Jewish Film Festival Preview

So far, I’ve screened three films and one TV episode that will play this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them:

B+ Afternoon Delight
The plot sounds like broad, comic farce: A young Jewish mother and housewife invites a stripper and sometimes prostitute to move into her home and become her imageyoung son’s nanny. When Afternoon Delight tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. But writer/director Jill Soloway mostly plays it straight, taking this absurd premise and seeing what might realistically come out of it. The result is mostly thoughtful, entertaining, grounded in reality, and sexy.

Afternoon Delight plays only once at the festival, as the Berkeley Big Night presentation. That will be at the California on Saturday, August 3, at 6:30. It will open for a regular theatrical release on August 30.

B+ The Trials of Muhammad Ali
A well-made documentary about a great subject, The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks a man who is arguably the most important athlete of the last 50 years. At the age of 22, with very little experience, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of imagethe world. A devout member of the Nation of Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, took on controversy, and risked both jail and a destroyed career for resisting the draft ("No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger"). Eventually, he would return to the ring and more triumphs. Director Bill Siegel has made a competent and conventional documentary, but Ali’s story and charisma makes it a very moving and exciting tale.

Just one problem: There’s absolutely nothing Jewish about this film except the director’s last name. The Festival’s explanation for why it’s here, "certain films when placed in a Jewish context inspire truly Jewish conversation," doesn’t convince me.

Despite that problem, The Trials of Muhammad Ali will screen four times: At the Castro on Sunday, July 28, at 7:15; the New Parkway on Friday, August 2, at 7:00; the Rafael on Saturday, August 10, at 6:00, and at the Grand Lake on Sunday, August 11, at 4:35.

Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will
I’ve only seen one episode of this Canadian docu-comedy series–I believe the festival will screen three. Not to be confused with Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi original, this imageshow follows Hotz as he attempts in each episode to do something decent and good. In the one I saw, he tried to get his 75-year-old mother–a widow for two decades–to rekindle her sex life. A couple of scenes were howlingly funny–especially the one where Annie Sprinkle shows her a variety of vibrators–and most of it at least generated a smile. Since I’ve only seen a third of what will be presented, I’m not giving this show a grade.

Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will will only screen once at the festival, at the JCCSF, on Saturday, August 3, at 8:45.

C+ The Zigzag Kid
This year’s festival opens not with a bang, but with a modestly entertaining, family-friendly fizzle. Days before his bar mitzvah, the son of a great detective and a long-imagedead mother finds himself on a journey of adventure and personal discovery. His main companion just might be a master criminal. The story is not quite rousing enough to be fine escapist entertainment, and only rarely thoughtful enough to be anything else. A few clever plot twists keep it from being entirely predictable. Innocuous and mildly charming, The Zigzag Kid is safe for any child old enough to read subtitles.

The Zigzag Kid opens this year’s Festival at the Castro, Thursday, July 25, at 6:30. It also plays at the Cinearts at Palo Alto Square on Sunday, August 4 at 1:50, Berkeley’s California Theatre on Tuesday, August 6, at 6:15, and the Rafael on Monday, August 12, at 6:10.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival officially announced its 33rd run this morning. Probably the largest of all the "identity film festivals" in the area, it will play five venues around the Bay Area from July 25 through August 12.

This year’s theme, "Life through a Jew(ish) lens," raises two questions: What does that mean and how do you pronounce parentheses in Jew(ish)? It means that the festival is inclusive–meant to attract all kinds of Jews, including those whom Executive Director Lexi Leban described as "guilty by association." And Jew(ish) is pronounced "Jew (pause) ish."

As usual, the festival will start at the Castro, and remain there for eight days. Then the festival will hop the Bay for a week in Berkeley. Shorter runs in Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael will round it out.

For the third time in its history, the Festival is moving its Berkeley location, and this time, for the better. Rather than the Roda Theater, which is better designed for live performance than cinema, it will play the California’s large, downstairs auditorium–probably the best commercial movie house in Berkeley and certainly the largest. Other East Bay venues are the Piedmont, the New Parkway, and the Grand Lake.

