Friday, January 17, 2020

Climate Change Parables at the Metrograph

An Overview of Hollywood and International Films Depicting Ecological Disasters with In-Person Appearances by Naomi Klein, Ashley Dawson, and more
“I don’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty.”— First Reformed
Beginning February 21, and continuing until Earth Day (April 22) in 2020, Metrograph will present Climate Change Parables, a series of Hollywood and International films that envision the global fallout of climate change. Cinema has been reckoning with the impending environmental collapse for some time and these depictions are more relevant than ever now that our fear of time running out is truly palpable. The movies in Climate Crisis Parables imagine the aftermath of humankind’s recklessness and what might come when our species no longer exists. The program is composed of scripted films rather than documentaries because the existential threat posed to future generations is best explored with speculative forms of storytelling and while these films often strike a grave and cautioning in tone, they are spectacular, even ecstatic, in scope and scale. Climate change experts will introduce the films using their fictional scenarios as entry points to the discussion of real-world issues, anchoring our increasingly surreal daily reality with research and perspective, and highlighting the imperative actions that must be taken right now to reverse our path towards the brink.
Climate Crisis Parables is presented in partnership with Harper’s Magazine, a publication that regularly considers environmental issues and the fate of our planet in essays and reporting by such writers as Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Rebecca Solnit; and Extinction Rebellion Lower East Side Neighborhood Group.
Sunday, February 23
with Author/Activist Naomi Klein In-Person
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki/1999/133 mins/DCP)
Clashing with a archdemon boar, warrior Ashitaka is stricken with an empowering but ultimately fatal curse, and journeying into the unknown of the Great Forest in search of a cure, meets the fierce titular warrior woman, raised by wolf-gods. Miyazaki’s gorgeously animated, mythic tale about a battle between humans and ancient forest spirits is an epic with an environmental message, justly a phenomenon in Japan on its initial release.
Saturday, February 29
with Author/Activist Ashley Dawson In-Person
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho/2013/126 mins/DCP)
Bong’s sci-fi actioner sets its scene aboard a high-speed train coursing along on a globe-spanning track, carrying the last survivors of an earth rendered uninhabitable, a frozen wasteland following a failed attempt to stop global warming. Boasting an ensemble cast that includes Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, and Tilda Swinton, it’s both a ripping, white-knuckled yarn and a chilling vision of the class-stratified future that might belong to climate change refugees in a pitiless, dog-eat-dog world.

To Be Scheduled, with Guests Announced Soon

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg/2001/146 mins/35mm)
The seemingly disparate sensibilities of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, who left this science-fiction Pinnochio story unrealized at the time of his death, here achieve an unexpected harmony. Haley Joel Osment plays a robot child abandoned by his adopted parents to the cruel (if astonishingly realized) outside world, in a film that finds Spielberg at his most challenging and most poignant.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog/2009/122 mins/DCP)
One of the worst climate catastrophes in modern memory, the 2005 submergence of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent slow rebuilding, provides the apocalyptic stage for Herzog’s not-really-sequel. With a nothing-left-in-reserve lead performance by Nicolas Cage, a drug-and-gambling-addicted Big Easy cop who pursues his prey through a devastated cityscape, all while barely managing to keep himself together. Surreal and often startlingly funny, this is Herzog in vintage form.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982/2007/117 mins/DCP)
While so many special effects spectacles are lost in time like tears in the rain, Blade Runner remains the template for imagining the neon-wreathed downer of the future, every bit as influential in its vision as was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis over a half century before. Working from a novel by cult writer Philip K. Dick to create a film that would become the gold standard for sci-fi noir, director Scott shares credit here with “visual futurist” Syd Mead’s design concepts and synth pioneer Vangelis’s atmospheric score.

The Dead Don't Die (Jim Jarmusch/2019/104 mins/DCP)
Having put his inimitable stamp on the western, chanbara samurai film, vampire movie, and espionage thriller, Jarmusch has found a new genre in need of bending—the all-American zombie flick. When mangled bodies start showing up in a bucolic little town, the walking dead can’t be far behind, and so the local constabulary (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny), katana-wielding morgue attendant Tilda Swinton, and an all-star lineup of local residents have to try to defend themselves from a revening army of ghouls.

The Devil, Probably (Robert Bresson/1977/95 mins/35mm)
As The Devil, Probably begins, we see newspaper reports of a teen found dead by gunshot wound; the film then flashes back to chart the march toward death of this nihilistic, atheistic youth, as he indifferently rails against a corrupt, wretched world. This uncompromising late career masterpiece from Bresson is deeply disturbing yet strangely elating, and one of the greatest works by one of the greatest directors.

First Reformed (Paul Schrader/2018/113 mins/DCP)
The fifth film of Schrader’s so-called “man in a room” series, which includes Taxi Driver (1976) and American Gigolo (1980), First Reformed dives into consuming obsession along with its protagonist, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, extraordinary), the caretaker of a historical upstate New York church who becomes gradually possessed by a horror of forthcoming ecological catastrophe, and fixated on the idea of laying down his life to punish the corporate overlords responsible. Harrowing and, finally, hallowed—a fierce and unforgettable film.

