Category Archives: Film

“YOUTH”— Economic Instability

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“Youth”

Economic Instability

Amos Lassen

Shaul (Eitan Cunio) is an Israeli high school student whose family is having a hard time financially. His father, Moti (Moshe Ivgy), has been forced to take a lowly job at a movie theatre and his mother, Paula (Shirli Deshe), is stuffing envelopes and earning very little. They know that eviction is just around the corner, and it is a humiliating and frightening situation to be in.

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Yaki (David Cunio), Shaul’s older brother is doing his stint in the army. The two brothers have come up with a plan to save their home. They kidnap Dafna (Gita Amely), the daughter of wealthy parents, and take her to a bomb shelter under their building. Then they send a ransom demand and treat her shamefully — taking out their anger and aggression on her. This is director Tom Shoval’s first feature film and we see the angst and rage of the brothers because of being poor and then seeing Dafna whose family is very rich. They are also worried about their own futures since work is in short supply. This is not an easy film to watch because Shoval uses emotions and this is makes it more than just a story about a kidnapping.

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The Cunio brothers give exceptional and riveting performances and the story is a difficult one. The family has to deal with great tension. The scene in which the brothers take Dafna into their building’s bomb shelter, bind her head with fabric and then nonchalantly go upstairs for a family dinner is particularly difficult to watch.

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Shoval uniquely handles sibling rivalry silently yet it is evident in looks and body language. They are helpful to their mother and we see a kind of schizophrenia that is allegorical and about Israel’s society. The brothers represent a resentful population denied previous generations’ expectations of a better future. This does not justify their vile actions— their behavior is the result of a hopeless situation. They are products of an environment where handing an assault weapon to an 18-year-old is normal, but this isn’t used to excuse their deeds.

“SRUGIM” (“ סרוגים”)— Life and Love

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“Srugim” (“ סרוגים”)

Life and Love

Amos Lassen

“Srugim” is an Israeli television that is about a group of religious Zionist young adults living in Jerusalem. The title refers to the knit skullcaps worn by men and we understand that those who wear it are not religious but also Zionists. Our characters try to find the middle ground between modernity and traditional values. The section of Jerusalem known as Katamon is where many young, single religious people live. I remember it so well—-when I was studying in Jerusalem a group of us would walk around the city on the Sabbath and we would always get to Katamon which was something like a meat market filled with girls walking around. The idea was to be seen if you were single and I am pretty sure that there were marriages that came out of those Saturday afternoon strolls.

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The cast for the show is quite large but the plot actually focuses on the lives of five characters— Yifat (Yael Sharoni, Reut (Sharon Fauster), Hodayah (Tali Sharon), Amir (Amos Tamam) and Nati (Ohad Knoller) who confront other philosophical and religious challenges as well.

Reut on a number of occasions attempts to challenge the preexisting boundaries of women’s ritual participation. In the very beginning we see her reciting Kiddush, the blessing over the wine for her friends who share the Shabbat meal together. Women reciting Kiddush is a practice becoming more accepted and mainstream in the Modern orthodox community. In the show it is questioned, but nobody stops Reut from doing it and we here that the series has an understanding of a woman’s inherent equal obligation for Kiddush. Later on in the season, she continues to challenge these boundaries, Reut approaches a student at a Yeshiva who gives Bar Mitzvah lessons asking about learning how to read haftarah, which she wishes to do for her father’s yahrzeit. Yochai at first refuses, agreeing to make a tape for her, but gradually agrees to teach her and she later reads it in front of a women’s prayer group, including her closest friends.

Hodaya attempts to figure out the essence of who she is as she wrestles with her identity as a religious woman. When we first meet her, the struggle is already evident, as she has been studying bible academically at Hebrew University, an act of rebellion against her father who is the head of a religious school. She meets Avri, a professor of archeology, and they begin a relationship, in which she fails to tell him that she is religious. Eventually, issues arise as Avri attempts to serve Hodaya pasta with meat and cheese, and she decides to violate Shabbat on another occasion rather than reveal her background. Her struggle with her own religious identity and her relationship with secularism and the secular world gives us a look into how real Israelis deal with the confluence of this two different worlds, and where they fit in.

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Yifat and Nati also have their own story lines as does Amir and they weave in and out of each other throughout the series. The haunting theme song sets the mood for every episode. In English it is called “Where Shall I Turn?” and it is filled with double meanings and hidden subliminal messages. The cast is young and excellent all around. This is a credit to director Laizy Shapira. The attention to detail is wonderful and if you have ever spent a Shabbat in Jerusalem, you will feel right at home seeing all the familiar places.

