Category Archives: Film

“THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER”— The Vaudeville Super Star

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“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker”

The Vaudeville Super Star

Amos Lassen

Sophie Tucker was an icon who ruled the Flapper era. She came before all the feisty broads that followed—Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler, Madonna and Lady Gaga. She was the first woman to infatuate her audiences with a bold, bawdy and brassy style unlike any other previous performer. Her nickname was “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”. Directors Susan and Lloyd Ecker take us on their seven-year journey retracing Tucker’s 60-year show business career.

Sophie Tucker was one the World’s most popular and successful entertainers for the first half of the 20 Century.  She had a wonderful range of comic and risqué songs and was one of the first women in show business. She was literally larger than life defying the norm of other females treading the boards as when she started out as she was in her words ‘fat, ugly, too old’ as well as a married Jewish lady to boot. However, in her career spanning some five decades she reveled in her differences, especially her size, and made it an integral part of her act.

sophie tucker2Sophie Tucker was camp personified in every sense of the word. She was flamboyant and often wore ridiculous costumes which were really much more about getting noticed than trying to flatter her matronly figure. She was mentor to the likes of young Judy Garland, a best friend to stars like Frank Sinatra, and even at the end of her career she was adored by the new boys on the block in the 60’s i.e. The Beatles, and she really earned the title ‘The Last of The Red Hot Mamas’.

I so wanted to love this film. I can still remember my parents gong to every show Tucker when she performed in New Orleans. Unfortunately the film falls a bit short just as two Broadway musicals did and closed before they ever opened. What happened with this film is that the Eckers use too much of the film to give their own take on Tucker even though they never met her. But even with that it is very hard not to love Sophie Tucker and to see just why she became the star that she was.

Sophie Tucker worked her way through vaudeville, the first talking motion pictures, and eventually television. She inspired stars like Better Midler, and Judy Garland, and may be one of the most important names in jazz and blues, that you’ve never heard of. Born in an Orthodox Jewish family, Sophie wasn’t what you would expect for a star. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, but her voice, attitude, and humor, were enough to pack the house. This documentary looks at Sophie’s early years, when she was finally able to become a star.

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Through archival footage, including many interviews with Tucker, fans are treated to her amazing voice, as well as an insight into Tucker’s impressive business savvy. In our world of social media, it’s unthinkable that a celebrity isn’t in the public eye at all times. Although it would be decades before a star could tweet their every movement, yet Tucker was constantly promoting herself and knew just how to do so. The stories of her selling books, advertising her own shows on the street, and making sure that she remained in contact with every person she met, is amazing viewing. Her talent is great but the way she sold herself is truly amazing.

“TO KILL A MAN”— Defending What’s His

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“To Kill a Man” (“Matar a un hombre”)

Defending What’s His

Amos Lassen

Jorge (Daniel Candia) is a meek caretaker at a forest preserve who is often seen injecting insulin into his belly fat. He is a middle-class family man whose neighborhood has become filled with thugs. Because he lives meekly and well, he becomes a target for their intimidating tactics. One night, one of the thugs Kalule robs him and takes his insulin needle. His son, Jorgito (Ariel Mateluna), a teenager tries to stand up for his father but this just makes the thugs angry and they begin a rampage of terror and threats on Jorge’s entire family. Seeking help from the bureaucratic government does not help much and both Jorge and his wife Martha (Alejandra Yañez) as well as their children remain totally vulnerable. Jorge avoids confrontation and socialization so when he walks past the gang, he does so with his head down and ignores their yelling and insults.

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From this point the movie moves ahead two years during which time Kalule (Daniel Antivilo) went to prison. Jorge seems now to be especially timid. His marriage has fallen apart and Kalule, upon being released from prison, terrorizes the family with intensity. Then comes the chronicling of Jorge’s desperate retaliation, and what began as a pursuit of his stolen medicine becomes a chase for both his loved ones’ security and the fortification of his masculinity.

Alejander Fernandez Almendras directed this film about revenge in Chile. Revenge films are not new by any means but it is not often that we get to see a fresh take on this subject that is so complex and complicated and is tied so much to the emotions. Finally when Kalule roughs up Jorge’s daughter and she is put into the hospital, Jorge decides the time has come for him to act.

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The film’s aesthetic, meanwhile, works to isolate Jorge and sow us who he is from the very first scene. We see him walking alone amid a sloping forest that’s backlit by a setting sun. I realized that the director is showing us a life that is spiraling downward and not for any reasons other than external ones.