Himizu (Sion Sono/2011/129 mins/DCP)
The aftereffects of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami continue to haunt a Japanese town in Sono’s adaptation of the manga of the same name. Teenager Yuichi, abandoned by his parents, drives inexorably towards an act of violence. This story of a gripping obsession, told with a sensitive attention to character and superb performances from its young leads, touches on the imminent threat of nuclear emergency posed by climate change, as well as the nihilistic disillusionment of youths failed by their parents’ generation.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan/2014/169 mins/35mm)
Nolan’s outer space epic begins with an agricultural crisis on earth, a blight that will send astronaut Matthew McConaughey on a mission to find another habitable planet for our suddenly endangered species. An unabashedly emotional blockbuster, stirring and surprising. “Like the great space epics of the past, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar distills terrestrial anxieties and aspirations into a potent pop parable, a mirror of the mood down here on earth.”—The New York Times

Melancholia (Lars von Trier/2011/135 mins/35mm)
The possibilities for ecological apocalypse extend beyond the bounds of even our own solar system in Von Trier’s cosmic-view diptych drama, which begins with a wedding party gone awry and ends in the shadow of an incoming extinction-level event. Shot through from beginning to end with a profound feeling for what it is to live in the grips of depression, as Kirsten Dunst’s baleful bride predicts forthcoming catastrophe, telling sister Charlotte Gainsbourg, “The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.”

Red Desert  (Michelangelo Antonioni/1964/117 mins/35mm)
Antonioni had never made a color film before embarking on Red Desert, and nobody had made a color film quite like what he came up with. Ending the trilogy that began with L’Avventura Antonioni painted a picture of contemporary sci-fi dystopia with a palette of eye-searing chemical spills, the terrible, beautiful industrial hellscape which persecutes Monica Vitti’s neurasthenic housewife, who takes up with her factory owner husband’s associate, played by Richard Harris. A hypnotic vision of environmental and spiritual catastrophe, inextricably combined.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky/1979/163 mins/DCP)
When reference is made in Twin Peaks: The Return to “The Zone,” it seems an awful lot like a homage to Tarkovsky’s stunning, haunted sepia-toned sci-fi masterpiece, in which a scientist and a writer living in a broken-down totalitarian dystopia recruit the help of a “Stalker”—a kind of post-apocalyptic Sherpa—to guide them on a voyage of self-discovery, passing through the bleak, otherworldly Zone, hoping to discover therein a haven that will fulfill their secret desires.

Still Life (Jia Zhangke/2006/111 mins/35mm)
A man (Han Sanming) and a woman (Zhao Tao) search for their respective spouses while the threat of a massive man-made ecological event looms in the background: the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which poses an immediate threat to the town of Fengjie, where both have arrived to meet their spouses. Personal catastrophe echoes destruction on an epic scale in Jia’s justly acclaimed film, which illustrates the terrifying ability of the monolithic Chinese state to permanently alter a landscape, and the impact of such changes on the psychosocial makeup of a city.

Workingman's Death (Michael Glawogger/2005/122 mins/DCP)
Is it possible to make a post-apocalyptic movie set in the present day? Glawogger’s globe-spanning documentary panorama, at any rate, comes awfully close. Vignettes of manual laborers at work reveal a world of grueling effort and Stygian landscapes, including illegal coal mines in the Ukraine, a sulfur mine in Indonesia, a Pakistani shipbreaking ground, and a slaughter yard in Nigeria. A litany of images of backbreaking toil and ecological devastation, suggesting that for many outside of the privileged west, the end of the world is already here.

Broken Barriers (Khavah) (1919) New York Jewish Film Festival

BROKEN BARRIERS is a long thought lost silent film based on the Sholem Aleichem stories that inspired Fiddler on the Roof. The focus is not so much on the Tevye character but on his daughter Khavah and her suitors.

I am not going to even attempt to compare this film to either the stories or to the show/movie of Fiddler. My working knowledge of of the stories is non-existant and my knowledge of the Fiddler allows me to sing bits of a couple of the songs and hum a few more. Instead I am going to just look at the film.

The film is very much a kin to many of the Yiddish film produced independently and released to audiences such as those in the Lower East Side of New York. Like many of the Yiddish films, it has a tactile feel and connection to the people and places it depicts,. If you didn’t catch the fact that several of the actors are speaking English you would think that this was filmed in Eastern Europe. It is an important example of the type of films that were being turned out in the silent era.

The film itself is a solid little melodrama. The plot follows the trouble caused when Khavah falls for a gentile  boy and the reverberations that ripple outward from that. I suspect that seems quaint to most people these days here in America, but not so long ago the thought of marrying outside of your religion or ethnic group was a major sin. BROKEN BARRIERS shows us what doing so could result in.

Long though lost BROKEN BARRIERS is screening January 19 with a live piano accompaniment and is recommended. For tickets and more information go here.

The Prison Within (2020) Santa Barbara 2020

The Prison Within Trailer from Raw Love Productions on Vimeo.
Prison Within may very well be one of the best films of 2020. The year is still young but this out of nowhere masterpiece is a cage rattler of the right sort.

