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

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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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CAFE SOCIETY

BobbyDorfmanWoody Allen's latest disappointment is pure pastiche, a film supposedly set "in the late 30s," but which actually takes place in the mind of someone who has long since ceased to care about anything except his ability to ride his own reputation to the very end. (JLH: 3/5)

Rant by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

How many more Woody Allen films will I have to watch before I die? Since he seems determined to churn out a new one each year, my heart sinks. Perhaps Woody Allen will even outlast me. He appears to have endless resources and resolve

It should be a good thing that he eventually realized he could no longer case himself as himself and began lining up surrogates, but whatever the name of the "character" these men play, they are always and endlessly Woody, with all the same mannerisms that were once so endearing. < insert BIG SIGH here >

And so, add Jesse Eisenberg to the list as Bobby Dorfman, Jewish boy from the Bronx who achieves all his dreams and yet still feel cheated by life < insert BIG SIGH here >

ShiksaGoddess

Top Photo: Jesse Eisenberg as "Bobby Dorfman."

Bottom Photo: Eisenberg with Blake Lively as this year's "Shiksa Goddess." In Cafe Society, the name of this perennial Woody trope is "Veronica."

Q: Does Cafe Society pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Are you kidding? Even asking that question in this context is a bad joke 🙁

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THE WITNESS

KittyRememberedFifty-two years after the murder of Kitty Genovese comes a documentary that plays out like a TV movie. Kitty's youngest brother is a Colombo-esque presence as he gently prods people who might provide clues to what really happened. Missing is any appreciation for context therefore any sense of why this murder might have triggered these emotions at that time. For those who don't know much about Kitty Genovese, this is certainly a good introduction... as long as you realize this documentary opens more questions than it answers.

Photo: Family photo of Kitty provided by the filmmakers.

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THE KIND WORDS (2015)

InMarseillesOnly after Yona is dead does her daughter Dorona begin to learn about the secrets of her lifetime.

Israeli filmmaker Shemi Zarin's new film (the fourth to be released in the USA) continues his brilliant run of domestic dramas "laden with happiness and tears."

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED (JLH: 4.5.5)

WithAbba

Top Photo: Dorona, her two brothers, and her estranged husband head to France for clues about Yona's past as a girl in Algeria.

Clockwise from left: Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen), Ricki (Tsahi Halevi), her brothers Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon) and Netanel (Roy Assaf).

Bottom Photo: Dorona with her father (Sasson Gabai).

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Strand Releasing

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TIKKUN (2015)

OutAboutAn ascetic Haredi student living with his parents in Jerusalem devotes himself to ritual, until God Himself literally strikes him down in a freak accident.

The Hebrew word "Tikkun" means improvement or rectification. Jewish Americans usually combine it to create "Tikkun Olam" (repair the word) as an injunction for social justice. But in this case, the filmmaker's theme is "transgression," as if we didn't already know that our world needs to be improved, rectified, and repaired.

Maybe I missed something, but I doubt it. The cinematography is beautiful but the story is empty. (JLH: 2.5/5)

Review by FF2 Media Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

When is an "art house film" just too damn "arty" for its own good?

Even though it has won a slew of film festival awards in a surprising number of places (not just Jerusalem, but also Romania, Singapore, Spain, Stockholm and Switzerland), for me, Avishai Sivan's new film Tikkun goes too far.

It is a great deal more interesting to discuss Tikkun than to actually watch it. And  I suspect some people--especially men--will convince themselves that they liked it in order to congratulating themselves for actually sitting through it from beginning to end.

Sivan's narrative hangs on a slim thread: "Haim-Aaron" (Aharon Traitel) is a Haredi student on the cusp of maturity. Devoted to ritual, he spends almost every waking hour at the Yeshiva. He barely eats, rarely drinks, and sleeps so little that he is totally alone at odd hours when the rest of the world is elsewhere. Is this devotion or an attempt to flee from maturity and the inevitable responsibilities of adulthood?

One day, hurrying back to the Jerusalem apartment in which he still lives with his parents and younger siblings, Haim-Aaron passes a young woman on a narrow street in Mea Sharim (one of Israel's oldest and most insular neighborhoods). The sight of her triggers lustful thoughts that most young men his age would consider normal, but for Haim-Aaron this physical imperative is just one more need he is determined to suppress.

