Salem Film Fest Turns Ten!

The “little festival that could” celebrates with a Gala

When local filmmaker Joe Cultrera, businessman Paul Van Ness and Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rinus Oosthoek gathered at the fledgling CinemaSalem’s café in 2007, they all shared a common goal: to create an event that would be fair to documentary filmmakers and attractive to audiences. They presented a week of special film programming and live events in the middle of that same winter. “That’s about as fast as a festival can be put together once you have a venue,” said Van Ness who owns CinemaSalem. “I suppose you could call it a spring training for the big league festival that would inaugurate the next year.”

The 2008 Salem Film Fest drew 1,743 filmgoers; last year, more than 6,000 attended what has grown to be both one New England’s largest and among the nation’s most respected all-documentary film festivals. Each March, the festival presents a rich and diverse collection of the year’s best work from all over the world that helps sustain cinephiles through the long, bleak slog of New England winter.

This year the festival runs from March 2-9 and will kick off its tenth anniversary with a Gala on Thursday, March 2 at the Hawthorne Hotel that will combine presentation of the 2017 SFF Storyteller Award to Frontline founder David Fanning with a live music dance party. (Visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/gala-tickets for more information).

“Come to Salem, see the world” has been the Salem Film Fest catch phrase since its inception, both as an homage to old Salem merchant ships that established trade with the rest of the world and in tribute to the dozens of countries represented by the films the festival has screened over its ten years.

With a line-up of 35 feature and 13 short documentaries from more than 25 countries, SFF 2017 covers a lot of the globe: from the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan (“After Spring”) to Finland’s worst cheerleading team (“Cheer Up”); from the Mississippi Delta blues (“I Am the Blues”) to Mexico’s most famous tabloid photographer (“The Man who Saw Too Much”); from Jalalabad’s child street gangs (“Snow Monkey”) to a New York City’s West Village artist community (“Winter at Westbeth”). And everyplace in between.

Besides CinemaSalem, SFF partners with Peabody Essex Museum’s Morse Auditorium (PEM) and the National Park Service Visitor Center (NPS) as additional venues. With simultaneous screenings at all three sites, the streets of Salem feel like a mini Sundance as filmgoers greet each other on the street, making their way from one film to the next.

As in past years, SFF 2017 focuses on filmmakers as much as their films, and 19 filmmakers and/or their subjects will attend this year’s post-screening Q&A sessions, which promise to be as exciting and informative as festivalgoers have come to expect. “It’s great to see the growth of the festival while we also stay true to our roots. More and more filmmakers have found the festival to be a haven of sorts for their films, and they enjoy spending time in Salem,” said Jeff Schmidt, who has been SFF program director since 2014.

Cultrera, who handed the programming to Schmidt in 2013, agrees. “The thing I look forward to every year is getting a new crew of filmmakers to the festival: spending time interacting with them; introducing them to Salem; watching friendships build between them and some of our audience, and talking shop at after-hours gatherings,” he said.

Among this year’s line-up are three U.S. premieres: “The Day the Sun Fell” (surviving Red Cross doctors and nurses remember the day Hiroshima was bombed as nuclear disaster strikes Japan again); “Mattress Man” (an Irish 60-something-year-old creates a tacky YouTube persona to boost his failing business) and “Zimbelism” (one of the last working street photographers shares stories from his dark room). Both filmmaker Matt Zimbel and his subject and father, George S. Zimbel, will be present at the “Zimbelism” screening at PEM on Sunday, March 5 at 10:50 a.m.

The programming committee started looking for SFF 2017 films last June, and the richly varied menu of films has something to please every palette. To make planning easier, SFF offers a helpful guide that organizes the films into a number of “curated itineraries” to allow the audience to review films through specific lenses.

Three films that address complex socio-political issues through one person’s story are “Almost Sunrise”, Tickling Giants” and “Death by One Thousand Cuts”.

Filmmaker Michael Collins’ “Almost Sunrise” addresses “moral injury” by following two Iraq War veterans suffering from PTSD as they trek 2,700 miles in a last ditch effort to find the healing they both seek. Collins will attend the Q&A after the screening at PEM on Saturday, March 4 at 8:35 p.m.

“Tickling Giants” examines the aftermath of the Egyptian Arab Spring by showcasing Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” who endangers his life and livelihood when the Morsi regime doesn’t appreciate his jokes. Filmmaker Sara Taksler will be available for a post-screening Q&A. The film is at PEM on Friday, March 3 at 8:10 p.m.

In “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, a brutal murder on the Haiti-Dominican border exposes the complex consequences of killing the Dominican forests, one cut at a time. The filmmaker will attend the Q&A after the screening at CinemaSalem on Sunday, March 5 at 5:10 p.m.

On the more whimsical side, “The League of Exotique Dancers” introduces eight unforgettable Burlesque Hall of Fame inductees who share the good, the bad and the ugly about the golden age of stripping with bawdy good humor and moving insight in a film that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It screens at CinemaSalem on Saturday, March 4 at 9:40 p.m.

Those most interested in the arts have plenty to choose from this year. “The Ballad of Fred Hersch” traces the foremost jazz pianist and composer’s journey from AIDS coma survivor to musical triumph (Friday, March 3 at CinemaSalem at 5:10 p.m.). “Yarn” introduces edgy, contemporary women who are revolutionizing the art of knitting and crocheting. (Saturday, March 4 at PEM at 11:50 a.m.). “I Am the Blues” gives an up-close-and-personal tour of the original southern juke joints with the aging blues musicians who still play its “Chitlin’ Circuit”. (Closing night feature on Thursday, March 9 at CinemaSalem at 7:00 p.m.).