Jorge is the kind of character that we pity yet there is a sense of grace to him. He seems unable to act and he allows his marriage to fall apart and his daughter to be near raped. We see the indignity of a man who has been screwed-by-the-system deal, whose bruised ego is as crippling as his untreated diabetes. Basically this is the story of a family man, that is tormented by neighborhood thugs and who resorts to unseemly measures when the authorities fail him. Jorge is both sympathetic and opaque. The police issue an ineffective restraining order on Kalule after he left prison and the assault on his daughter, Jorge quietly resolves to take matters into his own hands.

His unspectacular but artfully plotted act of vengeance is dramatized over two remarkable, inventively tense sequences, one of them a lengthy, stomach-knotting scene. I realize that what we do not see on the screen that give the movie all of its power. We do not have to see evil to know that it is there. Jorge had no choice but to take justice into his own hands and live with the emotional and psychological consequences. The film won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in January and was recently named Chile’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film Oscars® category.

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Director Almendras says that, “If the main character is ‘forced’ to commit a crime, we seldom question the real implications of that act. In that sense, I decided to make a different use of the audience’s attention for the second half of the film.” That is what you will have to see for yourself.

“A LIFE IN DIRTY MOVIES”— The Sarnos

a life in dirty movies

“A Life in Dirty Movies”

The Sarnos

Amos Lassen

Joe Sarno was a legendary sexploitation director known as “The Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street”. He and his loyal wife and collaborator Peggy have a place in the history of sex films and lived between – New York and Sweden. They struggled to make one last erotic film before they closed up shop and here is “a funny and touching portrait of a unique couple who followed their passion in life – no matter the cost!”

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The film follows the couple for a year as 88-year-old Joe tries to get a new film project begun. He wants to produce a female centered soft-core film that is reminiscent of his heyday as a filmmaker in the 1960s. We get a look at soft-core porn and how it has evolved into the harder variety that is so popular today and how the new liberalism on film almost put Sarno out of work. We hear conversations with filmmaker John Waters, porn star Jamie Gillis and film historian Michael Bowen. This is really a look at Sarno’s significant place in film history as an “erotic auteur,” whose ambitions as a filmmaker often surpassed the needs of the genre that he helped to create and define.

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Contrary to the title, this is not a “dirty” movie although we do see some somewhat salacious scenes alongside of the charming couple who made those dirty movies. There is sex but there is also a wonderful love story. Joseph and Peggy Sarno are now an elderly couple and represent what it means to grow old together. While Joseph is heavy and looks like a grandfather, Peggy is slim and still quite beautiful. Her eyes are piercing and her voice is sexily raspy. We see right away that Peggy is in charge and hides from her husband that they are facing serious financial problems.

Yet, the Sarnos generally maintain a remarkably positive emotional tenor: He’s trying to produce a new film, and she’s keeping their domestic life running. In the past, Sarno wrote and directed something like 75 films over a long career that had a rough time when the adult film market’s shifted from soft-core erotica in the early 1960s to the colder, harder, industrialized porn of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Director Wiktor Ericsson followed Joseph over the last few years of his life, before he died of natural causes in 2010 and we see him as a mixture of Ed Wood and Ingmar Bergman. Sarno deeply admired Bergman’s work, and even had a retreat in Sweden, where he produced several movies (most famously Inga, one of the first X-rated movies to be released in the United States) with American money. Sarno’s work showed an appreciation for women as humans rather than as objects for self-fulfilling attainment and this is what made them so different from others. He does provide long sequences from Sarno’s films, allowing viewers to compare-and-contrast the films. It appears that it was Sarno’s naiveté, which was responsible for their financial situation but it also inspired him to produce sex scenes that were very sexy.

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Regarding the films, director Ericsson emphasizes one of the strongest and most distinctive features of Sarno’s aesthetic: his concentration on female pleasure, particularly as registered in the face. This presents a promise of an illusion of intimacy and this is what draws many people to porn to begin with.

So “The Sarnos–A Life In Dirty Movies” isn’t really about dirty movies at all. This documentary is really a touching tribute to Sarno’s marriage to his remarkable wife Peggy as the ageing auteur tries one last time to direct another movie.

Sarno was a pornographer with lofty artistic aspirations. (Remember Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights”?) During his prime in the 1960s, Sarno made a ton of artsy soft-core pictures. In a time when major cities had rows of theaters devoted to showing less-than-reputable motion pictures, he was a prolific supplier of product. It’s easy to dismiss someone like this, but let’s be honest: Sarno made a lot of films and he made them according to his distinct personal vision and this is really what this film is all about.

