Reviews

New York Jewish Film Festival, January 14th – 29th – Critic’s Choice

Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw picks his favorite features and shorts from the 24th annual NYJFF in Lincoln Center

Felix and Meira
(Maxine Giroux. 2014. Canada. 105 min)

Last year’s Closing Night selection at NYJFF was Ida, this writer’s #1 foreign film of the entire year.  In that Polish masterpiece, an orphaned novitiate in a 1960s convent visits her retired aunt and discovers she’s not a Catholic girl but a Jewish girl.   Her identity crisis deepens when she meets and experiences the first stirrings of love with a young man who plays saxophone in a primitive jazz quintet that works over John Coltrane’s Naima. Ida lets us decide whether the 18-year-old will return to her convent and take her vows, or continue her secular (and sexualized) life as a free woman.

This year’s NYJFF Closing Night selection, Maxime Giroux’s closely observed and assured Felix and Meira, is a different moral dilemma.   It’s set in the present-day insular Hasidic community of Montreal’s Mile End, focusing on a young ultra-Orthodox wife and mother, Meira.  She’s played by the piquant and wistful lead actress of Fill the Void (2012), Hadas Yaron, and her neutral, wan expression from that fine drama brightens only when she’s attending to her first daughter or sketching figures in a notepad.

The family’s strictly kept home is comfortable in a no-frills, antiseptic way; Meira and her husband Shulem (an excellent Luzer Twersky)  sleep in separate beds, secular music is not permitted though there’s a phonograph in the living room, and women are forbidden to meet the eyes of adult males.  What her husband demands most is Orthodox observance; he’s aghast when she shares her concerns with another young Hasidic woman, and annoyed when she snaps and sets a mousetrap in a kitchen cabinet.  Meira mostly stays quiet because she’s thinking about the “six or ten or fourteen children” she’s expected to bear in her lifetime.  Her short hair is covered by a wig but we observe her  birth control pills hidden in the bathroom.  She fakes a faint in despair on their living room floor.

The secular Jewish Frenchman who enters her life is Felix (Martin Dubreuil, wiry and polite), who’s living on $35,000 from the estate of his late and estranged father.  Felix lives in a modest walk-up and is struck by Meira’s doodles in a deli where she takes her daughter on cold winter mornings. He gives her his drawing of a cat for her daughter.  It takes a long time before Meira even starts a conversation with Felix, but when she does it’s a request to hear some music.  Felix shows her his modest flat and we’re curious to see what record he’ll put on his turntable.

Just as Ida jolted its potential young nun (and us) by thrusting her into a jazz bistro flavored by Coltrane, Giroux’s drama literally cuts away to a film clip—the gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe on electric guitar, belting out Didn’t It Rain on a train station platform in Manchester, England, in 1964.  What a song: a teardown blues engineered to start anyone’s toes tapping. And so it does here.  Call it an icebreaker that boots up these two disparate souls into an escalating spiral of — could it possibly be passion?   Shulem suspects something’s up and orders Meira out of Montreal and down to Brooklyn for a visit with cousins.  But Felix follows, eventually holding hands with Meira on the Staten Island Ferry; they dance tentatively and shyly share his hotel room where she tries on jeans for the first time.

Later, the husband spies the two of them walking together and knocks Felix to the ground,  raging more to shame him than hurt him.  Shulem warns Meira that if she deserts him, she exits the Orthodox community forever.  But he also implores Felix to care for the mother of their child if she leaves the marriage.   Still later, Meira spies a foreign postcard in a Montreal shop and makes an impulse decision.

In lesser hands, Felix and Meira could have been the implausible drama this partial summary suggests.  It’s not a movie likely to be welcomed (let alone seen) by Hasidic or other traditionally observant Jews, though it’s important to remember it was curated into this prime festival position by both The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

 

How you respond to Ms. Yaron’s role and performance may be influenced by your response to her role in Fill the Void.  In that first feature by Rama Burshtein, who’s Israeli and Orthodox, Yaron played a single, ultra-Orthodox woman, Shira, who was mourning the death of her older sister whom left her husband to raise an infant son. Quiet and painfully shy, her one visible talent seemed to be playing the family accordion.   Slowly, inexorably, Shira was engineered by her family and senses of duty and familial tradition into marrying the brother-in-law she barely knew and certainly didn’t love.  Shira in Fill the Void and Meira in Felix and Meira are mirror-opposites; they’re the same actress continuing a love story that’s looking for a way out.   We don’t know that Shira would have sought that, but Meira certainly does, and she finds it.

