Category Archives: Film

“FAREWELL TO HOLLYWOOD”— Love, Art, Death and Letting Go

farewell to hollywood

“Farewell to Hollywood”

Love, Art, Death and Letting Go

Amos Lassen

Reggie Nicholson is 17-years-old and suffers from a terminal illness. Her parents and she share the dream of making a film before she dies and she has taken this so seriously that director Henry Corra has done just that and he gives us a powerful portrait of Reggie and shares her quest for artistic and personal freedom.

When we meet Reggie in this documentary we see that she has a very strong personality and seems wiser than she should at her young age. As she and Corra worked together they developed a close friendship. He became her collaborator as well as her friend and defender. “This film is a poetic fairytale about love and death, holding on and letting go, one that invites us to discuss the relationship between filmmaker, subject and family.”

We see a certain intimacy in the film that includes text messages, scenes and images from Reggie’s favorite movies and song but above all else we see an emotional and heartwarming yet also heartbreaking and controversial ode to Reggie’s life. She is an obsessive cinephile, battling a terminal illness and with a mission to make one feature movie before she died. What developed over nearly two years is the film and the powerful friendship between director and film subject. The documentary seesaws between the brutal realities of Reggie’s daily life and the films that she keeps in her mind. What we actually see is a chronicle of Reggie’s struggles to realize her dream, while her choices and her time with us here become fewer and fewer. We are also very aware that her relationship with Corra and their commitment to each other and to art was not expected and they soon relish every moment that they are together. It is almost as if we are Reggie and we identify with her fight for happiness, love and the desire to stay alive. Perhaps the circumstances are not the same but we all either feel or have felt what she was dealing with her (and yes, the use of the past tense here is an omen). All of us, like Reggie, want to live and die on our own terms.

Regina Nicholson is a beautiful symbol of maturity and grace and it makes us cry, laugh and love. While the message of the film is universal it is different for every viewer because each of us is different and our reactions to both life and death vary and are unique.

Both Corra and Reggie filmed the documentary and ultimately it is a tribute to a life shortly lived but one that was filled with beauty. The film will open in New York at Cinema Village on Wednesday, February 25 (the day of Reggie Nicholson’s birthday), and at the Noho 7 in Los Angeles on Friday, March 13. A national release will follow.

“MISS AMERICA!”— From the Beginning

miss America

“MISS AMERICA!”

From the Beginning

Amos Lassen

How ironic to get a copy of Ron de Moraes documentary on the same day that former Miss America, Bess Myerson died. The documentary looks at the Miss America pageant and its coming together with race, sex and women’s liberation. The film was originally broadcast on PBS in 2002 as part of the American Experience series. This film follows the story of the Pageant from its beginnings in 1921, while at the same time explores what it means to be an “ideal” American woman. It combines rare archival footage, with a host of intimate interviews with distinguished commentators including Gloria Steinem, Margaret Cho, Isaac Mizrahi, former contestants and behind-the-scenes footage and photographs. We see how the pageant became a battleground and a barometer for the changing position of women in society.

“A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT”— A Vampire Film from Japan

a girl walks home alone

“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

A Vampire Film from Iran

Amos Lassen

Bad City is an Iranian ghost town that smells of death and loneliness. Those who live there have no idea that there is a vampire in their mist and she is lonely. This is director Ana Lily Amirpour’s auspicious debut feature— a sly, vampire romance set in an imaginary Iranian underworld. We might even call it a Middle Eastern feminist vampire romance. The film starts slowly and this is because the opening beats are concerned with establishing the personal and financial woes of protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi a pretty young punk with a fancy, sleek vintage sports car and dreams that stretch beyond Bad City. However is exit is blocked by Hossein (Marshall Manesh), his dying, dependent junkie of a dad, and dangerous dealer Saeed, who, owed an unpayable sum by Hossein, takes Arash’s beloved ride instead.

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Saeed is a misogynist with the word “sex” tattooed across his throat. He works part time as a pimp who abuses his prostitute (Mozhan Marno) who should have retired years ago. When he meets the silent, serene-faced girl of the title (Sheila Vand), who is a creature of the night with a taste for dark lipstick and dreamy electro-pop, she appears to take feisty inspiration from the poster of Madonna on her bedroom wall. She preys on men who take as given the submissiveness of women in her position, she also performs a little grassroots gender reformation, scaring the wits out of a pre-adolescent with promises of what will happen if he’s not “a good boy.” She’s disarmed, however, by Arash, a romantic whose respect for more archaic Islamic codes of honor between men and women draws mockery from others. As she chastely submits to his wooing, even her vampiric instincts are suspended: Rather than pierce his flesh, she allows him to pierce her ears in a tender, erotically charged scene. Some may see this development as running counter to the film’s female-empowerment agenda, but non-violent equality is name of the game.