Some highlights, categories (this festival loves to put films into categories), and promising titles:

  • The San Francisco Centerpiece film, The Attack, looks promising. The protagonist, a Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, has his comfortable life turned upside-down when his missing wife is accused of terrorism.
  • The JewTube category spotlights Israeli TV. It will include the pilot for the successful series Prisoners of War, followed by a discussion of how it was adopted into the American series Homeland. Also in this series–some episodes from Arab Labor: Season 4 (you can read what I thought of seasons 1, 2, and 3).
  • And speaking of television, we’ll also get some episodes of the Canadian comedy series Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will, not to be mistaken for Leni Riefenstahl’s original.
  • Before the Revolution looks at Iranian Jews who had to escape that country in 1979. It will screen with a short about one Iranian Jew’s fascination with Jerry Lewis.
  • Among the historical figures whose lives will be examined in narratives and documentaries, you’ll find works on Art Spiegelman, Hannah Arendt, Muhammad Ali, and Wilhelm Reich

Hava Nagila & Opening Night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival got off to a slow start, but when the movie finally started–nearly 45 minutes late–it was worth the wait.

No, there weren’t crowd or (as far as I know) technical problems. The show started on time. It was just that the first part of the show was irritating and boring.

The Pre-Show

Actually, it started pretty well, with a montage of SFJFF trailers from past years, in chronological order. The old trailers were a lot of fun, but last year’s and this year’s pale by comparison, so the montage ended on a low note.

Then the talks began. Program Director Jay Rosenblatt came onstage and gave a long and dull speech. Then Executive Director Lexi Leban came up and gave a worse one. Reading from sheets of paper, pausing frequently mid-sentence to find her place, she bored everyone to tears. She knew it, too, but she just kept plodding along.

Finally, when it was past 7:35, she introduced the film’s director, Roberta Grossman, who immediately won the audience with a joke about long speeches. She spoke briefly and with wit. Then the movie (and the fun) began.

The Movie

A Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself to seriously. Even the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. Where you expect to read, under the person’s name, something like "Professor of Musicology hava_nagilaat Such and Such University," you instead get "He has a PhD." This is a fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song. And yet, the film informs as well as any serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics written by early Zionists–although which early Zionists is a matter of debate. Hava Nagila never lost its Jewish identity, even as it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte and a tune known all around the world. This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life.

Last night’s screening was the film’s world premiere.

You have three more chances to see Hava Nagila before the festival closes:

Q&A with the Filmmakers

After the movie, director Roberta Grossman and her team stepped onto the Castro’s stage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • Grossman: The director doesn’t make the film. The director is just the greediest  person on it.
  • Grossman, again, on choosing the subject: Our daughter said "Please make a happy film, next time."
  • Screenwriter Sophie Sartain on writing for documentaries: it came together very slowly. You rewrite it many, many times. You write what you hope the people to be interviewed will say. Then they say something better. The final draft is in the editing room.
  • They haven’t asked permission to screen the documentary’s many movie and TV clips. They believe that fair use will protect them.
  • Did they get sick of listening to that song? "Yes, we got sick of the song, and we tried to cut it so that you wouldn’t get sick of the song."
  • They hope to get limited theatrical releases in New York and LA. The rest of us will have to wait for the DVD. You can track the movie’s status at.

My Interview with Director Grossman

Late this morning, I was able to interview director Roberta Grossman. What follows is a rough transcript, edited for readability:

Where did those comic titles ("He has a PHD," "Pretty good for 94") come from?

It was one of those wacky ideas that pops into your head. I don’t remember who thought of it. We were trying to play with the conventions of the documentary.

The song is both a fun party song and a deep,Chasidic nigun. We wanted the film to reflect that.

The movie ends with the song Celebrate. Why not end with the song the movie is about?

We wanted to make a loving nod to all that bad Jewish dancing and the spirit of celebration., we thought it would be real fun.

Celebrate is now part of the Jewish-American experience.

Following up on the writing question from last night’s Q&A: Why do you start writing a documentary before interviewing people?

The writing starts on day one. You’re telling a story. You have to have some sense of a beginning, middle, and end. I always write a script before I begin shooting.

