Category Archives: Film

“A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS”— Growing Up in Jerusalem

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 “A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS”

Growing Up in Jerusalem

Amos Lassen

“You can find hell and also heaven in every room. A little bit of evilness and men to men are hell. A little bit of mercifulness and men to men are heaven”…. Amos OZ

Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman makes her debut as writer and director with this adaptation of the best-selling memoir by celebrated Israeli author Amos Oz. She also stars in the story about growing up in Jerusalem before the establishment of the State of Israel. Oz’s family, one of the many who immigrated to Palestine  to escape European persecution and consisted of his academic father, Arieh (Gilad Kahana) and his dreamy, imaginative mother, Fania (Portman).

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While Arieh was cautiously hopeful about the future, Fania was not satisfied. The terror of the war and anxiety concerning immigration was replaced by the tedium of everyday life that weighed heavily on Fania’s spirit. She was unhappy in her marriage and intellectually stifled, Fania entertained her ten-year- old Amos by making up stories of adventures the desert.  Amos was enraptured when Fania read him poetry and explained words and language in a way that influenced him all his life and certainly contributed to what made him become a writer. Fania never felt the sense of life that she hoped for and she slid into isolation and sadness and she was beyond help. Amos had to say good-bye to her before he was ready.  As he witnessed the birth of a nation he had to come to terms with his own new beginning. With the end of the British mandate and the people living in the area were about to create the new state of Israel, Amos kept pushing forward with the memories of the stories his mother shared with him. His relationship with his mother helped to define him as a future writer, journalist, and advocate of a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  However, this film is about his love letter to his mother that she would never be able to read….

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The film begins with our hearing the voice of an older Amos Oz and we see how young Amos and his mother, Fania (Natalie Portman) as they talked with their hands. It was not long before the conflicts that created chaos in the city of Jerusalem and made Fania have terrible and constant headaches began. Fania sees Amos as her only happiness and a reason to keep going as far as her strength allows her. As the movie moves forward, we see Amos in many other situations where he must act like a grown up to not give up the way his mother does. We see how Jerusalem reacts to and deals with poverty, war, and uncertainty and this affects Fania and her family which makes it impossible for them to help her.

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But above all else what we see here are the pointless and dreadful conflicts Jewish people had gone through, and how many more lives are being taken because of people’s acts of inhumanity. This is really about how love is the only thing that can take one person through hell and darkness. We also see that Oz’s writing is concerned the fragility of his home country, Israel, with which he is inseparably connected.

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As Israel itself comes of age, we see the effects on the lives of its new and cosmopolitan population. Amos’ father’s career as a writer is fruitless and his marriage lacks all of the fervor that Fania imagined. Her disillusionment sets in motion a slow process of fading health, depression and solitude, with the adoration of her innocent son being a single source of joy. The film is a slightly sentimental at times, especially when it undertakes to break down complex politics into aphorisms. The film is at its best when it focuses on personal developments, which are quite often triggered by the historical situation. The slow decline of Amos’ mother’s health and her once keen imagination are connected to the harsh realities around her, and this is quite sad. It is in these scenes that the Portman’s best artistic decision becomes obvious: the casting of herself in the demanding role of a melancholic storyteller who breaks under the dissolution of her dreams.

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Natalie Portman has adapted Amos Oz’s autobiographical memoirs in such a way as to attempt to present less-than-straightforward positions around a still very contentious issue. Sometimes the pacing is off but nonetheless, this is a beautiful and assured movie and it makes a place for Natalie Portman on the other side of the camera.

“RABIN, THE LAST DAY”— Leading Up to the Murder

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“Rabin, the Last Day”

Leading Up to Murder

Amos Lassen

The assassination of Itzhak Rabin ended efforts of peace in Israel. It also ended the whole left wing of the country. Amos Gitai’s film takes us through the prime minister’s last leading up to his murder. November 4, 1992 was a day that shook the world. On that day political murder hit the country that has contended that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. Following an opening interview with then Defense Minister Shimon Perez, Gitai goes from showing us stock footage of the peace demonstration that was meant to shore up support for the unpopular Oslo peace accords to a moment of dramatic reconstruction as the shots are fired.

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At first the result was panic as the body of Rabin was put into a car and set off for a hospital. Then the movie tones down to the investigational inquest exploring the failings of the police and secret service that led to the hit. This became the Shamgar Commission, led by President of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar (Michael Warshaviak), who was assisted by Zvi Zamir (Yitzhak Hiskiya) and Ariel Rosen-Zvi (Pini Mittelman). We see interviews with the cameraman who shot the footage, with characters pacing back and forth from the foreground as they meditated deeply.

