15 Years (15 Shana)


If men rolled out of bed looking like this, we’d all be gay.

(2019) LGBT Drama (Breaking Glass) Oded Leopold, Udi Persi, Ruti Asarsai, Dan Mor, Tamir Ginsburg, Lint Balaban, Ofek Aharony, Or Asher, Keren Tzur. Directed by Yuval Hadadi

 

Reaching middle age can be a terrifying proposition. Our entire worldview has to change. No longer are we young and indestructible; we are reaching a point in our lives where we have to take stock and prepare for the future rather than live in the moment. Even though 40 isn’t what it used to be, it still has great psychological significance for most of us.

Yoav (Leopold) has reached and surpassed that milestone. In fact, he’s 42 and outwardly, at least, he seems to have things figured out. A successful architect with a beautiful apartment in Tel Aviv that he shares with his partner of 15 years, Dan (Persi) who is a lawyer. They lack for nothing. They are surrounded by friends. Life is sweet indeed.

Yoav’s best friend since childhood is Alma (Asarsai) who has continued that relationship into adulthood. She is an artist and at the opening of a gallery show for her art, she makes the surprise announcement that she is pregnant. The news floors Yoav; as her best friend, he is offended that he wasn’t the first to know.

Even worse from Yoav’s point of view is that Dan is now thinking of fatherhood for himself and that is something Yoav emphatically doesn’t want. His mother has been dead for a while and his father is dying in a nursing home which Yoav refuses to visit; when on the phone with a representative there, he coldly tells them “Then let him die without seeing me.” That’s just the beginning of a downward spiral for Yoav who begins to resent Alma for her life change and Dan as well for wanting one. Yoav is pushing the two people closest to him away as hard as he can; when his firm loses an important project, the stress is clearly beginning to show. But what’s behind Yoav’s sudden change into jerkhood?

Well, to be honest, we never really find out for sure. Hadadi, who also wrote the film, drops cryptic hints; clearly his relationship with his parents is strained – one wonders if they never accepted their son’s sexuality, but Yoav is convinced he’d make a lousy father whereas Dan is just as sure that Yoav would make an excellent dad.

Yoav is at the center of the film and his relationships with Dan and Alma are the movie’s heart; the relationships are thankfully believable; both Alma and Dan are legitimately hurt by Yoav’s actions which he is unable to adequately explain. When questioned about why he’s behaving this way during a crucial scene, he keeps on repeating petulantly “I don’t know!” which gets tedious but then, I think that’s the point.

Hadadi does a great job to create a character who is unpleasant and barely likable; we get occasional glimpses of a different side to Yoav but mainly we begin to get tired of the man’s self-centered narcissism. Yoav has become so in tune with his own needs that he has ceased giving any thought to anyone else’s. He resents Alma because the change in her life is going to affect him. He resents Dan because he has a life goal that is different than his own. We are left to suss out the reasons for the behavior but at a certain point, we just don’t care. A dick is a dick is a dick, as they say.

The relationship between Dan and Yoav is actually pretty realistic; we don’t often get representations of successful gay men in long-term relationships and even though the one depicted here is crumbling, it certainly doesn’t reflect badly on Dan who is bewildered at his love’s behavior and beyond hurt. Eventually the two split up but it is clear that Dan is very much in love with Yoav. Whether Yoav is in love with anyone besides Yoav is a revelation I’ll save for your viewing – can’t leave too many spoilers, right?

Kudos to Hadadi for portraying gay men with depth and even, in the case of Dan, compassion. I also very much admire that Hadadi never wastes a moment; each scene portrays what it needs to and the n Hadadi moves on to the next one. While there might be a couple of sex scenes that may have been a little bit extraneous, Hadadi also reminds us that not every sexual encounter goes the same way. There are different rhythms, different contexts.