Every year, regular attendees look forward to the premiere of “Salem Sketches”, a series of two-minute documentaries based in Salem and created exclusively for SFF by local filmmakers and SFF Planning Committee members Cultrera and Perry Hallinan. “We’re one of the few festivals that can claim to have our own original programing,” Cultrera said with pride.

SFF 2017 is also jam-packed with events, parties and the live music performances before many of the screenings at CinemaSalem by local musicians whose contributions add to the festival’s literal good vibrations.

While the community-driven, all-volunteer festival steadfastly remains true to its ideals of high-level programming and treating filmmakers like the stars they are, the “little festival that could” seems poised for even wider appeal and reach in its second decade. All agree that fundraising and broadening the volunteer base are two critical ingredients for generating this growth.

“The festival is special, but it could be on another level entirely if we had the resources and if there was a mechanism in place in Salem that better synchronized public, private and non-profit energies,” said Cultrera.

Nonetheless, the wildly popular and highly anticipated festival draws sell-out crowds to one of the liveliest and friendliest of Salem’s many festivities. Patrons return year after year and hugging reunions in the CinemaSalem lobby are commonplace. Clearly, the Salem Film Festival is about more than films. It’s also about community.

“Come to Salem, see the world. Come to Salem, meet the world,” Oosthoek said with a smile.

Salem Film Fest runs March 2-9 with screenings at CinemaSalem, Peabody Essex Museum and National Park Service Visitors Center. For more information or to purchase tickets or passes, go to the CinemaSalem box office or visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/.

Advertisements

Justice Is Not Denied in “Denial”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When historian Deborah E. Lipstadt walked onto the stage on September 22 for a Q&A after a preview of the film “Denial”, she was asked what it felt like to be portrayed by the Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. “It was surreal,” she said with a laugh, noting that the most remarkable part was hearing her own Queens accent perfectly mimed by the English film and theater star.

 

But with that, any light-heartedness faded as discussion turned to her real life role as defendant in a British lawsuit brought by Hitler admirer and “historian” David Irving. After Lipstadt labeled him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin books, for libel, claiming her false statements had harmed his reputation.

 

Her subsequent ten-week legal battle in 2000 to defend herself and establish the “historical truth” that the Holocaust did indeed occur formed the basis of her “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005), the book on which playwright David Hare’s script for “Denial” is based.

 

denial2

Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in the true story, “Denial”.

 

As Irving knew, in Britain libel laws favor the plaintiff. The defendant must prove that statements the plaintiff considered libelous, or false, are indeed true. In this case, Lipstadt had to prove that the Holocaust really happened, and that, therefore, Irving intentionally lied when he insisted there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz and that the Nazis had never murdered any Jews.

 

As if this isn’t complicated (and heart wrenching) enough, Lipstadt and her team had two additional stumbling blocks. The first was a lack of physical evidence. The team had to amass their case despite the facts that the Nazis never allowed photographs of prisoners being gassed in Auschwitz and further covered their tracks by destroying the gas chambers.

 

The second was defense counsel’s decision not to allow Lipstadt or any Holocaust survivors to testify for fear that Irving, who was acting as his own attorney, would humiliate and exploit them. For Lipstadt, this was worse.

 

“A trial is not therapy,” Lipstadt’s British solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, known to TV’s “Sherlock” fans as Moriarty), tells her. Furious, she tries to make him understand that it is not their own catharsis the survivors seek. “You think they want to testify for themselves? It’s not for themselves. They want to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it.” Unmoved, Julius replies, “It’s the price you pay for winning.”

 

The bulk of the film centers on the trial and all the testimony comes directly from the actual trial transcripts. “This was a film about truth and it had to be truthful,” Lipstadt said during the Q&A. Although some of the film’s detailed court procedures may be confusing (and boring to a non-attorney), the exchanges between Irving (Timothy Spall) and the defense’s Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) crackle, due in large part to the stellar acting of both.

 

Spall, who recently starred in “Mr. Turner”, has a rubber face perfectly suited to playing the duplicitous and self-impressed Irving. One minute, he is all smarmy self-justification, buttering up the judge and showboating for the spectators. The next, he is at his most infuriating, spewing diabolical anti-Semitic racist invectives and then playing the victim, accusing Lipstadt of tarnishing his reputation with a “verbal yellow star”.

 

The always-terrific Wilkinson brings weight and nuance to a cool-headed performance that hints at the roiling emotion lurking just below the surface. The film’s most satisfying moments are when his Rampton slyly lures Irving in during cross examination, then ferociously pounces, drawing and quartering his squirming prey.

 

Its most moving scene is during the legal team’s visit to Auschwitz. When Rampton steps on a barbed wire shard on his way to the gas chamber entrance, he suddenly understands the enormity of the atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis. To imagine a barefooted Jew stepping on a piece of barbed wire on his way to his imminent murder is unspeakably unjust — and real.

 

Given the extraordinary pre-release press “Denial” has engendered, it can hardly be a spoiler to reveal that Lipstadt won her case. The Holocaust scholar, however, hopes the biggest takeaway of the film is not her victory, but a recognition that not all opinions merit defending.

 

“There are not two sides to every story. The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. There are some things you cannot debate,” she said. “I will debate you on the facts. I will not debate liars.”

