BOY 23

An untold story of WW2, Belisario Franca’s Boy 23 tells the forgotten history of Brazil’s support of Nazism and the horrifying account of one boy’s experience with the racist experiments performed by Nazi sympathizers there. (EML: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

The film begins with a teacher recounting a student’s admission that swastika engraved bricks had been found on a family property. Next, a farmer, recounts his own discovery of similarly engraved bricks and his curiosity to pursue how the bricks had come to be on the property. This leads him to historian, Sidney Aguilar Filho, who tries to piece together the tragic history behind Brazil’s contribution to Nazism.

In his research, Filho discovers a disturbing trend that ties these Nazi branded farms with the transfer of young black boys from surrounding Catholic orphanages. Focusing on this connection, Filho digs deeper into the history of the plantation owners and families that owned the properties discovered to be connected to Nazism. This research leads him to the Rocha Miranda family, an affluent and political family who owned much of the Brazilian countryside at the time.

Using film footage and still photography of the time, Filho explores the society that led to an acceptance and even appreciation of Nazi fascist ideology. Filho discusses Brazil’s sordid past with racism, including its late abolishment of slavery. He acknowledges that the 1920s and 30s were among the most racist in Brazilian history, and that newly freed slaves were still ostracized with no clear social integration plan for this large population of disenfranchised blacks. It is in this climate that eugenics gains popularity as a viable scientific concept.

Through his research, Filho discovers a survivor, Mr. Aloisio Silva, who was transferred from the Romao Duarte Orphanage in Rio De Janeiro to an outlying rural community where he was subjected to eugenic experimentation. With Filho, Mr. Aloisio revisits the orphanage. Though beautiful in architecture, the place clearly holds a darkness that is visible on Mr. Aloisio’s face. As he wanders through the empty halls and rooms, historical footage paints a picture of what the orphanage must have been like during Mr. Aloisio’s stay.

Mr. Aloisio recalls the day that the Rocha Miranda family arrived to choose the boys. He remembers them throwing handfuls of candy at them, watching them clamor for the sweets, not knowing what price they would pay. They were separated into groups, like animals, as the family took their picks.

What happens next is a harrowing exploration of humanity’s darkness. Isolated and disenfranchised, the boys were trapped in the reality of their experience. Kept as slaves, Mr. Aloisio and the other boys were subjected to harsh working conditions and kept on a strict schedule. As Mr. Aloisio recounts his tale, he informs Filho’s continued research into the truth of Brazil’s relationship to Nazism and eugenics.

Filho’s research leads him to another survivor,  Mr. Argemiro Dos Santos. Filho reflects on how both men seem to look back on their tragic childhood differently. While Mr. Argemiro jokes about the hardships, and prides himself on his ability to persevere and overcome, Mr. Aloisio harbors a deep rooted anger and thirst for vengeance.

Quiet and slow, Franca abandons a traditional talking heads style documentary in favor of a more artistic rendering, utilizing scored black & white recreations, historical footage, and still photography to add drama to the personal accounts. However, despite its attempts to add a narrative element, Boy 23 falls into the classic trap of feeling more like a history lecture than a cinematic venture. While Mr. Aloisio’s personal story is tragic, and his pain palpable in his voice and mannerisms, the film itself is a crawling exploration of Brazil’s racial history.

Overall, Franca’s Boy 23 spends too much time on the history of the society, rather than focusing on Mr. Aloisio’s story and his horrifying fate. While the history is informative and important, the pacing of the documentary makes it difficult for the audience to emotionally invest in Mr. Aloisio’s suffering. The constant cuts of artistic shots, aimed at adding drama to the narrative, result mainly in slowing down the storytelling and pulling the audience out of the story itself. While Boy 23 serves a profound purpose in bringing to light this forgotten story of WW2, it would have been more impactful if Franca had allowed Mr. Aloisio’s story to be at the forefront of the narrative throughout to favor an emotional connection over an educational one.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (1/17/16)Top Photo: A poster for Boy 23 by Belisario Franca, featuring Mr. Aloisio.

Middle Photo: A historical photo of a young black “farmworker” leading a swastika branded cow.

Bottom Photo: A still of Mr. Aloisio during an emotional interview.

