Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight

Jan

After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is now living in Brooklyn, completing research for her book on Fiddler on the Roof. Follow Jan's adventures on her Blog www.SecondCityTzivi.com.

Tzivi’s Spotlight

Tzivi’s CJFF Overview

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Chicago has a new film festival!

Beginning tonight, the Chicago Jewish Film Festival will show 10 films over two long weekends. Screenings will be held at the Cinemark/Century in Evanston, the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, and the Music Box Theatre on Southport, with related programs at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Lincoln Park and at the Mayer Kaplan JCC in Skokie.

Of the 10 films on offer, I have seen six and all six - three documentaries and three feature films - are Highly Recommended.

The three documentaries - Before the Revolution, Crime After Crime, and Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love - span decades locations, and genres. On the other hand, the three features - Hannah Arendt, La Rafle, andThe Pin - are all focused on the Holocaust.

Although two of these films - Before the Revolution and The Pin - are new to Chicago, the others have already played somewhere in the metro area, and some of them are even available on DVD at this point. No matter. Nothing equals the experience of seeing a film with a live audience… and then heading out to discuss it with your friends once the credits roll!

Here are synopses of the six films in alphabetical order. Each synopsis has a link back to my full review (which also contains photographs and additional background information).

Before the Revolution

In the 21st Century, Iran is a major power in the Middle East and one of Israel's greatest existential enemies. So it will no doubt surprise many people to learn that in the 20th Century, the Iranian government had a close relationship with the Israeli government. In fact, in pursuit of modernization for his then-backward country, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah of Iran) was heavily dependent on Israeli talent.

And because one of the many Israeli technocrats who worked in Iran was his father, filmmaker Dan Shadur is now able to provide a fascinating first-hand account of what is was like to be an Israeli child growing up in Teheran in that "golden age" before Ayatollah Khomeini drove the Shah from power. (Documentary)

Crime After Crime  

Joshua Safran is a California attorney specializing in property law when he agrees to represent a battered woman named Debbie Peagle who is determined to overturn her murder conviction.

Filmmaker Yoav Potash follows Safran for years as he digs deep into Torah for sustenance through a long and exhausting appeal process. Since Safran is always unplugged on Saturdays, he's the last to receive an important update at critical point in the appeal, but he returns from his Shabbat observance refreshed and renewed.

Watching Safran battle on thus becomes an uplifting Jewish experience far deeper than a typical Law & Order episode "ripped from the headlines." (Documentary)

Hannah Arendt 

Barbara Sukowa stars as Hannah Arendt, the German-born political philosopher best-known today for her books on 20th Century totalitarianism.

Director Margarethe von Trotta's film (based on a screenplay by Pamela Katz) focuses on Hannah Arendt's attempts to introduce nuance into discussions of the Holocaust when she covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.

The result was an uproar that started in the pages of The New Yorker magazine and still resonates today. (BioPic/Drama)

La Rafle

Melanie Laurent stars as Annette Monod, a member of a prominent French Protestant family who cared for Jewish children rounded up in 1942 and herded into the Vélodrome d'Hiver (a sports stadium near the Eiffel Tower known colloquially as the "Vél d'Hiv").

If the name Vél d'Hiv already sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you either read Tatiana de Rosnay's best-selling novel Sarah's Key (published in 2007), and/or saw the film adaptation released in 2011 (which starred Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist).

But writer/director Rose Bosch feels no need to engage our sympathies by adding a contemporary heroine. Bosch keeps La Rafle firmly anchored in the horrific events of 1942, and her film is all the better for it. (BioPic/Drama)

Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love  

This is filmmaker Dori Berinstein's third Broadway documentary. The first was ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway,  which I reviewed for the JUF when it played at the Music Box Theatre way back in June 2007. The second was Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, which received a "Gold Hugo" nomination in the documentary film category from our 2011 Chicago International Film Festival.

When I asked her about the affinity between Jews and Broadway, Berinstein said: "Theater makes you think and theater makes you feel. There's a long, very wonderful history of Jews being involved in this art form, and having used it to create change in the way people see the world. It's also just an inspiring, transporting art form, so what's not to love?" And that is the story of Marvin Hamlisch in a nutshell.