It’s also part of the process of writing proposals for foundations. They need to know that you can tell them a story.

The image quality of most of the clips looked pretty bad (Exodus was the exception). Where did the clips come from?

It’s complicated. Two of the movie clips will be better the next time.

Because we’re using fair use, we’re not asking the studios for sources. We’re at the mercy of the quality of the clips that are available. They came from many sources, including YouTube, old VHS copies, and DVDs.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve been able to preview three shows coming to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which opens a week from today. Here’s what I thought of them:

B+ Under African Skies
You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which examines the making of Paul Simon’s hit Graceland, and the controversy over Simon’s breaking Under_African_Skiesthe South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. It mixes the politics vs. art issues with more conventional making-of footage–jam sessions, mixing, and so on. But it left me, like so many other such documentaries do, wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end.

B Arab Labor Season 3
I loved the first season of this hit Israeli sitcom, as well as the three episodes I saw of season 2. But I can’t be quite as enthusiastic about this year’s subset of season 3. The humor and satire hit home, Arab_Labor3but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Arabs, and the next day the other way around. With much of the satire aimed at the obvious target of celebrity culture, the bite gets lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.

C+ The Day I Saw Your Heart
Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, doesn’t much care for her sixtyish father. He’s critical, cruel, and so emotionally distant that he can’t get excited by his The Day I Saw Your Heartmuch younger third wife’s pregnancy. Neither can Justine, who doesn’t want another child raised by that monster. He also has a habit of befriending her boyfriends as soon as she breaks up with them. Then, in the course of her work, she discovers that he’s got a heart condition. The Day I Saw Your Heart starts as comedy and ends as drama, but works only moderately as either. Justine herself is a reasonably interesting character, and well played by Mélanie Laurent, but everyone else seems only a foil for her reactions.

Note: This post was corrected on 7/18. I found errors in some of the show times.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

This morning, one month before opening night, I attended the press conference announcing this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It will run in seven different venues around the Bay Area from July 19 through August 6. The largest runs will be at the Castro and Berkeley’s Roda Theater.

A few noteworthy items:

  • A lot of music documentaries this year. The festival opens with Hava Nagila (The Movie), and closes with A.K.A Doc Pomus. In between you can catch Gypsy Davy, Under African Skies, Ben Lee: Catch My Disease, and God’s Fiddler.
  • This year’s Freedom of Expression Award goes to actor and ’70s icon Elliot Gould. The program honoring him will include a screening of his latest film, Dorfman.
  • The Centerpiece presentation, The Other Son, concerns two 18-year-old boys, one Jewish Israeli, the other Palestinian, who discover they were switched at birth. Oddly, this appears to not be a comedy.
  • There will, of course, be "four or five" Holocaust films. I’m still hoping for a Jewish Film Festival without them.
  • You’ll get another chance to see The Law in These Parts, a very good documentary about the occupation that screened at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. You’ll find my thoughts on that one here.
  • If you’re under 30, this festival is a real bargain. The Millennials Pass gets you access to 60 films for only $25.

After the conference, the press was treated to a screening of the first three episodes of Arab Labor‘s third season. In 2008, the festival screened the entire first season. It was brilliant. In 2010, they screened three episodes from season 2. My only disappointment was that they didn’t show the rest of it.

But I can’t be quite as enthusiastic about this year’s subset of season 3. The humor and satire hit home, but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad Alian tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Palestinians, and the next day things get turned around. With much of the satire aimed at celebrity culture (an obvious target), the bite was lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.

The best scenes involved a young interfaith couple. If you’ve seen the previous seasons, you know who I’m talking about. It appears that, in one of the season 2 episodes that didn’t screen here, they got married. Now they’re new parents, and even though neither of them are religious, parenthood creates ethnic content.

By the way, I recently discovered that season 1 is available on DVD in the US. You can rent it from Netflix, or buy it from numerous online outlets.

Jewish Film Festival Report: Cemeteries and Gladiators

I attended two San Francisco Jewish Film Festival events at the Castro today. Here’s what I saw:

C In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery
The last thing you’d expect to find in Berlin is a Jewish cemetery that was consecrated in the 19th century. But Weissensee is just that—a final resting place that the Nazis left alone.