One of the interviewees states that “sex in Joe’s movies had consequences.” He wasn’t content to simply show casual fornication. Instead, he used sex to get at larger themes about relationships and human nature. If that made the audience uncomfortable he did not care. Sarno says that the goal was “to be as hot as possible without actually showing anything”— to arouse without getting too real. But all of that changed in 1970 when “Deep Throat” became such a hit and Sarno resisted until he could resist no more.

“A Life in Dirty Movies” is an amusingly quirky look at an eccentric artist. Among the details we learn is that Sarno had a longtime habit of drawing diagrams for sexual positions right into his scripts. We also get to hear him philosophize on what it was like to spend so many years engaged in the exploitation business and we see that porn is a cutthroat business.

“NOT ANOTHER CELEBRITY MOVIE”—- A New Kind of Spoof

not another celebrity movie

“Not Another Celebrity Movie”

A New Kind of Spoof

Amos Lassen

Director Emilio Ferrari brings us a new kind of spoof film with what I understand is the largest celebrity cast for a movie made on the smallest production budget ever filmed. The cast portrays the biggest icons in show business, themselves.

The film parodies “Oceans 11” with a celebrity look-alike cast. Charlie Sheen hires Brad Pitt, George Clooney and eight other celebrities to kidnap Justin Bieber while he is doing a concert in Las Vegas. Charlie Sheen who is down on his luck has been living with porn stars since his affair with Paris Hilton (who?) fell apart and he has been replaced by Ashton Kutcher on his television show. Johnny Depp brings him new drug to try but instead of feeling the effect, Sheen suddenly realizes that he is obsessed with Justin Bieber. (Now this is sick). What makes this interesting is that Sheen has only seen Bieber on television but somehow he thinks that the bieb is his illegitimate son. He tries to get to him but Bieb’s manager, Usher, puts a restraining order on him and, in affect, forces Sheen to give up—but Sheen is too clever for that.

He “hears about Bieber ‘s upcoming concert at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Things get complicated when Charlie and the team realize Paris Hilton is dating Usher and the Beiber is not actually performing on stage but inside the casino vault with an hologram displaying his every move on stage. Charlie turns to Oceans 11 heroes Brad Pitt and George Clooney and along with their help, hires a team including Lady Gaga, Robert DeNiro, Tom Cruise, Mark Zuckerberg, Angelina Jolie, Kanye West and finally Donald Trump , to pull off an elaborate heist to kidnap Bieber”. (Are you still following this?)

The movie was filmed on location in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and it is a very funny film that features over twenty celebrity look-alikes in “the roles of their lifetimes”.

“I AM YOURS”— Two Cultures Together

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“I Am Yours” (“Jeg er din”)

Two Cultures Together

Amos Lassen

Mina (Amita Acharia) is 27 years old and a single mother, living in Oslo with her 6-year-old son Felix (Prince Singh). She is a Norwegian Pakistani and has a poor relationship with her family. She is always looking for love and has sex with men but none of the couplings show any hope of anything more than sex. But then Mina meets Jesper (Ola Rapace), a Swedish film director and she falls madly in love with him.

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The film brings together two different cultures—Mina’s Pakistani family does not approve of her lifestyle. Filmmaker Iram Haq chronicles the day to day of Mina’s life and he also adds what she seems t be thinking and we, the viewers, get a new look at falling in love and maintaining it. We are brought into her moral ambiguity that is at a troublesome point with her traditional Pakistani family. They feel that she shames the family with behavior that they see as irreverent and she does this by dating the wrong kind of men; those that are emotionally unavailable, self-absorbed and sometimes married. Additionally Mina has a son and it seems that she ignores his feelings. Mira is an actress but has no luck at auditions and she messes them up the same she messes up her relationships with men. We immediately see that she is self-indulgent but at the same time she looks for validation from men so that her empty feeling will be filled and so she can find what her family does not give her. She has no place—she neither fits into traditional Pakistani life nor Norwegian modernity. We, however see her as a woman with good intentions but who is also emotionally irresponsible. She often degrades herself and her decisions are not thought out. She is a conflicted and challenging character. We want to hate her but we cannot. When she meets Jesper who initially seems ideal, she leaves her son alone and ignores him to ensure that his selfish, somewhat adolescent disposition is placated. She never stands up for herself, even when the hesitation in her eyes shows that she’s aware she’s being foolish or used. Is she a lost soul or is there hope for her?

