Category Archives: Film

“THE BEAST” (“LA BETE”)— A Wedding?

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“The Beast” (“La bête”)

A Wedding?

Amos Lassen

When two fading, elderly aristocratic French gentlemen convince a young woman to marry the boorish son of one of the men sight unseen we learn that the boy has not been baptized, and due to some odd addendum to a will, only a particular cardinal can perform the ceremony. Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) arrives with her aunt to the country estate and then waits around until the cardinal shows up. She hears of the legend of a great beast ravishing a beautiful young woman named Romilda de l’Esperance, and after an extremely uncomfortable dinner, she goes to bed and dreams that she is de l’Esperance. That is basically the plot.

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There’s a fairly erotic yet humorous scene with the young woman dreaming. Director Walerian Borowczyk seems to be trying to say something about the desperation of fading aristocracy and how the female of the species will always be drawn consciously, or not, to the beast in all men and how taming that beast for one’s pleasure is tantamount to destroying it. While I am quite sure that this was not meant to be a comedy but it surely comes across like one. It opens up with a long and quite graphic sequence in which two horses are seen mating while their trainer casually observes them from afar. (This actually once caused the film to be banned). It is a could idea to look at the trainer’s facial expression and his body movement and recalling them later  could be quite beneficial.

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After the mating sequence, the viewer is introduced to the young and beautiful Lucy and her aunt Virginia Broadhurst (Elisabeth Kaza) who are on their way to meet the trainer, Mathurin de l’Espérance (Pierre Benedetti). As requested in her late father’s will, Lucy is to marry Mathurin in a special ceremony that will be blessed by Cardinal Joseph de Balo. She has never met her future husband, but his eloquent letters have convinced her that he is the right man for her and she can barely wait to meet him.

Lucy also cannot wait to see her future home. She has read a book by the famous Countess Romilda de L’Esperance (Sirpa Lane) in which she insists that the house is haunted. A lot could change in two hundred years, but was the Countess telling the truth?

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The film is quite shocking but has a great sense of humor and it is both poetic but very sarcastic, unapologetic and also forgiving. The original short story is broken down into multiple pieces that appear in different parts of the film. Though it is easy to tell that some of the explicit sequences were meant to test the viewer’s patience and this is due to the director’s sense of humor. The cast is excellent and watching this reminds us of how films once were.

“FAMOUS NATHAN”— A Business that Went to the Dogs

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“FAMOUS NATHAN”

A Business  that Went to the Dogs

Amos Lassen

I doubt that there are many people who do not know who Nathan is—it is one of those names that we automatically associate with hot dogs. This film is a portrait of the life and times of filmmaker Lloyd Handwerker’s family and the creation of an empire built on dogs. In 1916 Nathan and Ida Handwerker began Nathan’s. It has taken thirty years to make this documentary that interweaves decades-spanning archival footage, family photos and home movies, an eclectic soundtrack and never-before-heard audio from Nathan: his only interview. There are also interviews with people who have worked at Nathan’s. Nathan’s Famous is an iconic eatery and institution in New York City (Coney Island).

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Lloyd Handwerker has sent thirty years researching the story of both his grandfather and the family-run business. The film contains never-before-heard audio recordings of Nathan describing his upbringing in a poor village in Poland, emigration to New York, and details of creating and running Nathan’s for over forty years. Nathan’s is the prototype for fast-food made with quality, love and care and it is also a story of labor and a chronicle of the people who spent their lives working for Nathan’s. Filled with nostalgia, this is more than a typical documentary conventional in that we feel the spirit that was and in many cases still is uniquely Nathan’s. The archival footage of Coney Island is wonderful.

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By using simple interviews and clips, director Lloyd Handwerker shows how his grandfather came to this country from Poland in 1912 and established Nathan’s Famous hot dogs at Coney Island four years later. We learn of the entrepreneurial genius of Nathan’s as well as some interesting dealings with his family, and his grandson’s attempts to figure out the recipe to his own lineage.