I think if we saw a bit more of what Dan saw in Yoav in the first place the movie would have been more powerful. Nonetheless, this is one of the most powerful pieces of LGBT cinema that I’ve seen in quite a while and it is well worth seeking out if you enjoy the genre or better still, if you just like damn good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Hadadi wastes no time; every scene is efficiently composed and only precisely as long as they need to be.
REASONS TO AVOID: Yoav is so unlikable that after awhile audiences may not be able to identify with him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has to date won three Best Narrative Feature awards at three different Film Festivals, including the Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Junebug
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Until the Birds Return

Back to the Fatherland


Conversations on a train

(2017) Documentary (First Run) Gil Levanon, Katharina Rohrer, Uri Ben Rehav, Lea Ron Peled, Guy Shahar, Dan Peled, Gidi Peled, Yochanan Tenzer, Katharina Maschek. Directed by Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer

 

What is the purpose of a documentary? Is it to enlighten? To educate? To bring up a discussion and then let us make up our own minds? None of those are wrong but your answer might be different from someone else’s. Some go to a documentary to find answers while others go to better understand the questions.

The question that is raised here is why would a young Israeli move to Germany or Austria? For their grandparents who experienced the atrocities of the Nazis first hand, the very idea is abhorrent. Not only did those countries give rise to Nazism, the people who lived there wholesale turned their backs on the Jewish community as they were being obliterated. One grandfather puts it starkly: “The people were bad. They were always bad. They are bad still.”

The documentaries follow three families, two of whom have had members who have already moved to Austria and one whose granddaughter (who is one of the directors of the film, although that isn’t made clear initially) is contemplating a move to Germany. For some, the reason is purely financial; they are seeking better economic opportunities than they were able to find in Israel. One, Dan Peled, has issues with Israel politically. He is disturbed by their turn to the hard right and specifically with their policies regarding Palestinians. He regards Israel as “an apartheid state.”

Mostly, the movie is about conversations – some inter-generational with grandparents and their grandchildren, others are between the grandchildren as we get an interesting view of Israel that we in the States aren’t used to getting. Some of the grandchildren (who, I remind you, grew up in Israel) lament the “culture of victimhood” that they see Israel has become. They feel that this culture, which relies on the concept that Jews are hated everywhere except in Israel has kept Israel from growing as a nation and made it impossible for them to move on. I’ve never heard this expressed in quite this way and it is an interesting conversation to say the least. All of them are for the most part.

But the filmmakers rarely give much context and all we are left with is the opinions of the various people conversing. I have no doubt that these types of conversations take place in Jewish homes in Israel and throughout the world but context isn’t required in those households as much as it is needed in Gentile households.

The pacing is fairly languid and the idea of sending the grandparents to visit the places they fled after the war seemed a bit gimmicky and there wasn’t anything particularly revelatory about their visits. Some might well find the idea of watching this kind of boring and I would understand why, but I’m here to tell you that watching this movie does allow you some insight into how young Jews view modern Israel and the Holocaust. Personally, I don’t think finding insights into how other people perceive things ever to be anything less than worthwhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Very talky but the conversation is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers met while in college in New York City and discovered that they had a link in their backgrounds; Levanon who was from Israel is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor while Rohrer, who came from Austria, her late grandfather was what she termed a “super-Nazi” who helped carry out policy in Austria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bird Box

The Golem (2018)


The Golem gets a star turn.

(2018) Horror (Epic) Hani Furstenberg, Ishai Golan, Brynie Furstenberg, Lenny Ravitz, Alexey Tritenko, Adi Kvetner, Konstantin Anikienko, Olga Safronova. Directed by Doron Paz and Yoav Paz

 

The Golem is a mythological figure of Eastern European Jewish folklore that goes back at least as far as the middle ages. It may even have directly or indirectly influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. It is a creature that is created to protect but often its definition of protection can stretch a little bit.

Hannah (H. Furstenberg) is a woman living in a Lithuanian Jewish settlement in the 17th century. She is married to Benjamin (Golan), an upstanding man in the community. The two are childless; well, not always – they did have a son named Josef but he had died seven years previously and Hannah wasn’t eager to have another one, surreptitiously taking contraceptives from the village healer (B. Furstenberg).

Hannah isn’t like most village women who essentially do the lion’s share of the work and submit to their husband’s wishes in all things. For one thing, Hannah wants to learn and she attends the rabbi’s lessons – hiding under the floor of the temple while the men were discussing the Torah (and occasionally the Kabballah) and reading her husband’s sacred texts by night.

The village regards her with suspicion and scorn but they have bigger fish to fry. The gentile village nearest them has been stricken with the plague; because the Jews have learned to essentially be self-sufficient and have little contact with anyone else, they have been spared. Naturally, the Christians believe the Jews responsible for the plague. One of them, an anti-Semitic named Vladimir (Tritenko) has been driven to near-madness as his darling daughter has been afflicted and is on the verge of death. He brings the girl to their village along with some of his like-minded cohorts and threatens the villagers and the healer – cure the girl or die.

