DENIAL (2016)

pressconfsctOpens Friday in LA/NYC. Review coming soon...

 

Top Photo: Rachel Weisz as Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt... a "Good Jewish Girl" from Queens 🙂

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IS THAT YOU?

Opens Friday in LA. Review coming soon...

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THE RUINS OF LIFTA

Now playing in NYC. Opens 10/28 in LA. Review coming soon...

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THE PEOPLE VS FRITZ BAUER

Basically true story of a German Jew who played a major role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann & the subsequent Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials.

A prior German film which also circled around these same topics was, indeed, a "labyrinth of lies." (JLH: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

What does a superhero look like?

The main character in the highly lauded 2014 film Labyrinth of Lies—a film about Germany’s Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials—is a man named “Johann Radman.” Labyrinth of Lies did extremely well on the international film festival circuit, and it was nominated for four prestigious awards by the German Film Academy in 2015 (including Outstanding Feature Film, Best Screenplay and Best Film Score).

To play Radmann, director Giulio Ricciarelli chose actor Alexander Fehling. Seeing Fehling on screen, a man with the face and figure of an Aryan stereotype, was the first thing about Labyrinth of Lies that set off my JewDar. Was I prepared to embrace a hero in a film about the Holocaust who looked like a model for a Hitler Youth propaganda poster?

In fact, the hero of Germany’s Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials was not Johann Radman (who is a “composite” character), but Fritz Bauer, a very real person who was born in Stuttgart (Germany) in 1903.

In 1933, Bauer was imprisoned in Heuberg Concentration Camp (near Stetten, Germany). Upon his release in 1935, he fled to Denmark, and when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, he fled to Sweden. Bauer returned to Germany in 1949, where he was eventually appointed to office as the District Attorney in Hessen in 1956. He remained in that position, based in Frankfurt, until his death in 1968.

Need I say that in the years he lead the prosecution of Germany’s Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials (1963 to 1965), Bauer was the polar opposite of a strapping young Aryan? To be blunt, Bauer looked like exactly who he was: the epitome of a Jewish stereotype. The real superhero was short, overweight, and unkempt. He was also enormously intelligent and ferociously committed.

If you have seen already Labyrinth of Lies, then you are obligated to see The People vs Fritz Bauer as a corrective. If you have not yet seen Labyrinth of Lies, then don’t. See The People vs Fritz Bauer, and you will be glad that you did.

The plot of The People vs Fritz Bauer actually precedes the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials and is almost entirely concerned with Bauer’s role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann.

Regular readers know that we have gone round and round this Eichmann story several times already together, but this is an entirely new take with essential elements which—to the best of my knowledge—have never been seen on screen before.

And unlike Labyrinth of Lies, which not only trivializes the connection between Bauer and the Mossad, but completely mischaracterizes the Mossad’s parallel search for Joseph Mengele, almost everything in The People vs Fritz Bauer is true to the historical facts as I know them to be.

The exception is the character of “Karl Angermann.” Angermann, the most trusted of Bauer’s associates, is played by actor Ronald Zehrfeld who also starred in Christian Petzold’s recent films Barbara and Phoenix. Remarkably, I barely recognized him. Without his beard, Zehrfeld has a baby face which makes him appear both younger and more innocent (attributes which fit the Angermann character perfectly).

Veteran actor Burghart Klaußner stars as Fritz Bauer. Cinephiles will recognize him from his roles in recent award-winning films like Good Bye Lenin!, The Edukators, and The White Ribbon. The German Film Academy nominated Klaußner for a Best Actor award in 2016 for his performance as Fritz Bauer. (Ironically they also nominated Gert Voss in 2015 for his performance as Fritz Bauer in Labyrinth of Lies, although, of course, his was a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.)

One can quibble. Although the screenplay that director Lars Kraume wrote with Olivier Guez is taut, the direction itself is somewhat melodramatic and the soundtrack is abysmal. But in this case, the importance of historical accuracy overrides any purely aesthetic considerations.

I will let Ha’aretz make the case for Fritz Bauer in this quote from a 2012 review of an exhibit on the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann at Beit Hatfutsot: Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv:

“On May 23, 1960, the Mossad representative in Germany received a top-secret cable, stating: ‘Go to Tolstoy immediately and tell him Dybbuk has been captured and taken to Israel.’ ‘Tolstoy’ was the Mossad code name for Dr. Fritz Bauer, the Hessen district attorney. ‘Dybbuk’ was another of the code names for Eichmann. The cable's signatory was Mossad man Shlomo Cohen Abarbanel, brother of Haim Cohen, the Israeli attorney general and subsequently president of the Supreme Court.”

