Independence Day and More on the Jewish Film Festival

Happy Independence Day! In its honor, perhaps today you should see a wholesome, patriotic movie. Or an independent film. Me? I’m taking my daughter to see a movie about a French rat.Sorry I haven’t written much this week. I’ve been busy with paying work, and with preparing for a vacation. I’m flying to New York tomorrow to visit my son. I’m hoping to get in some interesting movie-going experiences while I’m there; I’ll tell you about them.

In the meantime, here are my last San Francisco Jewish Film Festival previews. Like the previous batch, I’m listing them from best to worst. But this time, unfortunately, worst is really bad.

The Chosen Ones
What does modern Jewish music mean to you? German musician/filmmaker Wendla Nölle came to New York to answer that question and found a lot of answers. Her film profiles several young, hip, and mostly orthodox performers who put their Jewish culture and faith into rock, blues, and hip-hop. My favorite? Y-Love, an African-American convert to Chasidism who raps about Law and Scripture. Other standouts include singer/songwriter/rabbi Rav Shmuel (imagine Tom Lehrer with payes), and the rock group Blue Fringe. As with so many music documentaries, there’s not enough music (I don’t think it shows a single song performed in its entirety), and Nölle’s total ignorance of Judiasm hinders the film almost as often as it helps (it’s pretty clear she shot part of the movie during Purim, but never seems to mention this). But the positives–engaging people, good music, and a sense of cultures coming together in unexpected ways–more than make up for this documentary’s shortcomings.

Body and Soul
John Garfield commands this boxing noir as a kid from the slums who fights his way up to the top, then must face the mob. Entertaining and occasionally realistic, Body and Soul stands out as an example of left-leaning Hollywood commercial filmmaking just before the blacklist clamped down on certain values (and ruined Garfield’s career).

My Son, The Hero
Recent years have turned B picture auteur Edgar Ulmer into a cult favorite, and judging from most of the Ulmer films I’ve seen, he deserves it. But not for My Son, the Hero. This nearly laughless comedy from 1943 blatantly rips off the plot of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day–a struggling con artist tries to fool his visiting son into believing he’s rich and successful–without any of Capra’s charm or wit. And this time, Ulmer’s usual lack of budget shows, not as an obstacle he can cleverly maneuver around, but as a dead weight dragging the film to the bottom. A couple of moderately likable characters and a mercifully short 66-minute runtime are all that recommend it.

Just an Ordinary Jew
Soliloquies seldom work well in films. There’s something about someone talking extensively with no one around to listen that feels contrived and theatrical in close-up, even when he’s holding a dictation recorder. To make matters worse, this 90-minute rant by a German Jewish journalist with serious identity issues says little that’s new or enlightening about either German Jews in general or this particular individual. Ben Becker, the star of this nearly one-man show, makes everything worse by sticking to one vocal tone–barely suppressed anger–throughout this feature-length monolog. One more thing: According to my wife, who speaks fluent German, the subtitle translations are pretty bad, too.