And so Felix and Meira becomes a boundary shifter, maybe even a glass ceiling breaker.  It captures dozens of tiny but crucial details of Jewish and Hasidic family life that dramatically sculpt a convincing scenario for doubt.   Its one shrill moment has Shulem observing a mouse caught and squirming in a trap that Meira has set, commenting “the world is a cruel place, my friend.”

But Giroux’s movie suggests religion may be the crueler place because it can constrict the heart and the soul in ways not every adult can abide or tolerate.  The vibrant and healthy Hasidic communities of New York and worldwide will take great exception to the director’s  judgement.  Even with that noted reservation, this drama earns a permanent place of distinction in NYJFF’s almost quarter century of exploring the many facets of Jewish identity and history.

Felix and Meira is also a more satisfying drama than two harder and more publicized dramas being showcased in this fest — The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a stinging documentary on that revered writer that even the filmmakers call “a sad, sexy elegy to an artistic giant” because of Singer’s sexaholic hungers; and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which examines a wife’s excruciating demands for an Orthodox divorce extending over five consecutive years of endless meetings in a tiny trial room.

Felix and Meira shows Thursday, Jan. 29 at 3:30pm and 9:00pm at the Walter Reade theater.

Longing  
(Nadav Mishali. 2014. Israel. 20 min)

As we increasingly see, shorts are the perfect launch pad for feature films.

Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning Curfew (Best Short, 2010) of a drug addict’s taming by his perky young niece has become his current theatrical feature debut,  Before I Disappear.  One of  2014’s huge theatrical and critical hits, Whiplash, had its not-so-humble beginnings in Damien Chazelle’s 18-minute test run of the music school drummer (Miles Teller) and his lunatic orchestra leader (J.K. Simmons).  Hey, gang, it can happen.

Nadav Mishall’s Longing is the perfect companion piece to Felix and Meria, or, for that matter, Gett or even Fill the Void, for it sets up yet another untoward obstacle to happiness in the Jewish home.  Specifically, the Jewish bedroom. Michal (the ravishingly attractive Meytal Gal) would dearly love to become pregnant by her husband Tov (Tomer Lev), a rising spiritual supervisor in a yeshiva.  We see her, eyes wide open, in the underwater mikveh in which she prepares for intercourse.  Which doesn’t happen.

The first clue to why it’s not happening is the wrapped condom Michal finds in Tov’s pants pocket.  But her mother advises prayer and “turning a blind eye.”  In a challah with other women expressing their dearest wishes, Michal gets plenty of support for her longing for a child.   Older female friends bring her spices to aid male sexual potency.  In her dreams she imagines her husband stroking her.   Tov is attentive and praises her cooking, even gifts her with jewelry.  But he turns his back to her in bed.

Michal observes Tov in religious services, with his arm casually draped over—another man’s shoulder.  Uh, oh!   In their kitchen, her husband and a male Yashiva student study with their heads together—but the camera shows us more intimate actions going on under the table.  What was a mystery is suddenly a dilemma, which is not going to be solved in 20 minutes.  At the end, Michal is back underwater in her monthly mikveh; this time she looks ready to drown.

Nidav Mishali’s graduate school project is adroitly and painstakingly titled,  written, cast, acted, shot and edited, under the auspices of the Sapir College School of Audio and Video Arts, Israel’s largest public college. It’s a polished, professional beginning ready to transition to a feature film, and director Mishali should be giving that his undivided attention.

Longing is part of Free Shorts, a 44 minutes program being shown Saturday, Jan. 17 and 24 at 8:00pm, in the Elinor Bunin Monroe Amphitheater in Lincoln Center.

