29 April, 2008

Encounters With British Cinema At Tribeca FF

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

One of the great pleasures of attending a film festival is the serendipity that often occurs when one sees one film after another, finding thematic connections or differences between them that delight the soul and stimulate the mind. I had just such an occurrence the other day, seeing two British films back to back. It just happened that the films were screening after one another, but it made me realize how much I love and appreciate both the high and the low in British cinema.

I’ve been a fan of films from the British Isles since I first discovered the beauteous renderings of David Lean and the “kitchen sink” dramas of the angry young men of the 1950s and 1960s. The two films I saw represented both this high (proper Brits behaving badly) and low (working class blokes trying to make their way in the world). I must also confess a weakness for British films that are set in the waning days of the British Empire in India. I find the subject, the drama, the comment on class warfare, utterly involving.

The first film on that cloudy Sunday is a worthy addition to that sub-genre. Before The Rains, directed by Indian director Santosh Sivan (The Terrorist) presents a sumptuous story of love, betrayal and loyalty in the lush jungles of southern India in the late 1930s, when the Indian independence movement led by Ghandi was beginning to take force. In this beautifully shot film, an English spice baron, played with appropriate class privilege mixed with angst by Linus Roche, is the very model of an English ex-patriot, with a wife and young son in tow. But Linus has a secret….a love affair he has been conducting with his female servant. When the local community becomes aware of the married servant’s disgrace, the hunt is on to find the man who has violated her. Roche’s chief aid, a young Indian who sees himself as more British than Indian, conceals the secret and then is implicated. His loyalties are tested until the very last frame. The impossibly handsome Indian actor Rahul Bose gives a startling performance as a man torn between modernism and tradition, a metaphor for his entire country. The film, a US-UK co-production presented by Merchant-Ivory Films (the trendsetters in high end British cinema) will run next month in the US via specialty distributor Roadside Attractions.

Truly on the other end of the scale, yet also about the clash of cultures, is Somers Town, the latest film from UK filmmaker Shane Meadows (This Is England). In this charming dramedy, the relationship between two boys represents the melting-pot of the new England. Tomo is a lad from the Midlands who comes to London to find a better life. Marek is a Polish immigrant who lives with his construction worker father. Each, in his own way, is escaping a past of poverty and dislocation, looking to their new surroundings to offer them both economic and spiritual sustenance. That they are both walled off from the riches of the modern “British dream” is part of what unites the unlikely duo. In the same vein as the films of Ken Loach, England is both the land of ambitious dreams and bitter disappointments.

The Brits are well represented in the Tribeca Film Festival program. Mike Figgis, one of the few British directors who also has found success in Hollywood (Leaving Las Vegas), is presenting the World Premiere of Love Live Long, a film set in Istanbul during the famous high-speed race known as the Gumball Rally. With this setting as backdrop, Figgis has crafted a raw and intimate film that exposes the affects of an unexpected sexual encounter and the high stakes of the race on two strangers. Figgis also was one of several directors to be featured in Tribeca Talks, a series of conversations with leading filmmakers. On Monday at the Directors Guild Theater, Figgis talked about straddling the two worlds of Hollywood and independent cinema, where he is considered something of a film maverick. He is one of the few major directors to have worked in the digital format, bringing eloquence and beauty to Timecode (2000), with multiple screens and recurring imagery. He is one of the founding patrons of the online film community Shooting People and crated a stabilizer for digital cameras known as the “Fig Rig”. A world-class director, writer and composer, Mike Figgis’ work is in constant evolution and his digital works challenges the way we experience film stories.

Other important British films screening this week: Boy A, the celebrated debut of director John Crowley, centers on a former juvenile offender who is released from prison after 14 years. The film follows his reentry into society with the help of his counselor. Newcomer Andrew Garfield (photo below) was nominated for a BAFTA Award for his stunning performance as the hesitant 24 year old who must catch up with his peers while keeping his past a secret.

In The Cottage, director Paul Andrew Williams spins a nifty kidnapping plot that goes horribly awry. The director, known for his previous film London To Brighton, here offers a gory horror-comedy about two brothers and their potty-mouthed hostage who stumble into the wrong farmhouse.