As the inquiry gets properly underway, a more clinical record of word is spoken, questions asked and the remit of the committee was restricted in order to forestall a broader political discussion. Integrated into the film are scenes involving those that Gitai obviously feels to have blood on their hands, the fanatical and religiously orthodox settlers, who cast an ancient curse on Rabin— “Din Rodef (Law of the Pursuer) which is effectively a “Fatwah” and we see demonstrations which invoke such violent language that neighbors on sedition. There are moments of almost black humor, as when a psychologist gives a lecture to a right wing group about how she has diagnosed Rabin as schizophrenic. She says that Rabin lived in a world of his own imagination and we see that this description could also apply to the right-wing Jewish group to which she belongs. The murderer himself, Yigal Amir (Yogev Yefet) is interviewed by an elderly investigator who cannot hide his contempt. When Amir claims to have acted on behalf of many, his interviewer asks him if he asked other Jews if this was what they wanted. Now the film moves into an investigation on the risk to Israeli democracy posed by fanatical groups. The film, however, has a broader political context. The security measures are seen as having been appallingly lax when the prior death threats are considered as well as the atmosphere of hostility that existed at that time in Israel. There is also a suggestion of a conspiracy but the likelihood seems to be that there was an inexcusable level of complacency. What happened that day had the immediate effect of causing widespread grief and outrage. The square itself was renamed Rabin Square as were other streets and buildings. The religious community was also taken aback by the vehemence of condemnation that came their way and found some comfort in conspiracy theories that the whole thing was a set up to make them look bad. Some illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories were rolled back as we see both reenacted and through stock footage. However, as the film and time moves forward, Gitai clearly indicates that those responsible for violent rabble rousing of which Benjamin Netanyahu was chief among them were ultimately the victors. They grabbed Israel’s future and turned it in an increasingly belligerent direction.

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Gitai’s film is powerful and uncompromising as it gives details about the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Rabin. Stylistically, the film is a hybrid: it starts off as a documentary, with an extensive interview with Shimon Peres, continues with archival footage from the day of the homicide and then develops into a gripping re-enactment of the investigations that followed Rabin’s death, sourced directly from the investigations’ original proceedings.

On a few occasions throughout the film, documentary and staged reconstruction are seamlessly blended, such as when the camera follows the dying Rabin inside his car and travels with him and his bodyguards to the hospital. It is a radical and purely cinematic act that enriches the film and allows the audience to be a witness to the unseen moments of Rabin’s tragedy.

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The film’s main concern is the reconstruction of the event from a contemporary perspective and to raise questions regarding the responsibilities that led to the homicide. Amos Gitai knows perfectly well that raising questions does not necessarily mean that answers will follow – and in fact, most of the times they don’t. In Gitai’s reconstruction, Yitzhak Rabin is portrayed as a man of peace and whose death has led to an irreparable state of unrest seems to be the target of several political organizations and religious groups that protest against him, encircle him and finally overwhelm him and in doing so created the condition for his murder to happen.

The discontent against him derived mainly from his active role in defining and signing the Oslo Accords, which were received very harshly by the Israeli conservatives and also by Orthodox religious groups who thought that Rabin was acting against the rules of the Torah. A meeting of religious leaders is displayed in the film, where Rabin’s authority is overthrown and he is declared an unfaithful, untrustworthy personality.

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Policemen and security guards who were operating near the Square where Rabin was assassinated are interrogated and their actions undergo severe scrutiny, but no one seems to want to take responsibility in what happened and they end up blaming each other. Gitai is very subtle and cruelly ironic in making it look like it was everybody’s fault, which ultimately means that nobody will take the fall. The situation is so absurd, and so clearly unsolvable, that one of the judges in the Shamgar Commission ends up saying that he did not know whether tor cry.

Rabin’s assassin, Jew activist Yigal Amir (played by Yogev Yefet) is portrayed as a complex character, who acted of his own accord but also was the ideological pawn of a system that had been conspiring against Rabin for a very long time. The claustrophobic setting of the re-enactment of the investigation conveys the stifling sense of siege that Rabin must have felt during the days leading up to his murder, when many of the institutions and people around him were tightening the noose on him.  Eric Gautier’s cinematography is filled with bleak colors that leave no room for hope or justice.