Some of the Christians don’t wait for an outcome, embarking on a spree of rape and murder. The unarmed Jews determine to wait out the ordeal, hoping that God will save them. Hannah doesn’t believe as they do – she wants direct intervention and so using the forbidden knowledge she obtained from the Kabballah she brings to life a Golem – a being made out of clay, blood and a scrap of paper with the secret name of God.

Rather than a hulking giant, the Golem (Anikienko) turns out to be a young boy about the age Josef would have been had he lived. However, the Golem is as deadly despite his innocent appearance, ripping victims limb from limb, tearing out their still-beating hearts and literally making their heads explode psychically. The Golem and Hannah develop a mother-son relationship and when the villagers discover what Hannah has done, they urge her to destroy it but how can a mother destroy her own son? When the Golem begins to destroy other villagers, Hannah is faced with a horrible choice.

This Israeli horror film was shot mostly in the Ukraine as well as in Israel with a multinational cast most of whom are not well-known in the States. The cast actually does a solid job with few exceptions. Furstenberg brings the headstrong and individualistic Hannah to life making her a sympathetic but flawed lead. Golan is a ruggedly handsome but somewhat dithering husband and as the monster, Anikienko with coal black irises in dead eyes is creepy as all get out.

The atmosphere is somewhat Gothic without the obvious Gothic trappings of most horror films, which merits kudos. Yes, there is a good deal of gore, enough to sate even the most bloodthirsty of horror fans but the pace might not be to their liking – the film develops at a very leisurely pace and allows the horror to build to a rip-roaring third act.

This is a very solid, very atmospheric horror film which has essentially flown under the radar. Now widely available on VOD, this is one you should check out if you’re one of those horror fans who doesn’t mind going out of the box once in a while. As an extra added bonus, the movie was shot in English so there are no pesky subtitles you have to read. Fans of Jewish mysticism might also get a kick out of this as well.

REASONS TO GO: The cast is rock solid for the most part. The filmmakers achieve a Gothic tone without resorting to Gothic clichés.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be too slow for modern American horror fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as a goodly amount of violence and bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brynie Furstenberg, who plays Hannah’s mentor, is her mom in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dybbuk
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Song of Parkland

Family in Transition (Mishpakha BiTrans)


Morning bathroom time can be crowded in the Tzuk household.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Amit/Imit Tzuk, Galit Tzuk, Agam Tzuk, Mimi Tzuk, Yuval Tzuk, Yarden Tzuk, Peleg Tzuk. Directed by Ofir Trainin

 

Even as gay and lesbian rights begun to begrudgingly be acknowledged, transsexuals continue to be seriously discriminated against. In a quasi-theocracy such as Israel, many citizens have a hard time dealing with it even today.

Amit Tzuk and his wife Galit have been together since they were 15. They live in the Northern Israel coastal town of Nahariya near the Jordanian border. It’s a fairly conservative town with a population of about 60,000. They are happy here, they have family here and if they both have their way they will spend the rest of their lives here, raising their four children.

Amit, like most Israeli men, is a veteran of the armed forces (the army in his case) and ran his household in the traditional manner, with the husband being the boss and the wife being submissive to his needs. However, he drops a bombshell when he announces to Galit that he is really a woman trapped in a man’s body and he intends to get gender reassignment surgery.

Galit is extraordinarily supportive through the hormonal treatments, complaining a bit that “as a man, she never cried but now she cries all the time” (welcome to the world of husbands, dear heart). She is his rock during the hormone treatments; she is equally his rock when he has the surgery in Thailand and during the extended and painful recovery process. The children, to their credit, show equal support even though they are bullied at school. The family must endure homophobic slurs hurled at them by passing cyclists from time to time.

The decision of Amit to transition to Imit is difficult on the entire family. A sister of Amit, married to an Orthodox Jew, refuses to speak to the couple or even acknowledge them. Other friends of the family also adopt the same policy. And shortly after the couple return from Thailand, the ramifications of the surgery begin to affect Galit as well.