Photo Credits: Elo Company

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copy-of-onthemapposterlargeDani Menkin’s On the Map has all the drama and emotion of the classic sports movie, with the added benefit of the real life accounts of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s struggle to achieve basketball greatness in winning the 1977 European Cup. (EML: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

A ball dribbling. The skid of sneakers. The low rumble of the crowd. The energy builds as captions flash across the screen. The rise of basketball prominence across Europe in the wake of World War II.  A sport dominated by three countries: Italy, Spain, and of course, the Soviet Union. That is until that fateful season in 1977.

Wearing their jerseys, the teammates of that 1977 Maccabi team watch old game tape. Just a group of lifelong friends reliving their glory days, reminiscing about the year that they changed history. It’s in their eyes, even after all these years, that sense of accomplishment, that pride. As the footage cuts between game tape and reaction, the audience is wrapped into the experience, feeling that same heart swelling emotion captured in the faces of the men who made it happen.

Structurally, the film is nothing monumental, it follows a linear timeline from the formation of the team, through the team’s challenges, up until that fateful triumph over the entire European tournament in 1977. The team members, most still living, have the opportunity to share firsthand what it was like playing on the Israeli national team, not just in 1977, but in the years prior, when basketball in Israel wasn’t such a big deal.

Most notably, of course, is Tal Brody, an American Jew who had the opportunity to play in the NBA but decided to forgo the US basketball draft in favor of playing for Israel’s fledgling team. By all accounts, Brody was the lifeblood of Maccabi, and his passion for the game and for Israel was an inspiration for the other American Jews who joined the team.onthemap6

As the film traverses the ups and downs of the 1977 season, it pulls in historical moments that inform and impact the understanding of what the championship win actually meant to this fledgling country. Including examples of the Yom Kippur War and the Munich Olympic games, Dani Menkin ties in the European basketball championship into a greater narrative about the role of Israel and Jews on the world stage.

For Maccabi, winning the European championship was not just an athletic triumph, but a political triumph as well. In a time when many countries still refused to accept or acknowledge Israel’s existence; a time when Jews in Eastern Europe, under Soviet control, still were imprisoned in camps; time when the Soviet team repeatedly refused to even participate in a game against the Israelis, the Maccabi victory was a message that Israel was not going to just disappear.

The famous words of Tal Brody’s (and the origin of the film’s name), the concept of Israel being put “on the map, not just in sport, but in everything” are exactly true. Through masterful storytelling, Menkin is able to clearly demonstrate the impact that Maccabi’s victory had, not only on Israel’s sense of self, but on Israel’s recognition and respect throughout the world. Intertwining the narratives of the basketball season with the greater political landscape, the impact of the victory reverberates through the history.

Like any great sports movie, On the Map isn’t just about the game. It’s about the spirit. It’s about the inspiration. It’s about the transformation. Tying the 1977 European Cup win into Israel’s improved status in the world, literally putting Israel on the map, Menkin elevates this simple sports story to something greater. Watching the players relive their victory, for a brief moment eliminates the boundary of time and allows the audience to experience the triumph anew all these years later.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (11/29/16)

Top Photo: Poster for Dani Menkin’s On the Map documentary.

Middle Photo: Tal Brody being hoisted up after a victory in Tel Aviv.

Bottom Photo: Moshe Dayan shakes hands with Moti Arosti with Aulcie Pery and Miki Berkovich in the background.

Photo Credits: Shmuel Rahmani

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Artistry takes priority over substance in Maria Schrader’s biographical film, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, which follows the life of Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig during his exile from Europe during World War II. (EML: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

The film opens with a long, still shot of a floral arrangement. As the camera pulls back, maids set an elaborate and decadent table, clearly for some sort of celebration. Waiters enter and line the ornate walls as the doors are opened and guests begin to pour in. It is unclear at first who to focus is on.

Snippets of conversations about nothing in particular alternate coming to the forefront. Finally, we meet “Stefan Zweig” (Josef Hader), an odd man in mannerisms but commanding in presence who is the guest of honor at the party. It becomes clear that Zweig is an author of great renown, visiting Brazil for a literary conference. However, his trip has a more sinister undertone as he has been rescued and now lives in exile from his home country. Zweig is from Austria--now "reunited" with Germany by Hitler--and World War II is in full swing.