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The crumbling industrial architecture and tell us that the town is sparsely populated and has a potent stench of economic death; while the piles of dead bodies by the roadside are a pungent reminder of the high mortality rate of humans. Those that live there are primarily by drug-addled pimps and hookers and we see that Bad City represents the dregs of humanity, scavengers scavenging to get by. A mysterious woman (Vand) wears a ḥijāb-approved chādor that respectfully covers up her new wave style. She gets around town on a skateboard. She personifies Iranian feminism as she devours misogynistic, socially conservative men who expect women to be willingly subservient.

When she meets Arash her female empowerment agenda is almost dumped. She is charmed by him and he is one of the few residents of the town that actually works. Arash hopes to save up enough cash to eventually escape, a plan that has been helplessly foiled by the insurmountable debt that his good-for-nothing junkie father. Presumably stunted by Arash’s hopeless situation, she innocently falls prey to his charming powers of seduction that overpower her vampiric bloodlust and we see love overcoming violence.

The film is in black and white to emphasize the surreal atmosphere. While the pacing, as I said, is slow, there is no tension and while this s titles as a horror film, it is not. Here is a vampire film with the theme of female redemption, something we do not usually get in a film of this sort. Women are normally the vulnerable victims that are preyed upon by the bloodthirsty male creature. However, the vampire film is taken in a new direction when the feature’s single vampire happens to be a female. wearing a hijab. In the West we tend to consider the hijab to be an oppressive aspect of Islam but that is not always so. For many Muslim women, it’s simply a way of expressing one’s personal faith. In fact, it’s often worn with a sense of empowerment, even by many in American culture today.

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Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has loaded this film with metaphors. One of the key ones is that of a cat that Arash takes home. Nobody seems to want it, as it continues to move from one location to the next. However, the cat largely acts as a human character in its own right. Obviously, it doesn’t speak, but it takes on many traits that affect the film’s story in monumental ways. The cat seems to be watching over Arash, as Amirpour constantly refers back to the cat’s reaction before a major turning point occurs.

We do not have many films like this and that is one reason that you should want to see it. It’s an intriguing look at two people who are simply looking for a clean slate to start a better life.

“HATUFIM” (“PRISONERS OF WAR)— The Inspiration for “Homeland”

prisoners of war dvd poster

“Hatufim”(“Prisoners of War”)

The Inspiration for “Homeland”

Amos Lassen

After 17 years in captivity, Israeli soldiers Nimrode Klein and Uri Zach return home to the country that made them national icons. They work to overcome the trauma of torture and captivity while settling back into their interrupted family lives. Both are bothered heavily by the fact that the third member of the trio who were captured, Amiel Ben Horin did not come home with them. However, what many think is his corpse did return. Meanwhile, the military psychiatrist assigned to them finds discrepancies in the soldiers’ testimonies, and launches an investigation to discover what they are hiding.

This is the acclaimed Israeli drama series that was the inspiration for the American series, “Homeland” and we can now see all of the episodes of episodes the first and second season on seven DVDs that including behind the scenes interviews and scenes that were edited down. Writer/director Gideon Raff and cast conclude more than two months of intense photographs all over the country.

“Prisoners of War” is really a drama more than a thriller. It is about the trials and tribulations of family, friends and the prisoners themselves. The main theme throughout is guilt— every character has done something, to a more or lesser degree, wrong. Some try to make amends but for others amends are an impossibility. A lot of the characters have something to hide but, as they struggle under the strain, they only end up making things worse for themselves and those around them. There is tension from the very beginning and I found that just as I thought I knew what was coming, I really did not.

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The two POWs that come home are shocked by the changes they encounter off the plane, with the feeling being mutual from their respective loved ones. Nimrode, runs headlong back into everyday life, trying to ignore his troubles from the past seventeen years as a captive. He, his wife and children must play happy families, despite the fact his teenage son hasn’t met him before. Amiel’s, the prisoner who didn’t make it, sister Yael, must struggle with the fact the brother she thought was alive is now dead, and can only seem to do this by seeing visions of him around the house. Uri’s wife didn’t wait around like Nimrode’s. She married his brother and had a son.

