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.