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Richard Lester Retrospective at Lincoln Center

The Knack
The summer schedule of the Film Society of Lincoln Center reached its apotheosis this month with it's long-gestating, comprehensive retrospective of the films of Richard Lester — several shown in excellent, 35-millimeter prints on the magnificent Walter Reade Theater screen — which ran from the 7th through the 13th and was curated by Gavin Smith, the editor of Film Comment.
The underrated director's work was showcased in a series at the Museum of the Moving Image in the 1990s but in a much smaller selection. Only a few films were left out of the current program: his first feature, It's Trad, Dad! (screened at the Film Society in a rock 'n' roll series a few years ago); The Mouse on the Moon, a sequel to the popular Peter Sellers vehicle, The Mouse that RoaredThe Ritz, an adaptation of the Terence McNally play; Superman IISuperman III; the wonderful, unsung Finders Keepers; and his last film, the Paul McCartney rockumentary, Get Back
Highlights of the series included the  titles described below, all shown in beautiful 35-millimeter prints at the Walter Reade.
The director's almost never screened, early, silent, slapstick short made with and starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, the rarely screened The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film displays the madcap sensibility that would flower in Lester's features.
The dazzling, exhilaratingly creative The Knack …and How to Get It, one of Lester's supreme works, stunningly photographed by the incomparable David Watkin, and starring Michael Crawford and Rita Tushingham, as wonderful as they have ever been, and also featuring a superb performance by Ray Brooks as the story's resident Lothario. This was previously screened at the Film Society in a series devoted to Woodfall Film Productions. A further bonus here is the chance to glimpse early appearances of Jacqueline Bisset, Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling, all at their most ravishingly gorgeous.
The brilliant and rarely shown thriller, Juggernaut, was shot by Gerry Fisher and features an astounding cast including Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, David Hemmings, Anthony Hopkins, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, Roy Kinnear, Freddie Jones, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern and Roshan Seth, among others.
The equally rare Royal Flash is an enjoyable romp set in Victorian era Europe, adapted from a novel by George MacDonald Fraser, with brilliant performances by Malcolm McDowell, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.
The entertaining Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, another rare title, was Lester's second film made in Hollywood — the extraordinary Petulia was his first — and was pioneering as a "prequel" — in this case to George Roy Hill's popular western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford — before that format had become a commercial standard in the industry. The casting of Tom Berenger — who gives a splendid performance — and William Katt cannily recalls the iconic faces of Newman and Redford, while the film, shot by László Kovács, sports a roster of excellent supporting actors including Peter Weller, Brian Dennehy, Christopher Lloyd, John Schuck, Jeff Corey, Jill Eikenberry, Vincent Schiavelli, as well as Michael C. Gwynne, who gave a delightful introduction to the screening, recounting anecdotes from the shooting.
The powerful, politically astute, ultra-rare Cuba — also shot by Watkin — a romantic drama set on the eve of the Cuban revolution, also features a remarkable cast, starring a dashing Sean Connery doing some of his best work, along with a winsome Brooke Adams — the one weak link here, unconvincing as a strong, erotic presence — along with a handsome Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Walter Gotell, Hector Elizondo, Jack Weston, Denholm Elliott, and Lonette McKee. It was shown in a newly struck print.

Music & Minorities: The 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Fest

No Land's Song

The New York stop of The Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which ran June 11 to 21, 2015, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, provided intense, close-up views of some of the worst problems people inflict on people in the United States and around the world.  Four films this year documented cultural identity under stress and made a strong case that peoples’ survival must include cultural preservation: for women singers in Iran, storytellers in the Middle East, minority tribes in Sudan, and Palestinian nationalism.

No Land's Song
Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon (2006) featured a striking scene of magic realism protest that imagined a village of women exiles banned from singing in Iran since the 1979 revolution who gather at dusk on the roofs to join their voices in song.  Musician Sara Najafi was determined to bring the long tradition of women singing back to Iran in real life.  For three years, her brother, director Ayat Najafi, followed her gutsy, patient, and clever path, as creative politically as artistically, to produce a concert, garnering the festival’s annual Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking.
As the first woman to get a diploma of composition in Iran who now teaches at the Music Conservatory of Teheran, Sara provides the historical background of a flowering of women singing there in the first half of the 20th century, with rare archival footage of the popular, groundbreaking singer Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri.  She first enlists Parvin Namazi, who tells of her solo singing career before the revolution, her exile with a European world music ensemble in the 1980’s, then return to study Kurdish folk music in the 1990’s—where her recordings are banned.  Sara also wants to break the isolation of Iranian women singers, and a considerable time in the film is given over to rehearsals in France with three female singers from Paris and their male band mates working on her pieces.  She also dares to include Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer whose song for freedom during the first protests of the Arab Spring she found on YouTube.

The fascinating heart of the film is back in Teheran where she finds a lovely concert hall that can only be used with the permission of the Ministry of Culture.  Then she embarks on Orwellian negotiations with the Minister of Culture, who changes just about every month, with each religious bureaucrat demanding different conditions -- yes and no on males and females on stage and in the audience, yes and no on men singing louder than the women; yes and no on accompanists.  Each argues contradictory theological explanations -- whether men or women would get more sexually aroused or what the Koran does or does not say (They sound a lot like Orthodox rabbis on the same issue of women’s voices in prayer and song).  But unbeknownst to these petty censors is that she’s wired for sound, so even though no cameras are allowed at their meetings, and the screen goes blank, we can hear their conversations, like listening to gangsters’ wiretaps at a trial.  (The film has not been shown in Iran and the director does not expect it will be.)  Then there’s the last minute wrangling over the international musicians’ visas – whether tourist or working, whether they can perform or not, and they saw Mathlouthi’s controversial Facebook postings.  The ever-wily Sara boxes the gatekeepers into a corner by claiming this will insult the French government.  By the climax, the standing ovations at the marvelous SRO concert on September 19, 2013 is not just for the 13 performers sharing their cultures on the stage that evening, with traditional Persian and Western instruments and vocalizations, but the victory for completing the maze.

