breadth

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

away from a narrative with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat for most of its 90 minutes. Sonita Alizadeh, with dreams of becoming a rapper, is promised in marriage in her mid-teens. Through sheer determination and the help of the filmmaker, a support organization, and assorted samaritans at home and abroad, Sonita finds her way out of Afghanistan and into a university music program in Utah then, in short order, to the Internet as a viral sensation and recording artist in the fast lane. Turns out she’s as talented as she’s ingenious, and there’s no turning back: the film won both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.

Jackson is likely to make you very, very mad and look for a way to get even on jacksonbehalf of April, the heroine of Maisie Crow’s both even-handed and inflammatory portrait of Jackson, Mississippi, where Barbara Beavers (Executive Director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices) and Shannon Brewer (Director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization) try very hard to help April navigate a hardscrabble life. April has good instincts and a loving heart, and four children, born one year apart. As events unfold, Brewer and Beavers seem to have a common goal—to limit unplanned pregnancies. But Beavers’ solutions are abstinence or adoption; Brewer’s, birth control or (if desired by the client and early enough) abortion. Yes, Crow is an observant and disciplined filmmaker who has done her homework on the issues, but I won’t bet on audiences watching Jackson being able to remain calm for long, especially after seeing how the story plays out. The racial and economic divide may be implicit, but remains alive and well in Jackson.

Growing Up Coy (Dir.: Eric Juhola) will make you think for a long time after it’s over. Initially about a young transgender child who identifies as a girl, it develops into a complex legal battle over her right to use the bathroom of her choice at school, and into thecoy portrait of remarkably open-minded parents who want their child to thrive and are determined to remain supportive of her wishes. But things change: the issues become a magnet for school officials, politicians, lawyers andinevitablythe media. Lines are drawn and the public weighs in. The pressures to remain strong or to back off become an emotional roller coaster for parents and children, changing the balance of their relationships. They know that life in the spotlight, however painful, may lead to the victory that will empower their daughter. In the end, by standing fast and with the aid of their dedicated lawyer, they win. We are left to wonder what their future will bring once the spotlight is turned off, and there are definitely no easy answers to the question.

P.S. Jerusalem (Dir.:Danae Elon) As the daughter of renowned journalist and author Amos Elon, known for jerusalemhis disillusionment over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Danae Elon has created a search for identity that is as clear-eyed as it is sensitive. Its sequences mirror her move (with her husband and children) from New York to the Israel of her youth, where she hopes to recapture a sense of “home.”

But, using her camera as both recorder and shield, her honesty and her sensibilities draw her into reflections that make her “home” increasingly problematic. While often beautiful to behold, her film captures the overt and the subtle realities of her home as it is now. p.s. jerusalemThis view from inside is ultimately painful, but required viewing for anyone who understands the importance of resolving the conflicts that persist in the powder keg that has replaced the Promised Land.

P.S. Human Rights Watch This was a very, very good year..

 


Apollo’s Girl

April 24, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

What’s New and Different:
FSLC and MoMA

There was plenty to chew on and savor this year, downloadplenty to think about, and a sense that filmdespite the trail of tears of financing and distributionis alive and well in a number of places. In Iran, for instance, Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari) is a curious and affecting combination of war story, ghost story, and the plight of women in a crumbling society. More effective, and far under the shadowmore unsettling, than a conventional anti-war narrative,
Anvari manages to combine several themes into a cohesive and original political statement for his narrative feature debut. http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/ndnf-interview-babak-anvari/

bodyguardTwo shorts were exceptional, compressing volumes into the cinematic equivalent of a highly distilled brandy: Concerning the Bodygyard (Kasra Farahani, from a story by Donald Barthelme) for which Salman Rushdie provides the film’s narration, and Farahani’s elegant, reductive sensibilities provide the sting.