Trainin elects to adopt a fly on the wall style for the documentary that ends up feeling like a home movie. That’s a compliment, as it gives the story an intimacy that a series of talking heads would not. The story is told sequentially and while it’s hard not to wonder how much the family played to the camera – that’s just human nature – it’s hard not to feel that the emotions you’re seeing aren’t genuine.

There is a radical tonal shift in the final third of the film that I don’t want to get too much in detail to simply not to spoil the film. Suffice to say that it is an emotionally powerful shift, one that enhances the film and contributes a great deal to the overall genuineness of the movie.

Although I have to say that the music that the couple listens to is cringeworthy to this ex-music critic (I’m very much a music snob I’m afraid) as being bland 80s style pop. Not my cup off tea, but that’s just me. Please don’t send Mossad to my home to teach me a lesson in manners.

The thing that I thought was more egregious is that while the documentary is only 70 minutes long which I appreciated, it felt like there were some things skipped particularly in the evolution of the couple’s relationship after the surgery. It doesn’t feel like we’re getting the whole story which is a bit frustrating.

The film looks at daily life in Israel in a place other than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem which is a pleasure. We also get an insight into Israeli views into LGBTQ rights which are evolving but still controversial, just as they are here. I might have liked the filmmakers to be a little less brief and maybe allow the Tzuk family to express their feelings a little more but it’s possible that the family was unwilling to do that. Still this is a fascinating documentary indeed.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a home movie in the positive sense of the word. There are twists of emotional intensity that are surprising and heartrending.
REASONS TO STAY: At times it feels like there are some elements missing from the story.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is for mature audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers spent two years with the Tzuk family.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Transparent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Border

The Legend of King Solomon


The 70s called; they want their animation back.

(2017) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Oded Menashe, Ori Pfeffer, Hana Laslo, Ori Laizerouvich, Nitzan Sitzer, Albert Cohen, Eden Har’el. Directed by Albert Hanan Kaminski

 

King Solomon has over the centuries come to symbolize wisdom. However, even the wisest of men were once the most foolish of teens, and getting over ourselves is a hefty dose of what growing up is all about.

Solomon (Menashe) has only recently ascended to the throne of Jerusalem, once held by his father King David. Solomon’s best friend is a fox named Toby (Laizerouvich) whose speech only Solomon can understand. Bilquis (uncredited), the beautiful but somewhat shallow Queen of Sheba has come to Jerusalem ostensibly to marry Solomon. The teen king, chafing in the shadow of his more noteworthy father, needs to find a way to impress the beautiful Queen.

When Hadad (Sitzer), a man whose city was leveled by David comes before Solomon to reclaim his family ring, Solomon arrogantly refuses. In retribution, Hadad frees Asmodeus, one of the most powerful of demons. Seeking to impress Bilquis, Solomon captures the demon and against all advice brings it into the city of Jerusalem where it escapes and enslaves the citizens of Jerusalem, then throws Solomon high into the air. Solomon should have been killed but he and Toby are rescued by a giant eagle who informs him that the only way to defeat Asmodeus is by the use of the Stone Worm, a powerful talisman hidden in the ancient city of Petra.

Solomon, disguising himself as an impoverished beggar so as not to attract attention to himself, gains entry to the city and finds work as a dishwasher working for the Princess Na’ama (Har’el) who finds out his true identity and determines to help the young king. Chased by Hadad and by the enslaved soldiers of Jerusalem as well as Na’ama’s angry father, Solomon must redeem himself and take back his city or lose everything that his father built.

This is definitely a children’s movie. The appeal is mainly going to be for little ones; we’ve got sassy talking animals, love stories on the level of a six-year-old’s crush on a seven-year-old and humor that consists mainly of pratfalls. With the cutesy talking animals and the dialogue that distinctly talks down to the audience, one gets the sense that the writers thought their target audience is much younger than it really is; either that or they don’t hang out with many seven-year-olds.

Although the subject is Biblical, the movie isn’t preachy in the same way it might be if a evangelical Christian group might have made it. This is mostly meant to be a fun look at a Biblical figure who really hasn’t gotten a whole lot of love from Hollywood despite being one of the best-known figures from the history of Israel. It surprises me frankly that there have been more movies about Achilles than there have been about King Solomon. I guess that being a mighty warrior is sexier than being a mighty thinker.