There are no stereotypes and the characters exemplify the range of personalities and experiences one would encounter among real life religious young people. Of the three female leads, Reut is an Orthodox feminist; Hodaya begins to distance herself from her religious practice because she has meet Avri who is secular. Yifat adheres to tradition almost to the letter. If you have ever wondered how the Orthodox date, you will see that here. We really become aware of the complicated boundaries between men and women in a social milieu in which “dating” is a throwback to its definition in the earlier part of the 20th century especially in regard to the observance of shmirat negia’a (the prohibition against men and women touching one another unless they are married…to each other). “Srugim” is quite simply the story of the interwoven lives of a small group of friends and roommates.

 

“EMANCIPATION” (“eMANNzipation”)— Love and Resilience

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 “EMANCIPATION” (“eMANNzipation”)

Love and Resilience

Amos Lassen

We do not often think of men being abused by domestic violence but that is what this film is about. It focuses on a group of men who inhabit a shelter for abused men and does so with honesty and sensitivity. The men who share a common bond of domestic abuse include Dominic (Urs Stapfli), a mathematician; Horst (Hans-Ulrich Laux), an unemployed truck driver; Gregor (Roland Avenard), a novelist; and Lukas (Peer Alexander Hauck), a piano teacher.  The women they love (and may also fear) include Angela (Frances Heller), a 23-year-old pregnant housewife; and Belinda (Anna Gorgen), a lawyer. Director Philipp Muller-Dorn takes a daring and provocative look inside the world that very few men, out of embarrassment or retaliation, speak of: domestic abuse by their partner. Exploring this is long overdue and the film allows us to see an issue that many of us have never thought about. What we really see here is how men who have been abused by their wives or lovers deal with the obstacles that seem to prevent them from emancipation.

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When we first meet Dominic, he’s living with married friends, having been beaten up (he’s got a patch over one eye) and kicked out of the house and if this is not enough, he has just lost his job. He eventually winds up in a shelter for abused men. By interacting with the other residents, reluctantly participating in group therapy sessions, and by signing up for a karate class where he meets a sympathetic lady lawyer, Dominic slowly reveals his past history—through flashbacks– with his wife.

While on vacation in a rural area, Dominic met and fell for Hannah, a hearty, lusty country girl who introduces him to sex. They marry and return to Berlin where they soon have a baby boy. Over a short period of time, Hannah becomes somewhat deranged and accuses him of infidelity (and this is quite laughable when you see who Dominic is). She begins to attack him physically and verbally. His innate shyness, fear of confrontation and willingness to please seem to enrage his wife, who eventually vanishes, leaving their young son behind as a ward of the state. At the shelter he sees that he is not alone in this and it is there that he meets Belinda, a lawyer and the two fall in love as she helps him to reclaim both his child and his manhood.

In the process of gaining back his life, we hear Dominic says things that we have often heard abused women say and while it makes us a bit angry that he does not stand up for himself. For Dominic to do so is not part of his personality. Over the last few years, we have had many movies about domestic violence but we have not seen one in which the wife is the abuser.

Philipp Muller-Dorn has taken a realistic approach to the subject. No one character is just a monster or a weakling. The performances are wonderful. The star is Dominic, a flawed character who is also endearing and here is a film that really opens our eyes.

“SMILING THROUGH THE APOCALYPSE: ESQUIRE IN THE 60S”— Producing “Esquire”, A Cultural Icon

smiling through the apocalypse“SMILING THROUGH THE APOCALYPSE: ESQUIRE IN THE 60S”

Producing “Esquire”, A Cultural Icon

Amos Lassen

Tom Hayes’ “Smiling Through the Apocalypse” is the chronicle of Harold Hayes whose editorial instincts produced one of the greatest magazines ever. Harold Hayes was “the swinging editor and cultural provocateur of the iconic Esquire Magazine of the Sixties”. Tom Hayes is the son of Harold Hayes and it is his narration that takes on a journey of unprecedented access to some of the most exciting and compelling talents that graces the pages of “Esquire”— Nora Ephron, George Lois, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Gore Vidal to name just six. The film is a story of risk, triumph, and challenge told by the people that helped make the magazine great, and a son who only come to understand his father’s editorial greatness 23 years after his passing.

