When Comedy Went to School (2013, USA)

Poster for the movie When Comedy Went to SchoolI had three expectations towards the documentary about the origins of Jewish comedy in the US, When Comedy Went to School:

  1. Teach me history I am not familiar with. In this regard it was a moderately successful film. I learned new facts, but not a lot and certainly not in context of how and why it developed where it did.
  2. Introduce me to comedians of the past I am not familiar with. I heard plenty of names that were new for me, but didn’t get inspired to learn about any single one of them. The narration and the editing was at fault. The former spoke with such an awe about them, put them at such a high level, that when the actual joke came by the comedians they didn’t have a chance to prove their superior comic talents in such a short time.
  3. I wanted to laugh, I was hoping to hear something funny. Maybe I was missing the context, maybe the puns were dated, but I just didn’t find most of them funny. This is what I regret the most about this movie, it just wasn’t funny for me.

Despite the above I still recommend the movie as an introduction to an ear and its people. But have it as a starting point of exploration, rather than an end.

Links:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

Le Métis de Dieu (The Jewish Cardinal) (2013, France)

Poster for Le Métis de Dieu (The Jewish Cardinal) If you take the English title of the movie Le Métis de Dieu (The Jewish Cardinal) you can make some assumption about the kind of conflicts the protagonist might have and you would be right. He was shunned for his conversion to Christianity by some members of the Jewish tribe, including by his father. He was looked upon suspicion by some Christians, doubting whether he is a true Christian. Others, who knew the person behind the labels, in both faiths supported him.

Beyond the external issues there must be some internal ones that Laurent Lucas played well. These include the guilt he must have felt for abandoning his family’s tradition, the turmoil he felt for not being able to say Kaddish for his parents with an open heart. And upon visiting Auschwitz the pain of being and not being part of the tribe that was killed in masses there. Dual identities and loyalties are hard to maintain as his example showed.

What I didn’t expect is to learn the background story of how Pope John Paul II visited Jerusalem and touched the Wailing Wall and became more embracing (without the intent to convert) of Jews than any other pope or recent history. No doubt the person, whose biopic this movie is was of great influence on him in this process: Jean-Marie Aron Lustiger, the Archbishop of Orleans and later the Archbishop of Paris from 1981 until his resignation in 2005.

This looked much better than most made for TV movie, it had the visual qualities of a proper movie. Every aspect of writing, directing and acting was fine. Whether you are a Christina, a Jew, a francophone or just someone who enjoys historic movies or biographies I fully recommend this one.

Links:

  • DVD@ Amazon.com
  • Official site
  • New York Times review
  • The Hollywood Reporter review
  • Forward review
  • IMDB summary: The Jewish Cardinal tells the amazing true story of Jean-Marie Lustiger; the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants; who maintained his cultural identity as a Jew even after converting to Catholicism at a young age; and later joining the priesthood. Quickly rising within the ranks of the Church; Lustiger was appointed Archbishop of Paris by Pope Jean Paul II – and found a new platform to celebrate his dual identity as a Catholic Jew; earning him both friends and enemies from either group. When Carmelite nuns settle down to build a convent within the cursed walls of Auschwitz; Lustiger finds himself a mediator between the two communities – and may be forced at last to choose his side.
  • Trailer:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. And Mrs. Kraus (2013, USA)

Poster for the movie 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. And Mrs. Kraus Before and during the Holocaust the US government allowed Jews to emigrate to the US in very limited numbers. Steven Pressman’s documentary, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. And Mrs. Kraus tells the story of the largest group that were allowed to enter: 50 children saved by a wealthy couple from Vienna, through Berlin in the summer of 1939. Once they realized what’s going on in Europe they crated the mission for themselves to rescue 50 children.

The movie explains how they took one administrative hurdle after the other, whether it came from the Austrian, German or US authorities. Who helped them and who hindered their progress. Step by step, with lots of perseverance, and I suspect money/bribe, they accomplished their goal. Once the children arrived to the US they spent a summer in a Jewish summer camp and later even some of the parents of some of them manged to escape too to their children.

The documentary contains lots of archival footage of ordinary lives on the streets of Vienna from 1930′s. I haven’t seen most of these and they were fascinating to see. Even more interesting were the contrast of pictures of the people who were interviewed for the movie: the rescued children back then and now, in their 80′s or so.