You might guess that a documentary on this subject would devote considerable timeBritta Wauer Film Weissensee Friedhof to this enigma, but director Britta Wauer gives it only seconds. One interview subject tells us that legends warned Germans that there was a curse on Weissensee. Then another says that the SS just didn’t get around to it, and that if the war had lasted a few more months, it would have been desecrated like most of the Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

The rest of the movie tells us about people who are buried there, people who visit deceased relatives, people who work or once worked there, and even people living on the premises. We also learn a bit about Jewish burial practices.

Some of the stories are fascinating, but others just seem to mark time. This made-for-TV documentary makes a reasonably interesting way to kill 90 minutes, if you have nothing better to do.

It plays again on Saturday, August 6, at 4:40, at the Roda Theater in Berkeley.

A Spartacus and the Freedom of Expression Award
Now this was a great way to spend an afternoon!

This year, the Festival presented its Freedom of Expression Award to Hollywood star, kirk-douglas-1living legend, executive producer, and stroke survivor Issur Danielovitch—better known by his professional name: Kirk Douglas. Douglas earned the award more than 50 years ago, when he insisted that black-listed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo receive credit for his screenplay for the 1960 Spartacus (Douglas executive-produced as well as starred in the epic).

Fifteen years after a stroke robbed him of much of his ability to talk, Douglas spoke to the audience in a strong if occasionally difficult-to-understand acceptance speech. He spoke of the importance of free expression in a democracy, and that how without it we are all slaves. He talked about Trumbo’s adaptation of the original novel, written by the equally controversial Howard Fast (“Fast wrote a horrible screenplay”). He mentioned his second Bar Mitzvah in 1999 (at the age of 83), and how he plans to have a third to get himself into the Guinness Book of Records.

Then they screened Spartacus. I’ve only seen it theatrically once before—when it was restored in 1991. Between the Castro’s magnificent screen and the enthusiastic audience, this was easily my best Spartacus experience.

Spartacus is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of toga epics. Yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. One scene tells you more about gladiators than that whole Russell Crowe silliness from 2000. Douglas, Trumbo, and director Stanley Kubrick don’t give us the glory of Rome, but the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of a seemingly invincible dictatorship. It’s a stirring tale of rebellion that leads to inevitable tragedy.

This was one of the great roadshow productions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Originally shown in reserved-seat theaters at high prices, it runs for over three hours, not including the overture or the intermission. This is a type of weighty epic spectacle that doesn’t exist anymore, and really requires something like the Castro to make it work its best.

My only regret: They screened it in 35mm. It’s better in 70mm (I assume; I’ve never seen it that way), but no such print is currently available.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve managed now to preview four films for the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, three of them documentaries. Here’s what I thought about them:

A- 100 Voices: A Journey Home, Castro, Thursday, July 28, 8:15 (San Francisco closing night); Oshman Family JCC, Wednesday, August 3, 6:15; Roda, Thursday, August 4, 6:40. In 2009, documentarians Danny Gold and Matthew Asner followed 100 100VoicesAmerican cantors as they flew to Poland for a concert tour and a return to their personal and professional roots. The resulting film follows many stories: the art and history of cantorial singing, the long history of Jews in Poland, the Holocaust, and a new, Polish resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Gold and Asner weave these these threads into a touching, fascinating, and triumphant garment without ever getting them tangled. I do wish, however, that they’d given more time to pre-WWII Jewish-Polish relations. On the other hand, the movie is filled with beautiful music. Some sounds like opera, some like jazz, but all of it is deeply spiritual and unquestionably Jewish.