Born into a family that had no grandparents, Hamlisch used music to "create change in the way people see the world," and Berinstein, with her extraordinary insider access, makes it clear that Hamlisch (who died in 2012 at the age of 68) lived a life well-lived. He was not only an "EGOT" (that is, the winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar, and a Tony), he also won a Pulitzer Prize, two Golden Globes, and shelves full of additional honors and testimonials. His legacy is enormous.

Marvin Hamlisch: May his memory be for blessing. (Documentary)

The Pin

This haunting film about two young people who find each other in a barn at the edge of the Russian border has somewhat the same feel as The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (which some of you may have seen at the Lookingglass Theatre  Company at Water Tower Place back in 2011).

Unlike so many Holocaust films, The Pin is delicate & understated, showing how the power of imagination under impossible circumstances became a tool of survival.

Note that all of the dialogue in The Pin is in Yiddish, with English subtitles of course. (Romance/Drama)

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The Chicago Jewish Film Festival is sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC Chicago) with support from The Mrs. Zollie Frank Fund and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Additional participants include the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, the Chicago YIVO Society, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and ShPIeL-Performing Identity Theatre.

Yasher Koach to Artistic Director David Chack and the 2014 CJFF Mishpokhe.

For more details (including schedules and tickets), visit the CJFF website.

Unfortunately I have yet to see the other four films: Blumenthal, Closer to the Moon, Megillas Lester, and Precious Life. I hope to catch up with all of them soon!

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Top photo:From Before the Revolution. Photo courtesy of Heymann Brothers Films.
Bottom photo: From La Rafle. Photo courtesy of Menemsha Films.

Tzivi reviews Ida

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It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the start of another Chicago summer. But in the dark, at the local art house, the Holocaust is always with us.

A new film from Poland called Ida opens today at the Music Box Theatre in Andersonville and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. This film has an extraordinarily high rating of 96% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but as is often the case when it comes to films about the Holocaust, I do not agree with the consensus of my colleagues.

Ida is set in Lodz in 1962. “Anna” (Agata Trzebuchowska), a teenage novice in a Polish Convent, is about to take her vows when the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) insists that she visit her “Aunt Wanda” (Agata Kulesza), someone whose existence had been hidden from her until that very moment.

And as soon as they do meet face-to-face, Wanda immediately informs Anna that her real name is Ida and – surprise, surprise – her parents were Jewish.

Even though it is only 80 minutes long, Ida feels much longer. In fact, with its long, wordless, static – albeit beautifully composed – shots, it often felt interminable to me. But my fundamental problem with Ida is that the screenplay (co-written by director Pawel Pawlikowski and British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz) is so deliberately spare that the film becomes a Rorschach Test. And sad to say, I think the less you know about the Holocaust, the more likely you will be to misinterpret what little bits of information are actually provided in the film.

Some will say Pawlikowski leaves these “big questions” to the audience, but I think that’s a cop out. Me, I don’t think Pawlikowski has given sufficient thought to “the Jewish Question.” I think he’s really interested in creating beautiful images of Poland before the thaw, but he has adroitly used the Holocaust to add “gravitas” to an otherwise thin aesthetic exercise.

To read my full review of Ida (which includes several “spoiler alerts”), visit my blog Second City Tzivi.

Click here for the Music Box schedule.

Click here for the Renaissance Place schedule.

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"Anna/Ida" (Agata Trzebuchowska) with her "Aunt Wanda" (Agata Kulesza).
Photo Credits: Sylwester Kazmierczak and Liliana Milewska

 

 

Tzivi reviews Dancing in Jaffa

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A tip of the hat to Pierre Dulaine!

In 1994, long before ballroom dancing received mainstream acclaim through the wildly popular TV show Dancing With The Stars, Dulaine created the "Dancing Classrooms" program which has become his life's work and lasting legacy.