Following the celebration, Zweig holds a private interview with selected media sources. One journalist in particular pushes Zweig to denounce Hitler and the Third Reich, but Zweig refuses. While Schrader does a good job of keeping the tension palpable in this scene, it is her protagonist who comes across poorly, the one on the wrong side of history. Though Zweig’s eloquent rebuttal and refusal is poetic, as a Jewish audience member, this scene makes it difficult to side with, care for, and invest in the protagonist through the rest of the film.

The film continues to follow Zweig’s adventures through Brazil with his young wife “Lotte Zweig” (Aenne Schwarz). They travel as tourists--exalted ones--rather than as refugees who are exiled from a home country that would have murdered them alongside their fellow Jews. In fact, despite a brief car ride discussion of getting immigration papers for a friend’s child in Europe, the Zweigs seem unaffected by the goings on in Europe and the weight of their exile is not felt. 

The true meat of the film, comes in the form of Zweig’s ex-wife, “Friderike Zweig” (Barbara Sukowa). Although it takes a beat to realize who she is in relation to Zweig, her impact is by far the most emotional and palpable. Friderike serves as the “old world” force in the film, the character who brings the full impact of what is happening in Europe upon Zweig and forces him to recognize his privilege and influence. She is the one who reads the letters sent to Zweig asking for his help, all the people begging him to use his position to save lives. She is the one who forces Zweig to remember where he came from and reminds him that he has an obligation to help. She is the one who brings the war to the film and adds an emotional beat to an otherwise floundering story.

Though Friderike’s portion of the film takes place in a New York apartment (where she has landed after being rescued from France by Varian Fry), this is the only part that feels like a World War II film and, even more so, a Jewish film. Her discussions on the role of the Jewish community, even simply through the fact that they have the gorgeous safe house as a result of a Jew they’d only briefly met, is a cutting reminder of what is at stake. Not just the human lives, but the culture and community that those lives are a part of. Without Friderike’s character (and Sukowa’s striking portrayal), the film would be almost devoid of any emotional resonance.

Overall, Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe seems more focused on creating visual beauty and imagery than telling a compelling story. Throughout the film, the visuals seem to overpower the narrative and seem to serve as an artistic presentation rather than a substantive character exploration. This lack of narrative focus causes the film to drag and makes it difficult to engage fully with the characters. Only exacerbated through the use of a vignette format, the story is hard to follow and the pieces feel haphazardly placed, often ending abruptly and without conclusion.

Schrader succeeds most in the quiet moments where the visuals alone can convey the story, particularly in the final scene, and there is a quiet confidence to her directing. However,  as far as Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe’s place in the list of Jewish World War II films, sadly it falls short of truly expressing the seriousness of its own subject matter in favor of artistic visuals.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (11/17/16)

Top Photo: Josef Hader as “Stefan Zweig,” a man in exile alone with his thoughts.

Middle Photo: Aenne Schwarz as “Lotte Zweig” making the best of it during a tour a sugarcane field in Brazil.

Bottom Photo: “Friderike Zweig” (Barbara Sukowa) sits across from her ex-husband as he reads one of the many letters from people desperate to leave Europe.

Photo Credits: Maria Schrader

Q: Does Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No. The focus is on Zweig. Others in his life, both male and female, have very limited interactions with one another.

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unnamed-4Triggered by the death of his grandmother, Andre Malaev Babel follows the trail left behind in the unfinished writings and diary notes of his late grandfather, the acclaimed Soviet writer, Isaac Babel, who was executed by the government for supposedly criticizing the Communist movement. (EML: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Liev Schreiber’s voice brings life to the words of Isaac Babel’s works, both fictional and autobiographical. Babel’s work betrays a conflicting identity as both a Jew and a Soviet. In his novels, Babel’s alter ego is a Jew who chooses to join with the Cossacks, those who are mercilessly slaughtering Jewish communities through pogroms. This character is simultaneously included in the Cossacks and yet excluded, not fully convincing or hiding his Jewishness. These feelings of identifying as both a Jew and a Soviet are echoed in Babel’s diary entries, exploring the depth of the schism felt by the Jews of Eastern Europe in the years between World War I and World War II. It is this dual identity that causes Babel to be challenging to those who wish for uniformity and commonality. For Babel, his works were not just creating stories, rather they were his way of bearing witness to history. The history of a time when Europe was at a breaking point that would lead to the Holocaust.