Above and Beyond
(Roberta Grossman. 2014. USA. 87 min)

Most people understand the expression “above and beyond” in its military context, as a criterion for a medal for individual service “above and behind the call of duty.”  Film buffs remember MGM’s 1952 aviation drama, Above and Beyond, with Robert Taylor (playing opposite Eleanor Parker) acting the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

But few recall that in its first hours following its Declaration of Statehood in 1948, Israel could have been crushed by Egypt and other Arab armies from Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon who attacked the fledgling nation by land and air.   Their troops and tanks were poised 20 miles from Tel Aviv, which had already been bombed by air;  the city and perhaps Israel itself might have perished without the invaluable help of Machal (“volunteers from abroad”).

 All told there were nearly 5,000 volunteers from 56 countries, including 150 pilots, mostly Jewish, who’d flown fighter planes for the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy during World War II.  Talk about above-and-beyond—these men, many scattered across a post-war America,  answered an emergency call from their homeland without a moment’s hesitation.

At one time Steven Spielberg (whose father had fought with the 490th ‘Burma Brothers Squadron’ in the Pacific) considered making a documentary of the hastily recruited and trained Machal pilots, but instead elected to direct other war dramas.  So the opportunity to produce the Machal project passed to Spielberg’s youngest sister, Nancy, 58, who’s seized an all-too-fleeting moment to assemble a stirring portrait of this band-of-brothers called Machalniks.  A half dozen in their 80s and 90s are the main subjects of Above and Beyond.

They and their fallen comrades flew the surplus aircraft and transport planes (mainly rickety Avia S-199s,  Spitfires and Messerschmitts) that bombed the Arab advance and led Israel to victory in the 1948-49 War of Independence. This Israeli Air Squadron, known as “The 101,” was the nucleus and glue that grew the first-generation Israeli Air Force.

Above and Beyond was filmed for a reported $1.3 million, which is surely more than the vast majority of documentaries showing in NYJFF or the recent DOC NYC fest where it had its New York premiere.  Most docs in these fests will be lucky to see a million dollar gross in their filmmakers’ lifetimes.

But Above and Beyond is “enhanced”  by dazzling aerial dogfights and other combat scenes created by (and donated pro-bono) by Industrial Light and Magic. These use state-of-the-art CGI techniques, matched to a knockout, heraldic music score composed by Hans Zimmer studios and composer Lorne Balfe.  Ms. Spielberg’s site, Playmount Productions, indicates a feature film version is being planned.   So Above and Beyond, briskly directed by Roberta Grossman (Hava Nagila and Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh), had its New York premiere already looking and feeling like a big-studio release.

The original wrangler of the pilots as well as many of the aircraft smuggled into Israel was Al Schwimmer (1917-2011), an American-born flight engineer who worked for TWA and the U.S. Air Transport Command during WWII. Schwimmer was aware he was breaking the U.S. Neutrality Act but viewed his actions as valid civil disobedience, eventually becoming a close friend and adviser to President Shimon Peres, who appears as Above and Beyond’s narrator.

Schwimmer and his on-camera pilots readily display what  Spielberg proudly tweets as “moxie galore.” Army Air Force pilot George Lichter (1921-2014) was the Brooklyn-born founder of the Force. He was the most adept at flying the Avia S-199s, built in Czechoslovakia  with German engines and air frames.  Harold Livingston, another Army Air Force pilot, flew needed supplies and weapons from Czechoslovakia to Israel; “the idea that Jews were going to fight I found exciting—it’s about time,” says Livingston, who went on to write the screenplay for Star Trek.

Lou Lenart, now 95 and a veteran movie producer who worked on Thunderball, admits “we didn’t know if we could use these planes…we didn’t even know if they would start.”  He’s also interested in a possible dramatic movie version of his Machal service, adding that rather than being played by Brad Pitt, “I hope they’ll pick someone more Jewish looking.”

Leon Frankel, a former U.S.Navy bomber pilot,  recalls having been trained in secret, sitting in the cockpit of his worn aircraft, wearing a German uniform, helmet and parachute, and wondering “what’s a nice Jewish boy from St. Paul doing here?” At the end of the conflict,  after flying 25 successful missions, he speaks of watching Jewish  refugees from death camps coming into Tel Aviv, “getting down and kissing the ground,”and realizing without question why he joined the team.  In the 1948-49 war zones,  123 Machal members gave their lives.