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/an-inside-look-at-israel-s-operation-to-capture-nazi-criminal-adolf-eichmann-1.424275

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The People vs Fritz Bauer opens Friday, September 2 at Landmark's Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park and the AMC River East in Streeterville.

For times and tickets at Renaissance Place Cinema, visit: https://www.landmarktheatres.com/chicago/renaissance-place-cinema

For times and tickets at the AMC River East, visit: https://www.amctheatres.com/movie-theatres/chicago/amc-river-east-21

Follow these links to read more “Tzivi’s Cinema Spotlight” reviews of related films:

Hannah Arendt: http://www.juf.org/news/blog.aspx?id=422558&blogid=13573

The German Doctor: http://www.juf.org/news/blog.aspx?blogmonth=8&blogyear=2014&blogid=13573

The Last of the Unjust: http://www.juf.org/news/blog.aspx?blogmonth=2&blogyear=2014&blogid=13573

Vita Activa: http://www.juf.org/news/blog.aspx?id=438853&blogid=13573

(Note that Adolph Eichmann appears on screen at some point in every one of the four films listed above.)

For my rant about films that fall into the "Holocaust Kitsch" genre, see my review of The Book Thief:

http://www.juf.org/news/blog.aspx?blogmonth=11&blogyear=2013&blogid=13573

(Labyrinth of Lies is not included there because my review of The Book Thief predates its release, but I am clearly adding it to this category now.)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Burghart Klaussner as “Fritz Bauer.”

Bottom Photo: Klaussner with Pierre Shrady as “Eberhard Fritsch.”

Photos courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Posted on 9/1/16 on JUF Online.

Q: Does The People vs Fritz Bauer pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No.

There are very few women in this film, and even then, they exist only on the sidelines. Women barely have any lines of dialogue, and they certainly never converse with one another.

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A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (JLH)

A Tale of Love and Darkness is Natalie Portman’s adaptation of the memoir Amos Oz published in 2004.

I consider this film a masterpiece… but you probably won’t hear many other film critics say that. This is no doubt the consequence of two major decisions Portman made as a first-time filmmaker. First, she decided to focus her film on Oz's mother Fania (casting herself in the role of a beautiful woman who killed herself when her young son was barely twelve years old). Second, she decided to use Hebrew--the language of the Amos Oz original--rather than film in English.

Again, I applaud both of these decisions... but most audience members may well disagree. One story of displacement--in an era of mass migration--has been documented with precision because this one woman had a son committed to telling it. But as the title makes clear, it is very tough stuff. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

A Tale of Love and Darkness is Natalie Portman’s adaptation of the memoir Amos Oz published in 2004. Portman wrote, directed, and stars as Fania Mussman, the mother of a boy originally named Amos Klausner who would grow up to become one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

After a world premiere in May 2015 at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, A Tale of Love and Darkness opened in Israel, and then played at multiple international film festivals (including Beijing, Nashville, and Toronto). I saw it for the first time in January (2016) at the New York Jewish Film Festival. I saw it a second time at a critics screening here in New York last month.

I consider this film a masterpiece… but you probably won’t hear many other film critics say that. I am sure it is opening in theaters in the USA now because the distributors are hoping for Oscar nominations, but I doubt there will be any. Even though it was filmed in Hebrew with a predominately Israeli cast, it was not especially well-received by the Israel Film Academy which announced nominees for the 2016 Ophir Awards (aka “the Israeli Oscar”) last week.

As the title makes clear, this is a very downbeat story. The narrator is an old man (Amos Oz himself as played by actor Alexander Peleg) who has spent a lifetime trying to understand the still incomprehensible fact that his beautiful mother killed herself when he was barely twelve years old.

From the many strands of this dense book, Portman has braided together three. The first is the story of two people – a woman from Poland and a man from Lithuania – who both moved to Mandate Palestine just before the start of World War II, only to learn soon after that almost everyone and everything they knew had been obliterated in the Holocaust. The second is the related story of their attempt to build a new life together in the Promised Land, only to discover that their “land of milk and honey” was a rainy, chilly, embattled Jerusalem, quickly engulfed by the flames of Israel’s War of Independence. The third focuses on one boy who had these parents and lived at this time, seeking to ferret out the earliest indications of the artist he would one day become.

Since the memoir is well over 500 pages in length, A Tale of Love and Darkness could have been adapted for the screen in many different ways, but this was clearly something of an obsession for Portman. Like Oz himself, she wanted to know why Fania killed herself. I suspect the answer to this question will always be elusive in every case, but I was deeply moved by the depths to which Portman plunged, and I say this as someone who was dismayed by the plot-driven suicides of female Holocaust survivors in three recent films from Europe (Ida, Phoenix, and Sarah’s Key).

