Don’t miss ‘The Case Against 8′ at the North Park

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I covered it for Buffalo.com (it will run next week), but I wanted to post an advance reminder that the new Cultivate Cinema Circle film series presents its debut screening at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the North Park. The documentary “The Case Against 8″ kicks things off, and this exploration of the landmark Proposition 8 ruling is a fine choice.

Screening number two is also scheduled: Aleksei German’s acclaimed “Hard to be a God.” This free screening will be held on at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 25, at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at Buffalo Central Library.

For more info on Cultivate Cinema Circle, visit cultivatecinemacircle.com.

Feature: Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival celebrates 30 years

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For the second straight year, I wrote a feature on the Buffalo International Jewish Film festival for the Buffalo News.

In film festival terms, 30 years is not just impressive – it’s downright legendary. After all, festivals come and go with regularity. The Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival, on the other hand, is not going anywhere. As the 30th edition of the annual collection of film screenings proves, the BIJFF is just getting started.

As with previous editions, this year’s festival is a two-pronged affair. The first half of the festival kicks off on Friday and runs each night through May 21 in the Amherst Dipson Theater (3500 Main St.). Then, after a brief break, the festival restarts at the JCC Benderson Family Building Seller Theatre (2640 North Forest Road, Getzville) from May 31 through June 7.

JCC of Greater Buffalo Cultural Arts Director Jordana Halpern said breaking up the festival makes it easier for audiences to catch everything on their “must” list: “We know it’s difficult to see them all in a solid two week period, so we show each film twice – once at each location.”

It’s a smart move, since each year features such a diverse, ambitious collection of offerings.

“Our chair, Mike Silverman, and our committee members are passionate about only offering the best films on the market,” Halpern said. “If we can’t afford a film, we wait a year and try again as prices drop after it is first released.”

“The Return,” which screens May 19 and 31, could be this year’s most interesting selection. The drama focuses on four young Jewish women in present-day Poland who are struggling to determine their cultural identities in a nation with a buried past.

“Above and Beyond,” a documentary produced by Nancy Spielberg, sister of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, tells the remarkable story of the foreign airmen in the ’48 War. These American pilots met and trained in secret and, ironically, flew versions of the very Nazi planes they had tried to shoot down in World War II. The film screens May 20 and June 7.

“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” is a documentary about the inimitable “Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” This film highlighting Tucker’s rags-to-riches story screens May 19 and June 1.

Buffalo native Liz Swados is featured in the documentary “Sosua: Make a Better World,” the story of Jewish and Dominican teenagers who helped stage a musical about the Dominican rescue of 800 Jews from Hitler’s Germany. It screens May 17 and June 4; the May 17 screening will be followed by a Q and A with co-director Renee Silverman.

The festival also features animated films, romantic dramas and two special events.

The BIJFF anniversary gala runs from 6 to 9:30 p.m. May 21 in the MusicalFare Cabaret (4380 Main St., Amherst). The gala features open bar and hors d’oeuvres, entertainment, and a screening of the acclaimed 2004 thriller “Walk on Water.”

Meanwhile, the Closing Festival Dinner will be held from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. June 7 in the JCC Benderson Family Building in Getzville. The kosher buffet dinner will include a screening of “Above and Beyond.”

For gala and closing dinner tickets, the complete festival schedule, and more information, visit bijff.com.

Book Review: Ed Burns tells his story in ‘Independent Ed’

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I was never a fan of director-actor Ed Burns (and that’s putting it mildly), but I quite enjoyed his first book, “Independent Ed.” I reviewed it for the Buffalo News.

In the independent film boom of 1995, Edward Burns seemed, to my 15-year-old eyes, the luckiest medium talent to wander the streets of the Sundance Film Festival. Consider that 1995 was the year of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and Wong Kar-Wai’s “Fallen Angels.”

With a gross of more than $10 million, Burns’ debut film, “The Brothers McMullen,” was more financially successful than every one of these modern classics. It also elevated the admittedly charming Burns to the forefront of indie cinema.

And to a teenager who thought (wrongly) that Quentin Tarantino was a genius, the modest, working-class, Irish-American family drama of “The Brothers McMullen” looked as square as Hollywood fare like “First Knight” and “Waterworld.”

Burns’ post-“McMullen” career has seen its share of ups and downs, but he has persevered, and with his first book, “Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life,” he has given us his most wholly satisfying artistic effort to date.

The book has also made me realize that I was way too hard on Burns. Comparing him to Haynes is like comparing Ron Howard to Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”). They operate on different playing fields.

