“PRAISE THE LARD”— Jews and Pork

“Praise the Lard”

Jews and Pork

Amos Lassen

There are many traditions in Judaism that outsiders can really never understand. Director Chen Shelach looks at how this topic is relevant to Israel today. The concentration is on eating pork and the issue isn’t about whether the decision is religious or otherwise justifiable, but what the decision really means. It used to defy repression by other cultures and religions but today the conflict is between the advocates and opponents of Israel that sees itself as a religious community and those that see it as primarily a state. Serious reflections and an ironic tone go hand in hand here on this idiosyncratic and unsettling topic.

Shelach alternates between historical opinions and current interviews. On the one hand, the issue deals with the topic of self-assertion and cultural identity but economic considerations also play an important role. There are no clear answers here, we just get a look at the topic.

“Praise the Lard” follows the Jewish ban on pork and shows it as a discussion influenced by many factors: religious, cultural, economic.

“AFTER BUTT”— The Legacy

“AFTER BUTT”

The Legacy

Amos Lassen

Ian Giles is a gay filmmaker from the U.K. whose new documentary “After BUTT” examines the cultural legacy of BUTT magazine.

BUTT was a quarterly magazine from 2001 through 2011 that helped an entire generation define just what it means to be gay. It was sort of a half lifestyle, half porn zine, known for it’s iconic pink pages, candid interviews and amateur photos of guys’ butts. It was created by Dutch publishers Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom, who ran the publication out of a small basement office in Amsterdam for ten years. Giles shares that he first discovered BUTT when he was in college in the mid 2000s.

“Within BUTT’s pages were images of men in their messy east London flats, shot in daylight; it challenged the mainstream presentation of gay men,” he says. “These were real people, all be it very hip and hairy ones, they opened up what a gay man could look like, do and be.”

Giles interviewed BUTT’s former publishers, editors, and writers then transcribed the interviews, which were then portrayed by a group of young, gay men.

“I wanted to transfer narratives between generations,” he explains. “Through interviewing men in their 40s and then working with men in their 20s I was able to understand how far we have come within a relatively short space of time.”

Reflecting on the origins of the magazine, Jop van Bennekom, played by a man in his early 20s, says: “I think we responded to what was, basically, a representational crisis of homosexuality. The representation of gay was so commodified, so made into a lifestyle, very clean, so commercial … Porn was still stuck in the AIDS crisis, there wasn’t anything spontaneous about gay porn. We started with how we can make a magazine that we think represents us: the gays we know, the sex we like.”

Over time, Jonkers and van Bennekom eventually felt they found the answers to the questions they were asking when they first started producing the magazine, and so they stopped printing it. The website, however, is still active.

“After BUTT” is currently being shown at the Chelsea Space art gallery in London. It runs through March 2. It is not yet known if/and/or it will be shown in the United States.

“MR. AND MRS. ADELMAN”— Love, Ambition, Betrayals and Secrets

“Mr. & Mrs. Adelman”

Love, Ambition, Betrayals and Secrets

Amos Lassen

For more than 45 years, Sarah and Victor have been together. The film is the odyssey of am extraordinary couple crossing with us small and great history of the last century.

The film retraces Sarah’s story, her life together with Victor, from their meeting at their last moment together through the birth of their children and we relive with each key moment of their lives passed together.

Director Nicolas Bedos skillfully traces Sarah’s life. We live the highs and lows of the couple against a moving and upsetting backdrop that focuses on existential topics, the couple, old age, infidelity and the place of women in the family and in society. We go through all the stages of the life of a couple without exaggeration. Carried by the perfect alchemy between Nicolas Bedos and Doria Tillier, “Mr. and Mrs. Adelman” is a concentrate of emotion that fascinates us and surprises from start to finish.

Beginning with the mournful chords of Mozart’s “Requiem”, the film is classic in both script and directing style. It does not waste time on long passages and fashionable contemplative strings – the story goes swiftly and absorbs in two hours of screen of the fifty years of life of two heroes: the famous writer Victor and his beloved wife Sarah. At the funeral of her husband Sarah tells the author of his future biography about their life together, during which Victor took the surname of his wife Adelman.

This is the story of a meeting in a Paris nightclub of a woman who fell in love at first sight, and a bohemian brawler-bon vivant, who seemed to be a god to her and their difficult rapprochement and happiness. We see how happiness was blurred by ambition, unsuccessful births, temptations, treachery, jealousy, a bourgeois routine and meaningless wealth. We see how the joint life turned into a continuous struggle for each other, and how love goes hand in hand with hatred.