 

Noting that earlier in the day, the New York Time used “lie” to describe some of the things Donald Trump has said, Lipstadt is worried about what lies ahead. “We are living in a time when lying has become mainstream. The needle has moved so far,” she said. “There is an anti-intellectual, anti-factual attitude which is frightening.”

 

She paused for a moment and then directed the Q&A session towards the audience. “Where does that put us? As academics and people interested in social justice, what do we do?” she asked.

 

“Ben-Hur” Remake Should Have Been Called “Ben-Huh?”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

During this summer of bloated spectacles, from the latest Jason Bourne franchise’s car chases to Marvel superheroes pitted against each other instead of a common enemy to the blood lust pageantry of the Republican National convention, the remake of “Ben Hur” fits right in. The CGI-burdened film is a superficial paean to excess, short attention spans, and sound bite pablum.

 

That said, it does have a spectacular and thunderous ten-minute chariot race made festive by 3-D glasses- enhanced special effects. You almost feel like a character inside a video game.

 

The plot, in a nutshell, centers on the rivalrous relationship between the Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), and his best pal and Roman adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). The two share an idyllic boyhood in a Jerusalem under benign Roman rule, riding horses and ignoring the civil unrest that will eventually pit brother against brother.

 

Messala loves Judah’s sister, but knows he is unworthy in station and finance. He does what any red-blooded man in his position and in quest of fame, fortune and globetrotting would do — he enlists in the Roman army.

 

Turns out Messala has quite a talent for battle and pillage, and when he returns to Jerusalem five years later, it is as a wealthy and powerful commander in a red cape and copper breastplate.

 

By then, Jerusalem and its Jews are clearly under Roman military control. Jewish zealots are waging a dangerous resistance, and a Jewish carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) proffers a world where one loves one’s enemies. Messala has returned not out of sentimental homesickness, but as a Roman officer charged with snuffing out this unrest.

 

Judah lives in a naïve rich boy’s bubble. This causes his undoing when a zealot he harbors (for humanitarian, not political or religious reasons) shoots an arrow at a Roman procession from the Hur roof. It misses Pontius Pilate, but the Roman reaction is swift and merciless. Inexplicably, Judah takes the blame and is sentenced to a slave’s slow death rowing in the belly of a Roman war ship.

 

The scenes shot during the ocean battles are the film’s most riveting. As man-powered ships ram each other to the steady beat of a war drum, we see only what the slaves can see through the small portholes in the ship’s side. From above deck, we are thrust into the turmoil of a losing naval battle. In this era of arm’s length drone warfare, it is a grim reminder of just what hell war is.

messala

Messala (Toby Kebbell) trying to keep the upper hand at the races.

Judah eventually escapes and washes up on a desert presided over by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wheeler-dealer who raises and races horses. After witnessing Judah’s equestrian gifts, Ilderim convinces Judah to return to Jerusalem and race his horses in the Circus chariot race against Messala. Of course, Judah’s horses are white and Messala’s are black. Of course, Judah wins.

 

It’s hard to know where to stop complaining about the cast, script and directing. Huston brings a doe-eyed, easy-going melancholy to a role that demands grit and primal presence. When he cuts his Jesus-like hair and shaves for the race, he looks more like the cover of GQ magazine than a fight-to-the-death warrior.

 

Kebbell is no more convincing as the malicious Messala. His un-nuanced, soft performance brings to mind Eliott Gould more than Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson. Santoro’s Jesus, by contrast, is the most three-dimensional and captivating of the three. Perhaps the casting should have been rearranged; perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference absent a complete script overhaul.

Morgan

Morgan Freeman as Ilderim.

The only breath of professionalism is the always magnificent Morgan Freeman, whose voice has that certain remarkable quality that inspired his casting as the voice of God (twice) and the narrator of countless films. Even wearing a grey dreadlocks wig that makes him look like the love child of the Lion King and Whoopie Goldberg, he injects his scenes with a grounded artistic integrity the rest of the film lacks. His cheeky delivery and rascally expressions is an oasis in a creative desert.

 

The remake of Ben-Hur is most interesting in its treatment of Jesus’ crucifixion, the blame for which is placed squarely on the shoulders of the Romans. It’s a shame that the whole episode is treated like a cinematic afterthought.

 

Perhaps the silver lining to this gratuitous remake is that it may send the Generation CGI-ers scurrying to their computers to stream the 1959 masterpiece that won eleven Oscars and catapulted Charlton Heston to godlike status. Who knows — it might even turn into a teachable moment that sometimes it really is best to leave well enough alone.

“Café Society” Could Be Better, Could Be Worse

Shelley A. Sackett

 

Like the West Bank settlements, 2016 presidential politics or the temperature of the main sanctuary during High Holiday services, Woody Allen is a lightning rod topic guaranteed to incite impassioned debate.

His 47th film, “Café Society”, was released less than a month ago and has been called everything from “a lavish diagram working hard to come off as a real movie” to “the most beguiling in his ongoing late work.” It’s not his best, but he’s certainly made worse.

WoodyAllen

Woody Allen directing Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart.

The film opens with a breathtaking shot of a romanticized version of 1930’s Hollywood, surprising coming from Allen, known more for his antipathy than amity towards Los Angeles. Sophisticated guests in formal evening wear mill about an impossibly blue pool where their host, the mega-agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) holds court. He is expecting a call from Ginger Rogers, he announces loudly. Instead, he gets the family matriarch in the Bronx. His older sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) announces the imminent arrival of her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who is heading West to seek his fame and fortune. Phil should “set him up”.