Dulaine was born in the city of Jaffa - then part of Mandate Palestine - in April 1944. As he tells us in Dancing in Jaffa, his mother was part Palestinian and part French, and his father was a British soldier of Irish descent. These were complicated times and Dulaine's heritage magnified the complexity considerably: Palestinian, French, British, Irish… oy!

The one thing Dulaine clearly was not was Jewish, and in 1948, after Jaffa became part of the new state of Israel, his family began wandering, living for a time in Amman, Jordan and eventually settling in Birmingham, England.

Decades later, after the huge success of the "Dancing Classrooms" program -- which now serves thousands of children all around the world -- Dulaine has returned to his birthplace to sprinkle magic dust over a set of selected schools in Jaffa… and the amazing thing is, it works!

By the time of the final competition, Hebrew-speaking children are dancing with children who mostly speak Arabic, and Palestinian mothers in hijab are sitting next to Israeli mothers in tee shirts. The boys and girls on the dance floor are poised and graceful, their teachers are beaming, and everyone in the bleachers is cheering them on.

Outside the warm dance spaces, however, "real life" continues to be just as complex as ever. Award-winning Israeli director Hilla Medalia includes tension-filled street scenes with Israeli adults marching in honor of Yom Ha'atzmaut while Palestinian protesters commemorate the Nakba.

What will happen to these children after Dulaine is long gone? Maybe someday Hilla Medalia will do a Part Two, but for now the only thing we know for sure is that Pierre Dulaine has created something that should be too good to be true… and yet… somehow… it works!

Dancing in Jaffa opens at the Music Box Theatre on Southport on Friday, May 2. Visit the Music Box website for complete schedule information.

For more about Pierre Dulaine and the making of Dancing in Jaffa, read my "Second City Tzivi" Blog post.

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Photo Credits: Courtesy of IFC.

Tzivi reviews Noah

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"You know you're having a bad day when furious readers write to complain that 'it didn't really happen that way.'"

I had a great laugh when one of my colleagues posted this on Facebook last week!

But despite all the doubts (and precisely because of all the controversy), Darren Aronofsky's Biblical epic Noah was last week's box office champion, recovering most of its $125 million dollar production cost in its very first week on the big screen.

Should you go? In my home, we have a split decision. I say yes. My husband Rich says no. I completely understand why Rich (sitting in the seat next to me) kept shaking his head, but despite all its flaws (and there are many), I found Noah to be a very powerful on screen experience.

I have had my ups and downs with Darren Aronofsky's films over the years. I was one of the few people who genuinely liked The Fountain. I met with Aronofsky when he came to show it at our 2006 Chicago International Film Festival, so I have a first-hand feel for his spiritual side. But after the box office failure of The Fountain, his ambition drove him to seek commercial success and he found it with Black Swan (which was nominated for 5 Oscars in 2010).

Me, I hated Black Swan, but now that Aronofsky has used his clout to make Noah, I've decided to roll with the punches. Yes, some of the special effects are preposterous and for sure I could have done without Ray Winstone's rampages as Noah's archenemy "Tubal-Cain."

But at its core, Aronofsky's Noah is the journey of a man who is called to be a hero, rising to the occasion and then suffering in the aftermath. Seen this way-my way-Noah is in the tradition of some of cinema's greatest films such as 12 O'Clock High (1949), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Schindler's List (1993).

Noah is playing this week at theatres all around Metro Chicago including the River East, the ShowPlace ICON, and the Navy Pier IMAX (in the city), and the Evanston Century 12/CineArts, the Muvico Rosemont, and the Regal Gardens at Old Orchard (in the suburbs). For a complete listing, click here for Fandango.

Read more about Noah on my Blog Second City Tzivi.

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Photo: Russell Crowe as "Noah," with Jennifer Connelly as his wife "Na'ameh." Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

Tzivi reviews Bethlehem

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"Sanfur" (Shadi Mar'i) is a Palestinian teen living on the West Bank. He comes from a prominent family and his older brother is a well-known terrorist. Unbeknownst to them, Sanfur is also supplying information to "Razi" (Tsahi Halevi), a Shabak officer in the Israeli Secret Service (aka Shin Bet).