Fania Mussman was raised in a prominent Polish family, so even though she was Jewish, she expected a genteel life. As the prettiest of three sisters, she assumed she would always be cared for and protected. Arriving in the Yishuv as a teenager, she was filled with romantic idealism. But learning that everyone she had grown up with was now gone trapped her in an emotional vise. On the one hand Fania knew she was lucky to be alive, but on the other hand, she also knew that just being alive did not, in itself, make her as “happy” like she always thought she would be.

Fania tries so hard. The strain of her constant effort to be “normal” is exhausting to watch. But that is all her young son Amos (Amir Tessler) can do, watch helplessly as his fragile mother struggles day-by-day to keep going. No one else will even acknowledge the problem, certainly not his father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) or any of the family members on either side. The only person who appears to have any empathy for this family of three is his father’s friend Israel Zarchi (Ohad Knoller). But since Zarchi was a novelist/poet also afflicted with melancholia, his profession was to see what others were determined to avoid.

All of the technical elements of A Tale of Love and Darkness are superb. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak is elegant, especially in the many sequences in which Fania weaves strange bedtime stories that transport her son to the edge of mysticism. The production design by Arad Sawat, and set design by Noa Roshovsky and Salim Shehade (who have worked on some of my favorite recent Israeli movies including A Place in Heaven, Footnote, and Restoration) combine to perfectly evoke both the mundane and the magical. Casting director Hila Yuval clearly knows everyone who is anyone, and highly-regarded Israeli actors who are used to playing major roles add depth to tiny parts for Portman’s sake.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is one story of displacement, documented with precision because this one woman had a son who wanted to tell her story and was finally able to do so after years of inner torment. But now Fania speaks for displaced people everywhere. Stop and think for a moment about how it might feel to lose everything you know, end up on some foreign shore, and then try to keep living “your” life. This is clearly one of the most important issues of our era, and something with which we—as Jews—are intimately familiar. We have been displaced time and again. We know the benefits, now we must also acknowledge the costs.

As Portman says in her “Filmmaker Letter” on the Landmark website: “The immigrant experience of idealizing the place you’re going to before you get there, and idealizing the place you’ve left once you’re gone, is something many of us can relate to. And the way the young Amos translates that longing into art through storytelling, gives us something to aspire to.”

A Tale of Love and Darkness opens at the Landmark Theatre at Renaissance Place in Highland Park on Friday August 19. I strongly urge you to ignore everything else you may hear about this film, listen only to me, see it on a big screen, and make up your own mind. For schedule information, visit the Landmark website.

Posted 8/18/16 in JUF Online.

Q: Does A Time of Love and Darkness pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes... but barely.

The film is constrained by Amos's POV, and he has minimal understanding of his mother's interactions with other women. However, we do come to understand that her relationships with both her mother and her mother-in-law were fraught, and her two sisters, though they clearly loved her, were unwilling to get overly involved in "her problems" (however severe they ultimately revealed themselves to be).

Most of the time, Fania is either stoic or silent. The only time she weeps openly is when a friend is shot by a sniper while hanging her laundry. These two scenes--of one woman cut down in a moment of such pure innocence and another woman bereft when she learns of the loss--are two of the most shocking and heart-rending scenes in the film. And yet, even then, life went on...

People in such dire situations--of war and displacement--have little patience with mental illness. If they tell themselves Fania is merely "spoiled," then they don't have to accept any personal responsibility for her fate. And really? Who can blame them?

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THREE DAYS IN AUSCHWITZ

unnamed-2Now, less than a century since the Holocaust, already the memory has seemed to fade, dimming for those who only hear about it as part of a broader history lesson. In Three Days in Auschwitz, writer/director Philippe Mora attempts to bring the atrocities of the Holocaust, particularly the horrific murders that took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau, back to life, as a stark reminder that we must never allow the world to forget. (EML: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

A slow, somber acoustic guitar plays as a Joseph Goebbel quote scrolls across the screen. The impact is instantaneous, just the white text against the black screen and the weight of what will be explored is already felt. Using drawn artwork, historical photo and video footage, as well as modern footage of tourists visiting the now abandoned Auschwitz, writer/director Philippe Mora uses everything at his disposal to make the memory of what happened to those forced to live (and mostly die) at Auschwitz, as vivid as possible for his audience.

The documentary moves away from the actual visual representation of Auschwitz in favor of intimate interviews with Mora in his office and a restaurant. Mora starts to describe his personal relationship to the Holocaust and Auschwitz. As an artist, Mora’s journey to understand and make sense of the atrocities is focused primarily on his painting. He describes an image he painted of himself in conversation with Hitler, as well as his depiction of Hitler’s moment of decision to decimate the Jewish population of Europe. It is Mora’s artwork that becomes the focal point of the storytelling, using score and Mora’s painted images to try and give the audience the same mindset as the filmmaker.