The music, much of it based on folk song forms of the region, is actually quite nice. The really glaring thing about the film though is the animation. Unlike most animated films these days, it’s 2D and it looks like something Don Bluth might have done – that’s not a knock, by the way. The backgrounds are nicely textured but the animators don’t really succeed in giving their creation life. There’s no soul here and for the most part it feels like something that was done not so much out of a passion for the story but because someone was footing the bill.

Parents who are strong in faith, both Christian and Jewish (and I suspect some Muslims as well) will probably delight in this. Those who aren’t religious should be aware that this isn’t a movie that’s trying to indoctrinate anybody; Solomon comes off as human and even though there are demons present there aren’t hosts of angels or any wise old priests telling him to put his faith in God. I just wish the animation was better and that the writers had given the young audience a little more credit.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the songs are pretty nice.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels like a bad attempt to mimic a Disney animated movie from the 70s. The humor is pretty dumb.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Legend of King Solomon is the first Israeli full-length animated feature that is intended for children.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Davey and Goliath
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Bleeding Edge

The Cakemaker


Bake me a cake just as fast as you can!

(2017) Drama (Strand) Sarah Adler, Tim Kalkhof, Roy Miller, Zohar Shtrauss, Sandra Sadeh, Stephanie Stremler, Eliezer Shimon, Iyad Msalma, Tagel Eliyahu, David Koren, Tamir Ben Yehuda, Sagi Shemesh, Gal Gonen. Directed by Ofir Raul Gralzer

The loss of a loved one is always devastating. Some find themselves having a hard time facing the fact that their loved one is gone. Others feel the need to wrap themselves in everything that reminds them of their late loved one, holding onto it before the memory fades. We all cope with grief differently.

Oren (Miller) is an Israeli businessman whose travels frequently take him to Berlin. His travels to Berlin frequently take him to a café run by Thomas (Kalkhof). It might be for the Black Forest Cake that Oren loves or the cinnamon cookies he takes home to his wife, but as it turns out the connection between the German and the Israeli goes far deeper.

When Oren doesn’t show up at the appointed time and Thomas’ texts and calls to his lover go unanswered, Thomas makes his way to Oren’s Berlin office and there discovers that Oren has been killed in an automobile accident. Gutted, Thomas decides to go to Jerusalem where he finds the café that is being started up by Oren’s wife Anat (Adler). Impulsively, Thomas asks for a job and Anat gives him one as a dishwasher.

However his skills as a baker become much more apparent to the horror of Anat’s brother Moti (Shtrauss) who is deeply distrustful of a gentile and a male one at that in the kitchen. He is concerned that the café’s kosher certification will be threatened. Meanwhile, Anat finds her bond with Thomas deepening, still having no idea of her employee’s relationship with her late husband. Her son Ital (Eliyahu) also begins to open up to Thomas. If the truth should come out, the two will be utterly destroyed.

This is a movie that doesn’t do what you expect it to – and that’s a good thing. I honestly never could figure out where Gralzer was going (he also co-wrote the script) and the choices he made were all good ones. There is a very melancholic air here, understandable considering the subject matter. There are times that Thomas’ actions seem almost creepy but as the movie progresses some sense can be made of them, largely thanks to a flashback late in the film. Still, Kalkhof has a brooding, gentle presence that draws the audience in. Adler is a bit more shrill, but she softens a bit as her character’s relationship with Thomas grows more romantic.

The movie takes it’s time getting where it’s going to which is fine with European audiences but not so much for American filmgoers who are notoriously impatient with slow-paced films. I found the unhurried pace to be actually somewhat soothing; it allows the viewer to process what’s happening. It also allows the filmmaker to linger over some shots of pastries and cakes that are just mouth-watering short of being food porn. My advice is to see this film in a theater that is within walking distance to a nice bakery. You’ll be hungry by the time this is done.

This is an impressive debut for Gralzer and there are few wrong steps taken here. The late-film flashback that explains some of what happened between Thomas and Oren probably should have occurred sooner in the film and the ending was a bit muddled but beyond that this is the kind of rainy day movie that will whet your appetite in more ways than one.

REASONS TO GO: You never know where the film is taking you. The cakes and cookies look incredibly appetizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length feature to be directed by Gralzer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six L.A. Love Stories

Aida’s Secrets


Two brothers meet for the very first time.

(2016) Documentary (Music Box) Shep Shell, Izak Sagi, Aida Zasadsinska, Giora Sagi, Melanie Shell, Dr. Erik Somers, Alon Schwarz, Laurence Harris, Janice Rosen. Directed by Alon Schwarz and Shmaul Schwarz

 

The end of World War II found Europe in shambles. Millions of people were displaced, often their families scattered all over hell and gone. There are some parallels to the refugee crisis currently facing Europe and the Middle East.

Izak Sagi lived in Israel. As a young boy, he believed that his parents were his biological parents. When local kids taunt him by telling him that they are not, Izak confronts his parents who reluctantly admit that they aren’t. His biological mother is Aida, a beautiful blonde from Poland who now lived in Canada. Aida comes to visit and then returns several times afterwards. She is oddly reticent to tell Izak about his birth father whom she’ll only identify as a “good man.”

In 2013 when Izak is 67, he learns that he wasn’t an only child. It turns out that Aida had a son just ten months younger than Izak. His name is Shepsyl and he lives in Winnipeg (great choice!); he lived there with Aida’s ex-husband whom Shep (as he now calls himself) doesn’t have fond memories of – in fact, Greg had cut Shep completely out of his will when he died in 2008.

Izak is overjoyed to meet the brother he never knew he had; Shep is willing to meet but a little more cautious. Izak is a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy to begin with; Shep is a little bit more world-wary given his background. The two men have a joyful union at the Winnipeg Airport – I don’t know if “reunion” is the operative word since the two had been separated since Izak was three – but Izak is clearly over the moon and can’t stop calling Shep “brother.” It takes a little longer for Shep to warm up to Izak.

Still, the emotional reunions aren’t over yet. It turns out that Aida is still alive and at 89 years old living in a Montreal assisted living facility. Izak conducts Shep to the facility and for the first time in his memory, Shep has a mommy. He is hoping that Aida is happy to see him and she truly seems to be.

But there are some nagging questions and Aida isn’t very forthcoming about them. When asked directly, she claims she doesn’t remember or doesn’t wish to discuss the matter. Laurence Harris, the online genealogy researcher who helped Izak and his family find Shep, helps locate other relatives and friends of Aida who are equally vague. It seems that Aida has secrets that she’s not willing to part with, not even to set the hearts of her children to rest. However Laurence finds one more revelation that shocks both of the brothers.

Alon and Shmaul Schwarz are the nephews of Izak making their feature film debut and the story is so powerful and emotional that the somewhat prosaic style the brothers have in shooting the movie can be forgiving. I would have liked to have seen a more deft touch on the editing; it felt that certain scenes went on a bit too long, others felt rushed. At times that can be frustrating.

If you come to this film expecting every question to be answered neatly with a ribbon tied around it, you are going to be very disappointed. Aida died shortly after her first meeting with Shep – the film opens and concludes with footage from her funeral – and took with her to the grave the answers to many of the questions the two men really needed to know. Why did she seem to favor Izak over Shep? Why keep the brothers’ existence secret from each other but tell other family members who eventually spilled the beans? Who was the mysterious man in a photograph on a riverside beach that Aida identified as Izak’s father – but wasn’t her husband who appears in another photo on the same beach apparently taken on the same outing? Why did she and her husband divorce? Why was she so reluctant to talk about those events even though it would clearly ease the minds of her children to know these answers?

Some questions are never meant to be answered and the only people who can answer these questions are gone now. As frustrating as that is for the viewer, one can only imagine how frustrating it is for the two men who have to live the rest of their lives with those nagging questions hanging over their heads. However, they can take solace in knowing that their family circle has grown more than a little bit larger – and anyone will tell you that you can never have enough family love.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very powerful from an emotional standpoint. Izak and Shep are compelling subjects and very different men, understandably.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very much like a missed opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s themes are pretty adult and there’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp is now a military base and off-limits to the public.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sky and Ground
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Jane

Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

The Wedding Plan (Laavor et hakir)


Here comes the bride!

(2016) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Noa Koler, Dafi Alferon, Oded Leopold, Ronny Merhavi, Udi Persi, Jonathan Rozen, Irit Sheleg, Amos Tamam, Oz Zehavi, Odelia Moreh-Matalon, Erez Drigues. Directed by Rama Burshtein

 

The desire to find the person to love, cherish and spend the rest of our lives with is pretty much endemic to every culture but in some ways, the Orthodox Jewish community puts a little extra emphasis on it. Single women of a certain age are subtly looked down upon as if there is something defective about them.