I’ve seen dozens of Holocaust documentaries and this one is among the top. It doesn’t show any images from the camps, and still manages to capture the cruelty of the nazi regime. From little details ,like the parents were not allowed to wave at the train station when their children were leaving them, to the horrific moral dilemma they were forced to solve: whether and how to give up their children and get separated from them in order to save their lives.

I am glad I watched this movie, because I learned about two true heroes, who combined unselfishness (risking their own lives to travel to the dangerous places) and selfishness (they always stayed at the bets hotels.) They saved more than 50 lives, which translates into more than 50 worlds. That’s what counts.

Links:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

Rue Mandar (2012, France)

Poster for Rue MandarIdit Cebula‘s Rue Mandar is a French dramedy that starts off as dark comedy, but then slows down to a drama (with a touch of romance). Unfortunately it doesn’t pick up the speed or the humor enough later. The rivalry between siblings and the unveiling of multilayered relationships seemed realistic. For me, someone who doesn’t have a sibling, this was the most captivating aspect of the movie. The way different personalities work together and against each other and only when they let their guards down can one see the underlying similarities due to belonging to the same family with a shared background.

The central plot element, around which the rest is woven is about going through the physical, logistical and emotional process of liquidating one’s parents’ belonging after they pass away. It is all about the difference how we handle letting go. The objects, what they mean to us and through that the memories and ultimately the person. It is a case study of the contrast between the man who hides (from) his emotions, the sister who acts detached ( but is not really) and the over the top hysterical sister (who despite her issues is the most human in her reactions.)

The first 10 minute was hilarious and there were plenty of funny scenes later on too. E.g. I lost all my trust in French psychologists and learned to admire the patience of Polish wallpainters. Overall this was an uneven production, but still enjoyable.

Links:

  • DVD@ Amazon.com
  • Official site
  • Facebook page
  • IMDB summary
  • Excerpt from the review at The Hollywood Reporter:
    When their beloved Polish immigrant mother passes away, sisters Emma (Kiberlain) and Rosemonde (Devos), and their brother, Charles (Berry), are obliged to deal with the personal and physical aftereffects, which include the cozy, old fashioned flat where she lived on the movie’s titular street (located in the heart of Paris’ chic 2nd arrondissement).
  • Trailer:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

A Place in Heaven (2013, Israel)

Poster for A Place in HeavenYossi Madmony‘s A Place of Heaven is a heavy and complicated drama covering decades of Israel’s history through the story of two people and their respective families. One of the two main themes is father-son relationships with all their ups and downs. That aspect starts of with all the things the father does to even have a son. He subjugates everything to this patriarchal drive. Then when the almost grownup son chooses a path that the father doesn’t like tension arises,. They both have to grow and work on themselves to resolve it.

The second theme is about the value of afterlife, mentioned in the title and shown from both a a religious and a secular perspective. The latter being that one’s place is literally sold for a plate of food. There is a whole series of references to biblical allegories and parallels. The question of (traditional Jewish) faith, what does it mean in the abstract and what does it mean on the level of daily actions is also a key component.

I loved the occasionally innovative camerawork. For example how the second scene started out upside down from far above, giving a twist to the “God’s eye” concept, showing how we humans down here got some things the wrong direction. By the end of the movie we and the protagonists have it the right way though. These are almost the last words of the movie (SPOILER ALERT): “You have nothing to worry about. What is the next world? It’s your children. If you have a good son, you have a place in heaven. ” The only thing that comes after this is the open ended question to all of us: “And your story, what about it?” As in, what would you sacrifice for having a child? Your place in heaven? What if having a worthy child ensures your place in heaven. Even if you don’t believe that heaven exists.

Links:

  • @IsraeliFilms
  • @IsraelFilmCenter
  • Review @ Variety
  • Amy Kronish’s review
  • IMDB summary: A young officer returns to his base after a daring mission. The cook’s assistant, a religious Holocaust survivor, is envious of him. He believes that there is a place in heaven reserved for the brave officer who endangers his life for the sake of his Jewish brethren. The officer, in the spirit of the Zionist ethos, is secular and a non-believer. At the moment, he is so hungry that, for a plate of shaksuka, he is prepared to sign a contract transferring his secured place in heaven to the cook. Some forty years later, the present time of the movie, the tables have turned – the officer, now a retired general, is on his death bed in the hospital. His son who, to his father’s horror, has found religion, is in a race against time. Before his father dies, he has to find that cook’s assistant who, forty years earlier, bought his place in heaven. If and when he finds him, the son has to nullify the contract. If he doesn’t, his father will go to hell
  • Trailer:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

Hunting Elephants (2013, Israel)

Poster for the movie Hunting ElephantsI laughed out lots of times during Reshef Levi’s Hunting Elephants. Those who know me, know that I rarely do such a thing. So this is the highest praised I can give to a comedy: it made me laugh. The gentle humor of Sir Patrick Stewart, who plays a Brit nobleman, a Lord out of money was right along with the grumpy grandfather figure played by Sasson Gabai (the bandleader from The Band’s Visit), who is trying to hide his real emotions from everyone including himself. The third elder, Nick played by Moni Moshonov, is just funny in his own way. Rounding up the main characters is the 12 year old boy genius, who drives the plot, Yonatan played by Gil Blank in his first and only movie role so far.