 Director Haq avoids victimization and vilification. Though Mina is obviously a victim of her situation and upbringing; she tries to be accepted by a society that isn’t entirely embracing of difference and she’s also intelligent and capable enough to be able to read her son’s moderate indifference towards her. What really makes this movie work is her realization of self and gradual consciousness of how she appears to others. Whatever situation comes up is soon the result of decisions that she makes. Nothing is forced or even contrived and we do not learn that she will live a happy life. The film is more interested in examining and capturing the essence of a complicated character in the middle of a cultural vortex than teaching life lessons or morality. There is a strong sense of unpredictability and tragedy as we watch. The film perfectly captures the reality of being imperfect human in a world filled with people similarly focused on their own immediate needs.

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Amrita Acharia’s performance as Mina is spellbinding and writer/director Haq succeeds at cultivating an authentic and gritty atmosphere and the result of this is a film that is, from time to time a bit too subdued for its own good. Haq has done a superb job of establishing and developing the central character; we cannot deny that Mina becomes an absolutely sympathetic figure and this seems to be true when she sets off to Sweden to be with Jesper.

There is great attention paid to details and the film is made unambiguously way, and this leaves us with satisfactory impressions on how the impulsive and emotionally destructed Mina struggles in more than one front: family, love, profession, be herself. However I was concerned with her son and Mina asking herself often if she will ever be a good mother? We will never know.

“EXILE: A MYTH UNEARTHED”— Rethinking a Biblical Myth?

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“Exile: a Myth Unearthed”

Rethinking a Biblical Myth?

Amos Lassen

Ilan Ziv’s new documentary, “Exile, A Myth Unearthed” looks at the exile of the Jewish people from the land of what is now modern Israel. According to history and Jewish theology, the Jews were exiled in the first century AD, following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This has been a major theme and depicted in artwork and lamented in poetry and prayer for nearly 2,000 years. But what if it never happened? This provocative film looks at the exile through the lenses of archaeology, history, myth and religion and asks what it means for our understanding of history and the contemporary struggle over land in the Middle East.

“Exile” looks at new evidence that suggests the majority of the Jewish people may not have been exiled following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and asks us to rethink about an event that has played a critical role in the Christian and Jewish traditions.

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The myth of exile is an essential narrative in Middle Eastern and European history, and of critical importance to both Christian and Jewish theology. The possibility that some Jews simply remained where they lived raises some uncomfortable questions. Could some Palestinians actually be their descendants?

The issues raised in this film are of more than passing historical interest-they can help us re-shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a new way, and illustrate that history can shape our future.

“K2: SIREN OF THE HIMALAYAS”— Getting to the Top

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“K2: SIREN OF THE HIMALAYAS”

Getting to the Top

Amos Lassen

 “K2: Siren of the Himalayas” looks at the history and geography of the legendary Karakoram Range while at the same time considers the risks and rewards of modern-day exploration. The second highest peak on Earth, K2 is also one of the most dangerous and “for every four people who have reached the summit, one has died trying.” Yet this is a movie of unbelievable beauty as well as adventure. It does not fully answer the question of what there are those who want to try to reach the world’s second highest peak but it certainly tries. The answer is one I do not think we will ever get.

Director Dave Ohlson looks at two world-class Alpinists who team up to try to reach K2, which we now know to be the most dangerous peak in the world. The expedition took place as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of an expedition led by the Duke of Abruzzi. The film follows a group of mountain climbers, namely, Fabrizio Zangrilli, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Jake Meyer and Chris Szymiec, as they try to ascend Mount K2 in the world in hopes of reaching the summit or at least beating the record of 7,654 meters set by The Duke of Abruzzi back in the early 20th Century. These men and women risk their lives for doing what they do and they love it. This is a film that is inspiring and thrilling to watch as these people ascend the mountain and brave the elements.. The footage that Ohlson captures is breathtaking and no Hollywood production would be able to attempt or even copy. It is thoroughly captivating to watch and I am sure it is that much better on a big screen.