The recollections are simple and heartfelt.  Former defense minster David Ben-Gurion has called the Machal “the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel.”  And as Spielberg told an audience recently gathered in Frankel’s home town to watch Above and Beyond at the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival, “Steven doesn’t get all the credit in this family.”

Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg have crafted a honey of a history, a real keeper.

Above and Beyond shows Thursday, Jan. 22 at 6:00 pm in Lincoln Center.

Some Vacation
(Anne S. Lewis. 2014. USA. 6 min)

Real life Jewish humor is often funnier than dramatized Jewish humor.  Real life Jewish humor that’s a mix of animation, drawings, vintage film footage and stills, aided by a droll narrator and a bouncy music score, can be something better than funny: it can grow into infectious art.

Anne Lewis wrote, directed and narrates this diary of her long, long ago summers as a child, going on her father’s trips as a traveling salesman through a “rural, pastoral, really hot and muggy”  Midwest. This was their summer vacation—some vacation, right?  Anne, her brother and Mom waited in the car while Dad made sales calls to convents, where he sold nun’s habits to nuns.  Her father was tall, trim, silver-haired and very handsome in his Barry Goldwater glasses.  He was also—if you haven’t guessed the punch line—Jewish.

It didn’t matter.  All those habits that hung on the Lewis basement clotheslines in their “not-from-the-New-Testament household” were snapped up by Mother Superiors who were swept away by Dad’s smooth looks and salesmanship, even though his prices were higher than his competitors.  Anne’s reward for waiting around hours with Mom and her pesky brother in their steamy Chevy?  “A splash in the Holiday Inn pool and maybe a Dairy Queen.”

Lewis’ mashup technique combining a blitz of visual styles is ever-engaging.  Some Vacation is some short.

Some Vacation is part of Free Shorts, being shown Saturday Jan. 17  and 24 at 8:00pm in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Amphitheater.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker   
(William Gazecki. 2014. USA. 96 min)

She appeared in nowhere near the dozens of movies that Bob Hope cranked out. As a vaudevillian and Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, a self-proclaimed and self-mocking “prexy of the sexy,” she was no match for Fanny Brice’s chipper hoofer. She never became a lush songbird like Peggy Lee and Chris Connor, or a polished cabaret stylist like Mabel Mercer and Blossom Dearie, or even a big-mouth, stadium-voice belter like Ethel Merman and Martha Raye.  As a radio personality she couldn’t rival Jack Benny, Fred Allen or George Burns. On television she didn’t hold a candle to baggy-pants side-splitters like Milton Berle and Red Skelton.

Yet from 1906 when she began singing for tips in a family restaurant in Hartford, Sophie Tucker (who started life as Sophie Kalish in 1887, born to Orthodox Jews from Ukraine) made a more indelible impression on American and European audiences over 60 years  than perhaps any other female entertainer. If you bounced the name “Sophie” off 100 Americans in 1962, 95 would answer “Tucker.”  She was William Morris’ first client before he opened a talent agency. Her appeal through the pre-war, wartime and post-war eras mushroomed through two totally different personas welded into one cosmic wardrobe (fur stoles, tiaras, sequined gowns, hot pink hair styles) that built marquee-level pizazz into her sashaying. You can see where Liberace picked up his costuming cues.

Club patrons flocked to experience the brash slinger of “Some of These Days” that pushed the early boundaries of pop music innocence (it was first recorded in 1911) enough to get her arrested for obscenity, as well as the heartfelt crooner of “My Yiddishe Momme” and “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means The World To Me”)  that made audiences weep with rapture.  She had a bit of the same shock-and-awe techniques of the Grand Guignol that took audiences from mock horror to sentimental delight in a single sitting. She was a Bad Girl/Good Girl mix of heroic proportions—Paul McCartney described her in 1963 as “our favorite American group”— and there simply was not another distaff singer like her.