If this film had been made in the US nobody would have died, particularly not the parent of a child. But it was made in Israel which has different standards of what is OK in a comedy: it is more inclusive to all aspects of life. Yes, it is about a criminal enterprise, where the charming criminals gain our sympathy. Yes, it is about people who do almost desperate things in their almost desperate situations. But beyond that it is about the importance of reconciliation, teaching the lesson of the need to learn live together, including with people who are less smart than you are. I recommend it for all those reason, but mostly for the good laughs.

Links:

  • DVD@ Amazon.com
  • @IsraelFilmCenter
  • Amy Kronish’s review
  • Review @The Jerusalem Post
  • Review @ New Jersey Jewish Standard
  • Review @ The Times of Israel
  • IMDB summary: Three elderly and a child, finding themselves stuck together in a nursing home in Jerusalem. On the one hand, the kid which is genius, but socially retarded, and on the other hand, his grandfather, whom he had never met, an x member in the Lehi organization and a cold person. With them – the grandfather’s best friend from Lehi, full of ambition and passion which will never materialize, and the boy’s English uncle, a depressed and poor actor who owed 232,000 Euro. But there’s one thing keeping them together – they all want to rob a bank. They want to avenge it for not paying the boy compensation for his dad’s death, only due to the tiny letters. And they want the money to make their last wished come true.
  • Trailer:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

Android (1982, USA)

Poster for the 1982 movie AndroidI remember the 1980′s as I lived them through as a teenager. I didn’t see Aaron Lipstadt‘s Android back then, but I am sure I would have loved it as it is as sci-fi, set on another planet in 2036, has some philosophical content, some action and a touch of female nudity. Looking at it now, however the affects and the set don’t just seem dated, but it is easy to recognize the influence of Star Wars movies and Star Trek series.

Nevertheless, the movie is still worth checking out if for nothing else than Don Keith Opper’s presentation of an android, who is awakening to love, sexuality and has a longing to go to Earth. His movements are usually jagged and unwieldy, but sometimes more fluid. His facial expressions are worthy of the old expressionist silent movies. He even views a segment of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It was an homage to include that in the movie making sure that we recognize the similarities in the story lines.

The number 404 gained a new meaning that those who are using the web are painfully aware of: something is missing. When I first saw in the opening  credits that the android’s name is Max 404 my mind couldn’t avoid making the connection. Later as the story opened up his character and it became clear  that he is less than human the association grew even stronger. The female android’s name is telling in a different way. Cassandra’s presence itself is a warning about the changing future.

Gender roles and identity play a central role in the movie. Two males, who have been living in isolation for  along time cannot be not fascinated and excited when a woman shows up on their station. They barely register her as a human as they are preoccupied with her gender. The role of almost always creepy Klaus Kinski is yet again someone who uses women, although in this case men too. Furthermore there is an off-screen rape scene, that ends in death. The treatment of the issue is painted with hard brushstokes and doesn’t have a lot to add the question, despite that a woman ends up as a hero of the movie. Sort of.

There is a twist at the end of the movie, that I suspect is supposed to put the story in a whole new light Unfortunately I found it more than unnecessary: it was a meaningless gimmick. I still recommend the movie for the storyline, some good acting and interesting questions. Not for the gawky fight scenes or the out of date visuals though.

Links:

  • DVD@ Amazon.com
  • @Wikipedia
  • IMDB summary: Eccentric scientist Dr.Daniel and his shy, clumsy assistant Max, lead a quiet life on their space station where they carry out illegal research into androids, until they receive an unwelcome visit from three fugitives from justice, one of whom is female. Dr.Daniel and Max are both interested in her, but one of them has rather more sinister intentions than just romance…
  • Trailer:

Sukkot in Warsaw (2013, USA/Poland)

Dmitriy Khavin‘s 21 minute documentary, Sukkot in Warsaw, has very little Sukkot in it. Instead it provides a snapshot of a segment of the contemporary Jewish population in Poland, focusing on their issues and search for identity.