Phil manages to avoid his nephew for three weeks, and then gives him “some cockamamie title” and a glorified errand-boy job. He also gives him his secretary, the Nebraska transplant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, whose luminous performance lends the film its only breath of fresh air), to show Bobby around his new hood. With her midriff-baring ensembles, ankle socks and little girl headbands, she is the quintessential Allen “it” girl/woman (think Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Mia Farrow and Scarlet Johansson).

Predictably, Bobby falls hard for her as they bond over Malibu beaches, grand old movie palaces and cheap, authentic Mexican food. Suddenly Bobby isn’t so homesick.

But just when he thinks he’s hit it big, it turns out he’s mined fool’s gold. (WARNING: Spoiler alert!) Vonnie has a much older, very married boyfriend who, in a plot twist all the more creepy in the context of Allen’s real life marriage to his quasi-adopted stepdaughter, is none other than Bobby’s Uncle Phil. Phil ups the ante and finally leaves his wife, asking Vonnie to marry him after Bobby confides he has just proposed to her. Vonnie chooses the Hollywood wife life, and Bobby heads back to New York broken-hearted.

images

Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively and Jesse Eisenberg live it up in New York high style.

Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (a credible Corey Stoll) sets him up with a nightclub, and before long Bobby and his “Café Society” are thriving. His sophisticated clientele are the same swanky swells we met in the opening scene — they’ve just swapped their California sunglasses for sequins. It turns out Bobby was in his element in Hollywood after all; he was simply displaced on the wrong coast.

While Bobby and Vonnie get on with their lives (he marries another Veronica, Blake Lively, in an under-scripted part), they never get over each other, and their unrequited love is the theme of the last third of the movie. This would make for a gloomy half-hour were it not for some terrific one-liners and stand-out, effortless supporting performances, especially by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott, as Bobby’s squabbling parents Rose and Marty, and Sari Lennick, as his older sister Evelyn.

Unfortunately, Jesse Eisenberg is miscast as the Allen archetype of neurotic, articulate, self-absorbed and self-identifying New York Jew. There is a disconnect between the message and the messenger as Eisenberg giggles, hiccups and lurches his way through the film, his flat affect and bland hunch-shouldered physicality becoming distracting annoyances by the film’s end.

There are the usual cringe lines (Bobby’s response, “It’s part of our charm” to an unambiguous, “It’s true what they say. You people are pushy.”) and scenes (notably the gratuitous and unfunny prostitute encounter) we are braced to expect. But Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography is bewitching. He brings a pallet of sepias, golds and organic shadows to his first collaboration with Allen. His artistry and Stewart’s portrayal of Vonnie are reasons enough to see the film.

It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen is an 80-year-old man, but believe it we must as we listen to his brittle, fragile voiceover narration. Love him, hate him, tolerate him, whatever. There’s no denying the guy’s a cinematic wunderkind and our very own boychik to boot.

All’s Unfair in Love and War in “Indignation”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

Boston Jewish Film Festival did a real mitzvah on Sunday, July 17 when it treated local film lovers to a free sneak preview of Indignation, the film based on the 2008 Philip Roth novel that opens at the West Newton Cinema and local theaters on July 29. Even better, BJFF further indulged the sold out audience by bringing director and screenwriter James Schamus, (co-founder and former CEO of Focus Features) and his lead actor, Logan Lerman (Fury, Percy Jackson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), to the stage for a post-screening Q&A.

 

Semi-autobiographical, Roth’s dark story fictionalizes his own early-1950’s college experience at Bucknell University in rural Pennsylvania. Schamus picked up the slim novel in an airport and fell in love with the book. “It is contemporary but shocking,” the producer and frequent Ang Lee collaborator said.

 

Set in 1951 against the backdrop of the Korean War, Indignation introduces us to Marcus Messner (played by 24-year-old Logan Lerman). He is the straight-A, straight-laced only son of Max, an overbearing Newark kosher butcher, and Esther, his practical, well-meaning wife (played by theatre veterans Danny Burstein and Linda Emond). Marcus is also the film’s narrator, and his voiceover story has a single simple message: the choices we make determine our fate.

 

When Marcus’ buddies start coming home from Korea in body bags, Max’s spiraling anxieties fuel his transition from paternal protector to paranoid oppressor. “The tiniest mistakes can have consequences,” he relentlessly warns his son, worried he will squander his future in a pool hall or behind the wrong closed door.

 

As much to escape his suffocating parents as to avoid the draft, Marcus accepts a scholarship (awarded by his synagogue) to the fictional, elite and very WASP-y Winesburg College in bucolic Ohio. Instantly, the cinematographer Christopher Blauvett’s pallet changes from the overcast skies and gloomy browns and greys of working-class Newark to the sunshine and lush lawns of the collegiate mid-West.

 

Marcus’ emotional pallet, however, retains its muddy hues. A defiant loner by choice, he avoids getting too close to his two roommates and chafes at any action he interprets as controlling. He resents mandatory chapel attendance not because he is Jewish, but because he is an atheist. He is an equal opportunity religious objector, a rebel for whom the whole world is his cause.