However, it is not all gloomy. There is humor found in the series that helps the series from becoming too dark and depressing. The situations are made all the more human for it and I was drawn into the situations with a lot more emotion than if everything just kept getting worse and everyone remained sad and unable to deal with the new realities that they found.

A basic set entraps two or more people as they must talk through their differences. All the characters have friction with each other and the realism plays out through the revealing of motives and the reasons behind their decisions. The actors are all good and there are no show off performances. Everyone does their best in developing their characters; meaning already good writing is helped along.

Each character is at times unlikeable. It is through flashbacks and back stories that we understand why they do what they do. Mostly everyone has three dimensions, no character is more important than another. There isn’t the traditional protagonist-antagonist relationship besides the occasional interjection from Haim Cohen, the psychiatrist interviewing the soldiers, who in his quest to find the truth behind the suspicious prisoners’ behavior, is perhaps the only character we do not totally understand until later.

Because of this focus on characters and relationships, the series moves at a slow pace. Tension builds, both in Cohen’s pursuit and the prisoner’s struggle with everyday life. The way the characters are balanced against each other is one of the finest aspects of the series. It flows from one character to another, even if they have no relation to each other. We want to find out what happens to everyone. What will happen with Uri and his ex-wife? Will Nimrode be able to survive trying to live out his pre-war dreams? Will Amiel’s dogs get walked each and everyday?

There are some aspects to the plot that we see coming and this, for me, is the only minus of the series. Some elements are a mystery, though. We’re introduced to Ilan who helps the prisoners get back on their feet. But his concentration falls fully on Yael after a few episodes. We’re supposed to see him as selfless and commendable, but really he’s too busy getting busy with Yael to help out the guys who have been prisoners of war for the past seventeen years and the character who’s supposed to be most sympathetic is, actually, the least sympathetic of all.

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The scenes that jump back to the imprisonment of the three soldiers work well and are realistic enough (These flashbacks are gradually extended, slowly revealing important plot points or character motivations and it is constantly a fresh approach to telling the story. We all get turned around at the end and realize that the series is more about real emotion and situations than chases and stark reveals. The tension that’s most built up is a psychological one within the prisoners. The slow pace benefits the series that it takes its time and slowly shows the audience every intricacy of a character as opposed to going too quickly at first and leaving nothing for the ending.

The family and friends’ relationships and responses feel as real as the torture scenes. The series is a gripping, moving character based drama, examining a situation that most of us cannot begin to imagine the reality of, yet it somehow manages to be relatable. What this series has “Homeland” does not is heart.

While ‘Hatufim’ is definitely worth being judged on its own merits, it probably will, for some time, always be compared to the US series that was based on this Israeli original but ‘Hatufim’ doesn’t have to shy away from the comparison. In fact, I think it is the superior show of the two. Whereas ‘Homeland’ is clearly in the same vein as other US shows and boosts a fast pace, twists and turns and lots of action, ‘Hatufim’ is much more of a psychological thriller. On the surface much less happens than does in ‘Homeland’, but ‘Hatufim’ involves a lot more subtleties as well as realism and character study.

One petty note—because I am fluent in Hebrew I found, several times  that the subtitles were not true translations and they often bothered me. This was also the first time that I have seen the name “Nimrode” spelled with a final “e” which makes it rhyme with toad when in reality it rhymes with sod. But that is minor and a personal quibble.

“JAFFA”— A Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet

jaffa

“Jaffa”

A  Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet

Amos Lassen

Reuven (Moni Moshonov) owns a garage in Jaffa and it is his family’s business. It is not a big moneymaker and the family struggles to make ends meet. All of the family members work alongside mechanics Toufik (Mahmud Shalaby) and his father Hassan (Hussein Yassin Mahajne). Mali, the family daughter, (Dana Ivgy) and Toufik are secret lovers and they plot a secret elopement to Cyprus, where they can legally marry. However, Mali’s lazy and obnoxious brother Meir (Roy Assaf) stirs things up and lays bare prejudices that tear the two families apart. Avoiding the usual clichés of the differences between Jews and Arabs, “Jaffa” is an honest and moving look at just how hard it is for love to conquer all

Mali and Toufik have been in love for years. As the two lovers are secretly making their wedding arrangements, tension builds between Meir and Toufik. Since the Arabs are good workers, Reuven offers them respect, though not so much that he’d ever approve of his daughter’s relationship with an Arab. Meir, a young man who is full of rage and is the family’s black sheep and whipping boy keen to exert any kind of power, is more open about his prejudices, and a heated fistfight with Toufik ends in Meir’s accidental death. Toufik is sent to jail and Mali who is pregnant with his child, ends the affair but has the baby, telling her parents the father is a married man best forgotten. Despite the outward show of grief, peace reigns in the Wolf household until, nine years later, Toufik gets out of the slammer, ignorant of the existence of his daughter, Shiran (Lily Ivgy).