Britain has a long tradition of documentaries and three new ones are premiering at Tribeca. Baghdad High by Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter, centers on four high schoolers (a Kurd, a Christian, a Shiite and a Sunni) who are given cameras to document their last year in high school in war-torn Baghdad. The film offers a rare first-hand account of what it’s like to grow up where sectarian violence rages right outside the classroom window. In Nathan Rissman’s I Am Because We Are, superstar performer Madonna (who also wrote and co-produced) turns the lens on the tragic stories of millions of Malawi children offered by AIDS. The film offers both a call to action and a revelatory personal journey that is a testament to survival, change and hope. And in Man On Wire, one of the hits at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, director James Marsh chronicles the 1974 incident when New York gasped as French daredevil Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This stunning portrait of an artist of reckless daring and impish charm is also a chronicle of the once might World Trade Center towers, which now hold another place in history as the beginning of the current tensions between the West and the East.

25 April, 2008

Cinéma Français At The Tribeca Film Festival

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

New York City has had a love affair with French film for more than 75 years. From the silent film era to today’s Gallic gems, French films are consistently the highest audience attractions and the non-English cinema most represented in the Big Apple. The Tribeca Film Festival, which began its first day of screenings today, adds to this “Francophile” tendency with the premiere of several films a la française.

Five dramatic features dot the Festival’s various film strands. In the World Narrative Feature Competition, there is the enigmatic 57,000 Kilometers Between Us by debut director Delphine Kreuter. In this provocative yet charming take on digital communication, the follows a teen caught between her stepdad (who records the family's supposedly perfect life online), her real father (now a transsexual), and the refuge of her online life as she searches for meaningful connections. The film, which has been a modest box office hit in its native France, is produced by Les Films du Poisson and is up for a prize in the Tribeca Film Festival competition.

Two French films are being showcased in Feature Narrative non-competitive section. The most celebrated is The Secret of The Grain, the surprise winner for Best Film and Best Director at this year’s Cesar Awards (the French Oscar). Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, the film is a remarkable depiction of a family of North African immigrants in a decaying port town in southern France. The film features a terrific ensemble cast who become as endearing as members of one’s own family. The film also won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival and it young actress Hafsia Herzi has been singled out for her performance, winning a Cesar, Lumiere and Marcello Mastroianni Prize for her performance. Despite huge acclaim, the film was only recently been picked up for US distribution by IFC Films, which plans a very short theatrical release for the film later this summer.

Charly is a new coming-of-age drama from director Isild Le Besco. The film tells the tale of two teenagers, 14-year-old Nicolas, a young man tramping towards the sea, and Charly, a tough girl who takes him into her mobile home, where an unusual domestic arrangement evolves. The film, produced by television network Arte, had its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and makes its North American premiere at Tribeca later this week.

In the Encounter section of the Festival, a strand devoted to more experimental work, the documentary film Everywhere At Once is a definite stand-out. This poetic exercise brings together renowned photographer Peter Lindbergh, experimental filmmaker Holly Fisher and actress Jeanne Moreau, to weave a tapestry of images shaping one woman's deepest sense of selfhood. The film has its World Premiere at the Festival on Sunday.

The Tribeca Film Festival has become a major showcase for the short form, introducing audiences to the first works of wonderfully gifted film artists. Three short films will be shown: 20,000 Phantoms by Jean-Gabriel Periot, an expressionistic documentary on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; The Milky Way, a short family drama by Luc Moullet; The Second Life Of The Sugar Bowl, an eye-opening domestic tale by Didier Canaux; and Supply And Demand, a satire on the life of a medical examiner, directed by Frédéric Farrucci.

And we’ve saved the best for last… the Festival will offer a rare screening of a restored “lost” silent classic, Two Timid Souls (1929) from farceur René Clair. The restored film, which was the highlight of last fall’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, is a near-forgotten gem which displays all the elegance, wit, and visual inventiveness that are hallmarks of its director. The film was restored by the Cinémathèque Française and will feature the world premiere of a new musical score played at the screenings by the New York University Chamber Orchestra. A true movie and music event to be savored…

23 April, 2008

Lift Off For 7th Tribeca Film Festival

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

On the same day that the Cannes Film Festival announced its official program, the Tribeca Film Festival lifts off this evening in its most ambitious to date. The Festival, which is presenting its seventh edition, has become a major New York cultural event and has increasingly flexed its muscles as an industry destination as well.

Modeling itself on such long-standing events as Cannes, Venice and Toronto, the Tribeca Film Festival has avoided the “boutique” approach of such established New York festival events as the New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films, in creating a “five ring circus” atmosphere, loaded with World and US Premieres, public events and chic industry parties. Definitely more populist than its uptown festival colleagues, the Festival offers a mix of esoteric cinema from around the world with more popular genres (specifically, family and sports films) and a series of free and outdoor events meant to appeal to average filmgoers, rather than just the arthouse elite.