The Dream Of Shahrazad
Music and stories can unite themes of hope and empathy across the Middle East, here through the shared heritage of 1,001 Arabian Nights, where the princess’s nightly tales to the sultan saved lives.  Organized around (pompous but politically concerned) Turkish conductor Cem Mansur’s educational rehearsals with a youth orchestra and their performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888), montages of centuries of multi-media images of the classic (from paintings and drawings to shadow puppets and silent film clips) flow by with each of the suite’s movements.  South African director Francois Verster then follows other artists inspired by the legend.  An older muralist has painted the storyteller for years, but is now concerned how Islamic fundamentalists will censor his large-scale work.  In an updated version, a young Lebanese actress feels empowered by posting accounts of the Arab Spring on social media to a growing audience. 
In the most moving extension of the metaphor, the power of storytelling demonstrates how to cross barriers of class, religion, and politics.  As footage of the thwarted Egyptian revolution plays out, Hassan el Geretly, director of the El Warsha Theatre Troupe, comes from Alexandria to explore with secular musical and theater artists in Cairo how to grapple with what to do next.  After sharing songs and poems of peace, they suggest she pay a condolence call on a grieving mother of a young Muslim Brotherhood member killed by police.  Hesitant at first with an anguished woman swathed in a hijab, she gradually bonds by their same age, and she absorbs her accent, manner, biography, and tears.  By the time she embodies the mother on stage (in the style of Anna Deavere Smith’s pieces), the beaming mother is thrilled at this memorial to her son that will keep alive his memory and the injustice he suffered.  The legacy of Shahrazad lives on.

Beats of the Antonov
Songs are an essential building block of culture, as oral history, for peers, as lifecycle ritual passed on from parents to children, and, shared experiences separate from other groups.  In war-torn Sudan, the many documentaries, such as The Devil Came On Horseback and Darfur Now, have focused on the genocide and brutality the refugees have suffered, While the opening of this hour-long documentary sets the same context, with bomber planes strafing a bare displaced persons camp, Sudanese director Hajooj Kuka, familiar with the different tribes from reporting in this region between the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains since 2003, listens to their songs.  With his musician guide Sarah “Alsarah” Mohamed (who can differentiate between elders’ traditional tunes and pop songs adapted by teenagers), they closely watch as the music takes their spirits far from their barren environs and moves them to rhythmically clap and dance.  Despite a political epilogue by a guerrilla leader defending them, disjointed editing, and minimal subtitled lyrics, the pride of culture to bolster people’s sense of humanity and identity comes through loud and clear.  (Airing on PBS in August 2015)

This Is My Land
French-Israeli director Tamara Erde set an ambitious agenda for her (uneven and sometimes confusing) documentary feature debut: to follow history classes over the full academic in six diverse schools in Israel, the disputed occupied territories in the West Bank, and in Palestine, to see how the future generation will perceive their same patch of land.  The Orthodox school in an occupied West Bank settlement is always the clearest to pick out, with the students’ and teachers’ distinctive dress and religious perspective.  In Palestine are a boys’ school in a refugee camp in Nablus and an elementary school in Ramallah, whose teacher puts on anti-Israel and pro-martyr propaganda displays for the camera.

In addition to a stuck-in supplement of a Galilee intercultural learning high school’s Zionist-oriented trip to Auschwitz, within Israel proper, what can be seen distinguishing an independent secular school in Haifa from an integrated elementary school, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is that the latter is team-taught by a quiet Israeli Jewish man and a charismatic Israeli Arab woman whose increasing frustration with the Education Ministry’s required Zionist curriculum takes up more and more screen time.  (A lot of her discomfort at being a Muslim within a calendar marked by Jewish and Israeli holidays was already seen in a similar profile, Dove’s Cry, shown at the 2013 Other Israel Film Festival.)  The climax is a showing of American animator Nina Paley’s short film This Land Is Mine that amusingly illustrates millennia of Middle East military confrontations, and the bitter Israeli-Arab teacher lets loose with an unchallenged anti-Israel conclusion.

SXSW Review: 6 Years

In the throes of first love, life becomes exasperatingly disoriented. We convince ourselves that there is but one person who can appreciate, understand and care for us and that that person should not be let go lest we never experience such a sensation of belonging again. Future aspirations come to head with plans of fidelity and the person you are and the person you want to become begin to be at odds. With 6 Years, Hannah Fidell is able to poke her camera into the epicenter of a relationship at the structural crossroads of graduating from college as they differentiate the needs of the "me" versus the needs of the "us".

Read more: SXSW Review: 6 Years

SXSW Review: The Frontier

To watch The Frontier is to take a drivers seat in the Delorean and dial the settings to 1971. It has a distinctively "homage" feeling to it - as if it were a previously unreleased Hitchcock movie, filmed a short peck after The Birds. Unlike The Guest or Cold in July, The Frontier doesn't play with old movie tropes so much as it practices a brand of straight-forward imitation, aping the style of Vietnam-era genre films, much like Ti West has done with The House of the Devil. The result is as if A Simple Plans met Pyscho in a back-alley, early-70s country thriller. It's not quite horror, not quite a western but Oren Shai's pulpy throwback is stylized beyond reproach, even if rather laid back narratively.

Read more: SXSW Review: The Frontier

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