Next Mora travels to his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, searching for answers. He interviews family members, survivors of the Holocaust, allowing them to share their stories, their memories, their experiences.

From Melbourne, Mora travels to Auschwitz where he provides facts on the horrors that took place. Mora follows a tour group, walking around the vast property and seeing the dilapidated and destroyed buildings that once took the lives of over a million. In many areas, the buildings are merely marked by ropes and ruins, providing only a glimpse of the stature and immensity that the place must once have been.unnamed-3

From Auschwitz, Mora goes to the Holocaust museum of London. Though he says he isn’t allowed to film inside, he still takes his camera with him as he tours the museum. Most striking to him, and most reassuring, is the presence of children, ensuring that another generation will keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and hopefully keep such an event from happening again.

Despite its best intentions, Three Days in Auschwitz fails to engage the audience as it intends. Firstly, Mora’s introspective approach to the filmmaking makes the audience feel like an intruder or an outsider, rather than a part of the storytelling. While Mora’s intense personal connection to his subject matter makes his passion all the more evident, it almost becomes selfish as he repeatedly discusses why he, as a filmmaker, wants to tell this story, rather than using the film purely to pay homage and respect to the victims of one of the world’s greatest crimes against humanity. Furthermore, Mora’s use of his own artwork serves only to enhance the vanity of the endeavour. In many ways, with the addition of the artwork, Mora’s film begins to feel more like a therapy session rather than an engaging film.

Secondly, the film overuses its score and attempts to use the musical accompaniment to try and elicit an emotional response, rather than doing so through visuals and storytelling. The reliance on the music makes the film feel very amateur and allows the audience’s attention to wander, making it difficult to remain engaged with the film.

Lastly, the filming style, while likely geared at creating closeness and intimacy with the interview subjects, instead makes the film feel amateur. Fish-eye lens shots, selfie handheld shots, and strange angles all contribute to a feeling of thrown togetherness that pushes the audience out of the story. This coupled with repeated use of scrolling quotes, create a sense of a school assignment or a travel diary rather than a theatrical film.

In the end, Mora says it best himself, Three Days in Auschwitz is less a film than it is “cinematic notes.” Often disjointed, failing to tell an overarching story, relying on gimmicks to provide an emotional response rather than storytelling, and using amateur filming tactics, the film feels more like a personal history report than a seasoned filmmaker’s retelling of the horrors of Auschwitz.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (9/7/16)unnamed

Top Photo: The poster for Philippe Mora’s Three Days in Auschwitz, featuring an original painting by Mora of Hitler’s face.

Middle Photo: Mora takes a selfie outside the infamous gate to Auschwitz.

Bottom Photo: A self-portrait painted by Mora expressing his emotional state at the outset of creating the film.
Photo Credits: Needle and Associates 

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A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (EML)

pic1Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness explores the psychological toll on those who find life to fall short of their expectations. Utilizing language, location and raw emotional acting performances, Portman creates an atmosphere as much as she tells a story, leaving the audience with a sense of longing and a thirst for questioning by the film’s end. (EML: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Set against the backdrop of the formation of the state of Israel,  A Tale of Love and Darkness explores the relationship between hopes and actualities. Told from a reflective perspective, Natalie Portman’s directorial debut follows the young “Amos Oz” (Amir Tessler) as he watches his mother, “Fania” (Natalie Portman) struggle with crippling depression.

Fania, a Holocaust survivor who always dreamed of living in the land of Israel, finds herself disappointed with the reality of her life in the Promised Land. Rather than finding love with the idealized farmer / poet / rebel that she had envisioned, Fania finds herself married to an aspiring writer, “Arieh” (Gilad Kahana). Rather than living a glamorous, happy life, far from the hellish experiences of her upbringing in Eastern Europe during World War II, Fania finds herself surrounded by the horrors of war once again as Israel fights for its independence. Fania’s struggle to accept her reality in spite of her expectations, lead her to experience both physical and psychological pain.

Amos watches as Fania becomes more and more despondent, wracked with headaches that leave her silent and stoic, staring out the window. The woman who once told him bedtime stories, now can barely get out of bed. Meanwhile, Amos struggles with his own coming of age and finds himself beginning to notice the cracks in the perfect facade of dreams.

At its core, A Tale of Love and Darkness asks us to question the nature of wishing, of hoping, of dreaming. Each of the characters struggles, in their own wpic3ay, to reconcile what they had hoped would be true for themselves with what is actually true. While Fania’s break is the most severe, Amos’ journey demonstrates those early instances of discrepancy between expectation and reality. For instance, while at a family friend’s office, Amos sees the copies of his father’s first book, which Arieh had recently celebrated selling out of, on the bookshelf. In that moment, Amos is forced to, in a small way, understand that life does not always turn out as expected, and even when things seem to be going well, it may all be a lie.