That strategy has succeeded in attracting major financial sponsors, including American Express, Apple, Cadillac and Delta Airlines, making it one of the best endowed financially of the North American film confabs. Perhaps it was this multi-million dollar commitment of funding, along with criticism of previous high ticket prices, that motivated the Festival to lower its ticket price to $15 for evening and weekend screenings and $8 for daytime screenings. With Americans, and New Yorkers, counting their pennies these days, cash outlays for exorbitant “Festival passes” could be hurting. But audiences have definitely embraced the event and record attendance is expected again this year.

One of the ironies of the development of the Festival is that it began as almost a kind of “public service” event, designed to reinvigorate the neighborhood of TriBeCa (that’s triangle below Canal Street for you yokels) after the attacks of 9/11. Local residents, including Robert de Niro and producer Jane Rosenthal, created the Festival as a way of bringing people and income to businesses hard hit after the 2001 attacks. However, these days, the Tribeca Film Festival is no longer exclusively a downtown event. The Festival is centering its Hospitality Lounge and Press Center in Greenwich Village, with film theaters across Manhattan now participating in the ambitious program. Of course, this opens up the event to all Manhattanites, who are remarkably provincial in their way about not venturing outside their core neighborhoods. In effect, the Festival has now become a multi-site, neighborhood-diverse event with only tenuous connections to its original downtown roots.

It has also become a destination for distributors, sales agents, festival programmers and other media professionals. Since the Festival now boasts an impressive array of World and International Premieres, those looking for the next “big thing” either from the American independent world or the international film scene swarm to the event. While quality is sometimes compromised for premiere status, the Festival definitely does deliver a strong program for all kinds of tastes and a proving ground for how the films will play to a sophisticated, urban audience. Coming just a few weeks before the Cannes extravaganza, the Festival offers sales agents and distributors the start of a discussion that could very easily end up on the Croisette in a few weeks with a signed contract.

But industry talk aside, the Tribeca Film Festival is mainly a public event, designed to showcase new and interesting filmmakers, as well as throw show Hollywood dazzle to the masses. New York and its film aficionados definitely deserved a gargantuan smorgasbord of an event, instead of an elegant (and even snobby) wine tasting. In that sense, the Festival is very much like the city that it celebrates: oversized, diverse, multi-ethnic, maddening and even a little chaotic. So, log on to the Festival’s website: and jump into the pool at the deep end.

Returning To Romanian Roots

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

In the world of cinema, there is always a “new wave” occurring in a country or region or even genre. No question, in 2007/2008, that new wave is centered in the country of Romania, which has flexed its muscles on the international stage with a series of lauded films. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu was the surprise winner of the Palme d’Or, the Festival’s highest honor. Another Romanian film 12:08 East of Bucharest by Corneliu Porumboiu also won a prize at Cannes and has since become an international arthouse cult favorite. Earlier in the year, the naturalistic The Death of Mr Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu showed on many film critics “top ten” lists.

For those who think that this Romanian renaissance is some kind of new phenomenon, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York (which sponsors both the New York Film Festival in the Fall and the recently concluded New Directors/New Films series) is presenting a survey of Romanian cinema of the 1960s through the 1980s, a dark period before the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship, when Romania was one of the most closed societies in the world. For “Shining Through A Long, Dark Night: Romanian Cinema, Then And Now”, which runs from April 16 to 27 at the Walter Reade Theater, the series presents 18 films, most of which have never been seen in North America before.

Probably the best known film in the series is Forest Of The Hanged, directed by Liviu Ciulei, who won the Best Director Prize at Cannes in 1965. Set during World War I, as the Romanian and Austro-Hungarian armies battle for control of Transylvania, the film tells the story of a young Romanian lieutenant who becomes a conscientious objector in the midst of battle. The film mixes epic-scale battle scenes with bold surrealistic touches in a stunningly shot panorama of black and white Cinemascope.

Also from 1965, when Eastern European was experiencing cultural thaws in neighboring Czechoslovakia and Hungary as well, is the non-linear narrative Sunday At Six by debut director Lucian Pintilie. The film, set in the late 1940s, when the Communist Party was consolidating its power, presents an unlikely romance between two Communist revolutionaries who find their mutual affection at odds with their party orthodoxy. This clash between the personal and the institution is one of the themes explored in many of these films, which were financed and controlled by the state film machine.