“THE COUSIN”— Love Thy Neighbor

“THE COUSIN”

Love Thy Neighbor

Amos Lassen

Naftali (Tzahi Grad) is a local celebrity looking at an ambitious new project. When he decides to finally complete some long-delayed work on his studio, he hires a Palestinian worker, who doesn’t show up but sends Fahed (Ala Dakka) instead. Even though his new handyman doesn’t seem to know much about what needs to be done, for a while everything goes well. But then somebody assaulted a girl in the neighborhood and the Israeli community of the close-knit village quickly turns against the stranger, forcing Naftali to finally pick a side.

Tzahi Grad wrote, directed and stars in a story about trying to take justice into one’s own hands. Naftali is a left-wing idealist who, after stressing the need to understand both sides of the conflict, suddenly ends up following through with what he has been preaching. Predictably, all that talk doesn’t necessarily translate into action and although convinced of Fahed’s innocence, Naftali quickly starts questioning his own stance, especially when it becomes painfully apparent that when faced with vigilantes who would gladly engage in violence and he understands that it would be so much easier to simply turn a blind eye. 

The idea of mirroring a large-scale conflict in a small environment is as practical as it is effective and that there is clearly a need for this type of confrontational cinema. However, it all escalates a bit too conveniently and quickly to be fully convincing. Yet the film is universal and also extremely upsetting.

The film explores the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an everyday perspective through a comedic tone.

Grad has written himself a meaty yet delicate role and he proves more than up to the task. “The Cousin” is about a good man forced into a difficult situation heightened by inflamed sensitivities, ample real-life context. Naftali wants to see renovations on his ramshackle studio completed, and gets up early to collect the worker tasked with turning it into a usable space. Professionally, he’s preparing to pitch a new project to a TV network: a reality show that brings a series of Israelis and Palestinians together along the Green Line to document their attempts at mediation.

Naftali took his gardener’s advice and enlisted a Palestinian to undertake the remodeling, rather than hiring someone local and this drastically alters what should have been a drama-free day. Instead of the contractor Naftali had been speaking with, the man’s brother, Fahed (Ala Dakka), takes on the job. Initially reluctant, Naftali ultimately is okay with the change, but when a girl reports an assault nearby, his friends and neighbors are quick to point fingers at the outsider in their midst. The fact that the duo had been at the site of the attack just that morning, further enrages the growing number of involved parties.

The contrast between Naftali’s idealistic TV concept and the terseness unfolding at home isn’t meant to escape attention; Fahed himself calls the small screen project naïve, long before such allegations come his way, and the film makes plain the extent of the ingrained resistance to change.

While the overt clash between rival sides provides the drama and comedy, the battle waged within Naftali gives the movie its perceptive, penetrating centre. Initially trying to stay loyal to his employee, even when faced with vocal and threatening opposition, including from his wife Yael (Osnat Fishman), Grad’s protagonist carries the weight of constant intellectual and emotional readjustment on his shoulders.

Grad is well matched by Dakka and Fishman, both fleshing out pivotal parts that could have remained thin in other hands.

“POSTCARDS FROM LONDON”— The Sequel to Steve McLean’s Postcards From America

“Postcards From London”

The Sequel to Steve McLean’s Postcards From America

Amos Lassen

Steve McLean’s classic film “Postcards from America” followed the life of a gay man who becomes a street hustler and thief after suffering abuse. It was based on the writings of artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, who passed away in 1992.

Essex boy Jim (Harris Dickinson) is very good-looking but has no future in his small town. London and the prospect of fame, fortune and cultural stimulation call to him and like many others, Jim journeys to London.

On his first night, Jim is robbed and left penniless. He spends the night in a cardboard box with a homeless kid who suggests he join ‘The Raconteurs’ – a group of male escorts whose unique selling point is their knowledge of the arts.

What follows is Jim’s comic descent from unsuccessful escort, to artist’s muse and art authenticator. However, this is complicated by a rare psychosomatic condition called ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ which makes him painfully oversensitive to art. Jim’s encounters with paintings by artists such as Caravaggio cause him to faint and hallucinate. While this condition threatens to bring about his downfall it could also open up new opportunities if Jim is willing to go after them.

“Postcards From London” will close this year’s Flare festival and is a love song to European queer art and culture.

 

“MY DAYS OF MERCY”— The Death Penalty/A Love Story

“MY DAYS OF MERCY”

The Death Penalty/A Love Story

Amos Lassen

 One of the LGBT movies that you do not want to miss is the Sundance hit, “My Days of Mercy”.

