Dec 1, 2014

Women Getting Angry: This Year's Best Documentary

This is just one of the many emotionally-charged archival photos that appear in the new documentary, She's Beautiful When She's Angry, opening on Friday, December 5th. To find screenings in your area, go to the official website:
Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a homage to the women whose intelligence and persistence led to most radical social reforms of the 20th century. And it all started here, in the United States. Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” (1949) notwithstanding, it was American women who first took to the streets for women’s rights, who shut down Congress, forced the Supreme Court to decide on a woman’s right to choose, compelled law enforcement to view rape as a violent crime, and burned their college degrees to protest the dearth of women’s history and literature in college curricula. The burning of bras and girdles followed, a symbolic relinquishment of standard concepts of beauty: The cry went out in 1970 that all women were beautiful and, as Dore suggests in this excellent documentary, even more so when they channel their anger.

Dore’s title is a twist on the condescending line used by men to minimize the effect of women’s anger. The filmmaker opens on a contemporary protest in front of the Texas state house in Austin. A speaker shouts, “Don’t mess with Texas women,” a play on that state’s unofficial slogan. Texas is “messing” with a woman’s right to choose, in defiance of federal law. Next, Virginia Whitehall, the founder of the first woman’s shelter in Dallas, and the daughter of a charter member of the League of Women Voters, delivers the documentary’s call to action: “You are not allowed to retire from women’s issues.”

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry then moves to its lively, deftly edited mélange (accomplished by co-producer Nancy Kennedy) of archival film and photos, and interviews of its female subjects, all to the accompaniment of an expertly mixed score of women’s voices (by supervising sound editor Deborah Wallach and re-recording mixer Sean Garnhart) that highlights a variety of protest songs from the 1970s.

Among the women who appear in the documentary are iconic feminist leaders, such as author and educator Kate Millet (“Sexual Politics,” 1969), journalist and author Susan Brownmiller (“Against Our Will,” 1975), the founder of NOW, Jacqui Ceballos, and celebrated District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who in 1970 became the most prominent feminist in New York City after being appointed by Mayor John Lindsay to head the Human Rights Commission. Lesser-known but equally influential women also appear in the film, including Fran Beal, co-founder of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee who in 1969 wrote what came to be known as the Black women’s feminist manifesto, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.”

Nov 12, 2014

'Tis the Season for Revivals: "The King and the Mockingbird" at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

In this still from the "The King and the Mockingbird," (a Rialto Pictures release) the eponymous character helps a pair of lovers escape an evil king. (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.)

The King and the Mockingbird, an official selection at this year's New York Film Festival, was a labor of love for director and animator Paul Grimault, and his co-writer Jacques Prévert (Children of Paradise, 1946). The filmmakers lost rights to the movie shortly after it screened in France in 1953, and it was not until 1979, shortly before Prévert’s demise, that it was completed. The animated feature (in French with English subtitles), loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, will open at Film Society of Lincoln Center on November 21st. A beautiful example of the traditional cell animation technique, which in today’s digital age is generally seen only in shorts, The King and the Mockingbird is intended for adult audiences.

The setting for the movie is the “rapid heart” kingdom of Tachycardia in which a cross-eyed ruler falls in love with the painted image of a shepherdess. As it turns out, the shepherdess loves another man. Charles V (voiced by Pascal Mazzotti) is not the first cinematic anti-hero to be drawn into or undone by a love triangle, but this king is a Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane), his castle a monument to his megalomania. The plight of the lovers (Agnès Viala and Renaud Marx), and the king’s peasants, are delightfully chronicled by a blind musician (Roger Blin) and the bird of the title (Jean Martin, best-known for his role in The Battle of Algiers). That bird, which continually "mocks" the king, was undoubtedly reborn as the song and dance man Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier) in Vincent Minnelli’s Gigi (1958).

Oct 12, 2014

Judy Irving's "Pelican Dreams"

Judy Irving and "Gigi" in the filmmaker's new documentary Pelican Dreams, opening in New York and LA on November 7th. (Photo courtesy of Shadow Distribution.)
About ten years ago, on a visit to a remote wildlife reserve in Mexico, I had my first glimpse of brown pelicans diving into the sea. My husband and I looked on as a flock of these large-winged birds seemed to shape-shift in mid-air, contracting their wings and hurling themselves downward, slicing through the surface of the water in order to catch the fish they had apparently spied from above. In Judy Irving’s Pelican Dreams, in a spectacular sequence that captures the efforts of young brown pelicans diving beside their elders, viewers can see one of these wonders of nature.