The film is an examination of what trauma does to us. More specifically it is focused on how the violence and abuse visited upon us turns some to crime and thus spreads the trauma onward. The film focuses on group in San Quentin prison which meets weekly to discuss the pain in the prisoners lives and the pain they have caused and then works to sort it out. We also get to hear from victims and the people running the various programs. The result is a visceral gut punch of the film that lays it all on the table.

This film caught me unaware. I was a typical prison film with some shots of the men talking, associated talking heads and very serious narration. I was expecting a good film that checked all the boxes and then moved on to the next thing. What I got instead was a film that didn’t check the boxes, what it did was checked the box and then explored the box. The men in the circle don’t just say something meaningful before we move on to the next thing, rather they talk at length about their lives and explain what they feel and why. The camera doesn’t cut away we are there and they are talking to us and the others in the room, and the result we are pulled deeper and deeper. What they are telling us hits home and we go from thinking we understand what the point of it all is to deeply and emotionally completely understanding (or as much as we can get from a 90 minute film)

I am absolutely floored. I am so floored that I know I am going to need another pass at this film to truly be able to write about it and discuss it. As it is I can’t say how important it is for you to just go see this film. An absolute must see of the highest order.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Nate Hood on Slay the Dragon (2019) NY Social Justice Film Festival 2020

John Adams, the second president of the United States, once famously wrote a grim diagnosis for the future of democracy in America: “Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.” [sic] Watching Barak Goodman’s stomach-churning Slay the Dragon, it’s difficult not to look upon modern America as a land that’s already put the pistol to its head and pulled the trigger.

The film examines project REDMAP, a top-secret gerrymandering program implemented by the Republican Party in the wake of the 2008 Blue Wave that saw the election of Barack Obama and Democratic super-majorities in the House and Senate. Described by political writer David Daley as “the most audacious political heist in modern times,” REDMAP targeted with surgical precision individual races in key swing districts in key swing states, ensuring Republicans would gain control of numerous embattled state legislatures in time for the 2010 census where national districting maps would be redrawn…by the states themselves. Using their new collection of legislatures, they hastily gerrymandered these states to oblivion, making it impossible for Democrats to ever win a majority number of state senators, national Senators, or House Representatives even if they got a super-majority of the votes. Once they had this power, Republican officials would never need worry about losing elections again, allowing them to pass sweeping and wildly unpopular legislation breaking unions, repealing environmental regulations, and rescinding tax rates for the wealthy.

The film itself is presented as a police procedural in medias res, exploring precisely how Republicans broke the system, disenfranchised voters, and helped usher in the Trump era while also charting the frantic grassroots movements fighting back, primarily Michigan activist Katie Fahey who founded the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative to criminalize gerrymandering in her state. Fahey’s movement started a domino effect which spread to other swing state ballot initiatives which finally climaxed at the Supreme Court. Crushingly, they punting the issue of gerrymandering back into local state courts nine days before Justice Anthony Kennedy—the sole swing voter capable of saving their case from a party line vote—announced his retirement, dooming any hope for judicial accountability.

Slay the Dragon is brilliant, anxiety-inducing filmmaking which will sink your stomach, make you cheer, and stay with you long after you leave the theater. It’s bitter yet necessary medicine.

Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Always in Season (2019) NY Social Justice Film Festival 2020

ALWAYS IN SEASON is a shattering look at lynching in America

Jacqueline Olive’s film is nominally focused on the case of Lennon Lacey a 17 year old African American  who was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina in 2014. While his death was ruled a suicide there are indications that it may not have been, from his not really having a reason to the fact his grave was desecrated. While the FBI did get involved they found the evidence hopelessly tainted. The result is a a great feeling of unease for many in the community.and in particular  In order to explain why Olive masterfully explores the history of lynching, and the 1946 Moore's Ford Lynchings in Georgia when four people were pulled from their car by a mob and killed, horribly. Olive uses a re-enactment of the killings to explore people's thoughts and feelings to lynching and all things related to it.

Watching the film I was left stunned. Even in this age of Presidentially fueled racial hatred ALWAYS IN SEASON was a stark reminder of just how deep hatred runs and how evil even supposedly good men and women can be. In reading on the film, (I was so stunned watching the film I didn't take notes and put into such a dark place I didn't want to revisit the film to get the information I wanted to have) that the one thing that many people writing on it called it infuriating and noted how it makes you angry. I agree, there is much to be angry about. But also there is a profound sadness that despite claims to be good, many of us really aren't.

ALWAYS IN SEASON floored me. Watching it it left me struggling to find words. There was a sense that no matter what I had to say was meaningless because most of you are just going to glance at my words and move on, which is wrong. What I felt I needed to do was find away to just make you see the film. Yea my words may be nice, but they are no match for the power and importance of Jacqueline Olive's film. It is a vitally important missive about the state of America that we all must see.

Do yourself and your fellow human beings a favor and take the time and see this film

For tickets and more information on the Cinematters: Social Justice Film Festival screening on Sunday go here.

Tribes (2020) Santa Barbara Film Festival 2020

Robbers take over a NYC Subway Car and begin to rob everyone in the car until one of them refuses to rob his people. This sparks a discussion about race and society.

Once you get past that the film is not set set in anything remotely like a NYC subway car this social commentary film is amusing. There are some genuine laughs here as the false divisions of society are broken apart and examined.