Actors Ellen Page as Lucy and Kate Mara as Mercy deal with the death penalty while falling in love. The death row element is not an intellectual or philosophical analysis, but focuses on the emotional impact on the family of the accused making this a gripping and deeply moving film.

The two women represent opposing arguments for the death penalty. They meet for the first time at a Kentucky protest and they connect. Their divergence continues into their socio-economic backgrounds. Mercy’s family is conservative, religious, wealthy. Lucy’s family is none of those. For the last eight years their lives have been on hold with the three siblings sticking together, trying to get their father, Simon (Elias Koteas), exonerated for the murder of their mother.

Lucy is in her early 20s and has no employment prospects. She seems to be ambivalent. Her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz) was at university when their mother was killed, and her education was interrupted. Martha is the breadwinner, matriarch and man fan of Simon. One can only imagine the toll it has taken on her. Younger brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) was only a baby at the time. They have suffered and we see that the family is a bit broken, but their strength of character shows that it can recover.

Weldon (Brian Geraghty) is pro bono lawyer, who is also seeing Martha. Weldon reminds about how money is required for justice. We never meet the victim and we do not witness the crime. We do not find out until the end whether Simon is guilty or not and this is a wise choice from the director. Not knowing whether or not the accused is to blame makes the film about the argument.

“MISS KIET’S CHILDREN”— How Much One Person Can Do in the Global Refugee Crisis

“Miss Kiet’s Children”

How Much One Person Can Do in the Global Refugee Crisis

Amos Lassen

Directors Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch’s “Miss Kiet’s Children” is a documentary about traumatized child refugees trying to coexist with their Dutch schoolmates. The film looks at the most banal of pedagogical experiences, “finding more than enough drama in the way a child grabs a peer’s eraser without asking, or in the subtle changes in a child’s face the moment shame becomes pride, hope becomes desperation, and the void of not knowing becomes the elation of learning how to spell the word “moon.”

The film moves from the particularities of one child to the next while Miss Kiet’s sweet self-assertiveness is constant. Kiet Engels is the very patient teacher whose lessons in a Holland school with students who are mostly refugee children from the Middle East involve much more than simple math. We are taken into the classroom of Kiet Engels, a Holland teacher whose students are mostly refugee children from the Middle East. Most find it easiest to speak Arabic, but Engels instructs them in Dutch, in math, and how to navigate Holland’s schools and society. They speak Dutch, however they struggle with syntax and grammar.

Engels has extraordinary one-on-one interactions with her students. We see her explaining to Haya, a girl whose shyness manifests in the pushing and grabbing of a younger and smaller friend, the importance of watching the faces of other kids during play. The lesson sinks in, though Haya, a little proud, keeps her face blank, admitting no wrong. Engels understands children’s egos, correcting behavior with a tender firmness, never shaming.

The filmmakers train the cameras on the kids and their teacher, offering no other context than what we observe in the classroom and on the playground. The kids work at their multiplication tables, showing the woman they call “Miss” their results, hoping for a sticker. Engels is quick to praise, to laugh along with the kids, to encourage them to connect with herself and one another and with native Dutch children in occasional playtime.

The most moving passages of the film concern a bright, funny, anxious Syrian boy named Jorj. He’s the kind of kid adults find annoying being distractible and distracting, sometimes unwilling to work, prone to dumb lies and comic showboating. The camera stays on him when he’s supposed to be completing some classwork. He puts his head down, fusses with his pencil, and makes melodramatic proclamations in Arabic. When told he will have to miss recess if he doesn’t complete his division assignment, he declares, “Even if I had a year, I wouldn’t write anything. I do what I want, and you do what you want. Be blown up, I don’t care.”

But Engels and the filmmakers see the troublemaker’s potential and his pain. He suffers nightmares of bombings; he’s uncertain and uncomfortable when not jokily complaining. Engels never snaps at him. She dances with him, up to a mirrored wall. “Look, what a nice boy,” she says looking at him look at himself. “Isn’t that a nice boy in the mirror?”

“AN IDLE MIND IS THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”— A Throwback to the 60s

“An Idle Mind is the Devil’s Playground”

A Throwback to the 60s

Amos Lassen

“An Idle Mind is the Devil’s Playground” is a throwback to the old Twilight Zone” programs of the1960s. It is the story of Sid Kottler, a retired theremin player who has been living alone in his over-sized home for the past 13 years. His severe case of anthropophobia does not allow him to have company or even any human discourse. Then one morning, he wakes up with an unforgettable character he recognizes from a very recent encounter of sorts and he senses that he may not be alone anymore. He just might play party host to an ensemble of friends.