William Gazecki’s lavish and admiring The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is a novelty doc of sorts, much as its subject was a novelty act of sorts—a woman who rarely sang or said anything that couldn’t play in Macy’s window and was a tireless champion through her own foundation of the most salient Jewish social causes (homes for the aged, Israeli high schools, Hartford’s Emmanuel synagogue, for openers).  Yet she held onto the promise of naughtiness whenever she’d segue into a giddy tune like “I May Be Getting Older Every Day (But Younger Every Night).” Actually, she might have needed to move over to Ohrbachs’  windows for that one, or for zingers like “I’m The 3-D Mama with The Big Wide Screen.”

Echoing actor Lee J. Cobb who looked old even in his youth, Tucker aged early and wafted a ripe maturity that carried a whiff of once-around-the-block-too-many-times. After shedding three husbands, she took on a string of female companions (including journalist Amy Leslie and Lady Edwina Mountbatten) who she neither flaunted nor concealed—and got away with that, too, in an era when allegedly lesbian or bisexual actresses (like Marjorie Main, Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott ) either covered up same-sex preferences or saw their careers evaporate.  There was an edge of “no fear” defiance in her act that Americans took to heart during WWII and that anchored her later career.

Sophie saved everything, and this voluble doc tumbles it all out of over 400 Tucker scrapbooks housed at The New York Public Library and Brandeis University. Susan and Lloyd Ecker, an enterprising and engaging writer/producer team (and authors of the first of three fictional memoirs on Tucker’s life), intercuts hundreds of candid shots, vintage club programs, notes and ephemera with film scenes (Gay Love, Broadway Melody of 1938), club dates and interviews with Carol Channing, Tony Bennett, Barbara Walters, Bette Midler and especially the singer/historian Michael Feinstein. The latter pinpoints Tucker’s place as one of the earliest pioneers in pop singing.

What emerges between the Eckers’ busy narrative and the mountain of photos is that part of  Sophie Tucker’s phenomenal popularity turned on her not giving away too much of her talent in any one medium, as mass media evolved from vaudeville and theater into movies, records, radio and television.  Her most comfortable venue was an expensive nightclub like the Latin Quarter or Copa City—controlled environments a million miles from her unhappy stage beginnings as a “coon shouter” doing near-hokum blues in blackface.

She didn’t make Orson Welles’ mistake of entertaining America with free radio broadcasts casting himself as the dramatic lead, which muted Citizen Kane showings for years and shortened Welles’ career. Because Tucker assembled only two shows a year from 1951 on, with pianist Ted Shapiro continuing as her lifelong  accompanist, radio and television were secondary media—though she performed gratis for armed services personnel.  Wisely, she learned to hold back her mysteries, playing tirelessly to white-shoe audiences and then signing copies of her autobiography at the merchandise table, keeping any $50 bills for charity. 

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is a first-rate show biz lesson on staying in the game and winning extra innings.  “You’re looking at a model for which parts are hard to get,” she teased in a clear alto  until 1966, “and there’s plenty of mileage in the old jalopy yet.”  Her ultimate positioning line was “The Last of The Red Hot Mamas.”  Print that legend.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 1:00pm and Sunday, Jan. 25 at 6:00 pm at the Walter Reade.

Let’s Go! 

(Michael Verhoeven. 2014. Germany. 90 min)

letgo3Nearly a quarter century of NYJFFs have helped launch a formidable collection of Holocaust-related dramas and documentaries. Michael Verhoeven’s films aren’t the most widely viewed, but in Germany they’re among the most closely watched. Now 76 and based in Munich, he was born in Berlin and observed his father, Paul, directing the Bavarian State Theater. Michael married actress Santa Berger (who starred opposite Kirk Douglas in Cast A Giant Shadow) in 1966, tried a brief career in medicine,  then began immersing himself as writer/producer/director most vividly in one subject: how Jews have adjusted to, survived or perished living in a troubled, formerly partitioned and often hostile Germany.