After years of interactions, a deep bond has grown between Sanfur and Razi. As Razi tells his superior "Levy" (Yossi Eini): "I spend more time with this kid than I spend with my own family." But as Sanfur edges closer to manhood, he has to put on more of a show for his buddies, and Levy begins to question Razi's ability to control the situation.

The most charismatic character in Bethlehem is a Bedouin named "Badawi" (Haitham Omari). Short of both cash and connections, Badawi is filled to the brim with verbal bravado and sheer physical courage. This makes Badawi a magnet for the boys, and just as much of a problem for Palestinian politicians as he is for Shabak officers.

Bethlehem received 11 Ophir Award nominations from the Israel Film Academy in 2013, and it won in 6 categories including Best Picture, which immediately made it Israel's Oscar candidate for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. But even though it succeeds well enough as a "police procedural," with lots of chase scenes and Hollywood-style action, I found Bethlehem woefully thin. Director Yuval Adler and his co-writer Ali Wakad seem to have put all their energy on the Palestinian side. They never convinced me that Razi had a life outside their screenplay, and all the other Israeli characters, including Levy and Razi's wife "Einat" (Michal Shtemler), were even more schematic.

Ironically, AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) did not select Bethlehem as one of the five finalists for Best Foreign Language Film, but they did select Omar which is almost its mirror image. Both films are set in the West Bank, both films focus on the relationship between a Shabak officer and his teenage Palestinian informant, and both films even use some of the same actors in minor roles. (For example, Tarek Copti plays Sanfur's father in Bethlehem, and he plays the father of Omar's girlfriend in Omar).

Last year, two films,5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers, faced off in the Best Documentary category. To me this indicates the power movies have over what many people in the world think they know about the Arab/Israeli conflict. So I urge you to see these films too so you can answer any questions which might come your way.

Click here to read my full review of Bethlehem, which will open locally on 3/7/14 at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park.

Click here to read my full review of Omar, which opened locally on 2/21/14 and is still playing at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park. 

Click here to read my reviews of 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers (two of last year's Oscar candidates in the Best Documentary category).

Click here for screening times and additional information on the Landmark Theatre website

Top Photo: Sahdi Mar'i as "Sanfur" and Tsahi Halevi as "Razi."
Photo Credit: Vered Adir courtesy of Adopt Films.

 

Tzivi reviews The Last of the Unjust

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Claude Lanzmann has culled another 218 minutes out of the extensive interviews he did for his monumental documentary Shoah. That means I have now spent over 24 hours in theatres watching Lanzmann documentaries about the Holocaust… But what does that mean for you?

If you have seen Shoah recently and you want to see more of the same, then the answer is obvious: you should definitely see The Last of the Unjust. But if your memories of Shoah are decades old at this point, I must say with some sadness that the Shoah I saw in 2011 was a far less powerful film than the Shoah I saw way back when at the Biograph.

The simple truth is that we all know a great deal more about the Holocaust now than we knew in the 1980s, and while Shoah certainly played a large role in forcing thousands of people all around the world to confront the facts of the Holocaust-in all their awesome enormity-most of us have moved on while it has stayed the same.

The Last of the Unjust fills in some of the chapters Lanzmann had edited out before, but the more you already know about Nisko and Theresienstadt, the less interesting The Last of the Unjust becomes.

The only thing really new in The Last of the Unjust is the opportunity to spend several hours in the company of Benjamin Murmelstein, a Rabbi living in Vienna in the 1930s who rose to prominence after the Anschluss, became the last President of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt, and lived long enough to be the only "Jewish Elder" to survive World War II.

Murmelstein, comparing himself to Scheherazade, spins story after story, justifying his complicity with clichés, but Lanzmann seems to have lost his skepticism. I suggest you watch Michael Prazan's remarkable documentary The Trial of Adolf Eichmann instead.

Click here to read my full review of The Last of the Unjust, opening today at the Music Box Theater in Andersonville.

Click here for details on screening times and additional information on the Music Box website.