The film actually explores the revolution in journalism that came about due to societal turbulence of the 1960s. We see a portrait of editorial genius in the person of Harold Hayes who brought together iconic writers, photographers and artists to make the magazine the vanguard of the cultural revolution.

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Hayes dared to encourage unprecedented journalistic freedom and he managed to land some of the most talented people of his time and we hear from many of them here giving their recollections of the time and the magazine. Hayes also managed to give

bylines to established literary giants like Dorothy Parker and W.H. Auden. Of course, this took place at a time when “monthly magazines were gleaming, state-of-the-art, ad-stuffed engines of both fact and sensibility, and guides to a confident, contemptuous, and romantic new postwar cosmopolitanism.” –

There is this wonderful story—-In 1962, Harold Hayes, then managing editor at Esquire, went to the cubical of junior editor John Berendt and asked him, “Who is the most important literary figure in New York?”, Hayes asked. “W.H. Auden”, Berendt answered meekly. “Take him to lunch and get him to do a piece for us.” He did, and in December Esquire published ‘Do You Know Too Much?’, an article by Auden on the limits of education. This is typical of the magazine’s approach at that time.

Hayes had a vision and the power to make it come true. His son has come to the conclusion that as a magazine editor, his father was one of the greats.

The film’s big draws are those interviewed in the film and the film is also tantalizing as a personal inquiry by Hayes’ son who both wrote and directed the film. Tom Hayes also provides the narration in which he talks about his own relationship with his father who died in 1989 at the age of 62.  While they had a close relationship, Tom, who was born in 1957, didn’t have much understanding of his father’s cultural impact during the decade from 1963-1973 when the senior Hayes ran Esquire. So the film is really a kind of research project for the Hayes, the younger, who set out to learn more about a man he didn’t entirely know.

Hugh Hefner tells us that when Esquire stopped including photos of semi-undressed women in the 1950s, he saw an opening for a magazine of his own. Publisher Arnold Gingrich and Hayes decided to bring a medley of classy writers to the magazine and provide an exciting new design. The magazine achieved many cultural firsts including Diane Arbus had her first photographs published in Esquire and the magazine’s Dubious Achievement Awards, which Benton and writing partner David Newman helped to introduce. The magazine also published major political and cultural reports by Norman Mailer, Talese, and John Sack, who wrote probing coverage of the Vietnam War.

The film does miss an opportunity to broaden its appeal by paying too little attention to Hayes’ personal life, which was apparently more complicated than the film suggests. In a discussion after the Palm Springs screening, Tom Hayes referred to his parents’ messy divorce, but this is not mentioned in the film. Harold’s personal history is not entirely irrelevant to the subjects covered in the film. One intriguing segment deals with a hatchet job that Hayes commissioned on rising feminist writer Gloria Steinem, but the film never delves into the sexist prejudices that so many editors harbored during that Mad Men era.

Despite these, the film captures the 60s with grace and skill.

“VALLEY”—- A First Film from Sophie Artus

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” Valley”

Amos Lassen

Winner of Best First Film Award and Best 
Actor Award at the Haifa Film Festival 2014

Winner of the Audience Award at the
Paris Israeli Film Festival 2015

In Migdal HaEmek, an isolated town in the north of Israel, we find three 17 years olds: Josh, who is disturbed and very aggressive but likes to be with his little dog; Linoy who wants
to be a famous actress but gets no support for her dreams; and David, the new kid in town who surrounds himself with books and music and blames his father for his mother’s death.
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The three adolescents, forced to deal with violence at home and at school, live in a world of cruelty and beauty where the desire to kill or to die and the will to live, define their fates.

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“PLEASE PUNISH ME”— A Blessed Businessman

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“Please Punish Me”

A Blessed Businessman

Amos Lassen

I am always amazed by the way some short films can so much in a small period of time. “Please Punish Me” is only about 15 minutes long but it does a lot.

This is a about a businessman who is so blessed that he looks for a way to be punished for his “curse”. This is a story with heart and humanity and about succeeding in a field that was not the one  wanted. 

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Scottie (David Sackal) is a man with dreams and ambitions, something that so many of us have when young. Somehow, we tend to lose those ambitions and dreams and replace them with something that brings us money. It is then that we remember that money does not necessarily mean happiness. Scottie does not really care for his job—he just goes through the motions of working to achieve the financial rewards that work brings.