In the film we take a walk in the New York city that was and see how Nathan’s was the place to be at Coney when Coney was the center of the world. The interview with Nathan himself is quite moving especially when he says three times that “Angels covered me up,” with and each time with a little more emotion. The interview took place in 1974 just a few years before his death. We see and hear hilarious and teary-eyed reflections from relatives, ex-employees, and longtime regulars who take us back to a time when families were frightfully tight-lipped, when kids didn’t know how their relatives truly felt about one another. I love seeing Nathan talk his sons into coming into the family business and after they did he did not always approve of the way they did things. One son had so overextended the business that it was sold to investors in 1987. Another son tried to created a rival restaurant but it failed.

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It took over twenty years for Handwerker to bring his feuding father and uncle out of their shells on camera and what he see is fascinating and staggering., with many a pregnant close-up. Handwerker decided to conceal the dates of his footage so it is the varying color stock that gives an idea as to when scenes were shot. This helps to give the film a sense of timelessness and we understand that the very same rise and fall of Nathan’s could essentially happen today and to anyone. The interviews are, ultimately, about hot dogs but what really comes out of them is an intimate and charming narrative, with many scene-stealing characters and Coney Island legends.

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We learn that Nathan’s hired minority workers when it was controversial to do so and that it was quality work and productivity that drove Nathan’s hiring practices above all else. We hear that Nathan’s would bribe the local cops to not enforce double parking laws outside the crowded restaurant and that Nathan pulled the open condiments from the counters because of public fear that someone would put LSD in the mustard.

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“Famous Nathan” is a portrait of a family and a look at the spirit of a bygone era. While we would not think that a film about a hot dog restaurant that eventually evolved into a national chain would be the fascinating cinema but it is and it is also total entertainment.

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The DVD from Film Movement also has a short film, “And They Call It Summer” by Paolo Franchi and it tells the emotional story of an unconventional relationship, full of passion and perversion, between a man with a tormented psyche and the woman who tries to ease his pain.

“SIR IVAN: I AM PEACEMAN'”— A Man on a Mission”

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“Sir Ivan ‘I Am Peaceman'”

A Man on a Mission

Amos Lassen

Sir Ivan Wilzig is Sci-Fi Channel’s Mr. Mitzvah and Peaceman of the Peaceman Foundation, a private nonprofit supporting many charities dedicated to fighting hate crimes and treating the victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sir Ivan is an eldest son of multi-billionaire Siggy B. Wilzig who was the very first Auschwitz survivor to come to the US after WWII and who ended up taking over two publicly traded firms, an oil company, and a bank, while never forswearing his wide-ranging philanthropic interests.

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Sir Ivan studied and received a law degree and for 20 years he sat on the board of his father’s bank but then turned his back on his career. He made a record of “ For What It’s Worth” in his own unique style of rocktronica and the proceeds went to the Peaceman foundation. Sir Ivan has personally seen that many soldiers are treated for PTSD.

But there is another side to Sir Ivan and that one is responsible for the 12,000 square foot Castle, a piece of architectural and designer art, having sprung up in the Hamptons where he throws charity parties and it is there that he has hosted celebrities, fire breathers turning the water of the pool into a lake of fire, and musicians belting out techno-flavored “Hava Nagila”.

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Sir Ivan’s chihuahua, Chiquita, runs around in a cape that matches his. Sir Ivan lost 59 of his relatives to the Nazi regime and now, he is working to reduce violence in the world and prevent something similar from ever happening again. This film is part of his story.

We see him surrounded by a harem of gorgeous girls as he throws New York’s wildest and sexiest parties at his Castle. In doing so he is spreading a message of peace, love, and understanding, through his music and his charity work.  Director Jim Brown has focused on Sir Ivan in this 54-minute documentary.

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The film explores the many surprising details of Sir Ivan’s life and philanthropy and takes us into parties that range from a sensual Gala at Miami’s World Erotic Art Museum to the annual all-night summer benefit extravaganza at the Castle. We also get a look inside the studio while he records his hit songs and music videos, and at the body casting for the Castle’s centerpiece nude dragon sculpture.