Films from the 1980s, including Iosif Demian’s A Girl In Tears (1980), which uses both professional and non-professional actors to retrace an unsolved murder of a young woman and Dan Pita’s The Contest (1982), which mixes harsh realism with allegory, use cinematic symbols of discontent or unease to offer a “between the lines” criticism of the Communist regime and the passive acceptance of totalitarianism that marked this generation of Romanian citizens.

The newest film in the series is The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) from director Radu Muntean. This is the one major Romanian New Wave film that has yet to land an American distribution deal. The film takes place during the final hours of the Romanian Revolution in 1989, when the dictator Ceausescu and his wife were unceremoniously shot in full public view. An idealistic private in the national militia decides to desert his patrol in order to join the anti-government forces that have taken control of the national television station. A kind of surrealism takes over, where nobody is quite sure who is on what side and whether they are shooting at the right people. This mix of dark humor and bloody chaos has many parallels beyond Romania, and could, with a change of environment and language, be a portrait of Baghdad in our own times.

The main protagonists of the so-called Romanian New Wave have made it clear that this designation is simply an invention of the media and a simplistic way for film critics to categorize a new crop of films. But there is no doubt that the Romanians, who have had to suppress their behavior for decades under the Nazis and then under the Communist regime, are letting their freak fly, and taking international cinema into exciting, if uncharted waters. It promises to be an exciting ride.

For more information on this and other Film Society of Lincoln Center programs, log on to:

18 April, 2008

European Films Hit The Beach

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Palm Beach is a jewel on Florida’s glittering Atlantic Coast. For over 75 years, it has been synonymous with the excesses of the rich and famous who have made it a resort playground on the same level as Monte Carlo or the French Riviera. However, in the past 13 years, Palm Beach has been noted for another reason…..for presenting one of the most interesting film festivals on the international film circuit. This year, the Palm Beach International Film Festival (10-17 April) presented over 100 films from around the world, as well as in-depth seminars, gala tributes and some of the most fun parties on the festival circuit. After a frenzied week, the Festival calls it a wrap tonight.

Among the highlights of the Festival’s program were several European films making their U.S. Premieres at the event. Hotel Very Welcome, by German director Sonja Heiss, is the intriguing dramatic story of western travelers who wander through India and Thailand in search of inner peace and, ultimately, themselves. Struggling with themselves or being incapable of escaping from the problems they thought they had left behind, the film makes a provocative statement about the beauty of travel and the fact that no matter where you go, you always end up finding yourself. The film was produced by Komplizen Film and premiered at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, where it won a Dialogue Award, before traveling to such other festivals, including Karlovy Vary, Copenhagen and Bird’s Eye View (UK).

Irish actor Colin Meaney heads a delicious cast of actors in the Irish film Kings, directed by Tom Collins. In the mid 1970s, a group of six young men left their homes in West Ireland, took the boat out of Dublin Bay and sailed across the sea to England in the hope of making their fortunes and returning home. Thirty years later, only one makes it home, but does so in a coffin. His five friends reunite at his wake where they are forced to face up to the reality of their alienation as long term emigrants who no longer have any real place to call home. The film, a co-production between Newgrange Pictures, Green Park Films De Facto Films, was a big winner at this year’s Irish Film and Television Awards, winning five awards, as well as receiving nominations for Best Film and Best Director.

Film veteran Claude Lelouch directs the legendary Fanny Ardant in his latest film, Roman de Gare, which premiered at the Festival. In the still of the night, three lives are about to cross: a woman abandoned, a stranger awaiting his chance, and a best-selling author who imagines the thriller of the year.

Deceptively layered and intriguingly misleading, this celebrated film from Oscar-winning director Claude Lelouch features an unlikely pair caught up in a game with high stakes - and deadly consequences. The film, which was produced by Les Films 13 with support from Canal Plus, premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Its young actress Audrey Dana was nominated for a Cesar Award as Best Female Newcomer. The film is being released this month in the U.S. by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

One of the Festival’s audience favorites was the coming-of-age film Red Like The Sky by Italian director Cristiano Bartone. The film is inspired by the true story of Mirco Mencacci, one of the most gifted Italian sound editors working today, who happens to be blind. The film chronicles the young boy’s fascination with cinema at an early age. Following an accident, he loses his sight. Because Italian law at the time did not allow blind children to attend public schools, his parents are forced to put him into a special institution. When Mirco finds an old tape recorder, he discovers that he is able to create little fairy tales made only of sounds. The conservative institution tries to stop him, but he continues his hobby, slowly involving all of the other blind children, helping them re-discover their potential and their dreams. The film, produced by Orisa Produzioni with funding support from the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, has won Best Film honors at the Durban, Flanders, Hamburg, Montreal and Sao Paulo film festivals, as well as a special David di Donatello prize (the Italian Oscar) for director Cristiano Bartone.