Though there are some moments where Portman’s newness to directing shows, predominantly in the constant and abrupt fades to black, the film is visually stunning and delivers an emotional rawness that enhances the storytelling. This is not just the story of a mother and son, or the story of hardships of creating the nation of Israel. This is a story about the fears that lay within all of us that life will not be what we had hoped it will be and that we will not be able to cope.

One of the stronger, deliberate choices in Portman’s filmmaking comes in the choice of language. While the film perhaps would’ve felt more universal delivered in English, the use of Hebrew creates an additional character to the narrative that parallels the struggles played out by the actors on the screen.

For thousands of years, Hebrew served purely as a religious language, used for reciting prayer and Torah. With the establishment of the state of Israel, suddenly Hebrew needed to develop into a conversational language. As words were created to describe the mundane, Hebrew became both the language to speak to G-d and the language to speak to your neighbor. The language itself became both the heightened and the mundane, the promise and the reality.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is a movie that makes you think and makes you dream. Though Amos seems to assert that fulfilling a dream will only lead to disappointment, there is no denying that dreams themselves are often what keep us going. In a modern world where Israel remains at the forefront of international news, often in a negative light, A Tale of Love and Darkness reminds us that though the dream of the land of Israel may not be perfect, it is still a dream worth believing in and fighting for.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (8/31/16)pic2Top Photo: A poster for A Tale of Love and Darkness, Natalie Portman’s directorial debut.

Middle Photo: Fania (Portman), Arieh (Gilad Kahana), and Amos (Amir Tessler), wait in the crowd as the UN votes on the establishment of the state of Israel.

Bottom Photo: A tortured Fania tries to reassure her young son Amos (Amir Tessler).

Photo Credits: Ran Mendleson (via Focus World)

Q: Does A Tale of Love and Darkness pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes, but...

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THE TENTH MAN

A019_C005_0101PKWhen his father expressly requests a visit, a Jewish man from Buenos Aires returns home after decades abroad.

Daniel Burman's new film The Tenth Man opens in NYC and LA this Friday (August 12th). This wonderful news will likely be received differently depending on whether or not you have seen any of Burman's prior films.

Since I myself have seen almost all of Burman's prior films, I will address both audiences in this review. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

Dear Newbees: If you live in NYC or LA, then you have the opportunity to see one of the best films of the year this weekend!

Daniel Burman has often been compared to Woody Allen, but for me he is the antithesis of Allen. True, they are both Jewish men and they both make personal films, but Burman's films are filled with affection, whereas Allen's films are so sour that I cringe every time a new PR barrage begins (which is, alas, an annual occurrence).

The first Burman film I saw was Lost Embrace. My [mostly male] film critic colleagues compared it to a Woody Allen film, but I argued it was much closer in spirit to Zach Braff's very popular film Garden State. Sorry to say, Braff has not done much in the interim, whereas Burman has created a highly-esteemed body of work. But, if you're a newbee, the first thing I will tell you is that if you have fond memories of Garden State and would like to see another Zach Braff(ish) type film, then go see The Tenth Man.

(Note too that Burman was born in 1973 and Braff was born in 1975. Woody Allen, on the other hand, was born in 1935... Just sayin'.)

Garden State, a semi-autobiographical film released in 2004, was about a young man in his 20s named "Andrew Largeman." Lost Embracealso released in 2004, was also about a young man in his 20s. In Lost Embrace, the name of the character is "Ariel Makaroff." I honestly have no idea how autobiographical Lost Embrace is, but I suspect quite a bit.

In Lost Embrace, Ariel was desperate to escape the crushingly tight familial boundaries of Once (pronounced own-say), the "Lower East Side" of Buenos Aires. In The Tenth Man, another man named "Ariel" is called back to Once after decades abroad.

This new Ariel is no longer young and handsome. This new Ariel (who is not given a last name) has become a successful professional in the USA, so he is not at all happy about being called home. But he is still his father's son, and when his father expressly requests that he visit, Ariel--played to perfection by schlubby Alan Sabbagh--complies.

Philip Roth can never return to the Newark of his youth because that Newark is as lost to time as most of the shtetls of Eastern Europe. But when Daniel Burman--now an internationally-respected, award-winning filmmaker--brings Ariel back to Once, it seems much the same. The main difference is that it is a much more religious place than it used to be. The old people cling to their traditions, drawing strength from their community and its ritual observances, while the younger people who are still there (including those who have come home "only" to visit) cater to them.

But you don't have to be religious to love The Tenth Man. You don't have to recognize any of the liturgy, know the words to any Hebrew songs, or care about "the right way" to wrap tefillin. In fact, you don't even have to be Jewish!