Irving had begun filming the birds over a decade ago and abandoned the project, but when a brown pelican landed on the Golden Gate Bridge recently, she recalled her childhood love of the birds and the 16 mm. footage she had shot of them. Brown pelicans breed on California’s Channel Islands, and that unlucky young bird, dubbed “Gigi” by Irving, was underweight, and had to be taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Irving followed her there. Throughout Pelican Dreams, the filmmaker speaks with about a dozen pelican caretakers, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area, who nurse the birds professionally, and who heal them in their backyards. All the pelicans are released back into the wild if they recover.

Oct 9, 2014

Henri Matisse's "Garden" Recreated at MoMA

These are two panels from the newly restored cut-out, "The Swimming Pool," by Henri Matisse, which is part of a new exhibit at MoMA. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.)
The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” includes a newly restored work the museum purchased in 1973, “The Swimming Pool” (1952), among other spectacular examples of what the artist himself described as a “cutting out operation.” These works, which Matisse (1869-1954) began in the last decade or so of his life, were created with a pair of scissors and brightly colored gouache applied to white paper. The resulting shapes, which recur through several works, are sometimes imbricated, but often more simply arrayed across paper or burlap.

“The Swimming Pool,” pinned to burlap and on view in a room of its own, was the inspiration for the entire show. As Mr. Karl Buchberg, Senior Conservator at MoMA, explained at a press conference on Tuesday, he noticed the burlap was deteriorating and discoloring the paper. He proposed that it be replaced; the resulting restoration is what led to the idea of staging the exhibition. In a video which screens at the exhibit, Mr. Buchberg is seen removing some of that burlap thread by thread. He and Ms. Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, along with Ms. Samantha Friedman, Assistant Curator in that department, organized the exhibit, working in collaboration with London’s Tate Modern, which recently held a similar show. 
"Zulma" 1950, one of the cut-outs on display at MoMA's new exhibition. (Photo courtesy of MoMA.)

Oct 6, 2014

Tales of the Grim Sleeper Screens at The New York Film Festival Tonight

Fourth in a Series on The 52nd New York Film Festival. A fifth, on the restored Hiroshima Mon Amour, can be found here:

Pam, Nick Broomfield's (background) guide to the neighborhood in South LA where Tales of the Grim Sleeper was shot. (Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival.)
Some documentaries are important, and Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, screening at The New York Film Festival tonight, is one of them. But that does not mean the film is always comfortable to watch, as it sometimes skirts the boundaries of exploitation. In portraying the case of Lonnie Franklin, Jr., a Los Angeles serial murderer, the filmmaker worked with a small crew to produce a “high concept” documentary; it features America’s favorite evildoer police department, the LAPD, in one corner, and disenfranchised Blacks in the other. Broomfield maps a community devastated by crack cocaine, unemployment and poverty, and then skillfully employs a former drug addict, Pam, to garner the trust of people who could tell the story of these brutal crimes.

Oct 2, 2014

Frederick Wiseman's "National Gallery" Screens at New York Film Festival

In Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery, a restorer cleans a painting at the National Gallery in London. (Courtesy of Zipporah Films and the New York Film Festival.)
This is the third in a series of posts about The 52nd New York Film Festival. 

When introducing Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery at the New York Film Festival press screening yesterday, John Wildman (senior publicist) quipped that at three hours, it qualified as a “Wiseman short.” Several of the filmmaker’s documentaries run four hours, and Domestic Violence I and II, set in the Tampa police department and criminal court, run nearly six, yet like much of his work, these films are riveting portraits of private and public institutions. During his long career, Wiseman has also taken his two-person crew abroad for such films as La Comédie-Française (1996, 223 minutes) and La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009, 158 minutes). All of his documentaries are classic, fly-on-the-wall perspectives of the sort that are a rarity today.

My interview with Frederick Wiseman for La Danse, which appeared in Cineaste, is under "Archives" to the left of this post.

Sep 24, 2014

A Belgian "Norma Rae"

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) asks her boss for another chance at keeping her job in Two Days, One Night. (Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival.)
This the second in a series of posts about The 52nd New York Film Festival.

Yesterday, the press at The New York Film Festival screened the new Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne feature Two Days, One Night (95 minutes), which stars French actor Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant, 2013). It will have its New York premier at the festival on October 5th and 6th.

If you have a soft spot for Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), this movie is for you. It is a bit of a slow burn, not the usual swift pacing of the Belgian filmmakers’ other movies, but worth seeing for its uplifting tale about a working mom fighting for her factory job. Sandra, who is recovering from a mental breakdown, has apparently had trouble readjusting to her work environment; that provides her boss with a ready excuse to reduce staff. The Dardenne Brothers are known for their authentic portrayals of working-class characters: Nearly all of their films are set in the industrial city of Seraing, in the Liege province where they were born and still reside. 