As Burns explains, his playing field was self-created. While working as a production assistant on “Entertainment Tonight,” Burns saw films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Slacker,” and “El Mariachi” burst onto the scene. Their success influenced his thinking, but also showed him what was lacking in his early scripts.

“I had an epiphany,” he writes. “While I was convinced this kind of moviemaking was within my grasp, it dawned on me as I thought about my work that I was not writing the kind of scripts these guys were making. Their films were personal, inspired by their lives, and pulsing with the energy of a new generation. My scripts, on the other hand, were derivative.”

The real influence came from a filmmaker who had been cranking out a movie per year since the ’70s.

“When I thought to myself about what films I loved the most, I instantly knew the answer: Woody Allen movies. So I said to myself, ‘All right, I’m going to write whatever that genre is; whatever Woody’s genre is, that’s what I’m going to write.’ ”

Unlike Allen, however, Burns had to create his film for a meager $25,000.

Shockingly, he did it. With money from his parents and two additional partners, Burns was able to shoot “The Brothers McMullen” in 12 days. Interestingly, the finished product was rejected by a number of film festivals, until Robert Redford’s Sundance fest said yes.

The film took home the festival’s top prize, and Burns was suddenly a success. Next came “She’s the One,” with a high-caliber cast (Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz), a soundtrack of songs by Tom Petty, the film grossed almost as much as “McMullen.”

Burns never quite captured the success of those two films again, and that makes the remainder of the book a tad less interesting. It is enjoyable to hear what led to later efforts like “Purple Violets,” which became the first feature film to debut exclusively on iTunes.

But the films themselves – “Violets,” “Nice Guy Johnny,” “Newlyweds” – are minor, at best. His higher-profile work by the late 2000s was in front of the camera. Even his personal life with wife Christy Turlington drew more attention than his films.

Still, it is hard not to walk away from “Independent Ed” impressed with Burns’ smarts, his humility and his love of filmmaking. His work as a director, quite simply, is adequate at best. But the hustle and ingenuity he showed in making his cinematic dreams come true makes him an important figure in the world of ’90s film.

The book ends with a project on TNT (produced by one Steven Spielberg), and a reminder that success as a filmmaker is not necessarily about box office. “It’s about the process,” Burns writes. “Independent Ed” shows there is real truth in those words.

‘Clouds of Sils Maria': Olivier Assayas’s latest is a masterpiece

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Months after seeing it at TIFF, I was thrilled to have the chance to review “Clouds of Sils Maria” for the Buffalo News. Here is my four-star review.

The mysterious, wondrous “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers.

Surprised to see “Twilight” mega-star Stewart’s name in that company? Don’t be. While some scoff at her talk show appearances and vampire flicks, she has proven herself a more than capable performer in films like “Adventureland,” “The Runaways” and “Still Alice.”

But you have never seen her be as compelling, as enigmatic and as utterly relatable as she is in “Clouds of Sils Maria.” This performance deservedly earned her a Cesar Award (the French Oscars) for Best Supporting Actress, making Stewart the first American actress to win the award.

As Valentine, the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart squares off with confidence against heavyweight co-star Binoche, whose Maria Enders is finding herself at a personal and professional crossroads.

As “Sils Maria” opens, Enders is on her way to present an award to her mentor, the author of a play (titled “Maloja Snake”) about the tragic relationships between a young upstart, Sigrid, and an older, successful businesswoman, Helena. She played Sigrid on stage and screen 20 years earlier, and the role made her a star.

Ironically, a hotshot director has asked Enders to star in a new stage version of “Maloja,” but as Helena. She is reluctant, but the death of the playwright causes her to reconsider.

To prepare, Enders, with the iPhone-and-BlackBerry-juggling Valentine in tow, decamps to the playwright’s home in Sils Maria, Switzerland. The duo begins a series of read-throughs and complex discussions about the play that seem to mirror their own relationship.

Soon, Enders learns who will star in the role she played to great acclaim two decades earlier. Enter Jo-Ann Ellis, a Lindsay Lohan-esque, recently sober drama queen played with winking relish by Chloë Grace Moretz.

She and Ellis meet, controversy about the young starlet makes international news, and Enders is forced to confront the harsh realities of life as a fading star. Throughout, she and Valentine continue to face off with increasing discomfort, and the line between script and reality blurs.

It all concludes with a series of strange, unsettling scenes against the stunning Swiss landscape. The film’s ambiguity may be problematic for some, but even viewers who expect a tidy conclusion should be swept up by the enchanting performances of Binoche and Stewart.

