I’ve now seen five movies that will screen at the upcoming Jewish Film Festival. Here they are, from the best to the worst.
B+ Scarface (1932 version), Castro, Sunday, July 25, 10:00; Roda, Wednesday, August 4, 9:15. The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” (And that’s when he’s being shot at with it.) Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that. Good as it is, I wonder if it really belongs in a Jewish film festival; even one with a retrospective of Jewish gangster films. After all, the gangster here is Italian-American; only the actor is Jewish. The festival argues that Muni was famous in the Yiddish theater before he went Hollywood, and that gave the movie a Jewish subtext in 1932. I don’t buy it.
B+ Stalin Thought of You, Roda, Thursday, August 5, 2:00; JCCSF, Saturday, August 7, 4:00. The very idea that a satirical cartoonist could survive the Stalin years seems preposterous, but Boris Efimov survived throughout the entire Soviet era, and died in 2008 at the ripe age of 109. How did he manage? By aiming his poisoned pencil only at those that the powers-that-be didn’t like. Kevin McNeer’s documentary, built around interviews with the still-clear-minded-at-103 Efimov, takes the form of something like a confession. This artist stayed alive and employed throughout Stalin’s reign, and that couldn’t be done without moral compromises. His brother, a successful journalist and at one time editor-in-chief of Pravda, wasn’t so lucky. McNeer keeps the story lively with newsreel footage, illustrations, and old animations based on Efimov’s drawings.
B Saviors in the Night, Castro, Saturday, July 24, 7:00 (opening night); Cinearts, Saturday, July 31, 6:45. Director Ludi Boeken and his three screenwriters have made a respectable, well-made drama, based on true events, about German Jews hiding from the SS, sometimes in plain sight. The movie is dramatic, suspenseful, and gives a real sense of how war and Nazi propaganda effected a tight-knit, rural, German farm community where everybody looks after everybody else. The story of people living in constant danger holds you in suspense. You very much want to see these people come out of the war okay. Especially interesting are the teenage characters, flirting and fighting, and enthusiastically embracing fascism and anti-Semitism before eagerly going off to war as if it was a grand adventure.
C- Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared, Castro, Thursday, July 29, 3:45; Roda, Monday, August 2, 4:00. An Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua is Israel’s leading satirist, and the creator of the 2008 Jewish Film Festival sitcom hit, Arab Labor. He’s also the winner of this year’s Freedom of Expression Award. All that suggests a very interesting and entertaining person. But Dorit Zimbalist’s brief (only 52 minutes) and dry documentary portrait presents us with an unpleasant bore. Clearly intended for people already familiar with Kashua’s work, it shows little of his genius. Nor does it dig deep enough to work simply as a profile of a profoundly unhappy man. On the other hand, it does reveal how closely the fictitious family at the center of Arab Labor resembles Kashua’s real world.
D- King of the Roaring 20′s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein, Castro, Monday, July 26, 12:00 noon. This 1961 gangster biopic is as bloodless as they come—and I’m not talking about the relative lack of violence. As played by a pre-Fugitive David Janssen, Rothstein comes off as too flat and dull to be either liked or hated. His only sins are ignoring his wife and being very good at a business that happens to be illegal (gambling). If the real Rothstein’s business involved any other illegal activities—violence, prostitution, or bootleg liquor—you’d never know it from this movie. Speaking of bootleg liquor, there’s almost no sense of period here; despite the “Roaring 20’s” in the title, it could just as well have been set in 1961. Despite it’s being part of the festival’s series Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, the movie seems reluctant to confront Rothstein’s ethnic and religious origins. His father (who only appears in two scenes), is a very religious man, but he never actually states what that religion is, even when he asks a potential daughter-in-law if she is of the same religion. Disclaimer: The DVD that the festival sent me for screening this film had a horrible, almost unwatchable transfer. I don’t think this effected my judgment, but it’s possible.