Saturday, January 26, 2008

Russian Bull

“Greatest Jewish Fighter Since Samson!” a banner announces in Orthodox Stance, a sweet little film for the sweet science, a fascinating documentary that follows the Orthodox Jewish, Russian immigrant, professional boxer Dmitriy Salita as he navigates the seemingly disparate worlds that make up his life. From a Chabad Synagogue in Brooklyn, to the Black- and Latino-filled Starrett City Boxing Gym in East New York, to the fake glamor of the Las Vegas ringside, director Jason Hutt has crafted a no-frills, no-nonsense sports movie that is less about left jabs and right hooks than it is about the American Dream. As Dmitriy’s rabbi puts it, “His message is that no career should ever convince you that it’s a contradiction to religion.” Such simple words form a radical idea coming from a pugilist who escaped the anti-Semitism of Odessa, Ukraine as a kid.

To read the rest of my review visit:

Friday, January 25, 2008

Time Warped: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

"This awards season may be the year of knocked-up chicks and orange tic-tacs. While the ballooning protagonist of Juno is overloading her boyfriend’s mailbox with the mints, the no-nonsense heroine of 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days – who must guide her pregnant roommate through the rings of Dante’s Inferno that was underground abortion in 1987 Communist Romania – is lucky to snag a pack on the black market. Treasure that moment at the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’s astonishing Palme d’Or winner, dear reader, for it’s the last time in 113 nearly unbearable minutes that you’ll be able to rest comfortably in your seat."

The read the rest visit The House Next Door at:

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"U2 3D" Re-vu

"Ever since the Zoo TV tour, U2’s set designs have resembled Ridley Scott productions. So what could National Geographic Entertainment’s concert film U2 3D -- the “first digital 3D, multi-camera, real-time production”, with 5.1 Surround Sound -- have to offer besides a more immersive sensory experience? Surprisingly, quite a bit."

To read more visit:

(Glasses and Bono not included.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Goodnight, Sweet Prince

From my original review of "Brokeback Mountain":

To say "Brokeback Mountain" is a “gay cowboy movie” is akin to calling “Romeo and Juliet” a play about two feuding Italian families. In either case you wouldn’t be wrong, but to reduce the two stories to such superficial plot summaries misses the essence of both – the universal theme of societal constructions (be they ideas about class, race or sexuality) serving to keep true love apart. Ang Lee’s disguised “Romeo and Juliet,” set in the west and involving two men, is merely the latest take on a timeless subject. It is a classic western that feels so right in its elimination of the extraneous girl at the center of the requisite triangle, the undeveloped female character put there for no other reason than to keep the other two points from collapsing into (the arms of) each other. Blessed with a tight script and phenomenal acting, Ang Lee rightly steps aside, letting the film perform its own alchemy, leaving no smudges of auteur fingerprints to distract like a dirty lens. Heath Ledger lives up to his hype, imbuing his complex role with a gravity that’s worthy of the young Brando.

A role like Ennis Del Mar is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any actor. What Heath Ledger did with that role, the jaw-dropping astonishing performance he gave, is at a height the vast majority of actors could never reach in ten lifetimes. It's all any fan of that mysterious, shamanistic art could ever ask for. We are truly blessed.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nonsense at the Grey Lady

NY Times film critic A.O. Scott went to Romania in search of the “New Wave on the Black Sea,” the title of his article in the publication’s magazine this week about the post-Ceausescu cinema auteurs. Seemingly unable to find what he was looking for, he made up this:

“Though they might be reluctant to admit it, the new Romanian filmmakers have a lot in common beyond their reliance on a small pool of acting and technical talent. Because of the stylistic elements they share — a penchant for long takes and fixed camera positions; a taste for plain lighting and everyday d├ęcor; a preference for stories set amid ordinary life — Puiu, Porumboiu and Mungiu are sometimes described as minimalists or neo-neorealists. But while their work does show some affinity with that of other contemporary European auteurs, like the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who make art out of the grim facts of quotidian existence, the realism of the Romanians has some distinct characteristics of its own.

It seems like something more than coincidence, for example, that the five features that might constitute a mini-canon of 21st-century Romanian cinema — “Stuff and Dough,” Puiu’s first feature; “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”; “12:08 East of Bucharest”; “The Paper Will Be Blue,” by Radu Muntean; and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — all confine their action to a single day and focus on a single action. This is less a matter of Aristotelian discipline than of respect for the contingency and loose-endedness of real experience. In each case, the action is completed — Lazarescu dies; the abortion in “4 Months” is performed; the broadcast in “12:08” comes to an end — but a lingering, haunting sense of inconclusiveness remains. The narratives have a shape, but they seem less like plots abstracted from life than like segments carved out of its rough rhythms. The characters are often in a state of restless, agitated motion, confused about where they are going and what they will find when they arrive. The camera follows them into ambulances, streetcars, armored vehicles and minivans, communicating with unsettling immediacy their anxiety and disorientation. The viewer is denied the luxury of distance. After a while, you feel you are living inside these movies as much as watching them.”

So…how does this strongly differentiate the Romanian auteurs from the Belgian Dardenne brothers, again? Did Scott not catch “L’Enfant” at Cannes? Mungiu’s harrowing suspense thriller “4 Months” has more in common tonally with “L’Enfant” than it does with fellow Romanian Puiu’s bottomless black comedy “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” (As for the visual similarities between those two films, they share the same DP, Oleg Mutu.) And don’t get me started on “12:08 East of Bucharest,” a deadpan bourgeoisie Bunuel marinated in the gypsy absurdity of Emir Kusturica.