“It isn’t pretty to sit at the cutting table and see these terrible images over and over again,” Verhoeven has said; he could have been talking about his documentary, The Unknown Soldier (2007), dissecting Wehrmacht participation on the Eastern Front, involving officers as well as foot soldiers in mass atrocities. Or Human Error (2009), an investigation into what happened to Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis. Or My Mother’s Courage (1996), a fictionalized take of the deportation of playwright George Tabori’s mother from Budapest to Auschwitz, and how she escaped back to contemporary Berlin. Or The White Rose (1982), which memorializes a Munich-based underground cell of students executed by the Nazis for their resistance activities. Or The Nasty Girl (1990), based on a true story of a Bavarian pre-teen who writes an alienating essay, “My Home Town During the Third Reich,” which boomerangs into a second, more accusatory essay naming a priest who betrayed a Jewish merchant during WWII.

The latter film was shown at the 2010 NYJFF and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (though it’s significant the German Oscar winner remembered most affectionately, Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa, follows a Jewish family who flee Germany in 1938 to settle into a satisfying life on a farm in Kenya.) Verhoeven’s contributions to this cinema of “Never Again” have taken far rockier, far riskier roads less traveled.

Let’s Go! unreels as Verhoeven’s surprise gift for moviegoers drawn to Holocaust drama. It’s a triumphant summing-up by the director of his subject—an easily accessible, finely crafted drama of reconciliation between a mother who stayed and a daughter who left. It ought to be Germany’s official Oscar entry for 2015, because it pushes all the right buttons of hope, affirmation and love, against all odds. Call it the unexpectedly positive statement that can reward Verhoeven for a lifetime of pushing back.
let go2

His new film is based on an autobiographical novel by Laura Waco, whose Polish parents decided to remain in Germany when Laura was born in 1947, outwardly ignoring their Jewish identities and hers for years. Verhoeven’s had the book for two decades, but clearly wasn’t ready to make it until now. In his adaptation, Laura (acted as an adult by Alice Dwyer, briskly brittle) is born to concentration camp survivors in 1947, as “Yankee Go Home” signs dot the landscape. We then jump to 1968 as Laura returns to Munich for the funeral of her father Walter (Milton Welsh) and an embittered reunion with her mother Tante (Karin Hanczewski), who is also grieving over a younger daughter who lies comatose with a fractured skull from a car accident. The film then cross-cuts the lives of the two girls growing up with Laura’s sad and morose homecoming.

As a premise, this sounds gloomy beyond words. It’s not. Just when we’re celebrating Boyhood’s new form of storydoing with its real-time aging of four principals, Verhoeven reminds us of the time-tested satisfactions of traditional storytelling, using carefully matched but different actors, subtitles cuing passing years, everything but fluttering calendar pages. It’s classic moviemaking, keeping the focus on the 20 years of incidents and conflicted attitudes that pile up like clockwork, testing and hardening Laura, her sister and their parents.

The family opens a successful inn that serves pork roast, while the girls are enrolled in a school without Jews, prompting the expected teasing and insults. On the one hand,  Walter is shown patiently helping camp victims obtain disability pensions, while he’s constantly ordering his daughters to get on with their lives; “Let’s go!” is his signature admonition, hurrying the girls through their childhoods.

When a young man dives into a river and saves Laura from drowning, her father gives cash to the good Samaritan but can’t bear to say “thank you” to a German. Yet this complex and tormented man instructs Laura on ‘the German way’ of turning a lid of shoe polish, even as he snarls at her budding summer romance as a teen with a handsome German boy. We sigh; life is a series of unending obstacles for this family, and it’s little wonder the adult Laura bails out for America.

let goAll this sets up an unusual turn of events when an older aunt, also a camp survivor, arrives in Munich from Tel Aviv to visit her sister sitting shiva. The richly dramatic scenes that follow—tragically sad yet magically life-affirming—forge a new connection between the women, along with an epilogue that Verhoeven knows can be staggering in its emotional power. He stages them with the assurance of a filmmaker who’s taken a long, unblinking view of unimaginable events. Let’s Go! is finally a film about letting go and moving on, the rare kind of four-handkerchief victory over death that wins  Academy Awards.

Let’s Go! shows Saturday, Jan. 24 at 9:30 pm and Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 1:00 pm at the Walter Reade.

This concludes critic’s choices.

 

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