Sandra and her coworkers in a still from the Dardenne Brothers new feature film, Two Days, One Night. (Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival.)

Sep 20, 2014

Asia Argento and Alice Rohrwacher at the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival

Aria and her found cat seek a home for the night in Asia Argento's Incompressa (Misunderstood). (Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival.)
This is the first in a series of posts about the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival.

The New York Film Festival press screenings started on an interesting note last week with actress Asia Argento’s narrative film Incompressa (Misunderstood), which is about nine year-old Aria (Argento’s birth name) whose famous, cocaine-addicted parents—one an actor, the other a pianist—are so self-absorbed, they fail to notice when she stays out all night. The movie stars Giulia Salerno in a wonderful performance as the pixie blonde whose loneliness and despair lie at the core of Argento’s film.

In interviews, the writer-director has said that Misunderstood is not autobiographical—her father is filmmaker Dario Argento—but rather that the movie is inspired by incidents she witnessed as a child and as an adult. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Aria’s pianist-mother, grew up in circumstances similar to Argento's, in an affluent, Bohemian family. Perhaps in casting Gainsbourg, Argento felt that the actress would be a kindred spirit on-set. She adds dimension to the life of a neurotic woman juggling creative work against the exigencies of marriage and children. Both Gainsbourg and Argento are moms, actresses and singers.

Misunderstood is not for the faint-hearted; this is a Carrie-like story in which Aria endures many betrayals. Her grandmother tries to poison her cat, and her classmates are jealous of her. They also mistake Aria’s motives when she makes a last-ditch effort to garner their affection. Argento’s script is far too episodic, but she is a capable director, and elicits good performances from the entire cast, including Gabriel Garko (Callas Forever, 2002) as Aria’s father. At this writing, the film does not have a distributor and can only been seen at the New York Film Festival on September 27th and 29th. It is in Italian with English subtitles. Nota Bene: While Misunderstood is about a girl, it is a movie aimed at adults, and is inappropriate for children younger than 15 or 16 years of age.

Gelsomina and her sister Marinella in Alice Rohrwacher's Le Miraviglie (The Wonders), a delightful movie aimed at adults, but also a rare movie about a girl's coming-of-age appropriate for adolescent children. (Photo courtesy of The New York Film Festival.)

Aug 15, 2014

Catherine Breillat's "Abuse of Weakness" Opens in Theaters this Month

French writer-director Catherine Breillat consistently portrays the lives of women and girls. (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.)

Last October, after a New York Film Festival screening of Abuse of Weakness (2013), I got to speak to its writer-director, Catherine Breillat. That interview has just been published in Film Journal International and can be found here:

I last interviewed the French filmmaker for her wonderful reinvisioning of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty (2011). (“Rewriting Fairy Tales, Revisiting Female Identity: An Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Cineaste, XXXVI, no. 3 (2011): 32-35.) A PDF of that article appears under "Archives," to the left of this column. I also spoke with her in 1999 after the release of Romance; a PDF of that article, “Quest for Romance,” will be posted soon.

Abuse of Weakness is a semi-autobiographical movie, based on the events that followed Ms. Breillat’s stroke in 2004 when she cast the notorious conman Christophe Rocancourt for a role in her upcoming movie. Taking advantage of her illness, Rocancourt stole about $800,000 from Ms. Breillat; she then filed an abus de faiblesse lawsuit against him, for which the film is named. Rocancourt was found guilty and is now serving a jail term.

This is Breillat’s fourth film since her stroke, and it is a courageous, unstinting portrayal of her continuing struggle to overcome a debilitating loss of balance, and to get on with her work. Abuse of Weakness stars Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher, La Cérémonie) in an outstanding performance as a movie director whose stroke and subsequent recovery is complicated by her dependence on Vilko (Kool Shen), a convicted criminal.  

All fourteen of Ms. Breillat’s movies as a writer-director are intended for adults, and are significant because of the filmmaker’s commitment to depicting the stories of women and girls. She is best-known for Fat Girl (2001), a controversial masterpiece that follows a pair of adolescent sisters on vacation with their parents. Ms. Breillat’s girl characters are a defiant bunch who flaunt social norms and live according to the dictates of their heart—as she does, unapologetic and without shame.