In The Digger (Ali Cherri), Sultan Khan, the lone caretaker of crumbling grave sites makes his rounds, dedicated to protecting what remains of the desert’s ancient civilizations. The The-Digger-2camera records a vast, quiet emptiness in which Khan’s tiny figure is almost lost, plodding through endless sand dunes under a merciless sun; the brick structures are disintegrating and their graves have been emptied. The film’s silence makes space for the viewer to imagine the story of what once was; what is is imposed by a slow reveal of Sharjah’s enormous oil refineries shimmering in the distance. In the right hands (and Cheri’s are), the truth is shattering.

happy hourAt the other end of the clock, there’s Happy Hour (Ryusûke Hamaguchi). The movie begins with a train carrying four friends to an outing, moving through a tunnel into the light; you know you are going on a ride. But if you expect to be restless at the leisurely pace and length (317 minutes) of Happy Hour, think again. You are much more likely to be surprised by how quickly you’re drawn in at first, then hypnotized by the way Hamaguchi weaves his tale of 30-somethings living and maturing in Kobe. Many of the scenes are shot in real time, with the four women, their relatives and significant others reacting to one another, sharing their adventures and coping with the social pressures of modern Japan. It’s storytelling by accretion, as layers of acutely observed behavior accumulate to pay off over time. You learn as you go, and the more you learn in each scene, the more you understand in the next, or one half-an-hour down the line. Infidelity? Jealousy? Sisterhood? Risky behavior? The weight of the past in the present? They’re all here, and more, to keep you entranced as Hamaguchi’s complicated structure rises on the screen. If the devil is in the details, it is Hamaguchi’s ability to see them, and to use them to reveal the humanity of his flawed but ultimately fascinating women. (The four shared the award for Best Actress at the Locarno Festival.)

Thithi (Raam Reddy) Nothing like the polite Anglo exercises of Merchant/Ivory, or the streamlined homecomings of Mira Nair, and definitely not like the Bollywood of many Indian thithi2
filmmakers now making deep inroads into Western cinema, Thithi is totally immersive, yanking you into the village culture of South India with its unfamiliar sights and sounds. For two hours you are inside a saga that begins with the death of a centenarian (who simply collapses on the street where he spends most of his days), continues through the generational family agendas that emergealways at oddsimmediately after, continues to unfold through an exotic shaggy dog story, and ends with a funeral to end all funerals. There are some choice quotes: “I’ll pass his life through a strainer,” and “This is a place where dogs lay eggs”, and some joyously discordant music. The cast stays in constant motion, traveling barefoot, by moped and by tractor. All in all, it’s quite a trip.

the fits2The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) After NDNF’s Grand Tour The Fits comes home to Cincinnati for the coming-of-age story of a young Black girl struggling to find out where, and how, she fits in with her friends and family. She helps her older brother out with chores at the gym where he works, sees lots, says little, and misses nothing. She boxes occasionally, and joins a dance drill team preparing for a competition. An epidemic of “fits” runs through the dancers and teachers, unexplained. So the script is occasionally puzzling, sometimes extended with a rich score, or slow-motion for emphasis. But what carries the entire story is the haunting presence of its young star, Royalty Hightower, whose melancholy eyes and quiet presence capture both your imagination and your attention. Watch for her…

evolutionEvolution is an example of what feels like a brand-new sub-genre of science-fiction: an indirect story. An elegant, truly original idea (in this case, a reversal of the reproductive process) Evolution incorporates eerie cinematography and lighting, the mysterious power of the seashore and the sea, a series of clone-like young mothers, and their clone-like young sons. There is a hint of Frankenstein and some curious medical procedures. A mythic sensibility pervades the strange plot which, because it’s so beautifully told and so tantalizingly revealed, draws you into a guessing game that no one fully wins. But the journey is fascinating.