B+ Mabul (The Flood), Castro, Thursday, July 21, 6:30 (opening night); Roda, Sunday, July 31, 6:30; Rafael, Saturday, August 6, 4:20; Oshman Family JCC, Sunday, MabulTheFloodAugust 7, 6:15. The plot is similar to A Serious Man and Sixty Six, but Guy Nattiv’s drama about a Bar Mitzvah in a dysfunctional family couldn’t be more different. Bar Mitzvah boy Yoni sells completed homework to other kids, can’t please the rabbi (you’d think a Bar Mitzvah would be easy for a native Hebrew speaker), and deeply resents his parents—with good reason. His mother is having an affair and his father is a irresponsible pothead. To make matters worse, his extremely autistic brother, who really belongs in an institution, comes to live with them. Nattiv doesn’t leaven the story with humor, or even with much warmth, resulting in a harrowing, merciless look at a family coming apart at the seams. The last act, with a suspenseful climax and a somewhat upbeat ending, feels tacked on.

B- Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology, Castro, Saturday, July 23, 4:30. Tiffany Shlain had Tree-of-Life-level ambitions for her documentary about life, human evolution, networking, her father’s terminal cancer, and her own difficult pregnancy. Although she made an entertaining movie, she failed to make a profound one. Like most autobiographical documentaries, much of ConnectedConnected comes off as self-centered. But more of it is Daddy-centered; the movie worships her father (surgeon and best-selling author Leonard Shlain) to the point of near-idolatry. While this is emotionally understandable—she made the film while he was dying—it’s not good filmmaking. When not dealing with family health problems, Connected looks at the networks human beings have created, and the essential connectedness of everything. In doing so, it offers no insights that a reasonably educated and curious person would not have found elsewhere. So why do I give it an even moderately positive B-? Because Shlain is at least an entertaining documentarian if not a deep one. Connected contains many clever, informative, and often funny cartoons (animated by Stefan Nadelman), and uses old movie clips in amusing and original ways.

C+ Next Year in Bombay, Castro, Thursday, July 28, 1:30; Oshman Family JCC, Thursday, August 4, 4:00; Roda, Saturday, August 6, 2:20;  Rafael, Sunday, August 7, NextYearinBombay11:20am. Did you know there are Jews in India? Not once-British Jews who stayed behind when the Empire collapsed, but people who are racially and ethnically Indian, yet identify themselves as Jews and practice the religion. For too much of this too-short documentary, filmmakers Jonas Parienté, and Mathias Mangin seem content to let us marvel at that very fact. But in its second half, as it looks at a small, Jewish peasant village (seen through the eyes of a young, urban, educated Bombay Jew), and then deals with questions of immigration to Israel, it dips into profound issues of Jewish identity. But it doesn’t give these issues the time they deserve. The festival will precede this 55-minute feature with a 19-minute short, “Starring David.”

Jewish Film Festival

Now we come to the festival that merges what some friends have called my two religions: Judaism and Cinema.

The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens at the Castro on Thursday, July 21 with Mabul (The Flood), and closes at the Rafael on Monday, August 8 with The Matchmaker. In between those dates it will screen 39 features and 19 shorts in five venues around the Bay Area.

As I write this, I’ve only seen one feature and one short. But the feature is a long one, and a near-great one: Spartacus. The film’s producer and star, Kirk Douglas, will be awarded this year’s Freedom of Expression Award, in large part for his courageous decision to give blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo a screen credit for this expensive epic. The short is a Simpsons episode (“Like Father, Like Clown”) that’s part of the Jews In Toons Program.

Among the promising films I haven’t yet seen is a new comedy by Berlin-based filmmaker Dani Levy, whose previous festival offerings were the very funny Go for Zucker and the pretty funny My Hitler.

Poland has played a major role in Jewish history, and this year the festival focuses a spotlight  on the country that so many American Jews came from. The four films include an espionage thriller set under Communism called Little Rose, a Holocaust drama (Joanna), and two documentaries: 100 Voices: A Journey Home and Torn.

Frankly, I’ve often wished that, for just one year, they would put together a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival. But this isn’t the year. In addition to Joanna, there’s Eichmann’s End: Love, Betrayal, Death, The Hangman, In Another Lifetime, Otto Frank, Father of Anne, and others.

Other titles that sound promising (remember, I haven’t seen them) include Bobby Fischer Against the World, Next Year in Bombay, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, and Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology.