Jul 9, 2014

World Cup Soccer: Through the Eyes of a Tibetan Lama and an Iranian Dissident

Reading about the World Cup matches recently, I was reminded of an interview I did in 2000 with Khyentse Norbu, the only filmmaker I know of who is a real Tibetan lama. His film, The Cup, is about monks obsessed with the international match. Norbu’s take is so delightful, and timeless, I thought I would post the interview in the hope that fans who missed its limited theatrical release might look for it on DVD. A PDF of the interview can be found in “From My Archives” to the left of this column.

My review of The Cup appears here:
Maryam Moghadam, who plays Melika in Closed Curtain, had her passport confiscated by the Iranian regime, along with writer-director Kambozia Partovi (Cafe Transit, 2005), after they attended last year's Berlin Film Festival to accept the Silver Bear (for best screenplay) on Jafar Panahi's behalf. (Photo courtesy of Amplify Films)

Offside (2006, on DVD and streaming) is another unusual World Cup film, written and directed by Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker whose work I admire. It is about the excitement an important match inspires in Tehran, and is perhaps the only soccer movie about female fans. A group of young women disguised as boys, in the hope that they can deceive guards, attempt to gain entrance to the stadium. Iranian girls and women are forbidden to attend sports events, even if they are accompanied by male relatives. The women’s ruse is discovered and they are detained; young security guards, equally disappointed not to be inside watching the game, are told to keep them penned in an area outside the stadium where they can only hear the shouts of the crowd.

My review of Offside can be found here:

Offside is a clever indictment of Iran’s theocratic state, yet it is Panahi’s most optimistic film. Like so much of his work, including The Circle, the subject of my 2001 interview with him (see link in “From the Archives”), the movie is banned in his home country. Panahi, who is accused of creating “propaganda” against the state, is now prevented from making any movies in Iran, and from traveling outside the country. While it is a less severe sentence than other socially conscious artists have received in Iran, it is nevertheless unconscionable.

The unnamed writer and his dog in Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain sit before a window that suggests Iran's darkened movie theaters. The movie will open at Film Forum on July 9th. (Photo, Courtesy of Amplify Films)

The filmmaker has managed to defy the ban with This is Not A Film (2011), a documentary shot inside his Tehran apartment, and Closed Curtain (2013), a conflation of fiction and documentary, shot at his seaside home, which will open at Film Forum in New York City on July 9th. A link to my review of Closed Curtain appears under “Film Reviews (Online),” to the right of this column, and my review of This is Not A Film can be found here:

This still from Closed Curtain is of Panahi arriving at his seaside home. The film is an unusual mix of documentary and fiction, and an eloquent expression of the writer-director's despondency over the filmmaking ban Iran has imposed on him. (Photo courtesy of Amplify Films)
Watching Panahi’s The Circle again recently, I found that I still flinch at the brutality his women characters are subjected to, first by the state who incarcerated them for crimes Panahi never names, and then by their families who reject them, or try to kill them, after they are released from prison. Women can be arrested in Iran for smoking in public, and unmarried girls and women for being in the company of a man who is not a male relative. At the end of The Circle, Panahi brings us “full circle,” to a prison cell, where we hear the guard call out to Solmaz. Solmaz is the name of Panahi’s daughter. She acted in that film, and has been representing her father for a few years now, attending screenings of his films abroad, and accepting awards for him. One hopes that Panahi and his daughter will soon be free of the “circle” that imprisons them, and so many other Iranian artists.

 The official trailer for Closed Curtain is here:

Jan 31, 2014

The Oscar Nominees: Animated Shorts

In Shuhei Morita's Possessions, the ghosts of discarded objects haunt a man seeking refuge in an abandoned temple. (Image courtesy of ShortsHD and AMPAS.)
Some Oscar-nominated filmmakers, the ones who write and produce the cinematic equivalent of the short story, rarely get the critical attention they deserve. They make “short subjects,” Animated, Live Action and Documentary movies of less than 40 minutes. This post is a review of the 2014 Animated shorts. To read my published reviews of the 2014 Live Action and Documentary categories, click on the links to the right in “Film Reviews (Online).”

Feral (USA, 13 minutes) by Daniel Sousa, Dan Golden

A still from Feral in which a "wild child" grapples with his true identity. (Courtesy of ShortsHD and AMPAS.)

This “wild child” tale is rendered in sharp, menacing drawings, mostly black on a white or gray background, appropriate to the film’s dramatic subject matter. The boy at the center of the story seems to shape-shift from boy to wolf; a hunter “rescues” him, and for a short time, he wears clothes, attends school and struggles with living indoors. Like many a child before him, he is tested in the schoolyard when he is jeered at by the other students. He reverts to wolf and bares his teeth. It is not long before the boy heads out of the city, shedding all vestiges of “civilization.” While the story’s denouement is enigmatic, it is also quite stunning—and the music, by composer Golden, is affecting. This is a simple, yet beautifully realized short.