In order to understand his grandfather, both the man and his characters, Andre Babel decides to travel to the locations that his grandfather visited and his characters lived. In each location, he meets with scholars of Jewish history who help him to understand the historical significance of the location, as Andre tries to understand why the place had such a power in his grandfather’s works. At each visit, excerpts from the novels discussing the location are read aloud over montage, recreations and animations try and give life to the words.thestatue

Throughout the film, Andre meets with historians and laymen alike to discuss his grandfather’s works and try to understand the historical context that surrounded his grandfather’s writings. While in Odessa, he is able to be part of a celebration that honors his grandfather and visits one of the homes that Babel lived and wrote in. During his trip to France, Andre works with a cast of actors to rehearse “Maria,” a play by Isaac Babel, and presses them to explore the themes surrounding their individual roles and characters. By the end, Andre travels to the location of his grandfather’s imprisonment and eventual execution, only to be turned away by the guard and prevented from paying final homage to the man whose life he just journeyed through.

Throughout the film, Finding Babel struggles to captivate the audience by failing to convey a clear, overarching storyline or a compelling message. The interspersed recitations of Babel’s work over dramatic animations and montages of each passage feel out of place and distract from Andre’s journey to learn the history of Babel’s experience. In fact, more than anything, the recitations compel the audience to wish solely to read Babel’s actual words rather than experience them through the medium of film.

Finding Babel attempts to add depth of meaning to Isaac Babel’s storytelling by exploring the realities of both the historical locations and their modern context, however it often fails to engage the audience in a meaningful way. If the purpose of the film is to inspire a new generation to read the works of Isaac Babel, the film could have focused more on the literary exploration of the works. If the film intended to present a comprehensive Jewish history during Babel’s time, the film could have focused more on the historical relevance of each location and the role that Babel’s fictional writing played in addressing the conflicts and issues of the time. As it stands, however, Finding Babel falls short of sending the audience a clear message on its own purpose, and therefore misses the mark in creating any sort of impact.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (11/1/16)findingbabel_3

Top Photo: Poster for Finding Babel denoting powerful imagery to represent the complex themes explored within the film.

Middle Photo: Andre Babel stands outside of the prison where his grandfather was arrested (and later executed) barred from entering.

Bottom Photo: A statue of Isaac Babel is cleaned and sanded in preparation for a celebration of Babel’s life in the Ukraine.

Photo Credits: Seventh Art Releasing


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withfbiEwan McGregor's new adaptation of Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral is a noble failure.

The screenplay has a complicated structure which keeps Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's alter ego) two steps removed from his subject Seymour Levov (aka "Swede"). Thus reduced in the screenplay to a framing device, the Nathan Zuckerman character is unable to provide adequate context for a story which appears to run in real time from Swede's point of view.

In the end, American Pastoral utterly fails to convey who is telling us what, therefore both the "inside story" that Swede should be telling and the "outside story" that Nathan should be telling fall flat.

While all of the actors try valiantly, none of them is able to become more than they are on screen, although Dakota Fanning (as Swede's daughter Merry) fares best. (JLH: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

Philip Roth published his novel American Pastoral in 1997, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998. I'm not quite sure exactly when I read it, but suffice it to say it was long before I had any clue that I would one day grow up to become a film critic. So this puts me in a somewhat unique position relative to my own self-imposed rules as a film critic. I know I read the source book, and I know I loved it when I read it. But I read it so long ago that I don't really remember why I loved it, much less any details of plot and character.

Bottom Line: I did not come to Ewan McGregor's new adaptation of American Pastoral as quite the "blank slate" I always try to be, but that said, I had no specific assumptions beyond the certain knowledge that I wanted to love it. I didn't.

Like most of Roth's best work, American Pastoral is set in and around the Newark, New Jersey shtetl in which we were both born. (No, really! In The Plot against America, Roth locates his young self on Wainwright Street between Chancellor Ave & Lyons Ave... which is exactly where I lived until age 9!) It goingradicalis part of a series of novels about Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (who, according to Roth, lived on Lehigh Ave, where my cousins lived). It was known as the "Weequahic Section" of Newark because it was anchored by Weequahic High School. Weequahic High was on Chancellor Ave right next to Chancellor Elementary School, the school I went to before my family moved to Livingston (the same suburb where Neil meets Brenda in Goodbye, Columbus).