 

The film builds up to a moving archive interview with Rabin’s widow Leah, who expresses her profound sadness and we get the feeling that it is the same kind of sadness that Gitai still feels— the sadness of having lost someone who could have really made a difference in the Israeli politics and in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

We all are aware that Rabin was a significant figure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a war hero who gave peace a chance, making inroads with the PLO and helping to bring the Palestinian National Authority into being. Along with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres (his immediate successor), he won the Nobel Peace Prize after signing the Oslo Accords. However, his actions split Israeli society, with right wing political rivals Likud and religious hardliners seeing him as a traitor for giving away land they saw as belonging to Israel. Even though Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a right-wing radical Jew, who thought that any giveaways to the Palestinians acted against the Torah, Gitai’s interpretation doesn’t circle around Amir or his extremist vision of Judaism, but the climate of extremism and Israeli exceptionalism that were the real murderer of the statesman.

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Gitai asks questions that official studies have refused to explore. He frames the actions within the official Shamgar Commission into security and intelligence failing behind assassination. The commission was denied the chance to investigate the political and social climate around the actions, something Gitai tries to do something about.

This film is innovative in structure and convincing in its assessment of various Israeli governments’ dithering attitude to extremist Zionism that has led to Netanyahu’s Israel belligerent rhetoric today. The re-enactments and dramatized scenes, we see are verbatim says Gitai—they were taken word for word from written transcripts.

Much of the film takes place as testimony to the Shamgar report, including countless bureaucrats passing the buck on institutional failings. The only talking heads are a brief interview with Peres that opens the film and one with Rabin’s wife Leah. Gitai also re-enacts scenes from inside extremist religious sects where the assassin who is one of the few recurring characters sees theological leaders advocate Rabin’s death. In one scene, Gitai dramatizes the climate of paranoia with an extremist Zionist, who also claims to be a clinical psychologist, and bursts into tears because she can’t have a “schizoid” prime minister leading her country.

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We see TV footage from grand Likud demonstrations, with placards portraying Rabin as an SS officer or behind crosshairs. Binyamin Netanyahu preaches at rallies where crowds shout “death to Rabin.”  At one point, a commission lawyer says this “school of thought legitimized violence in the West Bank.” Part of what’s urgent about the film is in Gitai’s unapologetic pointing to Netanyahu as a source, rather a symptom of that extremist dictum that infiltrates conversations about the Arab-Israeli conflict even today.

The film runs almost two hours and it challenges us and makes us curious. We can all remember how we felt when Kennedy was shot down in this country and there are few things more shocking than the murder of a political leader because they are never just an individual. Willingly or not, they represent a vision for how the world should be, and a practical approach to achieving it. The bigger their impact, the more society changes, splitting people into opposing camps. The very fact that Yitzhak Rabin remains such a divisive figure nearly 20 years after his assassination gives some indication as to the passions he aroused at the time. Exploring down two avenues, Israeli director Amos Gitai’s docudrama examines in forensic detail the direct failings that led to Rabin’s death, and the wider climate that sparked it.

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His decision to sign up to the Oslo Accords made him a figure of hate for many on the right, and an icon for those seeking peace. This is a slow film, that takes its time to draw out testimonies, and incorporates footage of Jewish settlements for minutes on end. Sometimes the thoroughness can be overwhelming, the level of detail from each figure comprehensive to the point of monotony. With a superb music score from Amit Poznansky, the film manages to ride over these moments, sustaining a sense of fear and uncertainty. There are answers here, but not to the big question. This is how and why Rabin died. As to an overarching solution for Israel, it looks like the wait has only just begun.

“Love”— Invitation

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“Love”

Invitation

Amos Lassen

“Love” is a celebration of heterosexuality with a few adventures thrown in to keep things interesting. We have a threesome, a bit of S&M and a rather pointless interlude with a trans hooker. Take the sex away (which you cannot do) then this is a story of a young man’s self-imposed self-loathing because, his penis rules him. He makes a series of bad choices and silly decisions.

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“Love” is about love and sex and how both sexes interpret, compare and practice them. We learn that infidelity is not infidelity when both partners are present. Director Gaspar Noe has opened the door on sex that some will label immediately as porn. But this is a step above porn in that the sex is handled with style and sensitivity. “Love” is a love story with great passion, lots of sex and addiction. We also hear director Noe’s philosophies on life and love and he shares that love is clearly the meaning behind many of life’s prospects.