 

He joylessly slogs through his days, excelling at his studies and working in the library. Then one day, the dreamy creamy Olivia (Sarah Gadon) awakens his slumbering id. Simultaneously calculated and insouciant, she casts her line in Marcus’ sight line and reels him in with the lure of her twitching foot. Schamus’ light directorial touch subtly alerts us to impending danger and ultimate doom. She is Eve, and Marcus is ravenous for whatever she is serving up.

indignation-02

Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and her alluring twitching foot.

 

During their first date at the only French restaurant in town, the two seem an easy intellectual match, but there’s an unsettling emotional power imbalance at play. He’s as naïve and unscathed as she is cynical and damaged. Even later, during and after the unsolicited sexual favor she performs on him in the front seat of his roommate’s borrowed car, there’s a steely premeditation to Olivia that puts Marcus (and the audience) on edge. This is the least intimate intimate act imaginable, and that disconnect bodes ill for our protagonist.

Indignation

Marcus (Logan Lerman) and Olivia (Sarah Gadon) on their first date.

Marcus may be sitting in the driver’s seat, but Olivia’s clearly behind the wheel. With that single shocking act, she has changed his life forever, and she knows it.

Their initial infatuation becomes hopelessly complicated, careening from snub to obsession to mutual self destruction. This unravels the stoic Marcus to the point where he draws the attention of Dean Hawes Caudwell (played by the terrific Tracy Letts, lately of “Homeland” fame), who summons him to his office for a little chat. In an 18-minute scene that is the unequivocal showpiece of the film, Marcus sheds his melancholic reserve and demonstrates his High School debate captain chops as he rips into the Dean’s defense of all things Winesburg, including mandatory chapel.

 

Admiring the precocious Marcus’ considerable oratory skills while clearly loathing his message, the Dean treats him as an intellectual equal, and the two go at it tooth and nail. There is no deference to status or age; this is intellectual trench warfare, and each is prepared to fall on the blade of his razor sharp wit.

 

“I knew the film would live or die on that scene,” Schamus said during the Q&A, and he’s right. It’s the most riveting and emotional scene of the entire movie. It’s a shame Marcus doesn’t show half the passion and urgency with Olivia that he does while lacerating the Dean. The two lovers just don’t share the same on-screen chemistry.

 

shamus

Director and screenwriter James Schamus

Eventually things go from not great to worse, and Esther shows up at Winesburg when Marcus lands in the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. She meets Olivia, immediately spots the suicide scars on her wrist, and quickly evaluates the danger her son is in. The scene where she exacts Marcus’s promise never to see Olivia again in exchange for her remaining married to his increasingly abusive father is both devastating and tender.

 

In his directorial debut, Schamus has made a classy, painterly film. As Marcus, Lerman gives a focused performance of subtlety and depth. Although Marcus is clearly Jewish, he is more engaging and accessible than the neurotic clichéd stereotypes popularized by Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Allen. Each time he bristles at some real or imagined oppressive authority figure, his indignation brings home the film’s point.

 

Gadon’s Olivia is impossible to look away from. She is as complicated as she is stunning, equal parts Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelley and Rebecca Pigeon. Letts, however, is nothing short of brilliant as Dean Caudwell, the roguish academic autocrat whose concern for Marcus is both intrusive and sincere.

 

Schamus has made a good, entertaining movie, especially considering it is the industry’s “Summer Season”. But for Jay Wadley’s trite and overbearing score, and the fact that we really don’t care enough about Olivia and Marcus because they don’t seem to care enough about each other, it could have been a very good one indeed.

 

 

 

 

“Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck” is Pure Magic

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Like Alice and the rabbit-hole, viewers of director Olympia Stone’s “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination Of David Beck” know they are entering a very different world from the get-go. The film opens with whimsical jazz and a close up of “Movie Palace”, an elaborate miniature pretend movie theater that combines the pleasures of the bygone Hollywood regal era with the intricacies of handcrafted windup toys.

 

“As a child, I loved to go to the movies. I still do,” David Beck says as the camera lingers over animated figures talking and eating popcorn made of painted birdshot. “It’s almost a little temple, a religious shrine to the movies.”

 

Movie Palace

Movie Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beck then takes us on an enchanting tour of this fantastical creation, explaining his inspiration and process. Close ups of reliefs on the outside of the dome show various movie house golden age genres, such as film noir, Westerns and musicals. A tiny man, loaded down with popcorn and drinks, stands in the aisle, searching for his seat. Within minutes, Beck’s charm, humility and humor have hooked us.

 

Director Olympia Stone has a soft touch, following Beck about as he works in his studio. There is no troubling backstory or dramatic agenda; just an absorbing glimpse into the private thoughts and efforts of an enormously talented artist.

 

If it seems that there is a special connection between director and subject, it’s because there is: Stone’s father, Allan Stone, was Beck’s art dealer for many years, and Beck often visited the Stone home in Purchase, N.Y. Olympia has said Beck stood out as the artist she was most deeply inspired by from the time she was seven years old. Her fascination with the tiny scale of his work never waned, and she undertook “Curious Worlds” to introduce the little known artist to a wider audience.

“David is someone I have known most of my life, and I am honored to say that we have remained and continue to be close friends,” she said.

Beck’s childlike fascination with, well, everything and his playful sense of humor cannot mask this modern renaissance man’s extraordinary gifts for creating unique and powerful miniature sculptures that combine the meticulous craftsmanship and precision of a mechanical engineer with the sometimes wacky worldview of a Tim Burton. He is a unique synthesizer, absorbing that which interests him – Medieval miniatures, European cabinetry, comic books, gothic carving and the art of Joseph Cornell and Joe Marmol – and weaving subtle references into his work.