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The film follows Mali Wolf as she carries on an illicit (and secret) relationship with a Palestinian mechanic named Toufik with their happiness inevitably threatened by the increasingly threatening actions of Mali’s hotheaded brother, Meir. Director Keren Yedaya has infused with a seriously deliberate pace that is, at the outset, compounded by her emphasis on grating characters, with Assaf’s over-the-top turn as Mali’s ill-tempered sibling often threatening to negate the film’s atmosphere of gritty authenticity because of his belligerency. The inclusion of several infuriating periphery figures including Mali’s aggressively unlikable mother (Ronit Elkabetz’s Osnat) seemingly to make even stronger proof that this film is going nowhere and is an obnoxious piece of work. Then comes a twist that cause the film to move in a different direction. It becomes a melodrama that falls flat. Things did improve in the second half but it is impossible to forget the first 45 minutes which are disastrous.

“FRINGES”— Three Jewish styles of Contemporary Jewish identity

fringes

“FRINGES”

Three Jewish styles of Contemporary Jewish identity

Amos Lassen

 In “Fringes” we meet the founders and participants of the secular yeshivah in Jerusalem, Jewish farmers in rural Virginia and a Bratslav like rabbi and his wife in Montreal (who plan to make aliyah to Israel). We get to know and like the people in the film, all of whom represented non-mainstream positive attempts at creating a meaningful, contemporary, religious or spiritual Jewish identity.

Pablo Elliott who is a Jewish organic farmer who lives in rural Virginia realizes that sometimes his family’s Judaism looks as if “we’re making it up as we go along.” He further says that they do but that celebrations of Shabbat and community are full of sincerity and devotion. What he and his family are doing he explains is creating a live and that this has always gone on in Judaism. People like Pablo and his wife, and the others featured in the film, are living full, joyous and meaningful Jewish lives yet they are different from what many of us know what being Jewish is all about.

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Director Paula Weiman-Kelman says that her aim with this film was to show real life and not a reality television version of it. She gives us, in the beginning of the film, an image of three strands of challah being braided into one bread and this, we can say, is the theme of the film—three stories coming together to make a larger whole with each story having its own sweetness, desires and ideas of holiness.

The different segments of the film are framed by Jewish texts, usually brief quotes from traditional sources (plus some non-traditional sources), and the camera shifts between the goings on of two couples and a trio of friends working to build the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In addition to Pablo and his wife Esther, the other couple — Rabbi Leibush and Dena Hundert run Montreal’s Ghetto Shul, a cultural center, café and synagogue that all share one building. The people that we meet here are not involved with joining established institutions but making their own and expanding the “sukkat shalom” of the Jewish religion. While there are no ready answers about what they are doing and how they are doing it, there are lots of questions. These people have chosen to live Jewish lives and this choice provides a beautiful backdrop for sustaining a religion that keeps up with the modern age. The choices that they make are interesting and unexpected and we return here to the eternal question of not what is a Jew rather how some Jews live serious Jewish lives. The usual markers of secular/religious or Reform/Conservative/Orthodox etc. are not relevant here.

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We meet Esther Mandelbaum who was born in the former Soviet Union and who came to the U.S. when she was 10-years-old. She doesn’t remember the exact moment when she was told she was a Jew, but she always felt proud. For her, life was always on the fringes, whether she was a Jew in the Soviet Union, as an immigrant in America, and now as a Jewish farmer in Virginia. Her husband Pablo converted to Judaism before they got married, and she, whose Jewishness comes from her father, also formally converted. They’re an inspiring couple whose Judaism infuses everything they do. Not only are they very involved in their local (but not close-by) Jewish community; they are also connected to the larger Jewish food movement and the national organization, Hazon. They cook Shabbat meals with the produce they grow on Stony Lonesome Organic Farm, and they share what they reap with local people who buy shares, as part of Community Sponsored Agriculture cooperative. Some viewers might find it strange that after lighting Shabbat candles, Mandelbaum then lights the stove. Nonetheless, her passion for observance is seen in this simple act.