Haim-Aaron's father is a shochet. In fact, the first scene in Tikkun is a close-up of the slaughtering of a cow in the prescribed way in extreme close-up and complete detail. This man who spends his days in a torrent of blood and guts  gets no name of his own. In the credits, he is simply identified as "Haim-Aaron’s Father" (Khalifa Natour). Oddly, the only person in the cast who gets a name is Haim-Aaron's brother "Yanke" (Gur Sheinberg). Otherwise his mother is "Haim-Aaron’s Mother" (Riki Blich), and everyone else is identified by his or her role in the plot (e.g., "Yeshiva Colleague," "Young Female Driver," etc). AtHome

Back in the apartment, Haim-Aaron teaches Yanke how to brush his teeth, and after putting Yanke to bed, he takes a shower. This moment of intimacy and genuine human connection between two brothers is followed by a literal bolt from the blue. Haim-Aaron hits his head on the rim of the tub, where his parents find him, unconscious and close to death.

These scenes in the bathroom--from the point at which Haim-Aaron and Yanke are brushing their teeth to the point at which Haim-Aaron’s Father is dragging his son from the tub while Haim-Aaron’s Mother desperately calls for emergency assistance--are the last linear moments in Tikkun. The next hour is a blur of silent images and weird metaphors.

Despite the obvious Jewish references, I could find no actual Jewish feeling in Tikkun. This man--Haim-Aaron--who speaks mostly in Hebrew (but sometimes in Yiddish at home), could be any Fundamentalist from any ethnic group who uses religious purity as an excuse to separate himself from activities of daily living (most especially those that require a female partner).

In the end, the "Young Female Driver" is slaughtered much the same as the cows (who are presumably females too), and then the camera follows Haim-Aaron's fingers as he slowly probes the once secret orifices of her body.

It felt like a test. A filmmaker lusting for fame had chosen "transgression" as his theme, then dared the audience to walk out midway, already disgusted but still thinking they had "missed something."

I am a good student. I stayed in my seat and watched it all. But I did not applaud.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/14/16) FF2 Media

StudyHouse

Top Photo: After he recovers from his accident, "Haim-Aaron" (Aharon Traitel) wanders the streets from dusk until dawn.

Middle Photo: Haim-Aaron at home with one of his unnamed sisters.

Bottom Photo: Haim-Aaron alone in the Study House.

Photo Credits: Kino Lorber (USA)/United King Films (Israel)

JLH Note: I have converted these jpgs from black & white to sepia to make them easier to see online. The entire film is in black & white, which is presumably a key part of its metaphorical intent from the director's POV.

Q: Does Tikkun (2015) pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Absolutely not. The cows have more verbal ability than any of the women in this film 🙁

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DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (2015)

DoorwayDirector Benoît Jacquot's new adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel (co-written Hélène Zimmer) is likely the most faithful to date, but that doesn't make it much fun to watch. Although Mirbeau's fin de siècle concerns are highly applicable to today's economic inequality and the global disarray in the wake of the Great Recession, Jacquot and Zimmer fail to achieve their aims. Their Célestine (Léa Seydoux) is too light, their Joseph (Vincent Lindon) is too dark, and none of the details are sufficiently coherent. (JLH: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I went to see Diary of a Chambermaid for the first time, but I am quite sure I was not expecting such a dark, brutal, and overtly anti-Semitic film.

From the posters and trailers, Diary of a Chambermaid appears to be a gorgeously produced film from France, and that is exactly what it is... on the outside. What a shock then that actually watching it--at least if you go in as unprepared as I was the first time--is a bit like biting into a sinfully rich chocolate truffle only to find yourself chewing worms.

Diary of a Chambermaid--released in France in 2015, but just opening now in the USA--is the fourth cinematic adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (originally published in French in 1900).

The narrator is a woman named "Célestine" (Léa Seydoux) who is already in mid-career when we first meet her. In this new 2015 version, director Benoît Jacquot and his co-writer Hélène Zimmer begin at an upscale employment agency in Paris. Célestine, dressed to the nines, climbs a tall, narrow staircase, and after blowing air kisses to the other women in the waiting room (all of whom seem to know her), she enters the private office of the woman who holds power over her next placement. This woman never gets a name. In the credits, she is "La Placeuse" (Dominique Reymond), but with deference and respect, Célestine humbly calls her "Madame."