Michal (Koler) is a 32-year-old convert to the Breslov sect of Hassidic Judaism. She is a veteran of the dating scene in Israel and has the emotional scars to prove it. Finally, though, it seems like she’s found the man of her dreams – Gidi (Drigues). Michal has arranged to rent the catering hall of Shimi (Tamam) and they are sampling some of the food that is offered for various wedding parties when Gidi drops a bombshell; he doesn’t love her.

Although the wedding is off, Michal decides to keep the booking at the catering hall for the eighth night of Hanukkah. She’s tired of the searing looks that she gets from married women bringing their children to the mobile petting zoo she runs (I didn’t know that was a thing) and the nagging of her mother (Sheleg). She wants to settle down and be with someone she can share the rest of her life with and if God could part the Red Sea, He could find her a husband.

But she figured God helps those who helps themselves so she sets herself up a matchmaker who sets her up on dates with Hassidic men, each less suitable than the last. She decides to take a break to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (founder of her particular sect)  in the Ukraine and overcome with emotion, prostrates herself on the grave. She is comforted by Yoss (Zehavi), an Israeli indie rock singer who sets many a female heart to fluttering. Although she is star-struck, she strikes up a relationship with the man.

As the days start to dwindle towards Hanukkah, Michal continues to prepare for her wedding even though those around her are beginning to have their doubts. Shimi, who is in a marriage that has slowly begun to implode, offers what support he can and even though her deadline is approaching with her no closer to finding a groom than she was when Gidi said “I don’t,” her faith remains steadfast.

This is a movie that takes Hollywood romantic comedy conventions and turns them inside out while in some ways, remaining true to the gist of them – for example, most rom-com junkies will figure out the ending well in advance of the end credits. Still, world movie enthusiasts will appreciate the slice of like look at Israeli Hassidic culture, a world not often glimpsed even in Israeli cinema.

Koler is an engaging performer and she gives Michal just enough personality to give us a rooting interest. Michal is emotional almost to the point of hysteria in places and she spends a good deal of the movie crying. Her decisions don’t always make logical sense but she is always true to her emotional framework. Some will see this as misogynistic in the sense that the view of women is that their place in life is to be married to a husband who has essential control of the relationship but at the same time Michal is a fairly independent sort who seems to be able to take care of herself pretty well without a husband. One wonders if Burshtein who is also Hassidic is making a sly-handed comment on the somewhat archaic view of the role of women within the Hassidic community.

Like many rom-coms, the premise is unrealistic in many ways; while Michal has a great deal of faith, she also seems logical enough to understand that faith alone isn’t going to cut it. And yes, while she does take steps to find herself a groom, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between her religious faith and her independence. I’m not saying that independent women can’t be religious, only that the independent women I know tend to be practical as well and putting one’s faith in God in this manner doesn’t seem terribly practical. I honestly think this is more a commentary on how unmarried women are looked at in the Hassidic faith rather than a primer on what to do to find a husband.

In any case, I suspect that those who love romantic comedies are going to enjoy this, even though it is less a comedy than a slice of life. Those who enjoy exploring different cultures through the movies will really enjoy this. Fans of Israeli cinema will also enjoy this a great deal. Those who don’t like any of those things will likely not find much to like here, although if they are more adventurous souls who like to see movies that don’t necessarily have superheroes, aliens or car chases in them might well be pleasantly surprised.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives us some insight into the orthodox Jewish culture in Israel. American rom-com conventions are given an Israeli twist here.
REASONS TO STAY: This is somewhat unrealistic. The film is about 20 minutes too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here are of an adult nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Koler and Tamam both appeared on the Israeli television show Srugim as former spouses.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 29 Dresses
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Letters from Baghdad

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret )


"My fish was much bigger than your fish."

“My fish was much bigger than your fish.”

(2007) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Uri Gavriel, Shlomi Avraham, Imad Jabarin, Ahuva Keren, Francois Khell, Hisham Khoury, Tarak Kopty, Rinat Matatov, Rubi Moskovitz, Hilla Sarjon. Directed by Eran Kolirin

From time to time, plans go awry and we’re forced to improvise. Sometimes those moments of having to wing it reveal a lot about ourselves and have lasting repercussions on the rest of our lives.