UK production company ZZ Productions was represented at the Festival by the dramatic thriller The Run, by writer/director Tania Meneguzzi. The film tells the harrowing tale of two drug “mules” who risk their lives and their futures on smuggling illegal drugs inside their bodies. The film has become an indie cult hit in its native England and is currently being sold around the world by the film’s sales agent, Transmedia International. Another UK film, the audience pleasing documentary Young@Heart, by director Stephen Walker, closes the Festival tonight. Audiences around the world have been wowed by the inspiring senior citizens chorus that has delighted audiences worldwide with their covers of songs by everyone from The Clash to Coldplay. As the film begins, Stephen Walker's the retirees, led by their demanding musical director, are rehearsing their new show, struggling with Sonic Youth’s dissonant rock anthem “Schizophrenia” and giving new meaning to James Brown's "I Feel Good." What ultimately emerges is a funny and unexpectedly moving testament to friendship, creative inspiration, and defying expectations. The film is being released in the United States this coming week by Fox Searchlight Pictures (the specialty arm of Twentieth Century Fox), the company behind this year’s indie sensation Juno.

With its intriguing programming, beautiful resort venue and great weather (I was definitely sun-kissed this past week), the Palm Beach International Film Festival is one of the most interesting pit stops on the film festival circuit, with a local audience that both appreciates and celebrates new European cinema.

15 April, 2008

Christmas Story Takes On America

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Christmas Story, a film from Finnish director Juha Wuolijoki, is on its way to become a sensation in the United States, after winning the Bombay Sapphire Audience Award for Best International Film at the Sarasota Film Festival, which just concluded this past weekend. The film had previously won a Best Cinematography prize at the Jussi Awards, the Finnish Oscar.

The film recounts the tale of Santa Nikolas, better known to the world as Santa Klaus, the legendary giver of gifts at Christmas time. The story begins hundreds of years ago in a remote corner of snowy Lapland, when a little boy loses his family in an accident. The villagers decide to look after the orphaned boy together. Once a year - at Christmas - Nikolas moves to a new home. To show his gratitude, Nikolas decides to make toys for the children of the families as good-bye presents. Over the years, Nikolas's former adoptive families become many, and soon almost every house has presents on its doorstep on Christmas morning. Eventually, this gift-giving broadens and Nikolas comes up with a solution that brings all the children all over the world presents every Christmas morning, a tradition that continues to this day.

With Santa Klaus a part of every culture, the family film’s potential is huge. The film was produced by Snapper Films Oy and television network MTV3 in Finland, with additional funding from Canal Plus, the MEDIA Programme of the European Union and local Finnish fund Suomen Elokuvasäätiö. The film is being sold internationally by Delphis Films and will be released in the United States by Warner Home Video, which will release it in a dubbed version in English. Its universal story could make it a holiday favorite and one of the most profitable European films for years to come.

10 April, 2008

European Winners at the Bermuda Film Festival

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The 2008 edition of the Bermuda International Film Festival came to a close this past weekend, with its Gala Awards Ceremony and dazzling After Party at The Fairmont Hamilton Princess Hotel. The Festival, celebrating its 11th season, has one of the most ambitious and energetic film slates in North America, as well as the one of the most beautiful environments for its many special events and receptions. Lucky attendees not only could experience Bermuda’s legendary pink sand beaches and historic architecture, but some of the best films on the international film festival circuit.

Caramel, by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, won the Mary-Jean Mitchell Green Award for Best Narrative Feature. According to a statement by Jury President Robert Favreau (director of A Sunday In Kigali), the film “shows us a complex microcosmos where many stories and sub-stories take place. The stories are all well-developed and involve many characters to whom we become strongly attached.” The director received a cash prize of $5000.