Jewish Film Festival Report

I’m such a good Jew! I just spent the Sabbath at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. And it wasn’t even in San Francisco.

I attended four screenings at the Festival’s first day in this year’s Berkeley portion of the festival. It was also my first movie event at Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theater.

Before I get to the films themselves, I should tell you that the Roda, designed for live theatre, makes a disappointing movie venue. The screen is small and set back, so that even the front row is too far back for someone with my immersive tastes. Worse than that, the screen has vertical and horizontal lines that make it look like it was painted onto a brick wall, as well as annoying crinkles.

The sound, on the other hand, is excellent.

Now, to what I saw:

A Arab Labor: Season 2. This turned out every bit as good as I expected. The festival screened episodes 1, 3, and 8; the last two have not even yet been broadcast in Israel. The further adventures of Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad Alian, trying desperatelyarablabor to fit into a society that rejects him, were as hilarious as the first season. (Did you know that dogs in Israel only bark at Arabs?) But this time, especially in episode 8, writer Sayed Kashua and director Shai Capon (who took audience questions after the screening) had the confidence to dial down the laughs when dramatic points required it. My only complaint: I want to see the entire season. I wasn’t the only one. In the Q&A, I asked if the DVD will be released in this country, and got considerable applause from the audience. Neither Kashua nor Capon knew. But these three episodes screen two more times before the festival is over. Tonight (Sunday) at 8:45 at the Cinearts in Palo Alto, and next Monday, the 9th, at 8:30, at the Rafael.

A- Utopia in Four Movements. Dave Cerf and Sam Green’s meditation on the 20th century’s obsession with utopia was more like a PowerPoint presentation than a 5213_utopiafourmvts_00_weblg[1] conventional documentary, but that didn’t hurt the experience. Green stood beside the screen and narrated live, using a remote control to move from one slide or video clip (mostly video clips) to another. Cerf DJ’d the pre-recorded music off-stage (they’ve used live musicians in other screenings/presentations). Green’s thoughtful commentary discussed Esperanto, Communism (clearly the biggest utopian disaster of the century), and shopping malls. The questions in the Q&A afterwards were more about utopias and ideas than about the documentary, which is high praise. But one woman asked if they’d consider creating a canned version, perhaps filmed before a live audience, to make it more readily available. They seemed reluctant to do so, but I hope they change their minds.

C- The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground. Have you ever been the only person in the theater who didn’t like the show? That was my experience here, and I think I know why. Everyone else was3435_klezmatics_00_weblg[1] already a fan of the genre-shattering klezmer band, The Klezmatics, while I was merely seeking an introduction. As everyone around me cheered and applauded, I wanted less detail and more depth. Director Erik Anjou gave the audience samples of a lot of songs, but only twice stayed with a song from beginning to end. Maybe he didn’t want to make a concert movie, but every time he cut away, I felt cheated. The non-musical parts of the movie were more successful, but even here there were too many narrative threads. (Besides, how much can you care about a musical group’s history and working methods if you’re not allowed to listen to a complete song?) There’s probably a better documentary inside the material Anjou shot, but I doubt we’ll ever see it.

B- Protektor. Quentin Tarantino isn’t the only filmmaker who can make something flashy, self-referential, and 21st century about the Holocaust. And this work from the 4741_protektor_00_weblg[1] Czech Republic does it while taking the Shoah far more seriously than did Inglorious Basterds. A beautiful, nominally Jewish actress is just breaking into movie stardom when Hitler takes over Czechoslovakia and ends her career. Her radio news announcer husband’s career skyrockets, however, as he becomes the Czech voice of National Socialism. It’s a pack with the devil, but it keeps his wife off the transports to nowhere—at least for awhile. Shot with a combination of black and white, muted colors, and assorted tints, and accompanied by a percussion-heavy, throbbing soundtrack, Protektor tries more to be hip than to really put you in its time and place. The stylish touches are occasionally fun, but they also keep up at arms-length from the story.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

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 5344_scarface_00_weblg[1]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 5272_stalinthoughtofyou_00_weblg[1] 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. saviorsnight_thumb2Director 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 5002_sayedkashua_00_weblg[1]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.


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