For Binoche, Maria Enders is an ideal role, and she brings to it the same combustible verve that made her work in such films as Krzysztof Kielowski’s “Blue,” Michael Haneke’s “Caché,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge” so memorable.

The real revelation here, however, is Stewart. Hers is the most down-to-earth character on screen, and what resonates most strongly is her simultaneous confidence and vulnerability.

The depth and subtlety of this performance matches the assured direction of Olivier Assayas. “Sils Maria” certainly cements Assayas’ status as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation.

Consider that in recent years he has successfully helmed a multicharacter family drama (“Summer Hours”), crafted a TV miniseries about terrorist Carlos the Jackal (“Carlos”), and tackled a swirling, music-laden drama about the passions and politics of French students in the late ’60s and early ’70s, “Something in the Air.”

Four films, four masterpieces. And in its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, “Clouds of Sils Maria” is the best of the lot.

At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where “Clouds” made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.”

Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. Both deserve to be remembered when Oscar talk swirls.

Harvey Weinstein and the birth of Miramax Films: From the April 2015 Buffalo Spree

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I wrote this piece on Harvey Weinstein for the April Spree, and in a wonderfully unexpected surprise, I received an email from Harvey himself, complimenting the piece. VERY unexpected.

“Our outsider status is very important to us,” Miramax Films founder and indie heavyweight Harvey Weinstein told New York Magazine in 1998, referring to himself and brother Bob. “It keeps us human, normal.”

It is fitting, then, that Miramax, the company that revolutionized and transformed independent cinema, began life not in Los Angeles or New York, but in the human, normal city that is Buffalo. How “outside” was Miramax? Its first home was a hockey arena. (The dearly departed Memorial Auditorium, to be exact.) Harvey—one of the few behind-the-scenes figures in moviedom who is on a first-name basis with the world at large—infamously attended the University at Buffalo from 1969 through 1973. Stories from the time period that followed—first came the concert promotion business called Harvey and Corky Productions (cofounded with “Corky” Burger), followed in 1979 by the birth of Miramax—have taken on mythic status. Yes, Harvey Weinstein lived and walked the streets of Buffalo during his man-who-would-be-king days.

Writes Peter Biskind in 2004’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, “Across the country in Buffalo, two frizzy-haired, unprepossessing brothers from Queens named Weinstein … were preparing to move their tiny film company, Miramax, named after their parents, Miriam and Max, down to New York City where the action was. … In the late 1970s, Harvey Weinstein had acquired the Century Theater in downtown Buffalo, and to keep the seats warm when it was not being used for concerts, he and Bobby, as his brother was then known, began showing movies.” They were “bottom-feeders,” writes Biskind, of the soft-core flicks and concert films. In 1981, they even put together a slasher film of their own.The Burning, produced by Harvey and cowritten by Bob, was a modest success. (More on The Burning later.)

From these inauspicious beginnings came (take a deep breath) My Left Foot, Paris is Burning, Truth or Dare, The Double Life of Veronique, Delicatessen, Reservoir Dogs, The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, The Piano, The Three Colors Trilogy, The Crow, Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Heavenly Creatures, Bullets Over Broadway, Exotica, Priest, Il Postino, Kids, Chunking Express, Dead Man, Trainspotting, Swingers, Sling Blade, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Life is Beautiful, Velvet Goldmine, Shakespeare in Love, The Lovers on the Bridge, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Amélie, In the Bedroom, Gangs of New York, Chicago, City of God, The Hours, The Station Agent, Kill Bill, The Aviator, and so many more.

These are not all classic films, and many suffered at the hands of recut-mad “Harvey Scissorhands.” (Here’s looking at you, 54.) But they are all of great importance in the history of modern cinema, and independent cinema specifically. These culture-defining works can trace their lineage, in some ways, back to Buffalo.

This is no great revelation; tales of Harvey in the Queen City are oft told, and Weinstein mentions his Buffalo era with great fondness and startling frequency. (The first paragraph of a Harvey-authored guest column for Variety after January’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy saw the mogul remembering his love of “Tom Toles’ cartoons from the Buffalo News (I went to school in Buffalo).”)

