What’s Screening: August 1-7

The Jewish Film Festival, finished in San Francisco, plays this week in Berkeley and Palo Alto, and almost entirely dominates this newsletters I’ll put the non-Jewish films first.

Dr. Strangelove, UA Berkeley 7, Thursday, 8:00. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things once were. Thank heaven we no longer have idiots like those running the country! It’s also very funny. One of the UA’s Thursday night Flashback Features.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise which would be forgivable if it wasn’t boring and witless. This is a benefit for the California Food and Justice Coalition, but I’m sure they’ll be just as happy if you sent them a check.

DOUBLE BILL: San Francisco & Showboat, Stanford, Friday. A big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle made before that was Hollywood’s dominant genre, San Francisco is a classic example of code-era Hollywood trying to have it both ways. It celebrates non-conformist, hedonistic, open-minded joy, but covers itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable. But all the weaknesses disappear when the earth shakes and the fires break out. The 1936 version of Showboat was director James Whale’s chance to break out of the horror genre. It starts well, dealing with miscegenation and racism in ways surprisingly advanced for 1936, but it soon descends into dull lifelessness. Continuing from last week.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Arab Labor, complete series, JCCSF, Sunday, 1:30. Episodes 1, 4, and 5, Roda Theatre, Monday, 9:45 and CinéArts, Wednesday, 6:30. What does it mean to be an Israeli citizen and an Arab–not particularly political or religious–just an average Joe trying to get on in the country of your birth where you’re treated as an alien? This Israeli sitcom explores that question in ways both insightful and hilarious. Amjad, an Arab reporter working for a Jewish newspaper, struggles with indignities, tries to fit in (buying, in the first episode, a “Jewish” car so he won’t be stopped at checkpoints). Things aren’t helped by his scheming father, his love-sick Jewish photographer friend, or the wife who’s always one step ahead of him (actually, the wife helps him quite a bit). The characters don’t conform to ethnic stereotypes, but they’re always expecting others to do so. The Sunday screening is the time the festival will screen all nine episodes: episodes 1, 2, and 3 screen at 1:30; 4, 5, and 6 at 4:00; and 7, 8, and 9 at 6:30. You will need to buy three admissions to see them all.

Emotional Arithmetic, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 9:15; CinéArts, Tuesday, 6:45. In the best performance of an excellent career, Susan Sarandon plays an American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985) trying to hold onto her family and her sanity. She’s overjoyed by the arrival of two old friends and fellow survivors, but their presence complicates her tricky relationship with her remote, sarcastic husband and their grown son–who appears to be devoting his life to caring for his messed-up parents. Beautifully written, designed, shot, acted, and edited, the Bergmanesque Emotional Arithmetic is simply the best new movie I’ve seen so far this year. Screenwriter Jefferson Lewis wisely avoids heavy exposition, giving us space to wonder how these people became the damaged humans they are. The near all-star cast includes Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow. Read my full review.

In the Family, JCCSF, Saturday, 5:00; Thursday, CinéArts, 4:15. Some people very close to me carry the BRCA genetic mutation. So does Joanna Rudnick, who made this haunting and troubling film to document her own emotional struggles with the news and its inevitable decisions. One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carry the mutation, and for women it means almost certain ovarian or breast cancer–unless the dangerous body parts are removed before the cancer strikes. For Rudnick, only 31 and looking forward to having children, that’s a very difficult decision. She trains her camera on her boyfriend, her family, and herself, and lets everyone speak candidly. She also goes beyond her problem and interviews others who have, or might have, BRCA, including some who found out about it or acted upon it too late. She also speaks with the scientist who discovered it and the inventor who got rich off the very expensive diagnostic test. This one stays with you.

The Secrets, Roda Theatre, Tuesday, 6:30; CinéArts, Thursday, 9:00. The Secrets looks at young women trying to change the extremely parochial world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism from within. That’s not an easy–or perhaps even a possible–goal. The young women in question are the scholarly daughter of a respected rabbi (Ania Bukstein), and a French rebel (Michal Shtamler). They meet at a women’s seminary in Safed, where they secretly undertake the subversive task of helping a dying murderess prepare to meet G*d. They also discover a mutual sexual attraction and fall in love. Writers Hadar Galron and Avi Nesher (who also directed) successfully delve into an extreme and often cruel form of Judaism most of us haven’t experienced, and raise questions about forgiveness, repentance, love, and the need both to conform and to rebel.

The Strangers, CinéArts, Saturday, 6:45. A Israeli man and a Palestinian woman, both young, meet in Berlin, fall in love/lust, have great sex, then must figure out the rest of their lives. To make matters more complicated, it’s the summer of 2006, war is raging in Lebanon, and each blames the other side for the resulting carnage. This sort of movie depends on the leads’ chemistry, and stars Liron Levbo and Lubna Azabal have it in Bogart/Bacall levels. Writers/directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor deserve praise for avoiding easy political or emotional solutions. But the film’s overly grainy, handheld photography–made worse by the scope aspect ratio and some distracting photographic clichés–hurt the storytelling.

Stalags – Holocaust and Pornography In Israel, Roda Theatre, Wednesday, 9:30. In the early ’60’s, Israelis couldn’t get enough of the Stalags–brief novels about British and American airmen in German prison camps, where they’re tortured by beautiful female SS officers who could barely fit into their uniforms (“Who’d want to escape?” one aging former fan admits on camera). The craze was short-lived; the books were banned as pornography scarcely two years after they first appeared. Writer/director Ari Libsker explores this perverse yet fascinating way that a people came to terms with their own recent victimization. More surprisingly, he suggests a link between the Stalags and more respectable Holocaust literature. Only 62 minutes long, the Festival will screen Stalags with It Kinda Scares Me, a 60-minute documentary about a Tel Aviv drama coach that I have not seen.

Loves Comes Lately, Roda Theatre, Saturday, 6:45; CinéArts, Monday, 7:00. A grand-niece of Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that the great writer never really accepted the fact that women threw themselves at him because he was famous. He thought he was irresistible. Such confused thinking permeates Jan Schütte’s clumsy adaptation of three Singer stories. Love Comes Lately follows the adventures of a short-story writer who’s an obvious Singer alter-ego, and dramatizes two short stories whose protagonists are obvious alter-egos of the alter-ego. Otto Tausig plays all three characters, and yes, they’re all irresistible to women. Schütte manages a few good scenes, but the movie goes nowhere and leads to nothing. For some strange reason, this film will also get a regular release after the festival.