A worldwide religious revival is underway. To opine on the whys or wherefores of this would be way above my pay grade, so suffice it to say, this is just how the Jews of Once make it through life by day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-by-year. So let Ariel be your guide, and by the end, I promise you will understand what that might mean for you in your own life as well.

Click here to read my review of Garden State & click here to read my review of Lost Embrace. Both reviews were written during my tenure as film critic for the World Jewish Digest (superbly edited at that time by the eagle-eyed Simona Fuma Weinglass).

Dear Daniel Burman Fans:ArielOnPurim

If you love Daniel Burman's films half as much as I do and you live near NYC or LA, then you will definitely want to see The Tenth Man on a big screen this weekend!

The title The Tenth Man refers to the fact that Jewish Law requires ten men to make up a minyan. Therefore, if you want "the show to go on," you need to round up a minimum of ten guys.

In my own life, I have come to value the minyan concept way more than I ever expected to when I was younger. I now understand that it is an essential part of the glue that has kept Jewish communities together through-out the millennia. And of course it helps that in my world, women have become part of the minyan (something that doesn't seem to be true in Once... at least on screen).

The Spanish title El Rey del Once (The King of Once) is equally evocative, since the entire film is set right before Purim.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (8/2/16) FF2 Media

A002_C023_0101FL

Top Photo: Back in Once (pronounced own-say) after decades abroad, "Ariel" (Alan Sabbagh) finds himself a fish out of water in a place that used to be his home.

Middle Photo: Ariel, dressed up for Purim, searches the streets of Once for his elusive father.

Bottom Photo: It doesn't take long before Once begins to close in around Ariel (in the middle in black), triggering the same old claustrophobia.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Kino Lorber Inc.

Q: Does The Tenth Man pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No.

This is a film focused on father/son stuff. Although there is an aunt who is presumably his father's sister, Ariel's mother is mysteriously absent. We don't know where she went and we don't know if she is even still alive.

And Eva, the woman with whom Ariel begins a tentative new relationship, is a solitary type who seems to have no friends (male or female). Even when she goes into the mikvah, she is alone. There is no attendant on hand to validate her ritual observance.

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INDIGNATION (2016)

InClassBased on the novel by Philip Roth, Indignation explores the complexities of a young man’s coming of age journey as he attempts to reconcile his place in the world. Despite glimpses of our protagonist challenging the establishment, the film falls short of delivering on its most basic promise, indignation. (EML: 3.5/5) 

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Newark, New Jersey.  1951. Boys are being pulled from their childhood homes for the jungles of Korea. It is a time of war, and the small Jewish community is clearly on edge. Unlike his classmates, “Marcus” (Logan Lerman) has avoided the draft by receiving a scholarship to a small, liberal arts college in Ohio. Though he isn’t going to war, Marcus’ father is incredibly anxious about his son leaving home, afraid that he will squander his opportunity by making even the smallest mistake. Marcus finds himself smothered by his father’s constant anxiety and cannot wait to leave home in favor of the freedom of a college campus.

Once at school, Marcus wishes to purely focus on his studies. He spurns the advances of the Jewish fraternity, refuses to get involved in social activities, and barely talks to anybody. Instead, Marcus goes to class, studies, and works at his campus job in the library.

Despite his intense focus, Marcus finds himself riveted by “Olivia Hutton” (Sarah Gadon). He borrows his roommate’s car and takes her out on  a date. She comes from money and divorce and everything about her has an odd sophistication that Marcus can’t quite relate to.

On their drive home, Olivia instructs Marcus to pull over in a cemetery where she proceeds to give him a blow job. Unfamiliar with this type of sexually forward behavior, the act sends Marcus into a spiral and he begins to avoid Olivia. Noticing this change in behavior, Olivia corners him in the library and explains her actions. She also explains that she previously attempted suicide and transferred to the school after spending time in a psych ward. Though this does not turn Marcus off to a relationship with her, Olivia insists that he should just forget her.

After a fight with his roommates, Marcus requests a new room which prompts him to have a meeting with “Dean Caudwell” (Tracy Letts). In this meeting, Caudwell confronts Marcus for his lack of social engagement and questions his Jewish identity. Marcus quickly defends himself, saying he is an atheist, although his religious affiliation and social interactions should be irrelevant to the university. The discussion grows more and more heated until Marcus fears he will be sick. He asks to leave but does not make it out of the door before vomiting all over the office.download

What follows is the slow demise of Marcus as he constrains himself to the perimeters being set up by the authority around him. Ending his relationship with Olivia for his mother, joining the Jewish fraternity to smooth over concerns of his social acclimation to the school, and allowing himself to become part of the establishment he’d once hated. This, of course, ultimately becomes his undoing.