This world, once so familiar to Roth (and to me) disappeared decades ago, and it has been a very long time since either of us lived there. But Nathan Zuckerman (played in the film by David Strathairn) ventures back to Newark for his 45th reunion at Weequahic High, and this is where he runs into his buddy "Jerry Levov" (Rupert Evans). Jerry was the younger brother of "Seymour Levov" (Ewan McGregor), one of the best loved alums in the history of Weequahic High. And yet, things did not turned out as planned, and the plot of American Pastoral  revolves around the life of Seymour Levov, first his glorious rise, and then his cataclysmic fall from grace.

Even without remembering any of the details of Roth's novel, I know for sure that the "outside story" Nathan should be telling starts with the childhood of a Jewish boy from Newark who is exceptionally blond and athletic. His physicality makes him such an anomaly in his close-knit community that the birth name "Seymour" soon gives way to the nickname "Swede." Roth's irony is intentional. Swede comes of age in America at the very same time that the Nazis are imposing their "Final Solution" on the Jews of Europe, something they justify as "natural" based on their need to preserve the "purity" of their Aryan bloodlines. So how to deal with the fact that Swede looks more like their kind than his own? Do the Jews of Newark love him in spite of this or because of this? No doubt a bit of both. Then the icing on the cake: Swede--the hometown hero--graduates from Weequahic High and becomes a United States Marine just in time to participate in the triumphant finale to World War II. Yowza!

But McGregor makes two huge mistakes in his role as a director. First, he thinks it's enough to show newsreel footage of monumental historical events, as if we all know what we are seeing and we all agree on the meaning of what we see. I don't think I heard the word "Holocaust" once, in fact, I think I barely even heard the word "Jew." And so, by the time we get to 1967--when Swede is a bit player in the Newark Riots--the painful tension that should be there between the Jewish characters and the African American characters is chillingly absent. These riots--which brought all Jewish life in Newark to an abrupt end--are just used as a plot point, and then they are over... and then all of the African American characters simply vanish from the screen.

Perhaps these problems are due to a poorly constructed screenplay? IMDb tells me that screenwriter John Romano was born in Newark in 1948. Therefore he is a little bit older than me, and much younger than Roth. Romano has had a distinguished career as a writer for television (beginning with a stint on Hill Street Blues in the late '80s), but not much luck with feature films. (His adaptation of Nights in Rodanthe, which stars Diane Lane and Richard Gere, ranks right up there in the list of the worst films I have ever seen.)

Even so, McGregor's second huge mistake as a director was casting himself as Swede. McGregor is a wonderful actor and I have treasured his contributions to a great many films most especially Big Fish (2003), Young Adam (2003), Miss Potter (2006), Beginners (2010),  and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). But McGregor has never had the commanding physical presence required to play Swede. Even in his most well-known "action figure role" (as a member of the Star Wars cast), McGregor played young Obi-Wan Kenobi, in other words the most cerebral guy onscreen.

Since he is never remotely believable as Swede-the-Jewish-Ubermensch, McGregor is never able to draw us into the "inside story" that Swede should be telling about how this man of such great promise literally had his heart torn asunder by the contradictory pressures of the 60s. To be a good father, to be a good son, to be a good husband, to be a good boss, to be a good neighbor, to be--in sum--a mensch in the Jewish sense (regardless of whether or not he lived as a practicing Jew), it is all too much for Swede. Someone who never failed as a youth succumbs to utter failure as a man, but the Swede on screen lacks the gravitas Zuckerman needs him to have in order to make sense of why he is personally so affected by Swede's passing.

The only actor able to transcend this mess is Dakota Fanning who plays Swede's daughter Meredith (aka Merry). Miserable from the start, Merry channels her rage into revolutionary action, determined to change the world because she cannot change herself. Alas, this makes her arc not just poignant but timely. How many young people today take up causes they will one day come to regret?

(I am reminded of the superlative documentary Killing Kasztner in which Ze'ev Eckstein tells filmmaker Gaylen Ross on camera how he came to be involved in the plot to assassinate Rezso Kasztner in 1957, and how much his actions back then haunt him now).

Even though both her director and her screenwriter hobbled her, Fanning still succeeded in winning my respect and breaking my heart anyway. Since Merry is the character closest in age to my own, I feel sure I would have smelled a rat if anything about Merry had been off. Quite the contrary, Fanning dominates every moment she is present onscreen, and when she is not on screen, her absence left a void for me as well as for Swede.