Pure polemic the film is simply a discussion between the robbers and the people on the train about tribes and where we all belong. It runs a course that is very close to be being overly preachy however the shortness of the run time keeps it breezy and on point.

Worth a look

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Aulcie (2019) New York Jewish Film Festival 2020

Opening Night Film of the New York Jewish Film Festival is biography of Aulcie Perry who was recruited by the New York Knicks in 1976. Cut before he could play a single game he ended up in Israel where he led the Maccabi Tel Aviv to the European championship the following year. Becoming a superstar things went sideways as drugs, prison and life altered his life.

Bring tissues because this story of a life and one man's efforts to find his estranged daughter will move you. Yes it hits on any number of things we've seen before but at the same time Aulcie's force of personality makes this something special.

And it is special. I was kind of ify at the start figuring this was going to hit all the typical moments and then suddenly I found I was hooked. I was charmed by the man at the center of the film and I was moved by the turns of his life (that final shot had me crying).

I don't know what to say other than this is a super film. Definitely worth your time- assuming you can wrestle one of the stand by tickets when the film opens the NYJFF on Thursday. For more information go here.

Picture of His Life (2019) New York Jewish Film Festival 2020

This portrait of photographer Amos Nachoum is a film you must see on a big screen. A visually awesome, in the truest sense of the word, it follows his quest to shoot polar bears while swimming while at the same time telling us his life story.

To be honest the life story is not as interesting as the photography, yea there are some twists and turns, but the stuff that is going to hang with you, the stuff that you are going to remember are the images that he creates and the stories of what it took to get them. Expect to gasp at the beauty and wonder of the images, especially if you are lucky enough to be seeing this film on a big screen. I think the technical term for what you will feel is "wow".

I really don't know what to say about the film other than go see this film when it plays at the New York Jewish Film Festival. Glorious films like this is why the festival is so important to the film year. NYJFF every years highlights films you probably would miss otherwise and highlights them. I know that sounds like I'm selling the festival and not the film, but I'm not I'm saying it because it explains why the film is so good and why you need to go see it.

A must.

For tickets and more information on the screenings on the 15th and 19th go here.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Wave Film Review - Feat. Justin Long and Donald Faison

Frank (Justin Long) has been searching for his big break at the firm for six years. When the day finally arrives he just wants to get a good nights sleep to prepare for his presentation the next morning. Friend and colleague Jeff (Donald Faison) insists they head out of town to celebrate. The duo runs into trouble when Frank is given a hallucinogen that alters his perception of reality. Their lives will be forever changed in Gille Klabin’s The Wave.
I was blown away by how creative this film is. It’s purposely misleading which I think is a brilliant concept. The movie is filmed in a way where it seems cut and dry but then the action takes over. Once Frank realizes the substance he was given is taking effect is where things really take off. There is a scene where Frank is brushing his teeth and it is shot so flawlessly. There was no disconnect in the first reveal which makes the story that much more believable.
There is so much that goes on in this film that in any other setting I think it would be too much. A film that is this ambitious requires a certain amount of skill, patience, and an eye for detail. The Wave includes all of these and more which is why I was impressed with it. The writing, directing, and acting are all top notch. It was both fascinating and entertaining to watch Frank react to both reality and the world he was seeing due to hallucinations. Those scenes were done in a way where they felt realistic rather than cheesy or over the top. I found myself being somewhat sympathetic to Franks situation. On one hand, you shouldn’t take drugs. Especially from strangers. On the other hand, it’s clear to me that Frank doesn’t exactly make the best decisions. Especially under pressure.
Sheila Vand plays Theresa. Although she’s a secondary character her existence is pretty important to the story. While in his “medicated” state Frank sees Theresa and tells her all about the man he wants to be. It’s clear that the man he is isn’t who he wishes to be. This reveal is something that is relatable to all of us. No matter how ideal our lives may be there is always something we wish we could change. Wish we could do better. I loved how this scene took a movie about an altered reality and turned it into something that is prevalent in the real world. It makes Frank a relatable character which I was very fond of.
Justin Long and Donald Faison have such great on screen chemistry. I love Justin’s ability to become his character so effortlessly. He does a great job at portraying the every day Joe with the 9 - 5 job. That is not something all actors are capable of because it becomes stale over time. He has mastered it in a way where it’s enjoyable in any setting. The Wave is no exception to this. I have yet to see a Justin Long Film that I didn’t like. Donald has played a variety of different characters throughout his career and this is a role I really enjoyed him in.
Overall this film was great. The characters felt so real that I connected with them in a way. This is rare for me and I don’t take this experience lightly. If you’re a fan of Justin Long and or films about altered reality I would definitely give The Wave a watch. I give this movie a 10/10 easily. It was a very enjoyable experience. The film comes out in select theaters and on nationwide VOD on January 17th. I applaud Director Gille Klabin and Writer Carl W. Lucas for their brilliant work and look forward to viewing future projects.

My Hindu Friend (2015)

Final film by Hector Babenco got lost once the director passed away several months after it’s festival premiere. I am not quite sure why other than the fact that no one wanted to touch the film since it is about his original diagnosis for the cancer that would eventually kill him. The fact that it really hasn’t been mentioned since then, at least in the US, is a shame since the film contains another  wonderful Oscar worthy performance by Willem Dafoe as the stricken director.