As I was watching it I was feeling guilty of being bored a bit. I was bored because almost all the issues and personal reflections in the movie were identical to what I’ve got to know in Hungary in 1980′s. I felt like I stepped back in time and here my own Jewish Hungarian communities words from back then. When I watch a documentary I expect to learn something new, but what I mostly learned from this is how similar the people, their thinking and their background is in Warsaw to what I experienced 25 years ago. My feeling of guilt came from recognizing how genuine these feelings and dilemmas are for them, how important the process of self-discovery is and yet because I was so intimately familiar with it I couldn’t appreciate it as “new”.

Some of those issues thoughts are:

  • Being a second generation Holocaust survivor (children of Shoah survivors) and not knowing that you are Jewish. (To clarify this didn’t happen to me, but people around me)
  • The pride of showing that the nazis (sic) didn’t win because we are still here.
  • The tension and complexity of being Jewish and Polish at the same time.
  • The hurt when Israeli tell you that this is not your land, you have to move to Israel.

The last few minutes introduced the Kibuc Warszawa project, which aims to cultivate unused lands within Warsaw for urban gardening. That and the idea that there is no renaissance of Judaism, just of Jewish culture in Poland were the most interesting aspect of the move to me. Unfortunately when I tried to learn more about the movie I didn’t really find anything on the director’s website or on his IMDB page

I happen to watch this short film the day before the 71st the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19, 1943. I am glad I had a chance to remember the heroes this way.

View an excerpt:

Excerpt from Sukkot in Warsaw from dmitriy khavin on Vimeo.

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

Blumenthal (2013, USA)

Poster for the movie Blumenthal When I right about movies I always try to focus on the positive. With Seth Fisher‘s Blumenthal I had a hard time finding it. It was supposed to be a comedy, but the jokes were either rude or not funny. The characters were played in a detached style, which really meant that it looked like they could care less. But it might be unfair to blame the fact that the movie was flat on them as the script and the directing was the culprit of being boring.

From the same basic idea other film-makers could have made a blockbuster. Jew-rosis, as in the peculiar, Jewish form of neurosis, and its New York city sub-variant can be the source of terrific comedy. Here it was just the base material of base jokes and embarrassment. Too bad, because I’ve seen some of the actors in other movies and even liked them. There isn’t anybody likable here.

What I appreciated the most in this film were the songs. They were upbeat and funny in themselves. Unfortunately I didn’t find what they were in the credits at the end or on the official website.

Links:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.

Under the Same Sun (2013, Israel)

Poster for Under the Same SunNot knowing anything about a movie before you start watching it can work in unexpected ways. For example for the first half of  Sameh Zoabi’Under the Same Sun I couldn’t even decide the genre of the film. It looked like a documentary. But then it transformed into a series of reenactments or dramatizations. And by the end I knew it was science-fiction, in the sense that it was fictional and set in the future.

The film, written by Yossi Aviram, does a good job of expounding all the potential personal conflicts a joint venture between an Israeli Jewish and a Palestinian businessman can cause for both of them. They both suffer repercussions from people around them, who disagree with the idea of working together with the “other side”. Unfortunately these conversations are a bit formulaic and aren’t life-like enough. They feel more like a listings of grievances.

I know that my personal preference is a peace and believe that can only be achieved (if at all) via working together. Hence I consider the ending optimistic. But I can also see other points of view, that would think it is pessimistic, because some people on either side didn’t reach what they set out. Yet again, others might just think that it is unrealistic. Either way it is important to show a positive vision of where a little humanity and a lot of perseverance might lead.

Links:

  • Official site
  • @IsraelFilmCenter
  • @IsraeliFilms
  • Review at Hollywood Reporter
  • Review at Jerusalem Post
  • IMDB summary: The film is set in the near future, and it looks back on how peace was made in 2013 between Israel and Palestine. It is the story of two businessmen – one Palestinian and one Israeli – who struggle to set up a solar energy company. Both come from societies where there is strong opposition to cooperating with the other, and the film tells how they overcome hostility from within their own families and from the people around them. In the end, they mount a Facebook campaign that brings popular support both to their joint venture and to the peace process.
  • Trailer:

As a member of the committee helping to put on the Jewish Film Festival, organized by the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, I preview movies to help decide which ones to play at the Festival. I watched this movie as part of this volunteer effort.