Electra (Aomi Muyock) replies to Murphy’s (Karl Glusman) question, “what is the meaning of life?” with the simple answer, “love”. The film is a treatise of love and perhaps a nostalgic love that not all of us are familiar with. Here we see an attribute that makes love the complex sensation that it seeks to be. Love is the foundation of our desires and heartaches as emotional human beings; no one learns these lessons harder than the character of Murphy.

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It is hard to watch this film without feeling something. We see magical moments of first love and the first night with a new partner are overwhelmed by the futilities of life’s needs and complications. The expression is bountiful and sticks with us.

Murphy is an American living in Paris who enters a highly sexually and emotionally charged relationship with the unstable Electra. Unaware of the effect it will have on their relationship, they invite their pretty neighbor into their bed. I have no doubt that there will be those who will criticize the film because of the sexual content. However, it is so much more than just sex. We see its importance and that it is natural in any loving relationship. Noé indulges in the fantasies of a young couple, in what is an honest attempt at the intricacies of the sexual relationship within the hunger of love. These scenes can be explicit on the eye, but they are without doubt thoughtfully and breathtakingly crafted sex scenes.

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Murphy himself is an aspiring film director and has his own philosophy on the medium that he wishes to share with Electra. He wants to now why no one has made a film of partners in love having explicit sex. Of course, there is irony here especially when we see Murphy’s own desires through Murphy himself. He also believes that blood, sperm and tears formulate the essence of life and can’t understand why movies don’t reflect this. These aspects of the human being certainly stand true to many manifestations, notably the tears that come with one’s outward suffering, the sperm with an essential private pleasure, and the blood as the component fuelling the interior toxins of life. We see an explosion of such fluids in the film.

When a film has such a strong vision and an abundance of things to say, it is difficult to review. The sex we see is not gratuitous. It is justified in a story that focuses on the trials of young love. “Love” was filmed in 3D because it is designed as a completely immersive experience. In the opening scene, Murphy wakes up and announces that “I wish I didn’t exist right now.” His ex-girlfriend and love of his life, Electra has gone missing, and the news knocks him into a state of complete unrest that aligns perfectly with the film’s artful style. We get a suggestion of the perverse. , Electra and Murphy, as well as Omi (Klara Kristin), the woman he lives with at the start of the film and his child’s mother, are constrained by Noé’s predetermined vision of the way that people talk, fight, and have sex, only here the talk is stupid, the fighting violent, and the sex unsimulated. It seems that the film is trying to represent on screen Noe’s nostalgia for the lack of inhibitions when there are few cares aside from sex.

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It is easy to discuss the film just through the lens of the movie’s sex. There’s a lot of it, and it’s explicit, with unsimulated sex scenes making up a significant portion of the film’s two hour running time. However, to only discuss the sex would mean ignoring the aims of the film that love is really just a act of provocation. What little narrative there is tells the story of the love triangle between Murphy, Electra and Omi and Murphy’s determination to find Electra after her mother (Isabelle Nicou) informs him of her disappearance. As a result of the news, he begins reflecting on their relationship, and the film becomes a non-linear exploration of the romance between the two.

Murphy and Electra’s relationship is interrupted through the inclusion of Omi who joins their life via a threesome. Soon after, Electra leaves town, and Murphy uses her absence as an opportunity to sleep with Omi without Electra’s interference. In the midst of their affair, a condom breaks, and Omi gets pregnant. The roles reverse, and he ends up in a relationship with her, with Electra as the subject of his adulterous desire.

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What the three-way demonstrates, as does much of the film, is just how much of a narrative one can tell through sex. Noé uses his sex scenes to delve into the relationships between characters. There are clear narrative implications when, for example, Murphy decides to pleasure Omi rather than Electra, and the scenes wouldn’t be able to convey the same meanings without this explicitness  Rather than merely featuring the scenes for the sake of depicting graphic sex, Noé uses the graphicness to get into a level of detail about the relationships between his characters most films are unable approach. Using these very details, Noe creates a somewhat disturbing look at gender relations.

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Noé then combines these details within the wider structure of the film to create a disturbing and powerful portrait of gender relations. We see many variations of sex and the differences are used to give us an intimate look at the arc of a relationship. What this does is make the film a story told through sex. As a result, “Love” becomes an all too rare thing in cinema: a story told through sex. Noé treats sex with the importance and reverence it deserves. Too many filmmakers simply gloss over it through elision and this deprives us of learning about the nature of a relationship. The use of 3D punctuates the action and allows for a powerful connection between film and viewer. This connection is only possible through explicit sex like we have here.