Madame is in a bit of a pickle. She knows Célestine has already left numerous placements under questionable circumstances, but she also knows Célestine is pretty, saucy, and knows how to handle men, all of which make her a valuable commodity. Perhaps with a cooling off period in the countryside, Célestine will sort herself out?  Célestine pleads with Madame, promising obedience with her eyes, and somewhat despite her better judgment, Madame agrees to send her to her next post. Joseph

After a journey by train that is of indeterminate duration, Célestine is met at the station by a workman named "Joseph" (Vincent Lindon). He places her trunk in a rough, horse-drawn cart then proceeds to bounce her along country roads until they finally arrive at the chateau of  Madame and Monsieur Lanlaire.

Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) is a petty tyrant with prized possessions all of which must be dusted and arranged just so. Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre) is a lecherous boor who clearly has no money of his own. But with nowhere else to be and no other way to make a living, Célestine is determined to make a go of it.

One of my chief complaints about Diary of a Chambermaid is the filmmakers' complete lack of concern about space and time. Where is this place and how long is Célestine there? I have now watched Diary of a Chambermaid twice, and I still have no idea. Scenes are choppy and episodic, with poor continuity. Suddenly Célestine has a flashback set in some other time and place, but even though the backstory details are illuminating in themselves, they pull Célestine away from the conversations in which she is currently engaged, and she never gets back to them.

The filmmakers are equally lacksidasical about money. Célestine dresses for church in improbably luxurious outfits--full ensembles complete with large hats--that she could never have fit into the trunk Joseph brought from the train station. And how on earth did she pay for them on the salary of a domestic? And yet, household staff at Chez Lanlaire seems to consist of three. Just Célestine, Joseph, and a plump cook named "Marianne" (Mélodie Valemberg), no one else to clean the rooms or tend the gardens. Not likely!

Frustrated by my first encounter, I went back to the earlier films to learn more about Mirbeau's intentions. The first adaptation was released in Russian in 1916. No luck getting a hold of that. But the second version released by Jean Renoir in English in 1946 and the third version released by Louis Bunuel in French in 1964 were both mine for viewing at the click of a mouse. However, although most of the names are the same, these three films--1946, 1964, and 2015--are all completely different in tone and there are remarkably few convergent plot points. Furthermore, both Renoir and Bunuel managed to construct surprisingly happy endings in which Célestine triumphs.

At that point, I went back to see the Jacquot/Zimmer version on a big screen once again, and although I saw nothing new in Célestine, I was mesmerized by Vincent Lindon's slow burn as Joseph. Consumed by hate for everyone on the "higher rungs" of the social ladder, Joseph embodies the rage of so many voters all across the world in the wake of the Great Recession. If he were alive today and living in the USA, I am sure Joseph would be voting for Donald Trump.

If Jacquot and Zimmer had had the courage of their convictions, they would have devoted more screen time to Joseph. From my POV, the attempt to camouflage their intentions by wrapping their anti-heroine in improbably beautiful costumes and other eye-candy accoutrement is cheating. Whatever the flaws of their films--both of which are now quite dated and not really worth the effort--at least Renoir and Bunuel were honest about their own commercial goals. But regardless of how much more "faithful" their own screenplay may be, by failing its audience, Jacquot and Zimmer have failed Octave Mirbeau too.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/13/16) FF2 Media

SundayWear

Top & Bottom Photos: Léa Seydoux as “Célestine.”

Middle Photo: Vincent Lindon as "Joseph."

Photo Credits: Carole Bethuel/Photos courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Q #1: Does pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Absolutely!

Beginning with the very first scene, Jacquot and Zimmer make it clear that Célestine's relationships with women are at least as import as her relationships with men. In fact, it may be exhaustion with being the slave of other women that finally drives her into Joseph's arms.

Q #2: Where does this story take place?

Although Célestine is on her way to Cherbourg at the end, most of the story takes place somewhere in "the countryside." I don't recall any specific place names, however, for what it's worth, the location used for Chez Lanlaire is the Château des Grands-Ambésis in Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis (slightly south west of Versailles).

LeMesnilSaintDenis

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EVA HESSE (2016)

Eva Hesse at the opening reception for “Eccentric AbstractionFilmmaker Marcie Begleiter has turned artist Eva Hesse's tragically short life into something luminous. For every year she was alive, Begleiter shows Hesse as an indefatigable woman with unforgettable incandescence. (JLH: 4/5)

Review for JUF News by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner

On paper, artist Eva Hesse’s biography reads like a 20th century nightmare cooked up by a Jewish screenwriter.

Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1936. In 1938, when she was not quite three years old, her parents sent her on a Kindertransport to the Netherlands in the care of her older sister Helen. Her parents arrived six months later, and the family fled first to England and then to America. However, even though she was safe in New York, her mother was deeply disoriented. After learning the details of the loss of her entire family in the Holocaust, she killed herself in 1946.

The grieving girl -- barely 10 years old at the time -- threw herself into the art world, studying first at the New York School of Industrial Art, then Pratt Institute, then Cooper Union, and finally Yale University (where she received a BA in 1959). After a slow start and a bad marriage, she rose like a meteor, but crashed when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1969. Eva Hesse died in May 1970 at the age of 34.

And yet, on screen, filmmaker Marcie Begleiter has turned this bleak life into something luminous. For every year she was alive, Begleiter shows Eva Hesse as an indefatigable woman with unforgettable incandescence. Eva Hesse in Textile Factory Studio, Kettwig Germany 1964. Photo

The challenge of all films about visual art is to present three-dimensional work on a flat two-dimensional screen. All too often, therefore, whether they are documentaries or features, these films do better at depicting the life of the artist than capturing the physicality of the art. The artist goes here, there, and to the other place; the artist paints this and sculpts that, then frets about how to present it in a gallery. Most of the time, the work itself gets lost in voiceover narration and background music. We learn a lot about the making of the work, but we are left without a feel for its aesthetic impact.

What raises Eva Hesse above a conventional bio-doc is Begleiter’s careful attention to context. True, we cannot walk around Hesse’s installations and see them from all sides, but we can sense how different they look from the Minimalist masterpieces of her time. In a work such “Eccentric Abstraction” (1966), we can see how Hesse teased the most successful artists of her time -- all of whom were male -- with tendrils of fiberglass that seductively tickled the edges of their rigid grids.

In the end, after actress Selma Blair has read pages and pages from Hesse’s diaries as well as extensive excerpts from her letters to family and friends, and after all the experts have said their say, what remains is not the tragic life but the vibrant work. In my mind, I can picture her laughing as she plays chess with the grim reaper and he realizes he has lost.

In this way, Eva Hesse reminds me of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, the film I reviewed last January. In the 21st century, we can clearly see how the Holocaust gave birth to an explosion of Jewish energy in the second half of the 20th century that has enriched the world in every domain of human endeavor. So, add Eva Hesse’s name to that growing list of all those to be remembered and treasured for ever after.

Read more about the life of Eva Hesse HERE on Wikipedia.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/10/16) for JUF News

Eva Hesse in 1968. Photo by Herman Landshoff. Eva Hesse. A film

Chicago Shout-Out: Marcie Begleiter's new BioDoc Eva Hesse opens Friday June 10 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph.

Producer Karen Shapiro will be present for audience discussion at all shows on Friday (6/10/16) and Saturday (6/11/16). Click HERE for times & tix.

Top Photo: Eva Hesse at the opening reception for “Eccentric Abstraction” in 1966. Photo Norman Goldman.

Middle Photo: Eva Hesse in Textile Factory Studio, Kettwig Germany 1964. Photographer unknown.

Bottom Photo: Eva Hesse in 1968. Photo by Herman Landshoff.

Photo Credits: From Eva Hesse, a film by Marcie Begleiter. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films. (JLH Note: I took the liberty of converting the middle photo & the bottom photo from black & while to sepia so they would show better online.)

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WEINER (2016)

GayPrideParadeThat Anthony Weiner should have been brought low by something as petty as a sexting scandal is a national tragedy. And yet, this documentary arrives in theatres at the perfect time, just as we are at the midst of a Presidential contest that is already consumed by “reality show” antics. Let the buyer beware! (JLH: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner. Posted in JUF Online on 5/27/16 (All Updates Mine)

Anthony Weiner is back! Three years after his campaign for Mayor of New York City degenerated into a ludicrous tabloid scandal, Weiner is suddenly everywhere again. But this time he has no independent ability to shape the story. He is an object of scrutiny rather than an agent of change, and his public demise—brilliantly captured in the award-winning new documentary Weiner—is a tawdry tale of our times.