A little bit a documentary of the Italian countryside, a lot a lost and beautifulreference to the eternal traditions of commedia, dell’arte, Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello) mixes things up in cunning ways. It beings with the story of a “real” caretaker who dedicates himself to preserving the ruins of a noble palace. He is loved and respected for his selflessness, but as he lies dying, he convinces the filmmaker to find a Pulcinella to rescue a buffalo calf. Thus begins a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress as Pulcinella and calf make their way to their destiny. The tone is set with the calf’s voiceover statement: “I would have liked to have been born on the moon; nothing could be worse than where I live now…this is my story.” Or: “I’m proud to be a buffalo; in a world without a heart, being a buffalo is an art.” Magical realism prevails; the calf finds a new home and, finally, the castle is beautifully restored for all to see. Dedicated to its real-life caretaker, the film is (like many others in this year’s festival)a quirky and original entry.

Kaili Blues (Gan Bi). Another original marvel, and something kaili bluesof a Chinese shaggy dog story, resonant with texture and imagination. In other words, a non-linear narrative that often drops its clues and references entire sequences away from their payoff. Although set in contemporary China, its characters are shaped by the country’s ancient and recent history, which surfaces in intriguing and often unexpected ways. A doctor sees his brother (a bit of a no-goodnick) who is interested in selling his son, Wei Wei. The doctor wants to adopt Wei Wei, but appears too late. He sets out on an odyssey to find him in the country, full of beautiful mountains and rivers, and odd shabby little towns, and encounters villagers, mysterious women, and finally, a band of archaic people marching to a funeral, playing their instruments, whom he’s been seeking for many years. When he finds Wei Wei at last, he finds a grown man who doesn’t recognize him. But creating a synopsis of Kaili Blues is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Its fractured timeline, the density of its references to Chinese culture, the wow factor of its spectacular 40-minute tracking shot and the depth, richness and sharp-eyed skill of its director require multiple viewings.

mountainTwo films from Israel (one co-produced with Denmark) focus on the difficulties of living under the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly on the effects of its rigid attitudes toward sex and emotional expression. The first, Mountain (Yaelle Kayam), is a story (based on the Talmud) like no other I’ve seen. Living next to a cemetary on the Mount of Olives with her children and her indifferent husband, Zvia (Shani Klein)is deeply lonely and isolated; her only acquaintance an Arab man who looks after the cemetary, with whom she occasionally chats. At night, she gradually forges a relationship with the prostitutes and pimps who work the area, bringing them food and drink as she looks on. She feels the stirrings of curiosity and more, yet is frozen into the role she must play as Orthodox wife and mother.

tikkunIn Tikkun (Avishai Sivan), the volatile moods and desperation of a Rabbinical student (Aharon Traitel) are evident when he faints at the sight of his own blood after sharpening a pencil. The film’s black-and-white cinematography underscores the growing intensity of its story. There is little dialogue, but what there is leaves no room for ambivalence: the father (given to heavy-handed determinism) tells his anguished son, “God gave us our bodies; you have to worship God through your body.” The son replies, “I hate my body!” For the son in Tikkun and the wife in Mountain, God has no pity, and offers the pain of stifled lives with no respite. Although Tikkun has a streak of mysticism that provides great beauty, it is no match for its sorrow.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) Described as “ a hybrid of classic documentary techniques and reality-based dramatic storytelling,” Weiner is, more accurately, a Very Big Deal and a Very Big Story recent enough to be conjured up by many outrageous moments throughout the film, and by an opening quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he almost never recovers.” For the reference to McLuhan, I leave readers to Google the name in question. But for the film? It’s fast and furious, and often full of double takes, emotions whisked under the rug in front of the camera’s harsh eye, and details increasingly painful to behold. Well-made and clever, of course, weinerbut the unavoidable question looming at the end of the film’s 100 minutes is: why on earth did ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides and her former Deputy Chief of Staff at the State Department) agree to have their overflowing hamper of linen washed in public? Perhaps it seemed to them that it would be useful for their future in politics; perhaps the savvy producers simply talked them into it. But given the couple’s considerable experience and sophistication in the political arena, that seems unlikely. While we are often given more information than we might want, it does not include an answer to the question, nor a happy ending. It is, however, very entertaining, and lures us in with a surfeit of the very techniques that keep us wringing our hands over the tenor of our festering political climate.




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