“VALENTINO”— Ken Russell’s Excesses

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“Valentino”

Ken Russell’s Excesses

Amos Lassen

Ken Russell’s “Valentino” really has nothing to do with the character in the title of this film. What it does show is imagery and charisma but no credibility. “There is absolutely no logic as to why a writer can get it so wrong…or, perhaps, he was playing with the words as Russell played with the pictures.” As Valentino, we immediately see that Rudolf Nureyev cannot act but neither can anyone else.

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Released in 1977, “Valentino” begins with the news of the famed actor’s untimely death at the age of thirty-one. Newsreel footage shows how his legions of female fans are inconsolable over the news, mobbing the funeral home where his body lies in a scene that is essentially a riot. It is, in Russell’s grand tradition, an exercise in excess and strange visual style.

After that opening sequence, order is restored and there is some calm. From there, we learn how Rudolph Valentino (Rudolf Nureyev) touched the lives of a few different women he was involved with over the years. This is set up through a series of flashbacks as each one of these women show up to pay their respects and get in on some photo opportunities. The first is June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), a screenwriter who was involved with the actor. Through her story we learn how Valentino immigrated to the United States from Italy, where he was born, how he worked menial jobs at first and then got work as a dancer, hoping to earn the money he would need to buy a farm in California. When he runs afoul of some mobsters, he splits to Los Angeles but still hopes to buy that farm one day. In L.A., he finds work dancing in nightclubs where he starts to draw more attention than he initially expected.

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One night he pulls Jean (Carol Kane) out to the dance floor, much to the dismay of her jealous date, Fatty Arbuckle (William Hootkins). Surprisingly quickly, he and Jean are married and he decides, after learning about the film business through her, that he should try acting and it’s hear we learn how June Mathis would wind up ‘discovering’ him. Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron) shows up to grieve, giving the photographers exactly what they want. She then talks about how Valentino was cast as Armand and she as Camille in the production of the same name. Of course, this turns out to be doomed in its own way. Natasha Rambova (Michelle Phillips) follows, telling of a love triangle of sorts and how she knew Valentino was destined for stardom. When she and Valentino worked together on “The Sheik”, they would become intimate and when he would split with his wife, they would travel together for a while. They are married south of the border before the divorce is finalized, however, and they are, upon their return to California, charged with bigamy which leads to a lengthy downward spiral of events for the couple culminating in a scene where Valentino challenges a reporter to a boxing match for casting aspersions on his sexuality (a fascinating sequence in which Russell shows us how boxing and dancing sort of morph into the same thing, at least in his world). At the same time, the health problems that would eventually claim Valentino’s life begin.

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It really does not matter that the facts of Valentino’s life are wrong because Russell directs this picture with an insane amount of style, but not at the cost of substance. There’s a lot that goes on and the visuals do an excellent job of complimenting the storyline and the storyline does an equally excellent job of complimenting the visuals. Russell recreates some famous scenes from a few of the actor’s better known works (giving the picture some occasional ‘film within a film’ moments where Russell goes all out in blending fantasy with reality) and we see some fantastic set design. There are a lot of period appropriate art deco motifs that are duly exploited for the camera and scores of colorful costumes, backdrops and furniture pieces on display in pretty much every frame of the film. Visually, this is an amazing film, a picture ripe with sumptuous visuals and an expertly choreographed exercise in taking things completely over the top as Russell is known to do.

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The story is well told even if it is not the real stout. It does summarize the star’s life with little regard for accuracy. Russell was open about not going strictly by the book on this one, and that’s covered well in the commentary included on this disc. The performances are quite interesting. The role of Valentino might have been better suited to someone with more traditional acting experience than Nureyev but he moves gracefully and impressively during the film’s many dance sequences and if the resemblance that he shares to the film’s subject isn’t uncanny, it is close enough.

About halfway through the movie, Valentino is arrested and forced to spend the nigh, in a jail cell where the jailer denies him bathroom privileges and the other prisoners maul him and taunt him about his virility. This is very much in the mode of Mr. Russell’s most overpowering moments those that have simultaneously provoked admiration and outrage, but it has no place in an effort as a typically tame as this one. “Valentino” is Mr. Russell’s least disturbing movie. I must admit that even with all of the excesses that Russell is famed for, I watch whatever of his that I can get my hands on.