While there is something to be said for Director James Schamus’ quiet exploration of a young man’s journey to self-discovery, there was one key aspect missing from this film - indignation. The title suggests a man rebelling against injustice, determined to be treated fairly in a system stacked against him. Yet, Schamus attempts to place all of those stakes in Olivia. She represents Marcus’ ability to work outside of the system, because she is not confined by conventional rules. Her brashness, her sexual promiscuity, her openness about her own mental health issues, put her inexplicably in contrast with the constrained world around her. She becomes an object for Marcus to feed his righteous anger through, and in her exit from his life, so too does Marcus find himself slipping into the chokeholds of the establishment and ultimately his demise.

Marcus himself has much to be angry about. Despite being an atheist, Marcus’ Jewish background leads the school to automatically house him amongst other Jews, with no regard for their different interests and lifestyles. When this living arrangement proves too difficult for Marcus to handle, his desire to find a new room is met with contempt by his Dean and his character, beliefs, and heritage are brought into question.

However, rather than allowing Marcus’ justified indignation about his treatment in a poorly veiled anti-Semitic system that essentially sequesters the Jewish students to live amongst their “own kind.” Rather than allowing Marcus to be outraged that his character is called into question because he rejects his own religious upbringing in favor of a logical, reasoned approach to morality. Rather than allowing Marcus’ anger towards being told his social life is not “up to standards” despite his brilliant grades. Rather than any of the reasons that Marcus should be indignant, the film chooses to personify this struggle in Olivia, turning what could be a harsh look into the bullying of the establishment into nothing more than a trite tragic love story.

In a time where there is again unrest at the role of the establishment in controlling the minutia of our day to day lives, Indignation misses its opportunity to add its voice, its parallels, to the conversation. And that, is where the film fails.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (8/3/16)

Top Photo: “Marcus” (Logan Lerman) puts his studies above all else.

Middle Photo: “Dean Caudwell” (Tracey Letts), sitting in his stately office, represents the establishment that hopes to control all aspects of Marcus’ college life.

Bottom Photo: “Marcus” (Logan Lerman) and “Olivia” (Sarah Gadon) on their first date at L'Escargot--the best restaurant in town--where Marcus resolutely eats escargot. Given that he is from a kosher home, this culinary rebellion sets the stage for all the "brave" acts yet to come.

Bonus Photo: Linda Emond as "Esther Messner."

Photo Credits: Roadside Attractions

JansTwoCents

SPOILER ALERT: I not only applaud Elly's review, I think--if anything--she has been too kind. I left my screening of Indignation with, yes, indignation. I felt that the filmmaker had wasted his cast and crew, while I had wasted my time. The entire film is a cheat and I am enraged by the fact that it now has an 81% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

What every critic in the "Fresh" camp raves about, of course, is the extended face-off between “Marcus” (Logan Lerman) and “Dean Caudwell” (Tracy Letts). I have not read Philip Roth's source novel, but I take the word of those who have, meaning I assume that what filmmaker James Schamus put on screen is very faithful to what Philip Roth put on the page.

I have had my problems with Roth over the years, well-documented in reviews of films like Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint (which I did not like) and Empathy and The Human Stain (both of which I loved). In my experience with Philip Roth adaptations, the more "faithful" the film tries to be, the worse the outcome.

The scene in question is an intellectual showpiece: two alpha males battling for supremacy but using words rather than fists. I found it long, drawn out, and extremely tedious in the moment. Then, once the plot had cranked itself to the end of the final reel, I realized I had also been cheated.

Cheated? Here are two things that stick in my craw.

First, Marcus is ostensibly called into Dean Caudwell's office to explain himself after he asks to be moved into a new room. This is absurd on the face of it, and totally preposterous once we know that Dean Caudwell knows all about Olivia's emotional issues. Olivia's father is a wealthy alumnus and Dean Caudwell admitted Olivia as a favor to him after she was expelled. I bet that those who read Indignation will discover that Dean Caudwell knows all about the budding relationship between Marcus and Olivia, and he has called Marcus into his office to get a feel for what problems he can expect from it down the road.

Second, this long protracted scene finally ends when Marcus pukes all over Dean Caudwell's office. Midway through the conversation, Marcus begins to perspire and as the minutes tick by, his forehead becomes ever more damp. We are lead to believe that this is due to anxiety, but surprise! It turns out Marcus actually has appendicitis!!! Now I'm no doctor, but I doubt appendicitis comes out of nowhere with no prior pain or symptoms of any kind. Preposterous.

The appendicitis attack is merely a red herring serving two plot needs: Get Marcus out of Dean Caudwell's office with his intellectual stature intact, and bring "Mama Messner" (Linda Emond) from New Jersey to Ohio to shove the final knife into the Marcus/Olivia relationship. Shameful screenwriting. Feh!