Here is an example of a film that entertains and is well constructed with a fine cast that gives good performances set against a lovely soundtrack and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by these qualities in a small film. Because of the nature of the plot, I cannot share much with you for to do so would ruin the viewing experience.

We are reminded of the golden age of television by the style of the film. I would never have known of this film if Armand Petri and Together Magic Films. had not sent me notice of it and I must say I enjoyed every moment but since I cannot share more about the plot, I will just add a few shots from the film. You can see the film on Amazon and Amazon UK.

“MICHAEL”— A Gay Movie from 1924

“MICHAEL”

A Gay Movie from 1924

Amos Lassen

Almost since the dawn of moving film there have landmark gay film and one of the important ones of the silent era is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1924 movie “Michael”. A new 2K restoration of the film was released as a World Exclusive on Blu-ray on February 12, 2018.

Based on Herman Bang’s 1902 novel of the same name, Dreyer’s film is a fascinating fin-de-siècle study of a “decadent” elderly artist (Benjamin Christensen) who is driven to despair by his relationship with his young protégé and former model, Michael whol is played by the handsome 22-year-old Walter Slezak. It was filmed in Germany, where the auteur demanded complete control of his film and got it despite the German studio’s usual policy of overseeing the films it produces. The co-writer is Thea von Harbou, who was Fritz Lang’s wife at the time. It was released in America some three years later with the new title “Chained: The Story of the Third Sex”. The underlining love triangle has a suggestive gay romance that never is brought out in the open, and has been ignored by many of the film critics.

 

Middle-aged bachelor Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen, film director) is a master painter living in opulence. Michael is a tempestuous struggling young artist who four years ago brought the Master his sketches but is rejected and instead is asked to model for him. This leads to making himself at home in the Master’s palace and having the Master pay for his upkeep. The paintings that Michael models for become very popular. The Master calls him his adopted son, and promises to leave him everything. But then when the Master paints a penniless Russian countess, Princess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor), complications arise when they both fall for her. The Master has previously painted only men and can’t get the eyes of the Countess right, as this is his only painting that gets panned by the art critics. Meanwhile Michael steals the Countess from his mentor, which drives him to solitude and to paint his final masterpiece “The Vanquished” that depicts an old man sitting on a rock who has lost everything.

Zoret calls in his art dealer Leblanc (Karl W. Freund, cinematographer) to sell his Caesar and Brutus painting, but learns that Michael, who has jilted him to live with the Countess, sold his best painting, “The Victor”, which he gave him as a present. He then orders the dealer to buy back the painting under the name Leblanc and return it to Michael where it belongs. 

When Zoret is on his deathbed, he calls for Michael but the ungrateful adopted son will not leave the arms of the Countess. But Zoret excuses him and makes out his last will leaving everything to Michael, exclaiming he can now die in peace because he has seen true love. The Master requests that his aide find a secret burial place in a field of flowers and tell no one where it is.

This is a difficult story to like or feel much for any of the self-absorbed flawed characters, or care much for their idea of love. But the pain from an unrequited gay love comes through loud and clear. The Master’s love is filled with self-pity and a nobility that seems completely foolish, but he reaches for truth in both love and art when he symbolically slays his ego.

As drama, the characters remain too distant to offer the warmth needed for Dreyer to convey that love in its purity conquers all in the end. But as an early example of a gay themed film, it becomes a landmark film showing the obstacles in the way of a gay romance.
With this “Michael we get a level of attention to restoration and presentation of the film that is quite unexpected, illuminating not only the early work of one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, but giving us a wider look at the cinema of the period and the attitudes that formed it.

Dreyer’s film is a dramatic conflict based around the themes of art and love. Michael is an early examination of the power of art and the fire of inspiration. It’s an inspiration that arises out of the very act of being human and communicating with other people and all the emotions that this gives rise to – love, desire, jealousy, betrayal. “All these emotions contribute to the richness of life, its reflection in art and its ultimate culmination in death. The relationship of the artist and their inspiration is a complex one and not an easy one to achieve and it is particularly difficult to convey in a silent film. This is where Dreyer’s artistry shines.

The relationship between the Master and Michael is a more complexly layered one with elements of father and son, artist and muse, master and protégé and suggestions of a homosexual relationship between them. All this is difficult to convey in any film, never mind a silent one, but Dreyer manages to do so.

The other element of Dreyer’s great skill in the film is through the set design and the performances of the actors themselves. The elaborateness of the sumptuous sets and the rich lighting all support the baroque drama of the plot’s romance and tragedy. Dreyer draws much meaning through the eyes of the actors rather than the exaggerated gestures we might be more familiar with from other silent films of the period. “Michael” hints at the greatness Dreyer would achieve in his later films, but in its own right it is a magnificent film from this era of cinema.