The film is a good but very deliberate telling of what happened to Babenco when he was diagnosed. It is very much a personal portrait of a man and the struggles he faced trying to cope with what he thought was a death sentence. We are full on inside of the character and Dafoe makes us feel every emotion. It’s a trying experience, in a good way, since we are forced to confront life and death in a very real and tactile while. It is a confrontation that films by filmmakers who aren’t dying really can’t understand or get across. Thankfully Dafoe is up to the task and he pulls us along whether we want to go or not.

As much as I like the film I suspect that some people are not going to like the film. The dark subject matter and the very deliberate pacing may turn them off. The film can be a little slow, but at the same time it is always advancing, always giving us something to feel or ponder. That may not be enough especially if you are looking for physical fireworks because they aren’t here, rather they are emotional with the film quietly building until it bowls us over from unexpected directions.

Hitting theaters ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and VOD platforms on January 17th MY HINDU FRIEND is recommended.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival Starts Thursday

Cinematters :NY Social Justice Film Festival  starts Thursday at the JCC of Manhattan and it is a killer. I know because as I write this I've seen just about every film and I can tell you everything rocks.  There isn't a bad film in the bunch and if you are interested in social justice issues then you must go (tickets here)

Seriously just buy tickets and go because few fests are this well programmed. If that doesn't get you up and heading to the theater I don't know what will.

Among the great titles are:

American Muslim which is an excellent look at how the Muslim community relates to everyone around it. It is a stunner that proves they aren't as the enemies the far right would have us beieve

Changing the Game- is a solid portrait of the struggles of trans athletes to compete

College Behind Bars shows us the effect college has on inmates

We Are The Radical Monarchs- When the local girl scout troop was found not to be focusing on social justice issues some parents started a new group for their kids.

Harriet- is a good portrait of Harriet Tubman

And I will be reposting our reviews of ALWAYS IN SEASON about a lynching and SLAYING THE DRAGON about how gerrymandering is keeping the political landscape in America one sided.

I am hoping to get to see the remaining 4 films in the festival assuming I can find some time.

As I said at the top go buy tickets because the films will not only move you they will hang with you.

The New York Jewish Film Festival starts Wednesday

For me all film years start with the The Jewish Museum's and Film at Lincoln Center's New York Jewish Film Festival. How I react to the films playing it set the tone for the rest of the year. I always, and I do mean always, see at least one film that makes the best of the year list and the more I see the better the film year is going to be. As this posts I'e seen three great year end list making films and I am not done with looking at films yet.... Other people I know consider Sundance the place where a year's films matter, but I would argue it is here at NYJFF because it is where I catch the films I remember all year.

Forget the fact that this is a Jewish film festival and just go in thinking you are going to be seeing great films. Yes, have Jewish themes or subjects but the reality is they speak to the larger subject of  our shared humanity.

How good is NYJFF? While I started covering the festival because of Unseen Films it has become part of me and I can not imagine ever not going to see the films at the festival. I have seen way too many films at it that have changed the way I see the world and have made me a better person to ever stop going.

I love this festival with all my being.

Normally every year I try to wade into the festival and cover it all, sadly that isn't happening this year. Things outside of the film world  are preventing that. I do suspect that I will be catching around a dozen or so films before it's done.

As I write this I am still screening films, however there are a few I want to recommend you get tickets for:

The opening night film AULCIE is a wonderful portrait of Aulcie Perry a basketball player who moved from the US to Israel and became a legend.  Bring tissues because it will move you in the right way. (Right now it is only standby- but keep checking the website in case more tickets are released)

The closing night film CRESCENDO is one the truly great films of the year. A drama about a youth orchestra that is half Israeli and half Palestinian it manages to be witty and funny and touching. If it isn't always perfect it is always honest with some kick ass use of classical music.

I WAS NOT BORN A MISTAKE is the story of an ultra Orthodox man who became a woman and what happened as a result. It is a wonderful portrait of a wonderful woman.

THEY AIN'T READY FOR ME- portrait of African American rabbinical student Tamar Manasseh who is trying to stop the gun violence in Chicago by using the teachings of her religion.

PICTURE OF HIS LIFE is a film you need to see on the big screen. A portrait of nature photographer Amos Nachoum it is full of images that will haunt you forever. A hidden gem of the festival.

MARCELINE. A WOMAN. A CENTURY is a portrait of writer, filmmaker and all around kick ass woman Marceline Loridan-Ivens who never stopped living life. If you know Marceline's work then this is a must. If you don't know of her this is a double must.

THE STATE MANDELA AND THE OTHERS is a vital document made up of recently discovered audio of the trial that sent Mandela and hid co-defendants to jail. Sure we have had versions of the story- but this shows us how it all really sounded.

That should get you started. We'll have reviews of all of those and some others.

All that is left to say is go buy tickets. They can be had here, and you need to go buy them before they sell out and they will.

I need to thank both Film at Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum for letting me cover the festival and for creating one of the highlights of the film year.

1917 (2019)

1917 is a very good film. It is a technical marvel that has been artfully and meticulously constructed. As for the rest I am going to leave that up for discussion.