Caramel is a French-Lebanese co-production, having been produced by Paris-based production companies Les Films des Tournelles, Bac Films, Arte France Cinema and Roissy Films, with the financial participation of the National Centre for Cinema (CNC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Lebanese production partner is Les Films de Beyrouth. The film premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and has appeared at festivals including Toronto, Copenhagen, London, La Rochelle and Tübingen.

The film already has had theatrical distribution in Europe, with such companies as A-Film Distribution (The Netherlands), Alamode Film (Germany), Alta Films (Spain), Atlantic Film (Sweden), Momentum Pictures (UK) and Roissy Films (France). The film will be released in the United States next month via specialty distributor Roadside Attractions. Caramel is represented for worldwide sales by Sabbah Media in Lebanon.

The other European film winners were in the Short Film Competition. The Shorts Jury of Al Seymour Jr. and Ted Bezaire gave the M3 Wireless Bermuda Shorts Award to Toyland, by German director Jochen Freydank. The Shorts Jury also awarded Special Mentions to Ark (Grzegorz Jokajtys, Poland) and The Legend Of The Slow Man (Armando del Rio, Spain).

The Bacardi Limited Audience Choice Award, which is voted on by filmgoers, was won by Red Dust, by British director Tom Hooper, which starred Oscar winner Hilary Swank as a crusading, anti-apartheid lawyer in South Africa. The director gratefully received the $3000 cash prize from Bacardi’s Vernon Pemberton. The film is a co-production between the United Kingdom (BBC Films), the United States (Distant Horizon) and South Africa (Videovision Entertainment). Although produced as a television film, Red Dust has opened theatrically in the United Kingdom (via BBC Films), Finland (FS Film Oy) and The Netherlands (RCV Film Distribution).

The 2008 Bermuda International Film Festival was the biggest to date…..showcasing 79 films from 32 countries. Its diverse and adventurous programming, beautiful setting and easy-going atmosphere make it one of the most filmmaker-friendly events on the circuit. Sorry I missed it this year, but I hope to be reveling on the pink sands next year.

08 April, 2008

Jules Dassin: An American Artist In European Exile

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Jules Dassin, an American director, screenwriter and actor who found success making movies in Europe after he was blacklisted in the United States because of his ties to the Communist Party, died Monday in Athens, where he had lived since the 1970s. He was 96. Mr. Dassin is most widely remembered for films he made after he fled Hollywood in the 1950s, including Never On Sunday (1960) with the Greek actress Melina Mercouri, whom he later married; Topkapi (1964), with Ms. Mercouri, Peter Ustinov and Maximilian Schell; and the 1954 French classic heist thriller Rififi.

Dassin was born on December 18, 1911, one of eight children of Samuel Dassin, an immigrant barber from Russia. Shortly after Jules was born, his father moved the family to Harlem and he attended high school in The Bronx. His working-class environment created a class consciousness that was common in the post World War I urban centers. He joined the Communist Party in 1930s, but left in 1939, when he became disillusioned after the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler.

In the mid-1930s, Dassin studied drama in Europe before returning to New York, where he made his debut as an actor in the Yiddish Theater. He also wrote radio scripts. He went to Hollywood shortly before World War II erupted in Europe and was hired as an apprentice to the directors Alfred Hitchcock and Garson Kanin. Soon he was directing films for MGM, including Reunion In France (1942), a Joan Crawford vehicle with John Wayne in which her character comes to believe that her fiancé is a Nazi collaborator.

In the late 1940s, Dassin became one of the prime forces behind “film noir”, a brutal expressionist style that relied on expressionistic camera angles and brutish anti-heros to capture the cynicism of the post war period. Among his best films of this period were Brute Force (1947), a prison drama starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn; The Naked City (1948), an influential New York City police yarn shot on location that won Academy Awards for cinematography and editing; Thieve’s Highway (1949), about criminals who try to coerce truckers in California; and Night And The City (1950), a film shot in London starring Richard Widmark (who died last week) as a shady but naïve wrestling promoter. The latter film is considered by many to be Dassin’s masterpiece.

The release of the film in 1950 was parallel to the brouhaha being created by the House Un-American Activities Committee, a Congressional committee looking into Communist influences in Hollywood and the new medium of television. While Dassin was no longer a member of the Communist Party, he was blacklisted along with other prominent directors and actors. Unable to find work in the studio system, Dassin left the United States for France in 1953 but remained largely unemployed for years. In need of money, he agreed to direct Rififi, a low-budget production about a jewelry heist. Dassin also acted in the movie, under the name Perlo Vita, playing an Italian safe expert. The film became an unexpected hit, winning Dassin the Best Director prize at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. During this period, he directed the films He Who Must Die (1957), where he met his future wife Melina Mercouri; and La legge (1959), a noirish melodrama with Gina Lollobrigida, Marcello Mastroianni and Yves Montand.