His works beckon us to come closer and to enter the secret compartments, open the windows, explore inside drawers and assume that nothing is as it seems. Little marvels open to reveal additional, even more miraculous intricacies. Alice’s rabbit hole has no bottom.

 

Beck at work

David Beck in his studio

Watching Beck craft his worlds in miniature is a magical adventure in itself. His highly original, intricate and kinetic artwork combines sculpture, painting, textiles, mechanics and foraging in a way that is part obsessive, part ethereal. His pieces take the form of miniature buildings and entire worlds populated with mystical and whimsical creatures that seem to live in a world all their own. The artist spends hundreds of hours in his oriental rugged workshop, methodically tending to the minutest detail. He learns whatever technique is appropriate for whatever he is trying to build.

 

Olympia Stone

Director Olympia Stone

 

Stone peppers her film with critics, curators, gallerists, collectors and friends who offer insights on Beck’s career, style and importance to the art world. When she films Beck in his studio as he shares his inspirations and frustrations, their rapport and trust is palpable.

 

 

 

 

 

David-Beck-DODO-MUSEUM-1980-Mixed-media_-wood-feathers-copper-and-electric-lightbulb-86-1_2-x-34-x-36-inches-overall

Dodo Museum

 

Much of Beck’s inspiration springs from nature, but rather than replicate it, Beck creates his own romantic version of it. His “Dodo Museum” is a valentine to the extinct creature, complete with Paleolithic skeleton and Cluny-type tapestries with dodos in place of unicorns. Sharing his sketchbooks from the early 1970’s, Beck recalls being completely “obsessed and fascinated by this friendly bird.”

 

A Many Splendored Ode to the Dodo

A Many Splendored Dodo

Dodo windup

Dodo Windup

When pressed to identify her personal favorite among Beck’s works, Stone reluctantly names the large Dodo sculpture that is on screen for a few seconds in the film. Its wings open, revealing a diorama of a tiny dodo paradise. “As a child, I used to love looking inside those wings – it just transported me into a magical world. But honestly, there are so many things I love – it’s impossible to choose just one,” she said.

 

Beck was born in Muncie, Indiana in 1953 and studied painting and sculpture at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1976. That year, he moved to New York City and had his first exhibit at the Allan Stone Gallery. Scenes of Beck reminiscing with friends from those early “starving artist” days are among the film’s most intimate moments.

Allan Stone and David Beck late 1970's

Allan Stone and David Beck in the late 1970’s.

 

Just when we think that Beck has to be the coolest, most talented person we’ve ever encountered, he gets even cooler with the introduction of the jazz improvisation group, “The Melancholics”, and his role as composer and baritone saxophonist. Beck first met bassist Bill Noertker in the late 1990s, and the two developed a collaborative relationship, with Noertker scoring a short film Beck made of seven of his sculptures. Because of their longstanding relationship, Stone asked him to score her film.

 

Curious Worlds Soundtrack

 

“I love the music in the film. Bill Noertker has a long history of composing music for David’s pieces – you can see/hear more of their collaboration on David’s website (davidbeckartworks.com). Bill “gets” David’s artwork,” Stone said. Noertker composed a few pieces specifically for the film, but many were from his band, Moxie (http://www.noertker.com/).

 

By the end of the film, we are not surprised to learn that Beck is the only living artist to have had three solo exhibits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, nor that his work is sought by private collectors across the country. The only thing that does surprise us is that we have never heard of this quirky, friendly, enormously talented man who creates these wonderful and enchanting microcosms, and for that we owe Olympia Stone a huge thank you.

 

Visit floatingstone.com for more information.

Come to Salem, see the world.

Salem Film Fest founders celebrate film and filmmakers

 

 

What do local filmmaker, Joe Cultrera, businessman, Paul Van Ness, and Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Rinus Oosthoek have in common?

 

The answer goes back to 2007, when the three founded Salem Film Fest (SFF), the week-long festival that sustains cinephiles each March through the long, bleak slog of New England winter. The largest all-documentary film festival in New England, SFF 2016 will run March 3-10.

 

It all started in 2006, when Van Ness opened CinemaSalem. He has run Van Ness Creative, a film/video production company in Beverly for 30 years, and has always been interested in filmmaking. “That is what made running the movie theater interesting to me,” he said. (His 2012 documentary feature, “A Good Death”, won Best Documentary at the California Oceanside Film Festival.)

 

Oosthoek and Van Ness

Rinus Oosthoek (left) and Paul Van Ness with Salem Film Fest programs and posters.

 

Oosthoek, who met Van Ness in 2003 when he worked with Beverly Main Streets, was one of the first to approach him with the suggestion of putting together a film festival. Van Ness was receptive. “The idea of a festival was part of what can make a cinema successful,” he said. Plus, he wanted the opportunity to bring some movies to Salem that could literally not be seen anyplace else in the world, which “helps the cinema and the local culture.”

Cultrera, a documentary filmmaker who shifts between his own productions and freelance editing work, met Van Ness when CinemaSalem hosted the New England Premiere of his film, “Hand of God”, prior to its acquisition by FRONTLINE, the PBS documentary series. He heard Van Ness and some other folks from Salem were interested in starting a film festival and he agreed to meet with them.

 

“I’d just come off the festival circuit [with “Hand of God”] and had some strong opinions,” he said. One of them was that SFF should be an all-documentary film fest, which Van Ness described as a “brilliant move” both because it meant SFF would be competing with fewer festivals to attract films and because documentaries are intrinsically more interesting. “You can experience the human family all over the world in a 90-minute film and you know it’s completely true,” he added.