It seems to me that this short film has two faces—one of these is seeing the world that Scottie lives in as opposed to the one he is about to enter. This is something of a world that is “blah”, i.e. there is no excitement and not much happens in it. This is the world we see in which corporate America resides with every thinking about his world and not about anyone else’s. The other world is one of colors but for Scottie it is uncomfortable and he does not feel at home in it.

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Scottie sees himself as cursed— for most people good luck is a blessing but for Scottie it is a blessing. As I said he works and succeeds at a job he is not interested in. He barely works and he is still elected as a board member (the youngest in the company’s history). Instead of accepting a promotion, he leaves the job and his boss, Steinberg (Bradley Rhodes) thinks that his doing this is genius. considers even that as a stroke of genius. Ultimately Scottie feels the need to be punished because of his abundant good luck and goes to a BDSM club where he meets the

dominatrix (Joanna Donofrio) who is a single mother and insecure who is certainly not cut out for BDSM and she actually helps Scottie in ways that we could have anticipated. I must note that in an age of political correctness, this film does always adhere to this.

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There is something very sweet about this film yet it has an edginess that is hard to define. The performances all around are excellent and the direction by Chris Esper is subtle.

“ANITA B.”— Starting a New Life

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“Anita B.”

Starting a New Life

Amos Lassen

 Anita is a survivor of Auschwitz and she sees the world through worried eyes. Her story deals with the Holocaust but in a different way. Here we do not see the horrors of the death camps and the violence of the war and we do not hear what tortures Anita experienced. Instead we learn of the rejection, the coldness, the unloving and  unkind welcome many survivors faced wherever they went after liberation. Many wanted to forget and to live as it the War and the Nazis had never happened.

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Anita is a young Hungarian Jew who, after the war, is taken in by the only surviving member of her family, thirty-year-old aunt Monika, her father’s sister who is not enthusiastic about having Anita come live with her. Monika lives with her husband, Aron and baby son, Roby, in Zvikovez, a small town in the mountains of Czechoslovakia, not far from Prague. Aron’s brother, Eli also lives there. Before the war, Zvikovez had a large German population and the former residents of the town have been chased away. Returning survivors have taken over their homes and there is tension there as the Communists prepare to take over.

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When Anita first arrived, she found herself something of a virtual prisoner because she has no papers and therefore cannot leave the house and hardly meets anyone other than members of the family. The few people that she does meet all seem to want to forget what they have been through and are intent on leading “normal” lives by going out and having good times. Anita refuses the close the door on her past. She has hopes for the future and finds strength in the memory of her parents who both been done away with in the camps. The fact that others do not want to remember pains her and she discovers that even Eli, with whom she becomes passionately involved, does not want to remember. People seem to be embarrassed about that they survived. Denying the past puts a wall up in front of the truth and when Anita tries to climb that wall, she is pushed back down. The only person with whom she can discuss the past is the baby Roby who can listed but not understand or respond.

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Central Europe became a melting pot of languages and nationalities and once Anita could leave the house, she met many unforgettable characters. There is Uncle Jacob is a musician who appears to be the conscience of the community, Sarah who organizes secret passages to Palestine and David, an orphan like herself but who followed his dreams and disappeared one day. Then Anita had a new challenge—she was pregnant with Eli’s child. She makes a courageous decision that I not mention here because you need to see this beautiful film which reminds us that we can “NEVER FORGET”.

“KNOCK ‘EM DEAD”— Dead Divas in a Dead Movie

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“Knock ’em Dead”

Dead Divas in a Dead Movie

Amos Lassen

 Put three rival actresses together and you get quite a movie. It is not enough that they are rivals but they hate each other as well but the lure of making a movie was too much for them not to agree. David DeCoteau directed this mess of a movie and it joins the rest of his catalog of low-budget schlock films that always seem to feature good looking and well-built young men in their white underwear.

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 We meet a trio of cartoonish, overblown starlets who go to an isolated island mansion to make one last trashy horror film; a sequel to the blockbusting frightener that both made and destroyed them. Rae Dawn Chong, the nice one, Debra Wilson, the troubled one and Anne-Marie Johnson, the stuck-up one, star as the threesome. Over the years the rivalry has intensified between them. The one-liners come fast and they are nasty and funny at the same time—these are the movie’s saving grace. 