The young Israelis who organize the Secular Yeshiva reflect young people today who are at the point where they are wondering what they want out of life, and want to figure out how to connect the spiritual moments with their own traditions. Even as they declare themselves secular, they say God is part of their lives. They study together in the style of a traditional yeshiva, adding a modern and secular twist. Viewers see them doing the physical work of building, painting, filling bookcases, learning, dancing and singing. Nir Amit who is one of the founders says, “Human beings are more complex than simply Jewish or secular or religious. It’s not either or; it’s also this and this. Sometimes I’m all of them, even if it’s contradictory.”

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One of the special treats of the film is that each story features music—Pablo is a musician; the yeshiva students are joined by Israeli singer Berry Sakharof, and Rabbi Leibush Hundert is a jazz saxophonist. Dena Hundert has returned to Judaism and covers her hair. She wants a kind of life that is different from the way she grew up and this is what she is creating in her own home. Her husband, the rabbi, is a follower of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and says that if he cannot find his own community, he creates one. As the Hunderts build their lives in Montreal, Israel is a pull and eventually they make plans to close the shul and make aliyah.

I feel fairly sure that if we met any of these three groups outside the lens of the film, we would be astonished at how they seemingly cope so well seesawing between tradition and a much wider world perspective on sex, lettuce and rock and roll. We will probably wonder how Leibish with his black beard, payot and ultra-Orthodox garb can run a music club with men and women mingling freely? How do Pablo and Esther live a satisfying traditional Jewish life so many miles from the nearest shul, and when they don’t sell their produce on Shabbat (the main market day for local organic farms)? What is a secular yeshiva whose study hall is populated with stacks of thick Talmuds were men and women study holy writings together? The film shows us the people here as part of the mosaic of modern Jewish life and that there are vibrant Jewish communities where pluralism and tolerance are the norm.

“PROTOCOLS OF ZION”— The Rise of the New Anti-Semitism

protocols of zion

“Protocols of Zion”

The Rise of the New  Anti-Semitism

Amos Lassen

After the terror attacks of September 11, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism in America. It seems that some felt that the Jews were responsible for the terrorism. Once again these feelings were fed by the repeatedly debunked book libel, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and its disguised adaptations. Director Marc Levin goes on a journey to interview the promoters of this kind of hate in all its forms

Levin investigates slander in “Protocols of Zion”, a documentary that looks into the origins and contemporary influences of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which was written in late-19th century Russia and later championed by Hitler. The book—condemned in the film as “the oldest recorded bigotry in history”—is a fancifully hateful tome that purports to be the transcribed minutes of a secret meeting between Jewish leaders in which they discuss their plans for world domination. Preposterous beyond belief, the volume (available at Wal-Mart, no less) nonetheless continues to be an international bestseller, a fact that Levin came to realize when he met an Egyptian cab driver in Manhattan who cited the book as proof that Jews had known about the World Trade Center attacks beforehand (and thus had successfully evacuated all other Jews from the buildings before they collapsed). Levin is a Jew whose ancestors faced severe prejudice after emigrating to the U.S. in the 1930s and he was motivated by this chance encounter to record his personal cinematic examination of anti-Semitism’s various strands, from the disgusting idiocy that he heard on the sidewalks adjacent to Ground Zero (highlighted by a man who slams not only Jewish NYC Mayor Bloomberg, but also “Jewliani” as well), to the cheesy Middle East TV-movies based on the original “Protocols” that depicts Christian children being murdered so their blood can be used for matzoh production, to the violent opinions of Palestinians living in America. By making his own on-the-scene inquiry the film’s unifying thread, Levin brings a personal intimacy to his subject even as it becomes clear that the multifaceted issue is just too unwieldy for a 93-minute documentary to properly handle. Furthermore, his clear-sighted arguments somewhat suffer from a profusion of scenes in which the director argues with random street-side strangers (some uninformed or just plain insane) about their outrageous beliefs. The film powerfully conveys the despicably fictitious ways in which scapegoats are manufactured, and the method by which irrational blame-games fuel mass intolerance. 

Levin uses himself as a character ala Michael Moore and he further personalizes the documentary by having his elderly father tag along. Levin is fearless in challenging a wide assortment of street corner agitators, newspaper editors, Nazi sympathizers, and talk-radio callers. Levin usually tries to speak from the left, but the more he invokes the power of a multinational, capitalist global system, the more his anti-Semites hear the word Jew. The filmmaker is utterly dumbfounded when it is explained to him that as Rupert Murdoch is a media mogul, he is necessarily Jewish.