 

Also, Cultrera pointed out, there were no other significant documentary film festivals in Massachusetts in 2006, so the group had the opportunity to build something unique.

 

With the three basics in place — venue (through Van Ness), business community involvement (through Oosthoek) and industry and programming connections (through Cultrera) —Salem Film Fest was born in 2007. “That’s about as fast as a festival can be put together once you have a venue,” Van Ness said.

 

The first year was more successful than anticipated, owing in part, according to Van Ness, to the fact that Cultrera, as Program Director, insisted on screening only very high quality films that were not simply advocacy pieces for the director’s point of view. “We’ve always looked for good storytelling, strong technical aspects, compelling characters and inventive techniques. We want films that present both sides of a story, particularly if it’s a political story,” Cultrera said.

 

As an “invitation only” festival, the Screening Committee invites filmmakers to submit their films for consideration. Jeff Schmidt, who took over as Program Director in 2013, started searching for films last June. For 2016, the committee invited about 200 filmmakers to submit their work for consideration and collectively considered over 150 films. After a democratic process where members discussed and then voted on each film, the committee selected this year’s line-up of 35 feature documentaries representing 25 countries.

 

From the get-go, SFF distinguished itself as unique in its focus on the filmmaker. “To us, the filmmakers are the heroes in the industry. They come up with the story,” Van Ness said.

 

“We get over half the filmmakers to come to Salem, which is another thing that makes this festival so special,” said Oosthoek, noting that this tradition developed accidentally the first year, when most of the filmmakers who attended were local. This year, over two-thirds of the filmmakers will attend, thanks to SFF volunteers who help with traveling logistics and business sponsors’ donations.

 

Post-screening Q&A sessions make the festival experience richer for filmgoers and filmmakers alike. Van Ness notes that a filmmaker whose film is both good and topical may be invited to 20 festivals. “What people say is that the Q&A afterwards tends to be the same except in Salem, where the sophistication of the audience leads the questions in much more interesting directions than you typically hear,” he said.

 

Since 2007, SFF has grown from the “little festival that can” in Salem to a major regional documentary festival. Oosthoek points to three reasons why, first and most important being the quality of the films. “There is a ‘Salem identity’. The filmmakers love coming here,” he said. The festival’s reputation has grown beyond the North Shore, attracting fans from Newburyport, Gloucester, Ipswich and as far away as South Carolina and Minnesota.

 

Second is the educational component, including partnerships with local high schools, colleges and universities, and the opportunity for student and local filmmakers to showcase their documentary short and experimental films in festival programming such as the Five-Minute Student Documentary Contest and the Mass Reality Check. Also, a selected group of local documentarians receive project assistance when they present their in-progress works to industry representatives at the Doc-a-chusetts Pitch session, with the winner receiving a $5,000 production grant for finishing services provided by The OutPost at WGBH.

 

Last but hardly least, Oosthoek credits the local business community for its commitment and involvement. “They understand it’s good for their regional market,” he said. Where most festivals charge filmmakers a non-refundable fee to submit their work (with no guarantee of acceptance), SFF actually offers every filmmaker a screening fee, free lodging and, in some cases, a travel stipend thanks to local and regional community sponsors and supporters.

 

Over the years, SFF has also strengthened and expanded its relationship with the Peabody Essex Museum, adding more screenings and connected programming there. “This has really brought an extra dimension to the event and allowed us to show more work,” Cultrera said. Another SFF venue, the Salem National Park Service Visitor Center, will host four screenings this year.

 

In addition to its liaison with broadcasters like FRONTLINE, SFF has tried to “add new wrinkles each year to keep things fresh,” Cultrera noted, adding that having live music on stage between films is a good way to add a little life to the moments before a screening and expose the audience to local musicians. Another “wrinkle” is “Salem Sketches”, a handful of locally shot two-minute documentaries Cultrera creates with fellow filmmaker Perry Hallinan. “We’re one of the few festivals that can claim to have our own original programming,” Cultrera said.

 

“Come to Salem, see the world” has been the SFF catch phrase since its inception, both as an homage to the old Salem merchant ships that established trade with the rest of the world and in tribute to the films from dozens of countries the festival has screened over the past nine years. “The festival’s strength has always been its programming and community feel, but the scope of our programming reaches far beyond the local,” Cultrera said.

 

For more information, visit salemfilmfest.com

“The Farewell Party” Poses More Questions Than Answers

“The Farewell Party” poses questions more usually associated with the High Holidays and long hours of contemplation in the sanctuary: Who shall live? Who shall die? Who by destiny? Who by free will? Although touted as an Israeli comedy about euthanasia, the film raises important political, ethical and religious points about assisted suicide and the fine line between aiding a suffering friend and playing God.

The film is set in Jerusalem in a retirement home where everyone knows each other’s business. Although the residents have individual apartments with doors that close, the atmosphere is more like a kibbutz.

Amateur inventor Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) and his waifish wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein) are a devoted couple with a small circle of equally devoted friends. Their terminally ill best pal, Max, who doctors are keeping alive against his will, is suffering terribly from the prolonged constant pain. When his wife Yana begs Yehezkel to help in any way he can, he agrees.