In fact, the Romanians seem to combine the brutal simplicity of early Ken Loach and Mike Leigh (like the Dardennes) with the youthful urge to “shine light on truth” that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck displayed more recently with “The Lives of Others.” British plus Belgian plus German equals Romanian New Wave. Tada!

But really, are the Romanians any different from other “reactionary” auteurs that globally and throughout history have been telling their own personal/universal stories in the wake of societal collapse?

And bravo to the Romanian directors for refusing to declare themselves a “New Wave.” With that label comes the very pre-Internet presupposition that filmmakers operate in a chummy bubble, not in relation/reaction to the world at large. It’s a concept that benefits no one but film critics.

A.O. Scott’s article at:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bite Me

Mitchell Lichtenstein’s debut feature Teeth, about a high school student who discovers she has a toothed vagina, reminded me of the first time I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a teenager, particularly the scene in which the knight gets all of his limbs swiped off with a sword, blood spurting everywhere, the ground strewn with body parts. For weeks afterwards all it took was for a sadistic friend of mine to whisper, “It’s only a flesh wound,” and I’d be doubled over my desk in Spanish class, gasping for air. “Que es tu problema?” the teacher would ask, but I couldn’t answer in any language. Why the mere thought of severed limbs and fountains of blood flying across the screen could have me in stitches was beyond my capacity to explain. Of course, knowing I was exhibiting inappropriate behavior made me uncomfortable – but it did nothing to stop the giggles. Appropriately or not, the scenes in Teeth in which the heroine, Dawn (Jess Weixler, who has a young Laura Linney's looks and acting chops) uses her “power” to exact revenge are as campy and funny as anything in Python's Grail -- or John Waters' Female Trouble. Substitute dildos for prosthetic arms and legs and you get the picture.

To read the rest of my "biting" review visit:

Saturday, January 12, 2008

No Future

“This Is England” is a movie with no easy moves. Every expectation of violence leads to tenderness, the slightest sentimentality a prelude to destruction. For that’s how life really works and Shane Meadows’ spine-tingling specific, semi-autobiographical film about growing up skinhead in the early 80s of Thatcher’s Britain isn’t afraid to kick the shit out of cliches. The young Meadows is represented by 12-year-old Shaun whose father has been killed fighting in the Falklands War. Fortunately for Shaun, he finds a father figure in Woody, the caring if sometimes immature leader of the local skins, who introduces Shaun to the wonders of Ben Sherman shirts and Doc Martens boots, and more importantly to a camaraderie and protection this picked-on kid has never known. (There’s a hilarious running gag at the beginning in which Shaun finds himself forever having to justify his un-cool flared pants.)

That is until the recently released from prison Combo arrives on the scene to split Woody’s once loyal gang apart. And this is where Meadows’ directing really starts to shine, his attention to nuance remarkable. The happy-go-lucky montages of bashing abandoned buildings and stomping through deserted streets give way to another side of gang culture, one in which racism and xenophobia are viewed through the lens of nationalism and self-pride. Shaun places his innocent fate in the hands of Combo and his crew and is introduced to the sound of smooth-talking, well-dressed Pat Buchanan preachers, to the usual, rational head-spinning justifications (i.e., “We are not Nazis! We are fighting for the life of our country, from its being raped and pillaged by immigrants who are putting our brothers, our hardworking Englishmen out of work!”) This is where “This Is England” becomes that universal, timeless story of fear and its consequences.

Yet the film wouldn’t work at the high level it does if it weren’t for the performances of Thomas Turgoose as the angel-faced Shaun and Stephen Graham as the three-dimensional psycho Combo, a brilliant creation from this actor who is every bit as good as Russell Crowe was in his own early (Australian) skinhead flick “Romper Stomper.” Shaun is a gentle child so deeply wounded by the loss of his dad that he’s formidable. Since he has nothing to lose he’s fearless. This is what both Woody and Combo see in him, the first men in Shaun’s life to see that potential strength that others have missed. And simply put, Stephen Graham is jaw-dropping astounding. He can go from explosive violence to tears and back again in the blink of an eye – showing us the cause and effect and origins of hatred through the flash of a finger, a trembling lower lip. His performance is so specific it’s recognizable, thus doubly disturbing. We can feel his cold stare right through to our bones.

Which is probably because Shane Meadows tells stories from the inside out, his insider’s view a necessity for the exquisite detail. Not just the music crucial to skinhead culture, but the Skrewdriver graffiti spray-painted on tunnel walls. Not just the skinhead girls who shave their heads and dress like the boys, but the Siouxsie Sioux chicks who tag along as well. Not just the tough skins in suspenders and long black coats, but the older hangers-on who look and dress like someone’s unemployed dad. These are things you wouldn’t know unless you were deep inside that Oi! culture. And Shane Meadows was there as a quiet witness, during the war and Thatcherism, during the welfare state and the punk unity that splintered into racism and xenophobia. He was there absorbing it through all his senses, his heart and soul. And, fortunately for audiences everywhere, he has the talent to translate it wholly and lovingly to the screen. Yes, for better or for worse, this is England. And this is us.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Thanks, Graydon!

“Vanity Fair” has again published my “Letter To The Editor” (January 2008 issue). This time I bitched about boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman.

A Music King Dethroned

FORGET THE PONZI SCHEME [“Mad About the Boys,” by Bryan Burrough, November]. The most preposterous part of this article is how anyone ever could have regarded Lou Pearlman’s intentions as other than dishonorable. He acquired the Chippendales male-stripper franchise, for heaven’s sake! Note to parents of boy-band members: If you throw your kid into a shark tank, the least you can do is take responsibility for the damage. —LAUREN WISSOT, Brooklyn, New York

Available online at: