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

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The Babushkas of Chernobyl


Girls just wanna have fun.

Girls just wanna have fun.

(2015) Documentary (Chicken and Egg) Valentyna Ivanivna, Vita Polyakova, Maria Shovkota, Hanna Zavoratya, Mary Mycio, Olga Mikolaivna. Directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are desirable places to live in the world – California, the Rhone Valley, Hawaii and so on – but there are some places in the world where I think people would choose not to live; the middle of the Gobi Desert, for example. Death Valley would be another. However, I think at the top of that dubious list would be the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

When Reactor #4 exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986 it created an area contaminated by radiation containing roughly 1,000 square miles. Those that lived in the rural villages in the surrounding area along with the plant workers whose homes were in the nearby town of Pripyat were forcibly evacuated, often just with the clothes on their backs.

For some, living away from where they’d lived all their lives was as awful a fate as dying of radiation poisoning. Some of the villagers therefore snuck back into the exclusion zone and resumed their lives. Most of them women and nearly all of them elderly, they continue to live in the zone which although not officially supported by the Ukraine is unofficially tolerated; as one aid worker says, they are far more likely to die of old age before the radiation kills them.

Now at this point I should mention that I’m half-Ukrainian on my mother’s side; one of the most important people in my life as a young boy was my maternal grandmother, whom I called Baba. She is someone I continue to regard fondly even now. These ladies – Hanna, Maria and Valentyna are the three focused on here – remind me very much of her, so do take this review with that in mind.

Bogart and Morris follow these ladies through their daily lives, through visits by government scientists researching the radiation in the soil, the water and in the ladies themselves through visits with one another, to receiving their government pensions – which in typical government fashion are late. I am startled to see how verdant the exclusion zone is; while the forests closest to the plant are barren, life seems to be thriving in the outlying area. The babushkas live on the food they grow and the livestock they raise, supplemented by what they can find in the forest which can include things like nuts, berries and mushrooms. They also occasionally go fishing in the local rivers.

They also get visits from other government officials, including one young woman who reluctantly accepts the offer of food and tries to eat as little as possible; she knows turning the ladies down outright would be insulting to them. They treat her with affection, like a granddaughter.

There are other survivors as well, some who continue to live outside of the exclusion zone, all of whom ruefully miss their old lives in their old village. It is pointed out that statistically, the babushkas living in the exclusion zone are outliving those of a similar age who are living outside of it, which only speaks to the powerful influence of living in comforting surroundings.

The stories that these ladies and the other interviewees are riveting; they have lived hard lives even before the accident. The privations of the Second World War and the German invasion, and even worse under Stalin’s policy of forced starvation are recalled with vivid detail. Many of them had husbands who weren’t exactly prizes; they talk ruefully of alcoholism and even beatings. This was part of life for a young Ukrainian wife back in the day.

We also get to meet a group of videogamers from Kiev who, inspired by the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is set at Chernobyl, illegally trespass into the exclusion zone and try to penetrate as far as possible into the zone, making it all the way to Pripyat. They joke around, but what they are doing is unbelievably dangerous. Kids, don’t try that at home – or anywhere else.

It is the story of the explosion itself and the ensuing aftermath that really makes one pause; it is heartbreaking to hear about the chaos and the tears that occurred as their lives were irrevocably changed. The explosion was loud enough to wake most of them, and while they were far enough away from the plant that they didn’t see the actual disaster itself nor suffer the fatal effects of exposure, their tales are chilling enough.

The movie was filmed around Easter, a very big holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church, and we are allowed to tag along as the ladies are taken by bus to worship at midnight mass. This was one of the most moving moments in the film as you can plainly see that the women are affected by the ceremony which is in itself beautiful in the candlelight.

Clearly, the filmmakers have much affection for the babushkas and there is a wistful air to the whole film. These are old women used to hard work and self-sufficiency. Watching them go about their daily routines makes one realize that we have it easy here. While it is delightful to watch them on their cell phones – reception is as you might imagine rather dicey in the exclusion zone – they represent a way of life that is fast disappearing. That these are amazing ladies goes without question, but they are also in a sense very ordinary. I doubt they see themselves as particularly special; they are just doing what they’ve always done, despite the risks. It’s their very ordinariness that makes them special in my eyes; they are just like my Baba and of course, who doesn’t love their grandmother?

REASONS TO GO: Powerful images and scenes. Compelling subjects. Amazing stories about the explosion and aftermath.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to all filmgoers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material may be a little intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were required to rotate in and out of the hot zone in order to minimize their exposure to the radiation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russian Woodpecker
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Norman Lear: Another Version of You

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom


Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

(2015) Documentary (Netflix) Ekaterina Averchenko, Mustafa Ayyem, Maksim Panov, Eduard Kurganskiy, Diana Popova, Aleksandr Staradub, Ivan Sydor, Timur Ibraimov, Cissy Jones (narrator), Kamiliya Zahoor, Said Ismagilov, Vladimir Makarevich, Sergei Kibnuuski, Volodymyr Parasyuk, Aleksandr Pyovanov, Oleksandr Melnyk, Catherine Ashton. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

A wise man once said that while it is easy to see when a revolution ends, it is much more difficult to discern when it begins. That wasn’t the case with the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, also called the EuroMaidan revolution or just the Maidan revolution. named for Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square in central Kiev (the Ukrainian capital) which was the staging ground for most of the events of the uprising. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, this revolution was televised.

After then-president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the trade agreement with the European Union that he had promised to sign, journalist Mustafa Ayyem and others sent out messages on Facebook and other social media to gather in Maidan to protest. At first only a few dozen showed, but by the end of the evening there were thousands in the square.

The protesters would remain in Maidan for 93 days amid escalating retaliation from the State Police, or Berkut. went from beatings with truncheons, stun grenades and arrests for disorderly conduct to firing into the crowd with rubber bullets and eventually with live ammo. Backed by convicts and thugs paid by the government called titushky the pro-government forces clashed more and more violently with the anti-government forces which were now calling for Yanukovych to resign, culminating in five days in February which large-scale rioting took place and police brutality rose to sadistic levels.

International outcry was deafening as even the International Monetary Fund suspended activities within the Ukraine due to the unrest. Yanukovych finally resigned and fled the country for Russia, with whom he had been in secret negotiations. His government was toppled and new elections held. As the documentary itself notes, that didn’t end the violence however; Russia would annex the Crimean peninsula and pro-Russian activists in the Eastern Ukraine erupted in a civil war that continues to this day. More than six thousand Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict.

Russian/Israeli docu-journalist Afineevsky was on the ground in the Ukraine for the duration of the uprising and documented it as thoroughly as it can be – 28 cameramen and women were credited on the film and some of the footage appears to have been captured on cell phone cameras as well. The footage is quite frankly amazing; we see hordes of police descending on unarmed protesters and beating the holy crap out of them. We see people shot and literally die in front of our eyes.

What the film doesn’t do is provide any balance. There were incidents of violence involving protesters but these are never shown; we are given a political line here which I don’t think that the filmmakers realized would have been made stronger if we had heard some opposing voices as well. While I’m not trying to say that justification for the violence and brutality should have been provided, one gets the feeling that we’re hearing only one side of the story which makes it maddeningly incomplete.

Still, in presenting that single side the filmmakers are commendably thorough. Graphics illustrate the locations of the various clashes and show the routes of protest marches. The filmmakers also resist the urge that many documentaries in the last few years have followed in padding their films with animated sequences. Every image we see here other than the informational graphics is either live footage of the uprising or interviews with the participants after the fact.

The Ukraine is, surprisingly, one of the most multi-cultural nations on earth with a variety of religions and ethnic groups that live there (there’s a particularly large Muslin/Arabic ethnic population living in Kiev) and religious leaders played a major role in the protest. Time and time again throughout the film the anti-government activists boast that all of the various religions were united as one; we get that this wasn’t a religious conflict but a political one.

There are still some pro-Russian sorts who call this uprising a coup d’état rather than a true popular uprising (only about 40% of Ukrainians supported the protesters according to contemporary polls). However, there is no doubt that Yanukovych was entirely corrupt as was his administration and once he began ordering his police to fire on his own people with live ammunition he lost what little moral authority he might have had to begin with.

If this is a propaganda piece as it strongly feels like it is, it is an entirely effective one. There is no doubting the courage of the protesters standing up to armed and armored police officers while completely unarmed, an eerie foreshadowing of police militarization in our own country which thankfully hasn’t led to the kind of violence that we saw in Kiev. 75 people died during the uprising, mostly protesters. Yanukovych is now wanted internationally in connection with the police actions and for allegedly having looted more than $75 billion from the Ukrainian treasury.

Watching the images of the beatings and the shootings is absolutely heartbreaking at times – but inspiring throughout. I’m half-Ukrainian so I do have a bit of a dog in this hunt and I have to say that I have never been prouder of my heritage than I was during the extraordinary events of these 93 days in the winter of 2013-14. While the story is far from being over, it is a story that is worth telling. I just wish they’d told both sides of it.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible footage. Thorough presentation of the anti-Yanukovych point of view. Easy to follow and understand.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely one-sided point of view.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, profanity and some disturbing images of injuries and corpses.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gujarat, the Indian state that Vasant and Champa Patel were from, also was the home state of Gandhi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Square
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: 99 Homes

Love Me


Diamonds are a mail order bride's best friend.

Diamonds are a mail order bride’s best friend.

(2014) Documentary (Powershot) Bobby, Eric, Michael, Robert, John, Ron, Travis, Inna, Svitlana, Vitalina, Elena, Bob. Directed by Jonathon Narducci

Florida Film Festival-2014

Mail order brides have been a business since the 19th century as lonely farmers, mostly in North America, brought over women from mostly Europe. Often there was limited correspondence between the prospective groom and the object of his purchase and generally the transaction (for make no mistake – this was a business deal) was consummated before the buyer had even seen his bride-to-be. The trade expanded in the 20th century to Asia and Africa as lonely American men tried to find alternative ways to discover happiness.

The business still exists today although it is much more refined and in some ways, more high tech. Websites have sprung up on which prospective brides can put their pictures up and correspond via e-mail with their prospective husbands at their leisure. Businesses like A Foreign Affair (which gets the lion’s share of screen time here) have created the ultimate singles bar which is always open.

We follow the journeys of five clients of AFA and one of an Australian service. called Elena’s Models (run by a former Russian mail order bride herself) to the Ukraine to find potential brides. All of the men go with high hopes, some with specific women in mind to meet and hopefully develop a relationship with. The women are all uniformly beautiful; the often seductive client photos all turn out to be legitimate, which was a worry I would have had were I to be in a situation like this – that someone you corresponded with had put up a picture of a model or an actress and was not representing herself honestly.

But of course there are all sorts of ways to represent oneself honesty. Some of the women portrayed here are genuinely eager to find love, but at least one or two were essentially in it to milk as much money as they possibly could out of their American “sugar daddies.” This isn’t a cheap process by the way; if you don’t have the wherewithal to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars, this isn’t a process you should probably undertake although, as one client shrugs, what’s happiness worth? AFA arranges group trips to the Ukraine to facilitate face-to-face meetings between clients and prospective brides. While these trips are optional, they are recommended. All five of our AFA clients are going on a winter trip chaperoned by the head of AFA himself, John Adams who married a Russian woman through a marriage broker service.

The men have varying experiences. Ron, a North Carolina divorcee with grown children, finds that this isn’t the right fit for him and winds up dating a local woman after returning from the Ukraine. The other four men have relationships of varying success with women they either met online through AFA or on the trip. One actually gets married (and delivers one of the steamiest kisses you’ll ever see in a documentary), while the others fizzle out more or less. The expectations of some of the men are unreasonable, while others are less disappointed.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Michael, the lone Australian client. He meets and falls in love with a Ukrainian woman who has a young daughter. Michael bonds with both of them. He even marries the girl of his dreams, then goes back to Australia while she returns to the Ukraine. She stops communicating with him and finally he is forced to go back to the Ukraine to confront her. We discover that she never really had any feelings for him but kept stringing him along to “keep her options open.” It’s plain to see that she is not a very nice woman.

That doesn’t mean that the others aren’t. There are 87 men in the Ukraine for every 100 women and even the most beautiful and desirable women there can have trouble finding a good man, especially when you consider that there is an epidemic of alcoholism among Ukrainian men.

There is a good deal of self-delusion that goes on. It is clear that in some cases there is something wrong but the men tend to ignore the very obvious signs. I think most men are pretty much boneheads about women but I think lonely men can desperately cling to the most tenuous of threads, hoping for a tapestry. It certainly serves as a cautionary tale for any single man looking for something permanent, particularly men 40 and older.