Are all Philip Roth adaptations doomed?

This is the second adaptation of a Philip Roth novel to reach the screen in 2016. The first one, a few months back, was Indignation. Most of my colleagues on Rotten Tomatoes wrote somewhat kinder reviews, but then most of the reviews posted on RT are written by guys. I did not like Indignation and I did not recommend it. One way or the other, Indignation was a commercial flop.

So it this just another case of the old cliché a source book is always better than its screen adaptation? I do not believe that old cliché, and, in fact, every time I argue against it, one of my favorite examples is The Human Stain, a film by Robert Benton that is much better than the Nathan Zuckerman novel on which it is based.

The critics who posted on RT when it was released were very hard on The Human Stain, and it was also a commercial flop. Nevertheless, I suspect it plays much better now that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are no longer the big stars they were way back in 2003.

I am also very fond of Isabel Coixet's film Elegy (based on Roth's David Kepesh novels), which was much better received by critics, but still not the success with audiences that I think it should have been.

Here is my capsule review of The Human Stain with comments on two earlier adaptations (Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint). And here is my full review of Elegy, with extensive comments about the transition from page to screen. And here is Eliana Levenson's review of Indignation with my own "Two Cents" added at the bottom.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/21/16) FF2 Media


Top Photo: Ewan McGregor as "Swede Levov."

Middle Photo: Dakota Fanning as Swede's daughter "Merry" at the start of her rebellious teenager phase.

Bottom Photo: Peace in the Levov home is destroyed when Swede, his wife "Dawn" (Jennifer Connolly), and their young daughter Meredith  (Ocean James) watch the news from Vietnam on television.

Q1: Does American Pastoral pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Definitely not.

Ewan McGregor cast several wonderful actresses in key roles, then gave each of them one big scene with Swede. None of them interact with one another, not even Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Connelly (who plays her mother Dawn-the-Shiksa-Goddess).

Connelly has one terrific scene in which she screams at Swede, telling him what she thought she wanted out of life before she met him. Of course that simple life she says she craved was never to be. A woman as beautiful as Dawn would never have been left in peace by all the men who lust after her. Nevertheless, it was Swede's fate to win the princess only to lose the kingdom.

Uzo Aduba (as Swede's glove factory employee "Vicky"), Valorie Curry  (as Merry's comrade-in-arms "Rita Cohen"), and Samantha Mathis (as the widow of "Russ Hamlin" the man Merry kills when she bombs the post office) each get their big moments too, but otherwise none of them have substantive characters to play. Furthermore, although they may serve the plot as written, these three scenes are all cinematic disasters. Each one is so strong that it stops the show for a moment, but rather than build to a climax, American Pastoral keeps sputtering along on screen until it dies of exhaustion.

Molly Parker also has a couple of brief scenes as Merry's therapist "Sheila Smith," but they left me scratching my head. My gut tells me Dr. Smith is a fairly significant player in Roth's narrative. In the screenplay, however, too much about her role is left unsaid.

I suspect part of the fault for the perfunctory feel of these women characters lies with Philip Roth. Long after he is gone, feminist scholars will likely still be debating whether or not Roth was a misogynist. But once the screenwriter and the director begin collaborating on an adaptation of one of Roth's novels, they should either commit to doing better or trim accordingly.

Q2: Where is the Weequahic Section of Newark?


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IS THAT YOU? (2014)

oldmoviessctDani Menkin’s spin on the traditional road trip movie, Is That You? delivers a poignant bittersweet quality as a man searches far and wide for his long lost sweetheart. In the vein of An Affair to Remember, Menkin’s film captures vulnerability and hope in a quiet way that makes the audience reflect on their own journey. (EML: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

As part of his severance package, “Ronnie” (Alon Aboutboul) is given a ticket to travel to the United States and decides to go, hoping to find a long lost lover named Rachel. His brother, “Jacob” (Rani Blair) picks him up from the airport and the two discuss Jacob’s son “Michael” (Patrick Michael Kelly), who recently returned from his Birthright trip with a desire to serve in the IDF, mostly in pursuit of attractive Israeli women. There is some tension as the two discuss Jacob’s failure to return to Israel for their mother’s funeral, but it is quickly dispelled.