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Photo Credit: Claude Lanzmann (left) interviews Benjamin Murmelstein in 1975. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Tzivi reviews Aftermath

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The plane lands at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport. Carrying nothing more than a small zippered bag filled with American cigarettes, a man disembarks and heads to the train station. The taxi driver guesses he has just arrived on the 11 a.m. flight from Chicago, but the man is surly and in no mood to chat. The train takes him to a bus. Hours pass. It is already dark when he finally arrives in the rural Polish village where he was born. 

Franek (Ireneusz Czop) has been living in the U.S. for 20 years, but when he walks into his family’s farmhouse, he says to his brother Jozek (Maciej Stuhr): “It looks exactly the same.”  

This is the set-up of a remarkable feature film called Aftermath which is now rolling out across the U.S. after its initial release in New York and Los Angeles in October. Aftermath achieved broad success—and created considerable controversy—in Poland. It won the Journalists Award from the Gdynia [Poland] Film Festival in 2012, and three Eagle awards from the Polish Film Academy in 2013. It also won the Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2013.  

One brother left Poland in 1981 (the year General Jaruzelski imposed martial law in order to forestall a Soviet invasion); the other stayed to care for their aging parents and maintain his claim to their property. This intentionally metaphorical structure is essential to Aftermath’s powerful impact. Going versus staying; embracing the potential of a new path versus holding on to what one already knows; exposing the past versus embracing mythology; all of these polarities are explored in this tale of two brothers. The “truth” is very complicated. New opportunities turn out to be just as double-edged as all the old facts you thought you already knew, and the past has a tight grip that cannot be easily shaken.  

Franek has come home for answers without having any idea of what the real questions are. And Jozek, who thinks he already knows the ground on which he stands, cannot avoid the inevitable when Franek digs deeper than he had thought to go.  

Since this is a review for the JUF News, it will be no surprise to my readers that the central mystery is simply this: what happened to the Jews? Franek and Jozek grew up in a Poland that had no Jews. Everyone in the village knows the Jews were deported by the Germans, and the Polish people—who were also victims of Nazi tyranny—could do nothing to save them. Everyone knows that, right? Well, not quite.  

Ireneusz Czop gives a riveting performance as Franek. After 20 years in Chicago, where he presumably saw dozens of films and hundreds of television shows, Franek knows “the hero” never stops until “his case” is solved. And so he is literally compelled to keep asking questions long after everyone—including Jozek—wants him to stop. The more people try to intimidate Franek, the more firm he becomes in his resolve. The screenplay by writer/director Władysław Pasikowski makes the implicit explicit: as difficult as the transition has been for him, Franek is an American now. He is a man used to exercising his rights and having a say.  

Jozek, by contrast, has grown up without rights, and Maciej Stuhr brilliantly embodies a man feeling his way—half-stumbling—into the new world of post-Soviet Poland. Jozek’s sense of right and wrong is emotional, and his faith is religious. He never appeals to the authorities because he doesn't trust them. Jozek does what he does without considering the consequences. Without Franek, Jozek would never probe. Dogged suffering is already second nature to him, and martyrdom is almost a relief.  

Pasikowski has numerous film credits, and was also the director of two seasons of the TV series The Cop, which, according to my press kit, was “hailed by critics as the ‘best Polish crime series ever.’” The decision to use these tropes was a wise one. Presenting Franek’s obsessive quest to find “the answer” in this way makes his behavior broadly relatable to people all around the world who have also come to see this figure—be he a public servant or a private investigator—as the champion of an open society.  

Paweł Edelman, the Director of Photography, does a superlative job, guiding the audience through scenes that are often low-lit and deliberately murky. The sound design team (Jan Freda, Bartek Putkiewicz, and Jan Schermer) also does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension in the ominous darkness.  

Inevitably the Jews return at the end of the film. We are not actors in this drama, but what Franek learns is just as much our history as his, and Aftermathwill affect Jews in Chicago just as much as Poles in Warsaw.  

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Aftermath opened on Friday at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. Click here for scheduling information.

Top Photo: Franek (Ireneusz Czop) relentlessly seeks “the truth.”

Bottom Photo: Inevitably, Franek and Jozek (Maciej Stuhr) find answers.  

Photo Credits: Menemsha Films

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