Sir Ivan’s father is a conservative Holocaust survivor and was a successful banker. His mother was less conservative and founded the Erotic Art Museum in Miami. Ivan had been pressured to go into the family business, but chose to become an electronic music artist and philanthropist himself. His worldwide success, including many singles on the major club charts, is testament to his spirit and talent. His extreme lifestyle with and message of love has made him a quirky celebrity throughout Europe and the world.

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Bonus materials include five music videos and additional Hamptons party footage.

“I DREAM OF WIRES”— The Modular Synthesizer

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“I DREAM OF WIRES”

The Modular Synthesizer

Amos Lassen

Robert Fantinatto & Jason Amm’s documentary is about the rise, fall and rebirth of the machine that shaped electronic music: the modular synthesizer”. We begin with an exploration of the history of the synthesizer and how innovators like Robert Moog developed the first room-sized prototypes. We see the meteoric rise in popularity of the synthesizer and the phenomenal resurgence of the high-end modular synthesizers being used today by a whole new generation of musicians, many of them at the forefront of EDM (electronic dance music). Not only is the synthesizer exotic, it is probably the most misunderstood instruments in the world of modern music. It is so expensive that it has been unaffordable for most musicians and, in fact, it looks like it belongs in a space ship and not on a concert stage. It was the synthesizer and its descendants that revolutionized music so much so that it is hard to think of what music today would be without it.

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This documentary looks at the mystery surrounding the modular synthesizer and explains to us where some of our favorite sounds originated. One critic said that the film is “a love letter to an arcane and archaic piece of machinery which nonetheless continues to inspire wonder from listeners and fetishistic devotion from proponents and practitioners”, many of whom participated in the creation of this documentary. We hear from Morton Subotnick, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Erasure), Gary Numan, Chris Carter (Throbbing Gristle), Deadmau5, and others who talk about the allure of electronic music and the joys of creating it.

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Jason Amm (records ad releases Solvent music and also composed the soundtrack here) co-wrote the screenplay that traces the entire history of electronic sound generation. We begin with Columbia University’s Electronic Music Center in the 1950s where Robert Moog, then a physics undergrad with a knack for building DIY theremins, created one of the first modular synthesizers. Then we move ahead some ten years and go to California where Don Buchla created his own analog synthesizers and sequencers for the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Buchla’s designs, unlike Moog’s, did away with a piano-inspired keyboard and the western twelve-tone scale it facilitated. Buchla’s synthesizers favored complete tonal freedom and sequencing parameters that recalled recent and contemporaneous experiments with tape loops and repetition by experimental composers such as Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley.

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We see many rare classics along with the people who are keeping them alive. I am amazed at how much there is to be learned here. The soundtrack to the film uses modular synths and is a feast of wonderful sounds and music.

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DVD Extras (66 minutes) include: • Extended Interview with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails 4 Shorts (Modular Synth 101 / Solvent: Making the Soundtrack / Modulars Made in Canada / Vince Clarke Studio Tour) • 3 Music Videos from Solvent and musicians including Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Gary Numan, Carl Craig, Morton Subotnick and Vince Clarke (Erasure) talk about their passion for the modular synthesizer and how it influences their music, while new EDM artists including Clark, James Holden and Factory Floor discuss why they’ve embraced its sound and physicality. Innovative companies including Modcan and Doepfer reveal how they planted the seeds that now have grown into a major cottage industry.

“BRADDOCK AMERICA”— The End of the Steel Belt

“Braddock America”

The End of the Steel Belt

Amos Lassen

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Braddock, Pennsylvania has been the home to key events that have greatly shaped American history but today she is trying to reinvent herself and stay relevant. Directors Gabriella Kessler and Jean-Loïc Portron’ give us a workmanlike exposé that is as direct and unpretentious as it’s the people of Braddock.

