Tuesday, July 21, 2009

SFJFF09—Eight Michael Hawley Screener Previews

The 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) begins this Thursday, July 23 and continues through August 10 at various Bay Area venues. You'll find me at the Castro Theater much of this coming weekend, catching some of the festival's most highly-anticipated titles like Defamation, The Yes Men Fix the World and Acné. Meanwhile, here are capsule write-ups of eight films I previewed on screener, roughly in order of most favorite to least.

Zion and His Brother—Director Eran Merav makes an assured feature film debut with this gritty, affecting family drama set in working-class Haifa. Fourteen-year-old Zion both worships and despises his older brother Meir, a hot-headed miscreant who makes life miserable for their divorced mother and her older boyfriend. When tragedy erupts over mistaken identity and a stolen pair of shoes, Zion is forced to reevaluate his allegiances and life direction. The performances are first-rate, particularly the never-less-than-amazing Ronit Elkabetz (The Band's Visit, Late Marriage, Or) as the mother, and a remarkably intense Ofer Hayan, making his screen debut as the older brother. I'm still pondering the film's abrupt ending.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg—Chances are you've never heard of broadcasting pioneer Gertrude Berg, a writing-acting-producing powerhouse who was once the highest paid woman in America. That's an embarrassment Aviva Kempner handily sets right in this breezy, informative documentary. Debuting on radio one month after the 1929 crash, her family sit-com The Goldbergs gave comfort to Americans throughout the Great Depression and WWII, with her character Molly Goldberg yoo-hoo-ing to neighbors from across her Bronx apartment airshaft window. The program brought Jewish family life into millions of homes, and was second in popularity only to Amos and Andy. In 1949 the show made the switch to TV, which resulted in Berg winning the first ever Emmy Award for acting (she'd also win a Tony Award in 1959 for A Majority of One). Kempner's film does a winning job of profiling Berg, from her youth in the family's Catskills resort hotel, to her fierce defense of blacklisted actor and union activist Philip Loeb, the actor who played her husband Jake Goldberg. At the July 28 screening at the Castro, Kempner will receive this year's SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award. And if you want to see more of The Goldbergs, there's a separate festival program comprised of four back-to-back episodes of the TV show.

The Wedding Song (Closing Night Film)—A Jewish girl and Muslim girl, best friends and both of marriageable age, are the protagonists in Karin Albou's powerful new film set in 1942 Nazi-occupied Tunis. Nour desperately wants to wed her finance Khaled, but until he finds employment they must settle for clandestine rooftop trysts arranged by her Jewish friend Myriam. Myriam, on the other hand, is being forced by her increasingly desperate mother (played by the director) into an arranged marriage with the arrogant, wealthy Jewish doctor Raoul (a reliably terrific Simon Abkarian). Meanwhile, the radio blasts anti-Semitic propaganda, Khaled gets a job helping Nazis round up Tunisian Jews and Raoul is sent to a labor camp—all of which tests the girls' loyalties and courage. With one brief exception, Albou sets her film exclusively within the claustrophobic confines of the Tunis medina, effectively mirroring her characters' constricted circumstances. She also takes pain to ensure that her male characters are not one-dimensional monsters—except for the Nazis of course. Finally, I was delighted to hear, of all things, Nina Hagen's Naturträne being used as a musical leitmotif throughout.

A History of Israeli Cinema—At 210 minutes long, this documentary won't appeal to anyone with a mere casual interest in its subject matter. But if you've spent the past 10 years watching Israeli cinema develop into one of the most vital in the world (my own starting point was Amos Gitai's 1999 Kadosh), this doc will provide you with an essential, evolutionary roadmap. From early Zionist works to the "New Sensitivity Cinema" of the 60's to the art films of today, director Raphaël Nadjari skillfully demonstrates how the nation's psyche has been continually reflected in its cinema. Broken into two parts (1933-1977 and 1978-2007), the film never strays from its staid film-clips-and-talking-heads format—and that's OK. My only complaint is that the ample clips are not identified by year of release, making it somewhat difficult to envision a timeline.

I Am Von Höfler—Hungarian documentarian Péter Forgács is a SFJFF regular, which culminated in his receiving last year's Freedom of Expression Award. In his singular style, he tells stories of 20th century European Jews using only narration, sound effects, photos, letters, home movies and ephemera. His remarkable subject this time out is one Tibor Von Höfler—heir to a Pécs leather tanning dynasty who was also a motorcycle enthusiast, erotic photographer, womanizer and pianist—and whose long life bore witness to the Great Depression, WWII (he was half-Jewish on his mother's side) and the rise and fall of communism. Forgács' engrossing new film pieces together a seamless biography, giving the viewer a vivid sense of time and place, customs and mores. It has been hypothesized that an 18th century relative of Von Höfler's served as the inspiration for Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the film's only misstep, Forgács inserts clips from a dated, hippie-ish 1976 short called Werther and His Life, directed by his Balázs Béla Film Studio cohort, Janos Xantus. These clips pop-up throughout, adding incongruity and bloat to the 160-minute running time.

Lost Islands—This was Israel's biggest box office hit of 2008 and it's easy to see why. It's a big, rambunctious family dramedy set in the early '80s with a catchy pop soundtrack. The first half is almost cartoonish in its depiction of family squabbles and teen antics, the latter perpetuated by a pair of unlikely twin brothers who lust after the same classmate. The film takes on emotional weight, however, after a tragic accident causes dreams to be deferred, and the First Lebanon War threatens to destabilize the family and a nation. This is no art film, but it is broad, populist filmmaking at its most enjoyable—with terrific performances, offbeat humor and a genuine love for its characters.

A Matter of Size (Centerpiece Film)—Four overweight Israeli men find self-acceptance in sumo wrestling. That's the unique premise of this agreeable, but strictly formulaic comedy which is unsurprisingly on track for a Hollywood remake. Due to his weight, hulking Herzl has lost his job and been 86-ed from his dieting club. Inspired by a televised sumo match at a Japanese restaurant (where he now works as a dishwasher, and whose owner is conveniently a former sumo trainer), he convinces his friends to take wrap themselves in a mawashi and start rasslin'. In the conflicted process, life lessons are learned and romance blooms for all involved. If you've enjoyed plucky British arthouse comedies of recent years (think The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Waking Ned Devine), you'll probably like this. If not, you probably won't.

Hello Goodbye—Last and least comes this strained, unconvincing farce about a non-observant Parisian gynecologist (Gerard Depardieu) and his convert wife (Fanny Ardant) starting life anew in Israel. With the deck stacked against them from the get-go (his job vanishes, their condo remains unbuilt and their shipping container falls into the Mediterranean), the film bludgeons drama and yuks out of Israeli bureaucracy, his circumcision and her infatuation with a studly, pot-smoking young Rabbi (a wasted Lior Ashkenazi). A jarringly erratic and inappropriate pop music soundtrack (Peter Bjorn and John's Young Folks plays against a praying scene at the Wailing Wall) compliments the narrative like a berserk iPod shuffle. In contrast, the SF Chronicle's Mick LaSalle found the film to be "funny," "perceptive" and "illuminating." Perhaps you will, too.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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