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The film amply demonstrates that, as with any sort of racial-nationalist paranoia, anti-Semitism has very little to do with actual Jews and everything to do with imagined ones.

There is one sequence when Levin travels to Hollywood, trying to gather prominent Hollywood Jews for a round-table discussion of anti-Semitism and the film “The Passion Of The Christ”. Levin’s film has a noble aim: He wants to explore the enduring popularity of “The Protocol Of The Elders Of Zion”, a seminal, transparently fictitious anti-Semitic document ostensibly recording the minutes of a meeting of Jews plotting world domination, and its relationship with the conspiracy theory that Jews and/or Israel were somehow responsible for 9/11.

Intriguingly, Levin sees that there are powerful forces controlling the world semi-covertly and that they’re powerful multinational corporations and tycoons like Rupert Murdoch, not scheming Jews. Levin tries to spark a dialogue about the nature of anti-Semitism, and he succeeds in sparking a dialogue, but the agitated emotions and hot air on both sides add disappointingly little to the debate. Sometimes the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

There are more than a few moments in the film when we fear for Marc Levin’s life. Levin stands toe-to-toe with his ideological enemies, but he also remains lucid and calm enough to converse rationally with frenzied street preachers, enraged Islamists and neo-Nazi skinheads. With this admirable cool, Levin probes further into the minds of hateful ignoramuses than most any of us would be comfortable to go. The resulting product, while often fascinating, isn’t pretty.

After watching this documentary we ask ourselves whether anti-Semitism is really as rampant as the film infers. There are countless fringe ideologies in America that have enough practitioners to fill a 90-minute documentary, but Levin does not do enough to demonstrate how rampant or deep-rooted the problem may actually be. Still, with a long, global history of discrimination against Jews, and the rising influence of Islamic extremism around the world, this film may well be a warning that needs heeding.

On the DVD there are a couple of deleted scenes, which mostly consist of excised interviews. There is also a Q and A session that Levin participated in with an audience after one of the film’s screenings. Levin is an arresting speaker, and he draws you in while expounding on his interactions with outspoken bigots and sharing his thoughts on possible solutions to Anti-Semitism’s rising threat. For anyone with concerns or interests in the subject matter, this film is not going to be comforting, but, as Levin implores his film’s audience, it may inspire you to counter the hate and ignorance by doing good.

“WHITE RABBIT”— Bullying

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“White Rabbit”

Bullying

Amos Lassen

Harlon Mackey (Nick Krause) has had tormenting visions ever since his father, an alcoholic (Sam Trammell) forced him to kill an innocent rabbit while hunting as a boy. Now that Harlon is a bullied high school teen, his undiagnosed mental illness is getting worse. He hear voices, and his imagination encourages him to do violent things. But then he meets Julie (Britt Robertson), a rebellious young girl, moves to town and befriends Harlon. However, when she betrays him, the rabbit along with other imaginary comic book characters taunt him into committing one final act of revenge. The line between reality and Harlon’s imagination begin to grow cloudy.

The film deals with a relevant topic—it seems whenever we listen to the news there is a story about bullying and how it caused someone to snap. While this is a strong film about a delicate subject, it provides a way for us to talk about the subject and its terrible effects.

Harlon has one friend in the whole world, Steve (Ryan Lee), and his only two pleasures are shooting at targets with his rifle and losing himself in comic books. When something goes wrong with Julie, he is pushed him over the edge, leading him to do the unthinkable. The movie carefully looks at the nature vs. nurture debate. We are with Harlon as he sets out on his journey of self-discovery, where the outcome is as shocking as it is inevitable. We try to understand just how it got to what it did.

Nick Krause is excellent as Harlon and with a character like this he could have been easily overplayed but Krause keeps it all in check. His main job seems to involve us as we are to make a decision as to who he is and Krause does not lead us one way or the other—he keeps everything neutral. We watch him change from a quiet kid into a nightmare. He won the Best Actor award at the Boston Film Festival for his portrayal of Harlon (with Best Supporting Actor going to Sam Trammell and Best Supporting Actress to Britt Robertson).

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Darrell is a character we can occasionally sympathize with but his early and poor judgment makes us want to blame him for all that Harlon had to suffer. But it is here that any more information about the plot would ruin anyone’s viewing experience. This is one of those films that lend itself to thinking, “What if”?