By the early 1960s, Dassin’s films were attracting the attention of Hollywood producers. He wrote and directed Never On Sunday as a vehicle for his then-wife Melina Mercouri. The fiery Greek actress had the role of her lifetime as a good-hearted prostitute. Dassin also had a role in the film as a bookish American trying to reform the free-thinking ways of Mercouri’s bad girl. His directing and screenwriting were nominated for Academy Awards and the film became a big hit. Dassin was invited back to Hollywod in 1964 to direct Topkapi, which some consider the ultimate jewel heist film, the prize in this case being gems from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Dassin’s next film was the poorly received Up Tight! (1968), set in a poor black neighborhood, with a script by its star, Ruby Dee. He then set his sights on Broadway, directing a musical comedy version of his hit Never On Sunday, called “Illya Darling”, which again starred Melina Mercouri, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance. Both lived in New York during the dark years of the Greek military junta of the late 1960s and early 1970s, returning from exile in 1974, where Mercouri entered politics, becoming a member of Parliament and later Culture Minister. Mercouri died in 1994 and Dassin had lived in Greece for the past 30 years.

Dassin ended his directing career in his late 60s on a disheartened note, when his film Circle Of Two (1980), about an aging artist (Richard Burton) who is infatuated with a teenage student (Tatum O’Neal), which was a disaster at the box office. Dassin never made another film. He spent the last 25 years as the titular head of the Melina Mercouri Foundation, which tried to induce the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, sculptures taken from the Parthenon nearly 200 years ago. Dassin, whose life journey took him from the slums of New York to the capitals of Europe to the Mediterranean paradise of the Greek Islands, had a tumultuous life, but he leaves behind a number of superb works that continue to delight audiences to this day.

04 April, 2008

European Films On Screen

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

This is the first in a series of articles meant to inform European film professionals of what European films are opening theatrically in the United States. The series is meant to generate information that will be useful to European filmmakers, distributors, financial institutions and film buffs. Since North America represents the largest market for European films outside of Europe itself, and is a bellwether for the performance of films in other territories, this information is, hopefully, of particular interest.

For the first week of April, several European films that opened in the past few months continue to show strength in the marketplace. Chief among these are The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of the best-selling memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby. The film, which is being distributed in North America by Miramax Films, opened in limited release at the end of November 2007 and took advantage of various nominations for the film and its director during the past few months of release. So far, it has grossed over $6 million, last week placing it at the number 58 spot of the top 100 films, with 37 screens across the United States showing the film. At its height during Oscar season in February, the film could be seen on over 350 screens, a moderately wide release for an art film.

Another Oscar-nominated French film, the animated memoir Persépolis has also held on for many weeks in theaters. The film, an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s illustrated novel of her youth in Iran, opened in the US at the end of December 2007. In its 14 weeks of release, it has grossed just over US $4 million. This past week, it could be seen on 39 screens, placing a ranking of 61 in the top 100 grossers at the box office. At its height, during Oscar season in February, the film could be seen on over 500 screens across the country, an usually high number for a foreign-language film. The film’s distributor Sony Pictures Classics is about to release an English-language dubbed version next week, which would extend the film’s theatrical box office for another few months before it heads into DVD and television markets.

A third Oscar-nominated French film, La Vie en Rose by Olivier Dahan, the biopic of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, has also had a very strong run, buoyed by the Oscar win by Marion Cotillard as Best Actress. The film opened on US screens back in June 2007 and has run continuously for the past 25 weeks, which is very impressive. Total box office has been over $10 Million, considered very strong for a foreign-language title. It is clearly ending its run, since it now is only on 12 screens nationwide, placing it at number 80 of the top 100 films. The film is expected to do well on DVD, with the music subject matter and the Oscar win for Cotillard its main assets. The film’s distributor in North America is Picturehouse.

French films continue to be the strongest European films in the United States. In the past week or so, such films as Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas), Love Songs (Christophe Honore), The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette) and Priceless (Pierre Salvadori) have opened to generally strong reviews in New York, the first stop for most foreign-language films, before they expand to other major cities in the United States with a strong community of interest (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Washington DC are among the strongest, with secondary markets in such cities as Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Denver also strong).