Get a Horse! (USA, 6 minutes) by Lauren MacMullan, Dorothy McKim

It was only a matter of time before Mickey and Minnie went 3-D, as they do in this clever, fast-paced cartoon in which the mice, as usual, do battle with a demon cat. A rare female filmmaking team make quick work of updating the old characters, allowing them to leap in and out of the screen, and from black and white to color. Even those for whom the anthropomorphic mouse holds little appeal will smile at the skill and imagination illustrated by MacMullan and McKim.

Jan 29, 2014

An Interview with Oscar-Nominated Palestinian Filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad

Palestinian resistance fighter Omar (Adam Bakri) and Nadja (Leem Lubany), the woman he loves, in a still from the film "Omar," to be released in the United States on February 21st. (Courtesy of Adopt Films)

Hany Abu-Assad never had any formal training as a filmmaker; in fact, the Nazareth-born writer-director began his professional life as an airplane mechanic in the Netherlands. The first of his movies to be released in the United States, Paradise Now (2005), is about the recruitment and training of two friends who are aspiring suicide bombers. While he remains a controversial figure for his resolute position on Palestinian statehood, Abu-Assad is an engaging and talented artist—and his newest film, Omar, while providing an uncompromising view of Palestinian resistance and Israeli occupation, opened in Tel Aviv in January and will open in New York City on February 21st. It is an Oscar nominee in the Foreign Film category.

You can read my interview with the filmmaker in Film Journal International:

Jan 1, 2014

Six of 2013's Best Films Now on DVD or Streaming

A still from the documentary "Cutie and the Boxer" (courtesy Weinstein Co.), which shows Noriko Shinohara completing one of her murals for an exhibition with her husband and fellow artist Ushio Shinohara.

Like most critics, I see excellent narrative films and documentaries every year which open for two weeks in New York or LA, as well as movies which never receive any theatrical distribution, and still others that are not picked up for DVD distribution or streaming—and we are all the worse for it. Some are human rights documentaries, but others are narrative films, often independently produced, which may have flopped at the box office—a fact no viewer should use as a measure of whether or not to screen it—and have difficulty getting a DVD distributor.

I think of Nagieb Khaja’s documentary My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, which did not get a theatrical distributor and is not available on DVD or streaming. It provides a remarkable portrait of that country. For long moments while screening it, I felt the grief of an Afghani child who cares for his younger siblings, and wonders whether he will ever be able to complete his education, and the mixed emotions of an American soldier who suddenly realizes that the people living in the village he is defending in Helmund Province do not care who wins the war. Some of them want to kill him, a few believe he may liberate them, but most just want him and the Islamic extremists to leave so that they can return to tending their goats, or harvesting the fruit from a beloved orchard. (For an interview with Khaja, use the link to the left under Feature Articles: “On Human Rights Watch.”)

With Khaja in mind, instead of compiling a “Ten Best” list this year, I hope you will consider my “Best Films of 2013 on DVD or Streaming.” Some of these six documentaries and narrative films suffer on the small screen, especially Alice Winocour’s Augustine and Pablo Larrain’s No (which is from last year’s list but opened in theaters in 2013). These filmmakers shot on 35 mm. film, and their aesthetic is more easily evinced on a theater screen, but their work is nevertheless worth seeing under any circumstances because of their unusual historical narratives, and the artists’ perspectives, both of which are a pleasant break from large-budget Hollywood standards on everybody’s “Best Ten” list.

I was lucky enough to be assigned interviews or reviews of all six films, many of which are available on the Internet. Check for links to the right and left of this post. Where indicated, I conducted videotaped interviews as well; these are available on the dates listed (see "Blog Archive").

Here is the list in alphabetical order:

1.    Augustine (narrative), in French with English subtitles, by Alice Winocour. (See video interview below. (Videotaped interview: May 10th, 2013)
2.    Caesar Must Die (documentary/narrative), in Italian dialect with English subtitles, by the Taviani Brothers (Videotaped interview: January 27th, 2013)
3.    Cutie and the Boxer (documentary), in English, by Zachery Heinzerling
4.    No (narrative), in Spanish with English subtitles, by Pablo Larrain
5.    Stories We Tell (documentary), in English, by Sarah Polley
6.    Wadjda (narrative), in Arabic with English subtitles, by Haifaa Al Mansour