When we are first introduced to Harlon, we meet a young boy who doesn’t really have the best father figure in Darrell (Sam Trammell). Darrell is the type who would call his own son a pussy, amongst other terms. But thankfully Harlon has best friend Steve (Ryan Lee), and eventually has something going on with Julie (Britt Robertson). But as circumstances lead to both leaving his side, and the comics Harlon loves being taken away by his dad, all means of relief leave. Thus making it seem only the voice of the White Rabbit (Todd Mclaren) can talk Harlon out of doing something drastic.

What really makes this a must-see is the way it builds to the end. We can easily understand why it ends the way it does because we have been with it as things happen. *Spoiler alert*. We see how everything adds up so the finale is not surprising although it is devastating.

“KADDISH FOR A FRIEND”— Reconciliation and Forgiveness

kaddish for a friend poster

“Kaddish for a Friend”

Reconciliation and Forgiveness

Amos Lassen

Ali is fourteen years old and grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp where he learned at an early age to hate Jews. He moved to Berlin with his family where they hoped to find a new life and he really wanted to be accepted by his Jewish-hating fellow Arab youths in the public housing project where they live. In a test to prove himself, Ali breaks into the apartment of his neighbor Alexander, an elderly Russian Jewish war veteran. But Ali’s “friends” follow him into the apartment and vandalize it. When Alexander unexpectedly returns home, he recognizes only Ali and reports him to the police. To avoid being sentenced and deported, Ali is forced to seek out the trust and forgiveness of his enemy. This is a moving story of reconciliation and forgiveness that transcends the clichéd relationship of a boy and an older man and crosses deep ethnic and religious divisions between Jews and Arabs. It is the film debut of director Leo Khasin and is a poignant, dramatically charged and wryly funny film about tolerance, guilt, forgiveness and healing.

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The film was inspired by a true story and stars Neil Belakhdar who is quite a find as the Palestinian teenager Ali Messalam. He’s bright and gets good grades at school, but has inherited a dislike and distrust of Jews from his bigoted father. It opens with the Palestinian family moving into a seedy apartment in a public housing block in Berlin’s working class Kreuzberg quarter. Living upstairs is Alexander Zamskoy (Ryszard Ronczewski), an elderly, feisty Russian Jew who has lived in Germany for 30 years. Ali is goaded on by his cousin and several thug friends from the neighborhood, and they break into the old man’s apartment while he’s at a Jewish war veterans association meeting and vandalize his apartment and spray painting ‘Jew = Nazi” on one wall.

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On his return Zamskoy sees Ali feeing from his apartment and calls the police who interrogate Ali and charge him with burglary and incitement to racial hatred. Ali is warned that if he is convicted, he could be deported so he informs his pregnant mother. She chooses not to tell her husband (Neil Malik Abdullah), a rough and insensitive guy and forces Ali to apologize to Alexander and to offer to repair and repaint his apartment. The old man is initially is reluctant to accept either gesture but relents as he fears he may be forced by well-meaning social services officers to vacate his flat and move into an aged care home.

The relationship between Ali and Alexander at first is one of resentment on both sides. Ali tells him that trashing his flat was ‘nothing personal,” and this prompts Alexander to ask in bewilderment, ‘What did the Jews do to you to make you think the way you do?” Ali answers, ‘Stole our land,” and this is, of course, referring to Palestine.

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The performances by the two leads are excellent. Belakhdar, a thin boy is fully believable as a young man who learns to set aside ingrained prejudice. Ali’s exchanges with Alexander are sharply written and a confrontation with his father heightens the dramatic impact.

Eighty-one year old Ronczewski deftly handles his character’s transformation and is especially touching in scenes when Alexander makes a regular pilgrimage to a cemetery where he tends to his wife’s grave and to speak tenderly to her. He also grieves the loss of his son years ago. The Kaddish of the title is a Jewish prayer for the dead, is a potent symbol. Director Khasin never lets excessive sentimentality overwhelm the engrossing narrative.

 

 

“THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT”— In the Kitchen

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“The Strange Little Cat” (“Das merkwürdige Kätzchen”)

In the Kitchen

Amos Lassen

 Siblings Karin and Simon have come to visit their parents and their little sister Clara. That evening, other relatives will be joining them for dinner. When we meet everyone they all; seem to be quite ordinary; they speak about regular things as they sit and “schmooze”. We see people who live in a world of coming and going and who do all manner of doings, each movement leading to the next, one word following another. Yet we see silent gazes and anecdotes about experiences. The people act oddly; their dialogues are direct and unemotional. Even the pets and the material surroundings play a part. Some objects seem alive as if by magic. Commonplace actions and familiar items appear absurd and eerie in this narrative cosmos. So what could Ramon Zürcher have to tell us about ordinary people doing ordinary things? Just wait a few minutes.