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Barry Sandler co-wrote the screenplay with DeCoteau and it is an attempt to imitate Agatha Christie and then adding DeCoteau’s horror to it. We see bodies burning, landmines and snakes as well as a masked killer who is intent on taking people “out” one by one. However most of the film is totally absurd and I do not mean that in a good way.

“LORD OF THE FLIES”— Stranded

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“Lord of the Flies”

Stranded

Amos Lassen

When a plane crashes into the ocean, a group of military school students make it to an island where they are stranded. Ralph, one of the students organizes the others and assigns responsibilities. There is a rebellious boy in the group, Jack Meriden and when he neglected to keep the campfire going, the boys lost their chance to be seen by a helicopter flying over the island and this causes a group split. Ralph is able to rationalize his procedures while Jack becomes primitive and he uses the fear of the unknown to control his group and his boys begin to hunt and even steal from Ralph’s group.

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Jack returns to the primitivism, using the fear for the unknown (in a metaphor to the religion) to control the other boys, and hunting and chasing pigs, stealing the possession of Ralph’s group and even killing people.

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This version of William Golding’s novel was directed by Harry Hook and unlike the earlier film directed by Peter Brook in 1963, the island becomes a character and the story looks at the boys as they spiral downward to savagery and the boys soon resort to scapegoating and violence as the theme of tracing the defects of society go to back to the defects in human nature. The movie is a testament about human nature, temptation and sin.

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While this was a popular book when I was in high school and college, today it seems to be quite dated. Some of what happened with the boys on that island actually happens today in our school system. The “concept that schoolboys left to their own devices under survival-of-the-fittest conditions might resort to attacking and killing each other is rather easy to accept.” Today film has the reality of modern society to deal with. There is also here the comparison to the Peter Brooks film that was cast entirely with children who had never acted before and it was shot in black and white so that the beauty of the location does not take away from the film.

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I found that the colorful and beautiful surroundings where this new version was shot to be distracting and beautifully so. The script is quite faithful to the spirit of the original story, but there is no passion and the actors are somewhat bland. The only real tension we feel is when Ralph is chased thorough the burning forest but that is at the end of the film.

The blu ray transfer is gorgeous and the surround sound is excellent. Director Harry Hook gives us spectacle but I really feel that this hurts the plot. The screenplay makes what happens in the film seem slight, obvious and literal and perhaps this is a hint to the adage that “boys will be boys”. It is interesting to note that the boys are diverse unlike those in the earlier film. There is a black boy, a boy wearing a cross, another wearing a Star of David and so on. The fact these boys are non-actors is painfully evident except for Balthazar Getty who gives a competent performance as Ralph, the boy who becomes the story’s voice of reason.

“DAVID AND LISA”— Limited Edition Blu-ray

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“David and Lisa”

Limited Edition Blu-ray

Amos Lassen

It is hard to believe that I saw “David and Lisa” for the first time in 1962 because that seems so long ago but that’s when it was. At that time it was being hailed by critics as a new approach to movie making. The story is simple— two emotionally disturbed teenagers are drawn to each other in a mental institution. Lisa is portrayed unforgettably by Janet Margolin (Annie Hall) and David is Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey). Lisa is terribly shy and can communicate only through rhyme; David cannot bear being touched. They are strongly attracted to each other and develop a deep bond that changes both of their lives. The film was directed by Frank Perry with a strong supporting performance by Howard Da Silva as the compassionate psychiatrist. This is a film that stays with the viewer and as I watched the beautiful new blu-ray transfer, I remembered every word and movement. It is just as lovely & touching as I remembered, with the same quiet power that moved me as a teenager. The performances are wonderful. Keir Dullea’s David struggles unsuccessfully to conceal his terror beneath a calm, self-assured, even arrogant facade; and Janet Margolin’s glowing Lisa, her big dark eyes show her tenderness and fragility, her yearning, her loneliness and her glimmer of hope with astonishing depth. It was filmed in black and white and the starkness of the photography lets us look into their souls in a way color never could.

 Howard DaSilva as Dr. Swinford explains to David that one day he’ll understand that his parents also had parents and they had their own fears, doubts & unconscious drives. The film doesn’t “blame the parents,” but rather shows that each person often unconsciously bears the psychological weight and demands of many generations. After all, it is not about blame but about understanding and recognizing our inner wounds and where they come from and then coming to terms with them ourselves.

The film is a gorgeous fairytale about how messed up people can help each other out of their respective pits. The brilliance of this film catches the viewer completely off guard with its story and the beautiful cinematography that communicates the story through the camera.