At Jacob’s house, Ronnie, Jacob and Michael attempt to track down Rachel via the Internet. They find a woman on Facebook who seems to be a match, although her profile has no picture for verification. They send the profile a message asking “Is that you?” in the hopes of discovering for sure.

Later that night, Ronnie and Jacob watch old home movies of their younger days. Jacob remarks on his younger brother’s obsession with Rachel, who is featured in the video, and how all other women were put into comparison with her. Ronnie reveals that Michael found an address for Rachel and that he is going to go and try to see her. He explains that they had made a pact, that no matter what happened in their lives, they would be together on her 60th birthday. With her 60th birthday in two days, Ronnie is determined to make good on their agreement. Though Jacob thinks his brother has seen one too many romantic movies, he gives his brother a car and sends him on his way.

Ronnie arrives at the address to learn that Rachel moved away with her husband over a year ago. The current tenant offers him a forwarding address which Ronnie takes. However, on his way, Ronnie’s car breaks down. isthatyou

Pulled over and attempting to fix his car, Ronnie meets “Myla” (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), a documentary filmmaker working on a project called “The Road Not Taken” about regrets. She trades Ronnie car mechanic services for him being an interview subject in her film. When he tells her about his mission to find Rachel, she decides to help him. Together, the two venture on a heartbreaking and wacky journey to find Rachel and reunite Ronnie with his long lost sweetheart.

A twist on the classic road trip movie, Is That You? delivers a sweet sadness as our protagonists journey far and wide in search of fulfilling a forty year old promise. Your standard odd couple, Ronnie and Myla each bring a unique quality to the concept of regret and taking chances. Both at very different life stages, their age is only one factor that seems to separate these two and yet, what sucks you into their relationship is not their differences but rather, their similarities. Both are dreamers, though arguably different types, and both truly believe in the journey.

There is something beautifully tragic about Ronnie’s vulnerability as he knocks on door after door, asking “Is that you” of various Rachels. This, coupled with the message of Myla’s documentary interviews, makes for a touching exploration of humanity. The filmmaking style of switching between Myla’s interviews and “reality” creates a unique sense of self and character as the film continues. Almost reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally, Menkin’s film plays with the idea of personal interviews intertwined with a fictional narrative, allowing the two to build off of one another.

Overall Is That You? points to the universality of regret and the way that regret plays into our daily lives. Both in the documentary film and in Ronnie’s search for Rachel, the idea of missed opportunities and lives not lived is at the forefront. Even those who seem happy, even those who are happy, still yearn for something they left behind or something they never tried. The interplay between taking risks and lacking regrets is the elevating factor of this quiet film. While there are parts of the film that fall into the indie cliches, particularly in the building of Ronnie and Myla’s relationship, the film attempts, and primarily succeeds, to address classic narratives in a new way.

© Eliana M. Levenson (10/6/16) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Acclaimed Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul as "Ronnie."

Middle Photo: Aboutboul with newcomer Naruna Kaplan de Macedo as "Myla."

Bottom Photo: After a officer pulls them over, Ronnie and the officer agree to hold up a sign for Myla’s film “The Road Not Taken.”

Photo Credits: Daniel Jourdan


I am so glad Elly liked this movie! She is a young person (near the start of her journey). I am a much older person (heading towards the end of mine). The fact that both of us liked this film so much speaks volumes about Dani Menkin's skill as a filmmaker. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Note that I saw Is That You? last year on screener because it was part of the 2015 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema line-up. Here are some of the things I said about it in my CFIC '15 feature for Chicago's JUF News:

BEST NEW STARS Naruna Kaplan De Macedo stars as "Myla" in Is That You? She looks a bit like Zooey Deschanel, thus priming the audience to expect another "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" character. But to their credit, screenwriters Dani Menkin and Eshkol Nevo have given "Myla" her own poignant and complex arc, and Naruna Kaplan De Macedo totally holds her own in scenes with Alon Aboutboul (who I named Best Actor last year for his starring role in A Place in Heaven).

BEST SCREENPLAY This year-for the first time-I am also adding a Best Screenplay category in honor of Is That You? Ostensibly this is a road movie with many genre tropes, but the dialogue is so beautifully written that sometimes I found myself gasping as I watched. Although his name is not in my press materials and it is not on IMDb, I detected the name of award-winning Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo as the credits rolled, and then it all made sense. Kudos to director Dani Menkin for finding collaborators who could help him write the perfect words for his perfect cast. Then add a shout-out to composer Issar Shulman for his lovely musical score (which is augmented by songs chosen personally by Menkin and melded together by Philip Gozlan's sound design).