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In its opening minutes, an orange tabby paws at a door, opening its mouth to meow. Zürcher matches the shot with an off-screen sound cue of a family’s youngest daughter, Clara (Mia Kasalo), screeching in tune with a kitchen appliance. It’s a disarming effect. At first we think the kitty has the voice of a wailing child—strange, indeed—only to realize that Zürcher is cuing us to his next scene, as he simultaneously collapses and expands the space of the smallish family apartment in which the bulk of the film, excluding some anecdotal flashbacks, unfolds. Yet even though the film takes place in the single setting of the kitchen, it begins to feel roomy thus not like a claustrophobic place and it sets the tone for what is to follow. The film is one of overlapping sound design, careful camera shots and controlled minimalism. We soon see that the film is not about cat slinking in and out of the frame, but a “magic bottle” that recurs throughout—a glass container which, when filled with just the right amount of water, appears to wobble continually inside of a kitchen pot. As the characters joke, quarrel, and chat, director Zürcher pays particular attention to the tiny details of their environment: a loose screw rattling inside a washing machine, a grocery list, a moth flitting about from room to room, and of course, that cat.

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We watch the family reveal bits about themselves through digressive stories and we see that most movies offer us a chance to look at multiple meanings of our lives as we deal with the typical occurrences of the day. Every once in while we see a special film that awakens our senses, stimulates our minds, and awes us with a magical and momentous appreciation of everyday spirituality.

The mother (Jenny Shily) floats around the space, sometimes giving orders, other times escaping to look out the window. Her smart and sensitive daughter Clara (Mia Kasalo) has the irritating habit of yelling loudly whenever a kitchen appliance goes off. We hear the screeching of a cat, the barking of a dog, the clanging of a washing machine, the shutting of a door, the grinding of the garbage disposal, and the whirl of a blender. Most amazing of all is the “magic bottle” on the stove that spins around speaking its own improvisational story. The father (Matthias Dittmer) arrives in the kitchen and asks Clara to spell milk and salad. Mother gives her some bits and pieces to feed the sparrows only to find out that Clara has stopped this act of charity. Karin (Anjorka Strechel), the older daughter, asks, “Is Clara crazy?” and Mother replies, “Yes.” Then Karin adds, “The cat is crazy, too.” Then we see the orange tabby clawing at a shut door and meowing. She also comes into the cramped kitchen and manages to jump up on the table and knock a glass to the floor. The cat, we realize, is living in its own little world just like all the family members who surround her.

Mother may or may not be having an affair with her sister’s husband who shows up to fix the washing machine. She tells Karin about an unsettling incident at the movie theater where a man put his foot over hers. She waited for him to remove it but he didn’t. She tried to concentrate on the screen but found herself focused on his foot on top of hers. Finally, he removed it and she felt a great sense of liberation. What is important about this conversation is that we get an idea that the mother has sexual desires that are not being taken care of by her husband. The other conversations really have no depth but this one seems to.

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Others arrive including Clara and Karin’s brother, grandma, and a quiet teenager. The movements are dance like as various characters squeeze by each other putting away the dishes, getting a cup of tea, stepping aside to let another pass. I can see how some may find this to be a detailed portrait of the obstacles to spirituality put up by the daily distractions of unimportant chat, time-consuming and boring chores, and constant noise but there is something else. These obstacles and complications show that the sacred is carried into our hearts and minds by crazy cats, magical bottles on the stove, honest confessions, and cups of tea that bring great pleasure. Sacred does not come in spiritual retreats are weird experiences but it what we do on a daily basis.

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The ensemble cast exudes an easy chemistry, managing to suggest a shared wealth of family in-jokes and anecdotes without ever articulating them. Snappy dialogue is a key ingredient, but movement is crucial, too. These characters dance around each other in their cramped hallway and crowded kitchen, their actions choreographed as much as scripted. At times, we could almost be watching a modern dance piece or art-gallery installation.

There are so many witty touches and sharp little observations here that The Strange Little Cat can be forgiven for ultimately making no dramatic statement. There are no shock revelations, no resolutions, and it reveals almost nothing about its characters. This is excellent minimalist filmmaking par excellence and a delight to watch.