The film is the story of two soldiers sent to cross no mans land and the supposedly empty enemy lines in order to deliver a message that a unit 9 miles away should not attack. The German’s have pulled back in the hope of tricking the English into attacking. In order to assure the men make the trip one of the two soldiers is a brother of a soldier in danger of being killed if the attack happens. They then head off into a series of sequences that are set up to look like extended tracking shots.

I need to state something right at the start and say that the trailers and TV commercials for the film absolutely positively lessened the impact of the film for me. I believe that every sequence is represented in them except for maybe two. If you are clever and have seen the enough of the promotional material you will begin to stitch the film together as you get to a location where something you saw happens you then write a chunk of the movie in your head. As a result I felt little suspense except in regard to the ultimate outcome.

This film dazzles with its technical achievements. It is almost impossible to know where one bit of filming begins and another ends. Sequences like the bunker and the tower obviously have places where there was a break, but in pretty much every other sequence it looks continuous. The images that Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins have created are truly amazing- with the night time sequences of the flares and burning village truly jaw dropping. They are something that will haunt me to my end days.

Beyond the technical I’m not sure where I stand.

And at this point I need to warn you that I am going to discuss some SPOILERS so if you don’t want to know stop reading.

As I said at the top the commercials wrecked tons of suspense by revealing way too much. Additional knowing the film is “one” tracking shot makes it clear that at some point that one of the two soldiers falls by the wayside. You can’t not realize that when several sequences in the commercials only show a single soldier. As to what happens, you’ll have to see the films.

As to the tracking shot it’s a nice trick but on an emotional level it is kind of limiting. Because the film starts and we were moving I didn’t really click with the two men at the center. Frankly it wasn’t until the farm house that I was fully invested. I think the reason I was not fully invested is that until that moment the men are not really involved in anything that is happening. They are simply moving through the landscape with no real connection to anything happening. The earlier bunker sequence while harrowing, seems outside of them. It is not something other than landscape. Once they get to the farm house and they see the dogfight and the plane crash they are finally characters not props being moved. From that point the the characters move in and out of the film depending on what they are doing – at this point it is more than just moving or running its occasionally magical but ultimately the constant forward motion of the camera, even when no one is moving, kind of works against the film. I know it’s a documentary approach, and its good on some levels, but it is also distancing since we have to wait,until the farm house, to find out who the men are and why we should care beyond they are the center of the film.

Adding to the emotional limiting factors is the fact that the camera is largely a distance away from the men at the center of the film. We never really get into their face. Cinema shows us the big and the small. It is the juxtopostioning of shots of distance with close up that create emotion and mood. In moving through the vast landscape and keeping the men in the center of it, even if it’s a narrow trench or tunnel, there is a loss of closeness. We are not there with them but distant. That may work out of necessity in the theater, here on the big screen where the manipulation of images create the intimacy that being in a theater with the actors creates. Here the eternal distance to the protagonists keeps us from several steps away… we are following them but we are not with them because we never “touch” them until the final shots.

The film also suffers in that ultimately other than the motion not a great deal happens. While this is definitely keeping in what a trip like this would be like, one some level it isn't engaging because there are long sequences where nothing is said. Since we don't have fully formed characters for a chunk of the film we are just watching people walk for two hours. I completely understand how some people who have seen the film have complained that the film is like paint drying (I don't agree but I understand). Perhaps this is a result of the trailers and commercials promising more, perhaps not, but there are perhaps too many quiet spots that border on dead spots.

I’m not sure why we need the ultra brief cameos of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong. I understand that Firth has the weight to carry the importance of the mission, and Cumberbatch signals the end. But they really didn’t need to be there. Mark Strong is note perfect as an officer met on the road and he disappears into the role, but it could have been a random actor who could carry himself with stature.

Watching 1917 I found I admired it, I was moved along by the story but I never was connected to it.

Reservations aside the film is very good- I just don’t think it’s as great as people are making out, at least on a technical level.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Detective Pikachu (2019)

In a world full of pokemon a son tries to locate his missing father with the help of Pikachu, a Pokemon that is able to speak English.

Nifty little fantasy works because it is way more than just the game or anime series. There is a genuine mystery happening and it carries us along through events because we actually care about the characters. Blame the sterling cast headed by the voice of Ryan Reynolds who voices Pikachu and manages to make him more than a Deadpool knock off. The cast is so good that when the final fade happens I was actually wiping away a tear because we had a real character moment.

While not knowing who all the various pokemons may make the film a tad daunting since many are given little throw aways in the background, everything else in the film works, with the fights and visual effects looking spectacular.

An absolute delight..