“BLACK EAGLE”— Two Disc Special Edition on Blu-ray + DVD

“BLACK EAGLE”

Two Disc Special Edition on Blu-ray + DVD

Amos Lassen

“MVD Entertainment Group is proud to announce MVD Rewind Collection #3 “Black Eagle” in a two- disc Blu-ray + DVD Special Edition combo pack coming February 27, 2018.”

”Black Eagle” was a video store staple back in the 1980’s and features action film star Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport, Kickboxer) going head to head with martial arts legend Sho Kosugi (Enter the Ninja, Pray for Death)! “After an F-11 gets shot down over the Mediterranean Sea, The U.S. government cannot afford to lose the top-secret laser tracking device that was on board. But unfortunately, the KGB team lead by the infamous Andrei (Jean-Claude Van Damme) are beating the CIA in the race to find it. The CIA has no choice but to call in their best man, master martial-artist Ken Tani (Sho Kosugi), code name, Black Eagle. In response, the KGB resorts to an all-out war, with powerful Andrei matching Ken blow for blow. The movie was directed by legendary action director Eric Karson and William Bassett.’

“MVD Rewind Collection’s release of “Black Eagle” is the definitive edition of this 80’s action classic that includes two versions of the film and over two hours of additional material including deleted scenes and all-new interviews produced exclusively for this release.”

My review:

“Black Eagle” is very much a product of the time during which it was made – the eighties – when Cold War paranoia was high and when any action movie would be green-lit, especially if it featured some communists getting blown up by a square-jawed American patriot.

Sho Kosugi takes the lead here as a specialist CIA agent, Ken Tani (aka ‘Black Eagle’) who is sent across to Malta to prevent the communists from getting their hands on some kind of very special laser guided missile system that went down with an F11 plane that crashed in the sea off the island’s coast, after being allegedly shot down. Ken is reluctant to go since he’s got his annual leave planned with his two young sons, but when the CIA brings the boys over so that he can spend some time with them when he’s off duty, he agrees to at least be involved with the surveillance side of the operation. Things get a little more complicated with the arrival of a KGB team, which includes the infamous Andrei (Van Damme), who are hell-bent on retrieving the tracking device before the Americans do. What follows is a pretty standard cold war action-thriller that gets bogged down with too many characters and a subplot involving Ken’s two sons, who get kidnapped partway through. 

“Black Eagle” is billed as a Jean-Claude Van Damme film, but in fact it was only his second feature film appearance and he only has 70 words to say. This is definitely Kosugi’s film, and although he does his best, his limited English vocabulary and thick accent make him a harder sell as a lead player in an American movie. However, the fight scenes are pretty decent and his stand-offs against Van Damme are good.

The movie takes itself way too seriously and the pacing of the film is very up and down. It is more of an espionage film rather than a straight action film. The film is nicely shot and the great Malta locations are beautiful. Van Damme does his best, but still comes over as a little wooden, but you can see why he went on to become such a big action star. He is filled with charisma and athleticism. The scene of him on the boat, doing the splits across two barrels, whilst also knife-throwing, is quite unforgettable.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES include:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations of the main feature.
  • Original 2.0 Stereo Audio (Uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray) and Dolby Digital 5.1.
  • Includes 93 minute theatrical version + 104 minute uncut extended version of the film.
  • Sho Kosugi: Martial Arts Legend (HD, 21:26) (featuring new interviews with Sho Kosugi and Shane Kosugi and more) MVD Rewind EXCLUSIVE!
  • The Making of BLACK EAGLE(HD, 35:50)(featuring new interviews with Director / Producer Eric Karson, Screenwriter Michael Gonzalez and stars Sho Kosugi, Doran Clark, Shane Kosugi and Dorota Puzio) MVD Rewind EXCLUSIVE!
  • Tales of Jean-Claude Van Damme (HD, 19:20) (Brand new interviews with cast and crew tell stories about working with the legendary action star) MVD Rewind EXCLUSIVE!
  • The Script and the Screenwriters (HD, 27:14) (featuring Michael Gonzales, Eric Karson and more) MVD Rewind EXCLUSIVE!
  • Deleted Scenes 
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (SD)
  • Collectible Poster

As with all MVD Rewind Collection releases, this Blu-ray + DVD Special Edition combo pack is housed in a limited edition “retro style” slipcover with the film’s original 80’s artwork. The slip will only be available on the first pressing and once MVD runs out… it’s gone (the slipcover… not the release).