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Braddock was once a manufacturing giant but what we find there today are abandoned houses gone to seed, near-empty churches, and dynamited buildings. Through with archival footage, we see the enormous steel mill that once offered the men of Braddock, Pennsylvania and their families a ladder to the American dream. This documentary captures the story of the town as it was experienced by a number of its residents. The stories they tell, usually addressing the camera directly, becomes an oral history of a golden era for America’s working class—especially those who were white and male. We feel the emotions of the people as they talk about the thriving town they remember and the values and hard work that made them feel like part of something bigger than themselves (the mill, one man says proudly, made two-thirds of the steel needed on the Western European front during WWII.) The lack of title cards to identify the speakers adds to the film’s emphasis on the community rather than the individual. The interviews are informal and this gives them an appealingly impromptu, unrehearsed feel.

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We hear and see frequent reminders that this lost world was no paradise. One of the few African Americans interviewed says that his father never talked about his work in the mill, probably because of what African-American men had to go through there. A policeman remembers that his grandmother wouldn’t hang out the wash to dry on days when the wind was blowing from the factory, since the air was so dirty then. Another man says he chose not to work at the mill because he saw too many friends’ lives get “swallowed up” by it. Yet there is a mood of nostalgia for the postwar economy that worked so well for hardworking people in Braddock—and, by implication, other towns like it across America.

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What is most poignant is the film’s exploration of the conservative and communal strands in human nature that make us cling to our communities even as they collapse around us. One woman explains why she doesn’t want to leave Braddock for some city where she’ll be a stranger among strangers: “I want to stay here, where I feel like I’m part of what happens.”

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Those townspeople interviewed tell variations of a theme of abandonment by industries and distant government but we do not hear from the outside agencies who are blamed for this. One woman lectures a crowd about the hospital company which closed the town’s hospital but left open two in Pennsylvania towns with lower utilization rates, which the woman claims is proof that the company lied about low utilization rates being the reason for the closure. She says that this unfairly forces Braddock residents to travel to Monroeville for the nearest hospital (Monroeville is just three miles away). The demolition of the hospital is shown without comment, although the loss to the company of a once-valuable asset would have been an interesting analysis and the fact that another hospital company didn’t buy it could have been a sub-story of its own.

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It is generally felt by the people still in Braddock that the owners of the steel mills acted reprehensibly in closing the plants and that the directors weren’t worthy of the money they made after following the industry trend toward global production. If there were a few shots of a now-inactive factory in Braddock. Then we could be reminded that it was just the workers that lost but the owners as well. I think that a more thorough examination should be part of the film instead of just the gripes from the citizens.

b7It is impossible not to feel the tension that is still there between the human desires of the people and the corporate hunger for greater profits, regardless of the human cost involved. That is the real tragedy behind the collapse of our manufacturing economy.

 

 

“IZZY YOUNG TALKING FOLKLORE CENTER”— The Man Who Discovered Bob Dylan

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“Izzy Young ‘Talking Folklore Center’”

The Man Who Discovered Bob Dylan

Amos Lassen

Izzy Young was the guru of American folk music. In this documentary about his legendary Folklore Center in New York, Izzy meets with friends and collaborators like Pete Seeger, Allen Ginsberg, The Fugs and Mayor Ed Koch to reminisce. The documentary includes unique archival footage and folk music from the 1960s.

Young was born Israel Goodman Young on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Polish immigrant parents, Philip and Pola Young. He father was a baker. Izzy grew up in The Bronx where he finished high school and then went on to Brooklyn College. From 1948 to 1952 he worked in his father’s bakery in Brooklyn and later went into the book business.

1957 changed everything. He opened the Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal Street  in New York City’s Greenwich Village and it was, a store for books and records and everything related to folk music. It became a focal point for the American folk music scene of the time, a place where one could find such limited circulation publications.. From 1959 to 1969, Young wrote a column entitled “Fret and Frails” for the folk music journal “Sing Out” and he served on the “editorial advisory board” for the magazine until he moved to Sweden a few years later.

Before that however, Young arranged concerts with folk musicians and songwriters, who often made contacts with other musicians at the Folklore Center. Bob Dylan relates in his memoirs, Chronicles, how he spent time at the Center, where Young allowed him to sit in the backroom of the store, listening to folk music records and reading books. Dylan met Dave Van Ronk in the store, and Young produced Dylan’s first concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall in New York City on Saturday, November 4, 1961. Dylan wrote a song about the store and Young entitled “Talking Folklore Center”.