A Brief Refresher: Anthony Weiner is the Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish lawyer named Mort Weiner and a high-school math teacher named Frances Finkelstein Weiner. The second of three brothers, Anthony majored in Political Science in college, and after graduation, he started working for his mentor Chuck Schumer (who was the Congressman from Brooklyn at the time).

After three years in Schumer’s Washington, DC office, Weiner moved back to Brooklyn so he could build his own base in local politics. He worked for Schumer for another three years, and then ran for New York City Council. By age twenty-seven, Weiner had climbed the first rung, entering the record books as the youngest councilman in New York City history. In 1998, when Schumer moved up to the Senate, Weiner replaced him in the House of Representatives where he quickly established himself as one of the tigers of the Democratic Party’s Progressive wing.

In 2010, Weiner married Huma Abedin who had started her own political life in college as a White House intern assigned to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Abedin and Clinton clicked, and Abedin followed Clinton back to New York when Clinton ran for the Senate in 2000. Abedin then worked for Clinton when she was a Senator, served as Chief of Staff when she ran for President in 2008, and became a key part of her team when Clinton was Secretary of State. Bill Clinton personally officiated at the Abedin/Weiner wedding. They were a golden couple with unlimited potential.

And then…

Weiner (the documentary) begins with a rueful Anthony Weiner reflecting on his failed bid for City Hall. He appears to be alone in a small room, speaking personally to co-director Josh Kriegman. Perhaps there are other crew members in the room, but even so this interview is extraordinarily intimate. Kriegman worked for Weiner before making the leap into filmmaking, and their prior relationship no doubt helps to explain his “upfront and personal” access. (According to LinkedIn, Kriegman served as Weiner’s Senior Aide from 2004 to 2005, and was Chief of Staff in his District Office from 2005 to 2006.)

But Weiner has achieved its acclaim as a film because of the way Kriegman and his co-director Elyse Steinberg use their footage, leaping back and forth in time, seamlessly melding historical clips with footage from the campaign trail, while repeatedly returning to that culminating interview. Every time Anthony Weiner appears in close-up, wearing a blue shirt, grey sweater vest, and navy jacket, Kriegman and Steinberg have looped the audience back, yet again, to that claustrophobic room in which sits a man whose hopes and dreams have been dashed. HotLights

The essence of the personal tragedy lies in the contrast between the forlorn private citizen of 2015 versus the fiery orator fighting for 9-11 First Responders in 2010, and the ebullient politician—whipping crowds into frenzy during the Israel Day Parade in May, the Gay Pride Parade in June, and the West Indian Day Parade in August—during his run for Mayor in 2013.

Weiner’s promise was great. His sin was small. And yet, the details were so titillating that even longtime, highly-placed media friends like Bill Maher, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Jon Stewart could not resist the feeding frenzy.

I am sure they convinced themselves that attacking Weiner was proof of their political impartiality, but watching them ridicule Weiner on television is a particularly painful reminder of how real people look when transformed into tasty snacks fed to a voracious media monster.

In one scene, someone points out that Weiner was never even in the same room as his willing “victims.” So it is ludicrous to compare him to actual perpetrators like Bill Cosby, Dennis Hastert, and Roman Polansky, not to mention Woody Allen (who, regardless of his relationship with his daughter Dylan was known to have had sex with underage girls). And I say this as someone who thinks Bill Clinton should have resigned in 1998 because Monica Lewinsky was an employee at the time of their affair (even though I never believed the impeachment trial itself was anything more than a witch hunt).

That Anthony Weiner should have been brought low by something as petty as a sexting scandal is a national tragedy. When Kriegman and Steinberg decided to make this film, they had no idea how the race for mayor of New York would unfold. And yet, it arrives in theatres at the perfect time, just as we are at the midst of a Presidential contest that is already consumed by the “reality show” antics of Donald Trump.

Let the buyer beware!

Weiner opens in Metro Chicago on May 27, 2016 at the Music Box Theatre on Southport and the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

For times and tickets at the Music Box, visit http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

For times and tickets at the Landmark, visit: https://www.landmarktheatres.com/chicago/renaissance-place-cinema

For additional links and photos, read the Weiner post on my Penny Blog.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (5/26/15) FF2 Media

WithHuma

Top Photo: Anthony Weiner marches in the Gay Pride Parade (June 2013).

Middle Photo: Anthony Weiner surrounded by press piranhas (July 2013).

Bottom Photo: Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin at a press conference (July 2013).

Photo Credits: edgelinefilms.com

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