DVD Extras include a short Film: “After K2” • extended Interviews • a deleted Scene: “Death on Broad Peak” • bonus clips

“JFK: THE PRIVATE PRESIDENT”— Those Moments

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“JFK: THE PRIVATE PRESIDENT”

Those Moments

Amos Lassen

 

Kathrin Seelmann-Eggebert brings us a new and personal documentary about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It begins in January 1961 when Kennedy entered the White House and an entire new generation of politics began and they were youthful, colorful and some even say, sexy. There was a new dynamism in America and it came out of the Kennedy White House. Kennedy did not stay there long but while he was president he was a pop star. He led us through the terrible period of the Cold War and he taught us to be adults—the younger generations everywhere welcomed the change. Kennedy’s own wife saw him as magical—a King Arthur reigning over Camelot.

But everything was far from perfect for Kennedy. He was a womanizer and had many affairs. He was also not a well man taking up to twelve medicines a day.

Features of this film include hearing from Robert Kennedy Jr. and Matthew Maxwell Kennedy, the sons of the president’s brother, Robert and from close friend Harry Belafonte,

his closest adviser Ted Sorensen, and Sergei Nikitich Khrushchev, the son of the former Russian leader. He remains legendary but certainly more human than we have ever seen him before. Included also is rare footage from the Kennedy private archives.

 

“ASTRAL CITY: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY” (“Nosso Lar”) — Now on Blu Ray

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“Astral City: A Spiritual Journey” (“Nosso Lar”)

Now on Blu Ray

Amos Lassen

“Astral City” is visually gorgeous and is right up there on my list of beautiful films. Basically it is the story of Andre Luiz, a selfish doctor who dies and leaves his wife and children behind. He awakes from death and discovers that he is in purgatory (Umbral) and while he was not a bad person, he soon learns that everyone participates in some form of debauchery, and he must serve penance which he does. Afterwards he begins to explore his new home in the netherworld and is rescued by people dressed in white sheets. These people take him to a place known as “Our Home” and grant him admittance. It seems that “Our Home” is like a rest area before one reaches Shangri-La, a place where souls are held before either reincarnation or moved to a higher level of existence.

“Our Home” (Nosso Lar) is a spiritual place where harmony reigns and people leave in peace as they work for the good of humanity and self-evolution as they await reincarnation. It is there that Luiz becomes more self-aware and altruistic. Luiz also discovers that death does not exist. The film tackles the subject of universal and unconditional love and we do not often get a film that is just about love. We seem to have become used to seeing action films and here is a wonderful alternative. We learn that is important to let nature into our lives and by doing so we become aware of new values. We are asked to look at our own bitterness and watching Luiz suffer is almost like watching ourselves. As he discovers redemption, so do we.

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The movie shows us spiritual reality as it tries to explain what really happens after we leave this world. We get rational answers to the questions we have a bout death and I had to remind myself that I was watching a movie and not really experiencing this myself. Luiz ultimately realizes that God is important and asks for help. At this point he is taken to “Our Home” where he begins to see himself and others differently.

I understand that this is the most expensive film ever produced by Brazil and since it is a film that takes us t new territory, I think it was well worth the price. The colors are glorious and the cinematography is lush.

“THREE MOTHERS”— Triplets

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“Three Mothers” (“Shalosh Ima’ot”)

Triplets

Amos Lassen

 Rose, Flora and Yasmin were born as triplets in Alexandria, Egypt some sixty plus years before the film begins. Their well-off parents gave them names of flowers, and King Farouk of Egypt gave them his blessing. Now it is 2006 and they live together in Israel in an apartment without men and without children. Flora has just retired from her work as a midwife, Yasmin awaits a kidney transplant, and Rose, once a successful singer, is wrapped in silence since the death of her husband. One after the other, the three sisters come to “This is your life,” a place where people recount their memoirs, in order to tell their life story to Rucha (Rachel), Rose’s only daughter and they and talk openly about their symbiotic relationship. They are also searching for the long lost son of one of them who was given away for adoption under mysterious circumstances. During this period their lives and that of Rucha will change dramatically. Hidden ghosts will slowly appear, forcing the three sisters to confront the secrets and lies, and seek the truth that they are not sure that they want to hear.

The film beautifully captures the essence of a time that is no longer in Israel. It was beautifully directed, and the actors all give fine performances. It’s a bit contrived in soap opera fashion but overall it is a fascinating film with many moments that tug at your heartstrings. It is a simple tale of 3 sisters who live complicated lives. Basically it is a story about people from different familial backgrounds and nationalities coming to Israel where the rules are different and they have to learn to deal with and accept modernity and loss. I know that some will find this sappy but I loved it but that also has to do with the fact that I am a huge Gila Almagor fan.