Films from the UK, because of the shared English language, are also high on the list of American releases, although that has slowed considerably in the past year. Currently, UK titles including Run Fat Boy Run (David Schwimmer), In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson), Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (Bharat Nalluri), Flawless (Michael Radford), The Other Boleyn Girl (Justin Chadwick) and Irina Palm (Sam Garbaski) are beginning their national releases. The Bank Job, which has been marketed as a big-budget thriller rather than an art film, has done the best, grossing nearly $30 million since its release on 7 March. The film, distributed in the United States by Lionsgate, opened on 1600 screens nationwide, and remains on as many screens in its fifth week of release, ranking number 9 of the top 100, the most successful of all the European films in current distribution. The Other Boleyn Girl is a US/UK co-production distributed by Universal Pictures that has grossed a moderate $25 Million since its release at the end of February (a huge figure for an art film, but rather disappointing for a major release).

Other European films that can currently be seen on arthouse screens include Alexandra (Russia, Alexander Sokurov), The Counterfeiters (Austria, Stefan Ruzowitzky) and My Brother Is An Only Child (Italy, Daniele Luchetti). This does not even include special program, such as the revivals of Jean Luc-Godard’s Contempt and Alain ResnaisLast Year At Marienbad, which are showing in specialty release at select theaters, as well as European films playing at various film festival events this month (including New Directors/New Films in New York, the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Palm Beach International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival). ,

01 April, 2008

Sun And Celluloid At The Bermuda Intl Film Festival

By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

When you host a well-organized film event on a beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean, the appeal is instantaneous. For the Bermuda International Film Festival, which kicked off its 11th season this past Friday, the mix of top flight films and a genial atmosphere make for a winning combination.

The Festival opened on Friday night with the UK audience pleaser St. Trinian’s, a comedic fare by director Oliver Parker, best known for his film adaptations of the Oscar Wilde plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. This current romp stars Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Stephen Fry and Mischa Barton. The film tells the hysterical tale of the efforts of a motley crew of ungovernable teenage girls who use their wit and ingenuity to save St Trinian's School from bankruptcy. The film has been a major box office hit in its native UK since its release last Christmas.

In all, this year’s Festival welcomes almost 80 films from 32 countries. Among the well-received international hits in the World Panorama section are The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Import, Export, Operation Filmmaker, Up The Yangtze and The Edge of Heaven. Closing the Festival on 5 April will be the highly acclaimed The Band’s Visit, which was the major winner at this year’s Israeli Oscars, as well as picking up prizes at the Cannes, Montreal, Munich, Palm Springs and Tokyo film festivals.

The core of the Festival is the two competition categories, one for Narrative Features, the other for Documentary Features. Among the high profile films competing in the Narrative Feature Competition are the Santa Barbara Film Festival winner Amal, the Cannes Film Festival sleeper hit Caramel, the Rotterdam Film Festival winner Wonderful Town, the Goya Award prize winner XXY from Argentina, as well as other film festival circuit hits, such as Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame, Iska’s Journey, The Big Shot-Caller and Young People Fucking. All will compete for the Mary Jean Mitchell-Green Award, which carries a $5000 first prize.

The Documentary Feature Competition also boast a high caliber roster of non-fiction works from around the world, including Democracy In Dkar, Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird, Iron Ladies of Liberia, Jerusalem Is Proud To Be Present, Saving Luna, Silhouette City, Souvenirs and View From The Bridge: Tales From Kosovo.

All features in the Festival are eligible for the Bacardi Limited Audience Choice Award, which includes a cash prize of $3000. New this year at the festival is a Reel Music Sidebar, with four films including Lou Reed’s Berlin (directed by Julian Schnabel), the classical music documentary Five Days In September, the UK hip-hop film South Coast and the chronicle of the Marley Family concert in Ethiopia to celebrate the life of Bob Marley in Africa Unite.

This year’s Festival features a focus on Modern South African Cinema and a group of Bermuda-shot films, including the feature Behind The Mask: Bermuda Gombeys Past Present And Future, chronicling the many gombey dance troupes on the island. The gombeys combine African roots with a nod to St. Kitts’ Masquerade dancers, and originated at a time when slaves wore masks in order to present their complaints to slave masters without fear of retribution.

Saluting local talent and bringing in international auteur films from all over the globe, this year’s Bermuda International Film Festival takes its place as among the most sophisticated and enjoyable film events on the festival circuit.