He is credited with playing a crucial role in the rise of folk music in the 1960s, and with bringing a young Bob Dylan to stardom by arranging his first proper concert, at Carnegie Chapter Hall, in 1961.

“I broke my ass to get people to come,” Young said in a recent interview with “Tablet”. “Only 52 people showed up but about 300 people remember being there. Everyone wants to say they were there. You understand?”

If you love the folk scene as much as I do then this is a film you do not want to miss—it is part of our history.

“1987”— Ricardo’s Big Year

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“1987”

Ricardo’s Big Year

Amos Lassen

Ricardo Trogi turned eighteen in the summer of 1987 and he had big plans–lose his virginity, find a way to get into bars, have a car, spend time with friends. In order to make money fast, Ricardo decided to exploit his Italian side and take a shortcut in the middle of the crime. Trogi plays it all with a fist-pumping energy and makes the excess of the 1980s an entertaining period piece that is still contemporary. The movie is funny not only in its bawdiness but also in the way it portrays teen angst and family.

Jean-Carl Boucher plays the young Trogi with an energetic exuberance as we watch the filmmaker evolve from a young self-involved punk to a young man with a way with the world. He is introduced as something of a rascal who has the nerve to go to Parliament and challenge the members about their having planned out his life for him until age eighteen. His portrait of his parents is especially winning with Sandrine Bisson being wonderfully funny as his histrionic mother. While her over-the-top performance is very fun, Carlo Colangelo’s performance as Trogi’s father is especially endearing. The relationship between the father and son forms the heart of 1987, and the film evolves not so much as a sex-farce as a look at masculinity and legacy. Losing his virginity is one thing but learning about life, identity, character is so much more important.

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Trogi at 17, narrates this autobiographical account of leaving high school, losing it and trying to avoid awful career choices like those his dad made. The movie opens with him chastising the members of the human resources committee of Parliament. We meet his family (Italian immigrant, garage booze making, accordion player father, weight loss freak mother and reclusive sister) is even more stressful than the friends he starts a petty crime wave with. Events conspire to break up his relationship with his prom date who was about to put out and get him thrown in jail. Nothing is really new here aside from the way the lines are delivered making the film seem new and unique. Nonetheless it is a lot of fun.

We’ve seen most of this before (American Pie, American Graffiti etc.) but this occasionally has a harder edge (Boucher expressing his contempt for his dad’s life) and it’s delivered with some charm and conviction. 

“COURT”— The Indian Legal System

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“Court”

The Indian Legal System

Amos Lassen

When an elderly folk singer and grassroots organizer known as the “people’s poet,” is arrested on a trumped-up charge of inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide, we see a ridiculous trial and harrowing display of institutional incompetence, with endless procedural delays, coached witnesses for the prosecution, and obsessive privileging of arcane colonial law over reason and mercy. Director Chaitanva Tamhane’s first film has a brilliant ensemble cast of professional and nonprofessional actors and is a wonderful union of comedy and tragedy.

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The film is set against the background of Indian society as represented by its legal system, and what it reveals is none too flattering. “The plot involves an activist poet, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who, during a public performance, is arrested on what are soon revealed to be trumped-up charges of indirectly abetting the alleged suicide of a sewer worker after he supposedly heard a song of Kamble’s which implored people like him to kill themselves—and in a manner similar to the way he died”. The charges come from outdated laws that the Indian government has apparently not seen fit to either revise or repeal altogether. While Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), argues for the reconsideration of such laws, the public prosecutor, Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), sticks to the letter of these laws. There is procedural rigidity that the legal back and forth ends up being dragged out over the span of many months. The film actually goes deeper than merely exposing the flaws of a country’s judicial system. This is where those character-building detours are crucial.