Narducci does an excellent job of impartiality; he lets the stories tell themselves and allows both sides of the coin to be expressed. If there is any glaring issue with the movie it’s that there are too many coins. I wonder if we needed six different subjects, although upon reflection I’m not sure which story I’d eliminate. All of the experiences here are distinct from each other. Still, that means the story drags in places and jumps abruptly from one view to another. Also, with an Elena, Inna and Svitlana coming at you, the names of the women are pretty similar and sometimes I found myself the attractive blondes with one another.

Matters of the heart can be tricky and the documentary captures a view of it from a familiar but completely different viewpoint. Most of us will never use a service like A Foreign Affair but for those who do it can literally be a godsend and it serves a unique but necessary purpose. The movie captures how prevalent loneliness is in our society and while that’s not exactly new information it is nonetheless one thing to know about it intellectually than to stare in the faces of these lonely men – and women – who still carry enough hope in them to try something new. You’ve gotta admire that.

REASONS TO GO: Never judges the industry or the individuals. Shows both sides of the story. Occasionally heartbreaking.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit in places. Maybe tries to follow too many stories at once?

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Quiet Ones

Transporter 3


Transporter 3

Jason Statham thought he was doing High School Musical 3.

(Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Robert Knepper, Francois Berleand, Natalya Rudakova, Jeroen Krabbe, Alex Kobold, David Atrakchi. Directed by Oliver Megaton

Transporters may come and transporters may go. The nature of the job is that the turnover is plenty high. One thing’s for certain – you can’t keep a good action hero down.

Frank Martin (Statham) has retired to his beloved French Riviera where he spends most of his time fishing with his friend Inspector Tarconi (Berleand). It’s a good life and Frank doesn’t miss the car chases, the fights with half a dozen thugs or getting shot at from a helicopter. Who wouldn’t?

But his reputation remains and when a colleague botches a job, Frank is forced back into the life by Johnson (Knepper), a mysterious and shady sort who has attached an explosive device to his wrist. Should Frank venture more than 75 feet away from his car, the device will detonate and Frank will be everywhere.

His job is to transport the spoiled young Valentina (Rudakova) from Marseilles to Odessa. As it turns out, she is the kidnapped daughter of the Ukrainian Environmental Minister (Krabbe) who is being pressured by Johnson’s employers to allow toxic waste to be dumped in the Ukraine. Hey, what’s a little more toxic waste to a country which already has Chernobyl?

Frank must use all his skills and break all of his own rules to survive the double dealing, backstabbing Johnson, and it doesn’t hurt that he begins to fall for the lovely Valentina despite her annoying quirks, or perhaps because of them.

This is, strange as it may seem, the highest grossing film of the series which is mystifying to me because it’s such an obvious retread of the first from a plot perspective. The only real twist is the exploding wristband thing, and that’s been done before, only as a necklace in The Running Man and it was far cooler to see someone’s head getting blown off of his neck in my humble opinion.

That said, this is still a Jason Statham movie and Statham is my favorite action star at the moment. When he gets the right material (as he does in The Bank Job and The Italian Job) he has a surprising range. When he doesn’t, he’s still interesting and enigmatic enough to be watchable. Perhaps all of the scripts he should accept from now on should have the word “job” in the title.

A movie like this one lives or dies on its action sequences, and for the most part it delivers. My issue with them is that some of the fight choreography is choppy and doesn’t flow really well like a good fight sequence should. There should be an organic feel to it; Asian stunt coordinators understand this better than anyone, and they could have used one here. I get the distinct impression that the botching of these sequences came in the editing process; a little too much artistic license.

However, the concepts are solid and the driving stunts are particularly thrilling, which is what you want when your lead character is supposed to be one of the best in the business in that regard. I liked the first movie in the franchise, was indifferent towards the second and am the same about this one. It’s disposable entertainment that will be forgotten five minutes after you turn off the TV, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Jason Statham.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the fight sequences were a little choppy and the choreography didn’t flow as it should have.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect, there is a plethora of violence, but there is also some sexuality and a bit of drug and alcohol use. Definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rudakova was a hairdresser with no previous acting experience before producer Luc Besson encountered her on a New York street and urged her to get acting lessons before coming in for an audition, which she did.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting feature on the real life transportation of people and information by people like Frank Martin, only not as cool or violent.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Quantum of Solace