But the long-term effects of this knowledge—that the Harvey Weinstein was here, in Buffalo—cannot be overstated. When Harvey gave a lecture at UB in September 2000 on the occasion of his receiving a SUNY Doctorate of Humane Letters, the Center for the Arts was mobbed with film-crazed students like myself. I was one of the many Media Study majors whose life was changed (or seemed to be changed at the time) by Pulp Fiction. Some had scripts in hand, and the looks on their faces when Harvey referenced the legal issues that prevented him from accepting unsolicited screenplays was priceless. Even so, for those who went on to a career in the entertainment world, the thought of Harvey stomping down Main Street was both reassuring and a tad absurd. It would be like a kid in Wheatfield hearing that Wayne Gretzky got his started playing hockey at Sabreland. (I’m dating myself with that one.)

Harvey and Bob were famously ousted by then-Miramax owners Disney in 2005. The Miramax of the present is untouched by the hands of Harvey, who instead runs the successful Weinstein Company, a studio whose recent slate included The Immigrant, Begin Again, St. Vincent, The Imitation Game, and the delightful family film Paddington, among others. Harvey himself is as powerful, feared, and cunning as ever before. So it is quite interesting to return to The Burning, the Weinstein brothers’ Friday the 13th rip-off. It’s a fun, lovably gory thing, notable for featuring the pre-fame likes of Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. But what I found most intriguing was the scenery, as the film was shot in North Tonawanda and Buffalo. After thank yous to the Statler Hotel, Mickey Rats, and Dial Cleaners, the final words of the end credits (not counting the copyright info) are as follows: “FILMED IN WESTERN NEW YORK.”

I like to think that the Harvey and Bob Weinstein of 2015, while born in Queens, were formed in Western New York. And I think Harvey, the human, normal outsider who made Hollywood bow to his wishes, would agree.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

 

The power of Marilyn—and the Falls: An excerpt from Buffalo Spree’s April issue

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One of the many faces on the cover of Buffalo Spree’s film issue is Marilyn Monroe, who famously starred in 1953’s Niagara. As I write in the issue (and below), it’s an odd picture, but certainly an interesting one.

“Marilyn Monroe and Niagara—a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” So screamed the poster for 1953’s Niagara, an enjoyably stodgy film that is, of course, particularly captivating to Western New Yorkers. This Technicolor thriller—dig that red satin dress!—was shot in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and watching it today one is touched by its aesthetic beauty, its importance in cinema history, and its sheer oddness.

This is a stodgy, rather silly little thing redeemed by Monroe’s smoldering performance. In her book The Marilyn Scandal, author Sandra Shevey refers to “the scenes with her lover (filmed in long shot) of their rendezvous in the bowels of the falls—those amazingly torrential downpourings as backdrops—are some of the most erotic scenes ever filmed. … It was in Niagara that Monroe really discovered where she was going and how to get there.”

It is downright shocking how little screentime Monroe actually has; the star of the movie is really the soon-to-be Mrs. Howard Hughes, Jean Peters. But it is Marilyn who fascinates, whether she is staring down her wet-blanket husband (Joseph Cotton) or contemplating how to cross back into the States. This era, of course, is when Niagara Falls was really Niagara Falls, “Wonder of the World.” This combination, of the Falls and Marilyn, still intrigues. Even the suite the actress stayed in, room 801 at the Crowne Plaza, draws curious visitors.

It is entirely possible that no film shot in or near Buffalo has had a greater impact. It might not be very, well, good, but there is no doubting Niagara’s significance.

‘Human Capital’ is imperfect, but worth a rental

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“Human Capital” is one of many interesting foreign films to have made a brief stop in Buffalo so far this year. As my Buffalo News review explains, this is not a great movie, but certainly one worth watching. Note an error with the review, however. I submitted a review with a 2.5 star grade, but it is listed here as 3.5. Oh well.

Two families and a bicyclist meet with combustible results in “Human Capital,” a sharp, ambitiously staged drama about life in modern, post-Berlusconi Italy. “Everything is collapsing,” says one character after financial forecasts prove disastrously incorrect. That collapse, director Paolo Virzi demonstrates, is not just monetary, but personal, emotional and even physical.

Like recent Italian cinema successes “The Great Beauty” and “Reality,” Virzi’s film is focused on the severe clash between the haves, the have-nots, and those stuck in the middle, aching to get ahead.

Dino Ossola is in the latter category, a likable if slightly buffoonish sort whose daughter Serena is dating the son of a wealthy hedge fund kingpin. Dino (played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio who looks like a cross between Eric Roberts and Bob Seger) sees an opportunity to get in with Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni). Giovanni can tell: “You want to buy into our fund,” he says with the air of a man who is used to such requests.