A lunch scene with Vinay and his parents implies much about the generational gap between the progressive young single lawyer and his more-tradition-bound parents, especially when it comes to love and marriage (his parents are more concerned about having grandchildren than he is at the moment). While Vinay, for all his political activism, lives in a comfortably upper-class background, Nutan is squarely part of the working class, possibly without the upbringing to imagine a way of thinking beyond her immediate daily concerns of caring for her family. We see anti-immigrant sentiment running throughout India’s working class—perhaps the kind of sentiment that Kamble is constantly fighting against in his public performances.

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Tamhane looks at these flawed characters and troubled institutions and dissects them. Each scene makes the points it wants to make, clearly and economically, before moving on to the next. Tamhane purposefully has extended scenes in order to include a seemingly unrelated detail that nevertheless adds an extra layer to the film’s overall societal critique.

We see the scenes in the courtroom with a mix of realism and an eye on the absurd. The court case itself is bizarrely fascinating as we watch the two lawyers chip at each other’s arguments and the judge occasional halts proceedings to record a statement that a clerk types into an ancient computer. There is no urgency to it and no scenes of anger or heightened emotion.

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The prosecutor complains that she’s bored of seeing the same faces. “Sentence him to 20 years and let’s go onto something new,” she says allowing us to see the careless erosion of human freedom by a system that is nevertheless run by human beings with all their frailties and complexities. The film is reminiscent of Kafka in the way it shows inhumane bureaucracy.

“SEMICOLON: THE ADVENTURES OF OSTOMY GIRL”— The Girl with Crohn’s Disease

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“Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl”

The Girl with Crohn’s Disease

Amos Lassen

 “Semicolon” is a documentary about Dana, a twenty-five girl who is living with a severe case of Crohn’s Disease. She and her mother are living life to the fullest life to the fullest under circumstances not of their making. Dana’s world is not pretty yet it is filled with humor and surprises. Everyday is a battle of some kind and Dana spends as much time in the hospital as she does out of it. She is totally dependent on intravenous nutrition, constant vigilance and does so with a wicked, gut-busting sense of humor to keep her alive. The documentary focuses on the months before the biggest decision she has ever made, is it worth it to risk everything in order to get an intestinal transplant.

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I recently met someone whose son is battling Crohn’s and I could immediately sense the burden he is under. However watching this film showed me that this terrible disease can also be dealt with humorously. While a chronic illness is certainly nothing to laugh at, we see how Dana faces it even though her twenty-five years have been an endless round of surgeries, medication, intravenous feeding, and close encounters with death. Dana smiles as she relates this to us as she teaches us about courage and the values of things we take so much for granted. We see an amazing story that is filled with hope and it is quite easy to become lost in this film.

“HARPER LEE: FROM ‘MOCKINGBIRD’ TO ‘WATCHMAN'”— The Facts and Speculation about Harper Lee

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“Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman”

The Facts and Speculation about Harper Lee

Amos Lassen

Mary McDonagh Murphy’s documentary on Harper Lee is an updated version of “HEY, BOO: HARPER LEE & TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD “. Now that Lee has released “Go Set a Watchman”, the director felt that it would be more informative to add to the film that she had previously made than to make an entire new film which probably have been repetitive. “Go Set a Watchman” came out some fifty-five years after “Mockingbird” eve though Lee had actually written it before. Murphy takes a look at all of the fats and the speculation about both books and does so by having conducted interviews with many of Lee’s friends, her sister and fans and these include Oprah Winfrey, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokaw, Wally Lamb and more. The manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” had been believed lost or destroyed and the story of Atticus and Scout might have been lost to us forever had this earlier book not been found. The film looks at the mystery surrounding it and talks about the speculation that has surrounded “Mockingbird” since its publication.

My generation loves “To Kill a Mockingbird” as do so many other generations and what is even more amazing is that as the times change, people continue to read it and love it. It is perhaps one of the most influential books ever written with over a million copies sold every year and it was responsible for an Academy Award film. Nelle Harper Lee gave us this treasure and this documentary looks at her and her book and we get answers to many questions and we understand why she did not publish another book until now. The film was obviously made with great love and respect and we are entertained and educated by it.