Friday, January 10, 2020

Announcing NYICFF 2020 OPENING NIGHT and Countries of Focus: JAPAN & SPOTLIGHT ON CANADA

NYICFF 2020 is thrilled to highlight the cinematic achievements of Japan in an expanded Friends & Neighbors program and shine a spotlight on brand new Canadian animation!
Member Tickets Go On Sale January 15
General Public Tickets Go On Sale January 22
Children Of The Sea
Ayumu Watanabe, 2019, 111 min.
Japanese with English Subtitles

A visually dazzling, mind-bending aquatic mystery. Ruka’s dad is so absorbed in his studies at the aquarium that he hardly notices when she befriends Umi and Sora. Like Ruka, the mysterious duo has the unique ability to hear the call of the sea and its endangered creatures. Together, can they save them?
On-Gaku: Our Sound 

Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019, 71 min.
Japanese with English subtitles

From grunge to genius, On-Gaku turns it up to eleven musically and visually! Kenji and his two buddies are considered the toughs in their high school. Only clever Aya knows their too-cool-for-school attitude is a total act, until a bass guitar unexpectedly ends up in Kenji’s hands. With its deadpan humor, fresh animation style, and upending of the musical genre, there’s no wonder this film won the Ottawa Int’l Animation Festival’s top prize. 

Bento Harassment

Renpei Tsukamoto, 2019, 106 min.Japanese with English subtitles

Can food speak louder than words? With Futaba’s mother tired of her teen’s icy attitude, she’ll try an unusual tactic to get her to talk—by way of her bento lunch box. For an entire school term, Futaba opens box after box, each designed with its own cringe-worthy message. An offbeat story of growing up, Bento Harassment will leave audiences laughing...and hungry.

Magic Boy 
Akira Daikuhara and Taiji Yabushita, 1961, 83 min.Japanese with English subtitles

Anime? Check. Disney-inspired cute critters? Check. Beautiful colors? Do you even have to ask?! Our Festival Flashback is a groundbreaker: the first-ever anime film released in the US (from renowned Toei Studios), and quite possibly the inspiration for many more. Step back in time and follow Sasuke’s adventures from the very beginning! 
Friends & Neighbors: Japan short film program 
Japanese with English subtitles

Say konichiwa (hello!) to our 2020 Friends & Neighbors. Celebrate Japan’s rich film and cultural history in a breathtaking range of styles: the hand-drawn artistry of master animator and NYICFF alum Koji Yamamura’s world premiere, Dreams into Drawing, the stop-motion nod to traditional Japanese puppetry in Gon, the Little Fox, and the manga-style zaps, zings, and pows of Onomatopoeia Rap, and more.
Andy Coyle, 2020, 44 min.

She’s clever, kind, witty—and rocks a pair of red boots like nobody’s business. Hilda is back, rescuing elves, dodging trolls, and exploring Trolberg’s strange history and stranger personalities. The BAFTA award-winning Netflix Original series inspired by Luke Pearson’s hugely popular graphic novels returns to NYICFF with the world premiere of Season Two. Join us for sneak peeks of “Troll Circle” and “The Witch,” two truly enchanting adventures!

The Outsider: HBO Adapts Stephen King

DNA evidence has been widely hailed as a tool to exonerate the wrongly convicted. However, in Terry Maitland’s case, it falsely implicates him in a horrific child murder. He will need someone who can think way outside the box to prove his innocence. Holly Gibney from the Mr. Mercedes books and TV series is certainly an unconventional investigator. She sees things others miss, so she might be the perfect detective to stalk the real killer in The Outsider, Richard Price’s 10-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which premieres this Sunday on HBO.

Terry Maitland is a well-liked teacher and coach in his quiet, working-class Oklahoma community, until Det. Ralph Anderson has him arrested and cuffed during one of his little league games for the murder of eleven-year-old Frank Peterson. There is ironclad DNA and eye-witness testimony linking Maitland to the crime scene, but his lawyer, Howie Gold, quickly uncovers physical evidence and video footage placing him in another city at the time of the murder.

It is all quite baffling to everyone, so Gold retains Gibney’s specialized services. Feeling guilty for turning the town against the Maitland family, Det. Anderson joins Gold’s investigation team while on leave from the department. He is not inclined to believe the fantastical, even when Gibney uncovers a string of similar child murders attributed to suspects still proclaiming their innocence, due to similarly conflicting DNA evidence and eye-witness statements. However, his wife Jeannie is more willing to reserve judgment and keep an open mind. She too joins Gold’s kitchen cabinet, after forging a sympathetic understanding with Maitland’s wife, Marcy.

Based on the first six episodes provided to the press (out of ten), it should be safe to say the serial killer at work boasts some sort of supernatural shape-and-DNA-shifting powers—and that shouldn’t be particularly spoilery, since it is a creation of Stephen King. However, the series unfolds with the style and drive of a procedural mystery. Indeed, comparisons to HBO’s True Detective are rather apt. Yet, Price fully capitalizes on the existential implications of a monster that (perhaps literally) feeds on human alienation and misery. These are especially damaged characters, even by the standards of King’s oeuvre.

Jason Bateman’s earnest everyman portrayal of Maitland easily convinces viewers to buy into the character’s predicament, sort of like Henry Fonda in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man taking a detour through the X-Files. Yet, perhaps more importantly, he effectively sets the vibe of mounting dread as the director of the first two episodes. However, Ben Mendelsohn surpasses him when it comes to projecting world-weary angst as Det. Anderson, whose every decision is influenced by the prior death of his own young son.

The Outsider also earns credit for featuring three women characters, who transcend stereotypes and become of equal or greater importance to the story than Maitland or even Anderson. Cynthia Erivo never resorts to cheap ticks or shtick in her endlessly intriguing portrayal of the on-the-spectrum Gibney (radically different from Justine Lupe’s depiction in the Mr. Mercedes series). It showcases her brilliance, a la Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but also emphasizes her acute vulnerability. Yet, Price also empowers her as a woman, who haltingly explores the possibility of romance with a former law enforcement contact, nicely played by Derek Cecil.