BEST ACTOR This was the toughest category to call this year, but in the end, after seesawing back and forth, my choice is Ze'ev Revach for his portrayal of "Yehezkel" in The Farewell Party... The runner-up in this category-of course-is Alon Aboutboul, who stars as "Roni" in Is That You?


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screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-7-24-49-pmUsing predominately still photos, voiceover, and talking heads style interviews, Ken Burns & Artemis Joukowsky's documentary Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War retells of the Sharps' heroism as they sought to help Jews flee Eastern Europe prior to World War II. While often succumbing to the biographical blackhole of fact, the film provides glimpses of true humanity and personal impact, leaving the audience with moments of honest emotion and appreciation.  (EML: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Black and white photos ebb and flow as Tom Hanks’ familiar voice recites a letter from Waitsill Sharp, written after the war to his wife who was still completing another refugee rescue mission in Europe. Seven years after they began helping Jews and other victims flee Nazi controlled Europe, Waitsill reveals a desire to settle down again, to return to their life and their home and their family. This marks the end of the Sharps’ repeated journeys in and out of war torn Europe, doing all that they could to help rescue as many people as possible.

What follows, are videos and stills from the Nazi takeover of Europe. Hitler rallies. Soldiers drawing Jewish stars on business fronts. Books being flung into a large bonfire. This is the Europe, this is the danger that the Sharps knowingly ventured into, leaving the comfort of their quiet American suburban life in the quest to help others.

Waitsill Sharp and his wife, Martha, missionaries through the Unitarian Church in the United States, were offered the opportunity to venture to Europe before the onset of World War II. Despite being the parents of two young children, both agreed to the trip and their duty to help those in need abroad. Once in Europe, specifically Austria, the truth about the risk they had placed themselves in becomes clear. The punishment for being caught providing immigration papers to Jews and other refugees was punishable by death, and the Sharps lived in constant fear of discovery. Still, they continued to work to rescue those they could, often having to take long arduous routes, changing trains often to avoid detection, and traveling separately from one another.

After many successful missions, and with the danger growing as the impending war became imminent, the Sharps returned home with the agreement that they would not be returning to Europe. However, when Waitsill was offered another mission, he did not hesitate to accept on behalf of himself and Martha. Martha, though furious with her husband for signing her up without permission, agreed to return to Europe with him, this time, focused on ensuring the safety of children.

The film concludes with many of these children sharing memories of their final boat trip, accompanied by Martha, that brought them to freedom in the United States. Most were traveling alone or with siblings, their parents and family members unable to leave with them. Some as young as five or six, torn from their homes and sent to live in a foreign country for the brief hope of being spared the horrors that awaited those that remained in Europe. This shipside goodbye would be the last time that many of these children would see their families, most of their loved ones lost to the gas chambers and the firing squads. Yet, all of these survivors express the same sentiment as they look back on the moment that their lives changed. For all, there is an undying gratitude to Martha and the Sharps family to whom they owe their life and their lineage.

Told through both first person letters written between Waitsill and Martha, and testimonies of those they helped, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War paints a vivid picture of two people who risked everything to save others. Despite this, however, the film falls short of delivering the strong emotional punch that feels necessary to elevate this documentary from educational to inspirational. Watching the film feels more like reading a biography about the Sharps’ heroism than being brought into the atrocities they faced and tried to correct.

Perhaps the only truly emotional moment comes at the end, as the surviving children from Martha’s final trip put back on the beige berets that had once secured their ride to freedom. As each of these survivors discusses what Martha’s heroism means to them, the audience, for the first time, can truly appreciate the importance of what the Sharps contributed.

While still an interesting exploration of two World War II heroes often unnoticed in major history books, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War would have benefited from a shift in balance from historical fact to personal connection. It is in the quiet moments with the survivors, recounting what the Sharps’ heroism means to them and how it directly affected their lives, that the audience is sucked into the story and taken out of being merely a bystander.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (10/4/16)screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-7-24-54-pmTop Photo: Poster for Ken Burns’ Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.

Bottom Photo: A Sharp family portrait.

Photo Credits: PBS Television

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