I could go on and on about the misogynist caricatures of yet another glorious Shiksah Goddess (Olivia Hutton) and yet another intrusive Jewish Mother (Esther Messner), but why bother? That's just same old/same old from Philip Roth 🙁 (JLH: 3/5)

Final Question: Does Indignation pas the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Ha Ha Ha. Of course not!!!

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (8/3/16)

MamaSays

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July JUFB: Oh My :-(

Lions & Tigers & Bears! Oh, My!

Speaking out on 3 new Metro Chicago Releases 🙁

KittyRememberedThree new films of potential interest to Jewish cinefiles open in Metro Chicago today. The first is Woody Allen’s new pastiche,Café Society. The second is Wiener-Dog, the latestdark comedy” from Todd Solondz. The third is The Witness (a documentary purportedly about the murder of Kitty Genovese).

Maybe the heat is making me grouchy, but I have seen all three of these films, and despite all their differences, I find them all deeply flawed in ironically similar ways. None of them do justice to the historicity of their narratives, and none of them are concerned with the Jewish sensibilities of the audience (even knowing that members of the Tribe are likely to buy the lion’s share of tickets).

Café Society

I doubt anyone will be surprised by the suggestion that Woody Allen films attract large Jewish audiences. I am sure this is always the case, and all the more so when trailers for Café Society make it so clear that many of the characters to be seen on screen will be Jewish. Despite decades of debate about his personal flaws, many Jewish film-lovers flock to Allen’s films, even when so many of us we know we are likely to be disappointed.

Since Café Society opened last weekend in Manhattan, I know several Brooklyn friends who have already seen it and liked it. I understand. Go in expecting Woody to be Woody, and there are worse ways to chill out on a hot day.

But for me, in the years since he won a Best Picture Oscar in 1977 for Annie Hall (a great American classic fully deserving of its high acclaim), there are only five films that that I would willingly watch again of all the dozens he’s made in the interim:Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Loves You and Match Point. Note that my list does not include either Manhattan or Midnight in Paris, mirror movies that both made me cringe. Some of you might even remember that I wrote a lot about this when Midnight in Pariswas released in 2011.

For specific concerns, read the rant on my blog. Note that I call it a “rant” rather than a “review” because I cannot pretend to be “objective” on the subject of Woody Allen.

BronxSeder

The Witness

When 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her Queens, New York apartment building on March 13, 1964, it was a private event. Her name did not become more widely known until two weeks later, when the New York Timespublished a story with the sensational headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”

On that day -- March 27, 1964 -- the story of Kitty Genovese made the leap from private sorrow to public symbol, and every one of the reporters responsible for that transformation from private to public was Jewish, including A.M. Rosenthal and Martin Gansberg of the New York Times, as well as Mike Wallace of CBS’ 60 Minutes, and Gabe Pressman of WNBC (the NBC flagship station).

But even though director James Solomon had the opportunity to interview three of these men (Gansberg having died in the interim), he is oblivious. Looking for dramatic effect, he creates a documentary that plays out like a made-for-TV movie.

Kitty's youngest brother, Bill, is cast as a Colombo-esque presence who gently prods people to provide “clues” about what “really happened” the night Kitty died. Missing is any appreciation for context, and therefore any sense of why this particular murder might have triggered such a massive emotional response at that time.

For those who don't know much about Genovese, this is certainly a good introduction, as long as you can accept that Solomon’s documentary opens more questions than it answers.

For more thoughts on the Kitty Genovese case from the Jewish point of view, read my blog post.

Wiener-Dog

Finally, Wiener-Dog, the latest from Todd Solondz, is another film you might think would be of interest to a Jewish audience.

Once upon a time, I was intrigued by Solondz and I even wrote a long and very positive review of Palindromes way back in 2004. But like Allen, Solondz has long since exhausted my patience, and since there is no overt “Jewish content” in Wiener-Dog anyway, I cannot even recommend it for a look-see. However, if you want to go, you will find it at the Music Box Theatre.

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Café Society is playing at both local Landmark theatres (in Lincoln Park and Highland Park). For times and tickets, visit theLandmark Chicago website.

The Witness is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street. For times and tickets, visit the GSFC website. Director James Solomon will be available for Q and A via Skype after the Saturday, July 23 screening.

Wiener-Dog is playing at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. For times and tickets, visit the Music Box website.

PHOTO CREDITS

Top Photo: Family photo of Kitty Genovese provided by the filmmakers.

Bottom Photo: Mama Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin) calls her children back to the Bronx for Passover… but it plays out like an ordinary family dinner with no Haggadot, no Exodus, and barely any Jewish “tam” (Yiddish for “flavor”).

Posted 7/22/16 on the JUF Blog.

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