It is quickly clear that Dino is in over his head, but bigger problems develop. When a waiter on his bicycle is struck by a passing SUV on the night before Christmas Eve, Dino’s daughter and Giovanni’s son are suspects.

This news arrives at a particularly bad time for Carla Bernaschi (the wondrous, wounded Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a seemingly bored wife and mother attempting to save a small theater until her husband announces that he must sell it.

“Human Capital” buzzes along nicely for the first hour, but makes a crucial error in turning its focus to Serena. It is not the fault of actress Matilde Gioli that Serena is so dull – we can blame director and co-writer Virzi – but no matter who is responsible, the Serena section causes the film to screech to a halt.

Placement also is an issue. The stories of Dino and Carla are so involving that perhaps whoever followed would seem rote by comparison. But Serena’s tale, and the love story at its center, seems particularly weak. Also rather pedestrian is the final explanation of who is responsible for causing the accident.

Yet for the most part, “Human Capital” is compelling cinema. And while Italy’s submission to the Academy Awards failed to secure a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it is a smarter, more ambitious production than most adult fare being burped out in Hollywood.

Virzi is known for his Italian comedies, but “Human Capital” is a dark, somber piece. Except for a few issues (sorry, Serena), he has created a unique, timely drama. And “50 Shades of Grey” devotees should note that Virzi also stages one of the more erotic love scenes in recent memory.

The cast is uniformly strong, but it is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi who truly impresses. Her Carla is a vulnerable woman stuck in a powerless position, and every moment she is on screen is riveting.

It is hard to quibble with the decision to divide “Human Capital” into character-focused chapters, but the viewer cannot help but wonder if a film centered on Carla alone might have proven even more successful.

With a bit more focus, “Capital” could have gone down as another modern Italian cinema great. Even so, it’s close, and that is an impressive feat.

’71, Shadows, and It Follows: Three must-see indies now playing

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It has been a rather weak year to date for large-scale Hollywood films, but a pretty stellar one for indies. Three of the latter recently opened in Buffalo, and all qualify as must-sees.

71 is director Yann Demange’s intense, exhilarating tale of a British soldier separated from his unit in bloody, early-’70s Belfast. It features a fine performance from the much-buzzed-about Jack O’Connell.

As I said in my review:

“’71 should erase any lingering doubts about whether the hype was justified. As young British soldier Gary Hook, O’Connell is heartbreakingly vulnerable, memorably fierce, and altogether unforgettable.

“So is the film. North American audiences have seen numerous films on the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, many of them very, very good. But 71 is a different kind of portrait. This is street-level cinema, and interestingly, takes an almost apolitical stance.”

Far less bleak is What We Do in the Shadows, an inspired, riotous mockumentary about vampires in New Zealand.

From my review:

“Shadows stars and is directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. While the latter might be new to American audiences, Clement is one of the two geniuses better known as musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.

“Those who love the Conchords’ music and HBO series have an idea what to expect from What We Do in the Shadows. This is above all a comedy, but one fueled with intelligence and even pathos.”

Lastly, the horror film It Follows is an imperfect but very scary film from director David Robert Mitchell. It grabs you from the first gruesome minute, and its first half, especially, is as memorable as any recent horror flick. The film does not quite maintain this level of quality, and peters out a bit before finishing strong.

But overall, this clear STD metaphor is a stunner, a film that plays with horror tropes but finds new ways to startle.

‘Song of the Sea’ was a deserving Oscar nominee

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My post on “Song of the Sea” playing at Buffalo’s North Park Theatre on March 14 and 15 did not run on Buffalo.com, sadly. But the film is now available for rental, and highly recommended. Here is my slightly revised post.

Disney’s “Big Hero 6” was the somewhat surprising winner of this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, and “Hero” is not an entirely unworthy choice. But anyone who has seen Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” or the Irish animated film “Song of the Sea” was likely disappointed that neither of these under-the-radar gems proved victorious.

“Sea” is a wonderful, moving film from director Tomm Moore, who previously helmed the Oscar nominated “Secret of Kelis.” He crafts a lovely modern-day retelling of myth of the “selkie,” one with gorgeous artwork and a truly involving story.

Brendan Gleeson voices the sad-eyed father of young Ben and Saoirse, a family unit of three still dealing with the loss of their wife and mother. Saoirse is no ordinary girl, and as “Sea” develops, we learn her special link to her late mother, and how it can unlock a world of secrets.

I’d call “Song of the Sea” a must-see for families and animation lovers.