The police band of Alexandria, Egypt is invited to Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. The bandleader, Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai), is a ramrod-straight by-the-book sort of man, wrestling with the budget difficulties that are threatening the very existence of the band and the growing disposable nature of music in an increasingly apathetic world. He is told in no uncertain terms to represent Egypt properly while in Israel.

Once they arrive, things fall apart. The bus that’s sent to take them from the airport to the cultural center never arrives. Colonel Zacharya, ever the one for self-reliance, sends the womanizing Khaled (Bakri) to inquire about commercial bus service to the town they need to get to, but even this goes awry. The bus dumps them in a small town in the middle of the desert with only a clean and pretty superhighway showing any signs of civilization whatsoever.

Nonetheless, the small line of eight awkward Egyptian men in sky-blue band uniforms complete with gold braid and epaulets trudge to the center of town where the only sign of life shows; a tiny café where two slackers lounge in the sidewalk chairs. They summon the proprietor, a darkly beautiful woman named Dina (Elkabetz). When Zacharya asks in halting English (the universal language of the Middle East, apparently) where the Arab Cultural Center may be found, she says wryly “No Arab Cultural Center. Here there is no Arab culture. Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.”

It turns out they are in the wrong town, one that has a similar name to the one they were meant to go to. Worse yet, bus service has discontinued for the day and there is no hotel. After feeding the tired, hungry band, Dina arranges for the band members to be put up in the homes of the previously mentioned slackers, while taking Colonel Zacharya and Khaled to her own apartment. As the evening wears on, the uncomfortable Egyptians interact with the equally uncomfortable Israelis. In their uncomfortable silences, the realization grows that they are not as unalike as they might have thought.

The two leads are marvelous. Gabai’s craggy, weathered face (with a nose that would make the ghost of Jimmy Durante smile in satisfaction) hints at a soul battered by the world, but his carefully maintained composure, using polite gentility as a wall to protect him from the loneliness and pain surrounding him, speaks volumes. Dina is a woman who has seen life pass her by as she enters middle age. Still beautiful and able to find lovers, she has as yet been unable to find love. Her loneliness is palpable as she reaches out to the Colonel, obviously attracted to him, but unable to breach his walls. Elkabetz portrays that lonely core expressively through her eyes and body language; it really is a breathtaking performance. The fact that there is no way anything could possibly come of this in that place and time makes it all the more bittersweet.

Writer/Director Kolirin whose resume is mostly Israeli television programs proves a deft hand with a feature. His pacing is unhurried, matching the pace of life in the Israeli village, which suited me just fine. However, the pace may be a bit too languid for American audiences, who tend to prefer their comedies rapid-fire. Cinematographer Shai Goldman captures the desolation of the village, with the juxtaposition of the blue-clad band members making the ridiculous reasonable. When the band finally plays at the movie’s conclusion, the music is lovely and exotic.

The relationship between Dina and Colonel Zacharya is a wonderful glimpse into two souls who are basically good, but have been wounded by bad choices, bad luck and tragedies that may or may not have been out of their control. The comedy here is not broad and rapid-fire in the way of a Judd Apatow comedy, but more subtle, yet I still laughed out loud – and quite loudly too – on several occasions. The movie is gentle and endearing in a way that isn’t forced, something that you rarely see in American movies.

This is a gentle film that discusses the universal trait of loneliness, something that goes beyond culture, nation or religion. The pace is slow enough to nearly lull you to sleep, but I found it a means to easily enter into the charm of the movie. I suspect that this will appeal to a very limited audience; it simply doesn’t seem to resonate with general American audiences. Still, there are some fine performances and a look into a pair of cultures we know only in the broadest of terms. I liked it a lot more than the rating I gave it, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it for everybody. It takes patience and a willingness to be transported on a lazy river of charm. Those who like to see movies other than (or more than) the major Hollywood releases will find this rewarding; others who prefer their comedies broad and fast-paced will be bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Gentle charm. Elkabetz and Gabai give lovely performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too slow-paced for some.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sexual innuendo, and a curse word here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Band’s Visit was originally submitted as Israel’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2008 Oscars but the Academy rejected the nomination as the film’s dialogue is more than 50% in English.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a photo gallery to go with most of the usual extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where Do We Go Now?
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Rebound