Just Scream (2019)

Powerhouse performances and a very shark scalpel make this take down of the media a must see short.

The film simply tells the tale of a young woman who has been invited to some on to a TV talk show and talk about rape, in particular her rape by a teacher when she was 12 years old. As she relates her tale she quickly realizes that no one really cares. This leads to an explosion…

This film is a stunner. A straight on point take down of talk shows and news programs this film doesn’t have a false note in it. This is all the work of writer director and actress Ewurakua Dawson-Amoah who essentially dismantles on screen. It is a stunning portrait of a wounded woman lashing out and it will break your heart because you feel all the pain and rage. It is so good that it will make your Best of the Year list because frankly it really is a towering achievement- more so when you consider she stepped in at the last minute when the actress who was supposed to do it didn't show up. (She needs to do more acting)

But it’s not just her performance that is top shelf but her writing and direction. The script is spot on. And her direction is as good as it gets. Yes I know it is a simple set up with the camera just pointed at two chairs, but that’s a dodge and a misdirection because Dawson-Amoah may not move the camera but she sure as hell moves everything on screen, from the people dressing the set, to Tim Cox’s smarmy interviewer (he’s so good you may hate him forever) to Dawson-Amoah herself. She has choreographed a dance that moves the soul of the audience. It deserves as many awards as it can muster.

This is a masterpiece and a must see.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Sonata (2019)

Rutger Hauer plays a composer who kills himself  leaving his mansion and work to his estranged daughter a concert violinist. She is nonplussed by he father's death, however soon after visiting his home she discovers that things were not normal and that he may have connections to a secret society trying to open up the doors between worlds.

We've been here before any number of times (for example this is a kind of musical riff on the same idea behind novel that inspired THE NINTH GATE.) and the film doesn't do much new with the result our interest is lost. Blame both the acting and the script are uneven which resulted in my wanting to see what happened (I hope they would do something good eventually)  I didn't remain glued to the screen.

I'm not going to point fingers, partly because there is enough blame to go around, but mostly because some of the film actually works. The hunt for what the symbols mean and another the ten or fifteen minutes of the film at the end are actually quite good. The problem is as I said at the start we know where this is going. There are no really surprises and even when there are the cast often seems disinterested.

I don't hate the film, but I didn't love it.Watching it as a screener I found that I was doing other things around the room. I most certainly wanted to see where it went but I didn't need to watch it with my full attention since I was ahead of the cast by a mile.

Worth a look at some point when it hits Netflix of an inclusive streaming service.

Peshmerga (2016) begins a theatrical run tomorrow at the Quad as part of Bernard-Henri Lévy x 4

What if a philosopher made a war documentary? Bernard-Henri Levy has done just that and the result is Peshmerga about the Iraqi Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Iraq.

To be honest  Levy has made at least one other war doc, which I'm told is overly pretentious. Peshmerga does suffer from it's director's overly self indulgent navel gazing but at the same time the film does have an effect on it's audience.

The effect is due entirely to the you are there shooting of the film. Beginning with a POV shot of two men running in the desert which takes a sudden turn when one is blown up Peshmerga grabs it's audience by the throat and never lets you go.

I suspect at this point I should warn you that there are images in this film which will bother many. We see the war dead and some footage of the nastiness inflicted on people by ISIS. We see people die unpleasant deaths.

What makes the film stand out, and to some degree lessens the impact of the story is Levy's purple narration. Taking an intellectual stance that kind of puts him outside of the events in the film Levy spins the film in some intriguing ways that make you engage with the film with you brain and not just your gut. At the same time because some of the musings sound overly intellectual some of the connections to the heart are severed and we never completely engage on an emotional level. The upshot of which is that some of the raw visceral power that should cause us to act or react on what we are seeing. instead we look at the tale and nod to ourselves and say - oh isn't that terrible before moving on.

Of course that doesn't prevent the film from hanging around in your brain for several days forcing you to ponder it for a long time after.

For details on the run and the entire Bernard-Henri Lévy x 4 series go here

And for Nate Hood's alternate take on the film go here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Woman Who Loved Giraffes (2019)

As all the promotional material says -years before Jane Goodall went to Africa Anne Innis Dagg was there doing the dame thing but with giraffes. Dagg spent years studying the animals she loved and getting abused by academia who refused for decades to accept her as one of them., turning her toward feminist causes.

Well done documentary shines a light on a forgotten naturalist whose work in the field and fighting for social causes needs to be noted. Buoyed by a central figure who is force to be reckoned with the film sucks us in early and pulls us in thanks to copious use of letters, recordings and the film footage Dagg shot while in the wild. It is one thing to be told about what a person is doing, it's another thing entirely to see it for yourself.

You will forgive me for not having a great deal to say, but when confronted with a life such as Dagg's it is often better to simply allow it to speak for itself-and director's Alison Reid's film does that and we are better for it.

THE WOMAN WHO LOVED GIRAFFES opens Friday in New York and is recomended.