The machinist teams up with retired vet Dr. Daniel to design a machine that will assist the angel of death with the push of a button. Dr. Daniel’s married lover Raffi (whom we meet for the first time literally in the closet and naked), a retired cop, suggests the mercy killers pre-tape a video of Max stating that he is ending his life of his own free will and that he alone is responsible for his decision and his action.

The posse gathers to inaugurate Yehezkel’s machine in a loving bedside farewell that restores dignity and a smile to Max’s pain-wracked face. They swear each other to secrecy but since their lives at the communal retirement home are open books where the lines between the private and public blur, word soon gets out that there is an alternative to death with indignity.

THEFAREWELLPARTY3

The friends of “The Farewell Party” gather to hear the pleas of a fellow septuagenarian whose wife wants to end her life. 

Levana, the only one of the group who morally opposes euthanasia, is ironically the only one in its needs when she starts her slow disappearance into the abyss of dementia. Yehezkel’s reaction to his wife’s request spotlights the dilemmas and ambiguities of assisted suicide, and we see in his face he wishes, too late, that he had never decided to tinker with matters of life and death.

The film is surprisingly light and graceful and the cast interesting and believable. The writer-director team Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon balance tenderness and daring as they tackle the contemporary issue of how to deal with elderly patients who may not want the all the wonders medicine makes available to them. They take their serious subject seriously, but ably interweave humor and heartbreaking caring. Although “The Farewell Party” is a film about death, it is also a film about the sanctity of life.

When that life becomes subjectively unendurable, and the treatment objectively values quantity of days lived over their quality, the doctor’s drive to keep the patient alive at all costs becomes as cruel and impersonal as the disease itself.

However, whether a tinkerer and a retired vet have the right to build a “mercy-killing machine” and use it with impunity is not necessarily the best alternative. Or is it?

Check local theater listings for times and locations.

The Queen of Accessories Reigns

Iris Apfel in her museum-like apartment


I
ris Apfel is more than the sum of her parts in the same way a unicorn is not just a horse with a horn. She trails magic dust and casts a mysterious shadow in filmmaker Albert Maysles’ (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) outstanding valentine, “Iris,” the documentary pioneer’s last movie before he died in March at 88 years old.


By contrast, Apfel shows no signs of slowing down. At 93 years old, the pint-sized nonconformist with the signature oversized round glasses still trolls Harlem (albeit from a wheelchair and with a driver) in pursuit of the perfect addition to her madcap collection of contemporary fashion. (“My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” she deadpans).

“I like to improvise,” she explains in the opening scene, as she vamps for the camera and concocts “another mad outfit” she might wear to a party. “I always think I do things like I’m playing jazz.” As she layers enormous amber and silver necklaces and bracelets onto her birdlike frame, the audience marvels as much at her ability to remain upright as at the final quirky ensemble.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Astoria, Queens, in 1921, Iris Barrell developed her fearless sense of individuality and style as a child, helping her fashion boutique owner mother dress windows and accompanying her importer father to jobs at Elsie de Wolfe’s legendary interior design studio. She studied fine arts at New York University and eventually began a fabulously successful interior design business.

Early on, a mentor singled her out and bluntly told her that although she wasn’t pretty, she had something more important because it would outlast her looks: she had style. Apfel has been taking that piece of advice to the bank ever since, inventing and re-inventing her unique self.

In 1948, she married Carl Patel, an advertising executive, and together they founded Old World Weavers, a fabric manufacturing firm, after Apfel couldn’t find the fabrics and furnishings she envisioned for her many high-end clients. The two spent over half a century traveling and collecting.

Their palatial Park Avenue apartment and Palm Beach home are brimming with the eclectic fruits of their shopping expeditions. The overflow is housed in a storage loft.

In 2005, The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art approached Apfel. The 600-piece show, “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” traveled to various museums after its New York run, arriving at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in 2009.

Apfel fell in love with PEM. “It was the climax [of the show’s tour]. They have soaring ceilings and they did a really great job,” she remarks in the film. She subsequently bequeathed the entire show plus more to the museum, substantially expanding and modernizing its permanent textiles and fashion department.

The collection and its final resting place are important to Apfel. “This is a very personal collection. I wore almost everything in it. It’s nice to see where it’s going,” she says. An additional bequest will fund a fashion gallery in the PEM’s new wing that is slated to open in 2017.

Although several academic talking heads analyze and pay homage to Apfel’s pioneering contributions (“She is the perfect example of the intersection of fashion, interior design and art,” comments Margaret Russel, “Architectural Digest” editor), it is Apfel whose pithy asides cut to the chase.

Putting together the right outfit requires skill and chutzpah. “I’m brazen,” she explains as she bargains shamelessly with a street vendor for a bauble she cannot live without and then whips out her gold American Express card to pay for it. She is also serious with a firmly embedded work ethic. “It’s hard work. Everything I have, I have to go out and find,” she says.

Apfel’s credo is that fashion should be fun. “You might as well amuse people when you dress,” she comments as she pairs priceless tribal vestments with a plastic ladybug bracelet she found at a flea market. Her flamboyant and self-confident free spirit is infectious.

Although Apfel’s larger-thanlife persona could devour the screen for the film’s 83 minutes, the moments when we glimpse her sweet and trusting relationship with director Maysles temper her nonstop chatter and activity. The few scenes when she silently turns to the camera are the film’s most intimate.

“Iris” is a playful, entertaining and beautifully shot film of a woman who has spent her life marching to her own drummer and, at age 93, is still living her dream. Recommended.

Check local theaters for times.