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Let’s face it—Valentino with all of his glamour was something of a bland figure, more of a star than he was an actor, and Mr. Russell’s best films have been about artists. Valentino’s greatest dream was to leave Hollywood and grow oranges. Valentino’s sexuality was nil, at least as far as Mr. Russell’s interpretation is concerned, so these is no place for the tortured erotic wrangling that we see in other Russell films.

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It is fascinating that the emphasis here on Valentino has to do with his old-world ideas of manly honor. When Nureyev’s Valentino is abused or, he looks wonderful, even regal. The screenplay, however gives us a Valentino who is somewhat meek. Nureyev interprets that character to be lordly to the point that he seems to enjoy the affronts to his dignity. Valentino and Russell seems to agree on the way we see Hollywood. Valentino is surrounded by (and a party to) the most aggressive kind of vulgarity.

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Nureyev’s performance, as was expected, of course, is graceful. He is incapable of making an uninteresting gesture. He is at his most stunning when he tangos in a dimly lit nightclub and fighting for his life in a noisy, crowded area one wall of which hangs a tattered American flag. The movie failed at the box office but it is now gaining cult status. As fantasy, the film works and the blu ray of it is absolutely gorgeous to watch.

“REMEMBER”— A Difficult Journey

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“Remember”

A Difficult Journey

Amos Lassen

Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) is a widower and a man suffering from dementia and living in a nursing home in a frequent state of confusion. Another resident reminds him that the two of them have concocted a plan. It’s one that sees him breaking out and on the road, as he hunts down a man who killed his family during the holocaust. But his unreliable memory and unclear plan make it a difficult journey. From that short description we see that their film deals with two very troubling issues—dementia and the Holocaust.

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On the final night of sitting shiva (A Jewish mourning tradition) for his wife, Ruth, Zev is pulled aside by Max (Martin Landau), who hands him a fat envelope full of cash and detailed instructions for a plan Zev promised in more lucid times to carry out after his wife’s death. Max is confined to a wheelchair and permanently hooked up to an oxygen supply, but he has worked with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to trace four Germans living in North America under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander. He’s convinced that one of them is the Auschwitz prison block commander who murdered both Max’s and Zev’s families 70 years earlier, and up to now has evaded justice.

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Plummer once again turns in a memorable performance as a man trying to deal with the confusion in his mind but is not always able to do so. He manages to leave the facility undetected out of and goes on a cross-continent journey using Max’s cheat sheet to guide him through his frequent lapses in clarity.

Director Atom Egoyan tries to keep the story moving forward, without getting bogged down in its implausibilities but there are just too many for him to be able to do so. I found that the film trivializes both dementia and the pain that Holocaust survivors have to deal with. In dealing with the Holocaust, remembering is very serious but as time passes, memory fades as the survivors die. Eve though we must never forget the horrors of the time, I am fairly certain that we will not remember and it is a moral imperative to do so. Remembering is seen as urgent here. Losing his wife, he is spurred on to this mission and while he does not remember all that he has to do, Max is there to make him remember.

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For this reason, Max has written everything down in a long letter with detailed instructions. Zev leaves the hospice and begins a cross-country trip to seek out and kill a former Auschwitz block commandant, who is responsible for the murder of his family and who Max has learned is hiding under an assumed name. It turns out there are several Germans living under the same name and this takes the urgency out of the early part of the film as we recognize that generically, the right man can only be caught at the end, if at all. The film then becomes a road movie On a train, Zev chats amiably with a little boy who knows nothing about the Holocaust and we would think that something like this will goad him on with intensity—the fear of forgetting is very real but Zev does not catch that. He gets a gun and is helped at every stop by the logistical support of Max who has booked taxis and reserved hotel rooms in advance. There are false leads and an array of character actors including Bruno Ganz, Heinz Lieven and Jurgen Prochnow that we meet as Zev goes forward.

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Plummer gives Zev a gentle authority and gentlemanly dignity, and though his hand trembles with age, his resolve can turn steely, as when he encounters a younger man (Dean Norris) who retains an admiration for the Third Reich.

 Memory reminds us of who we love and who we hate. For Zev and Max, it all has been a long ride till retaliation. “If it is true that no vengeance is possible without memory, no grievances exist when they cannot be truly reminisced. They may be there, in the body, making their way — but the unawareness of oblivion may attribute to these ailments other roots, other sources”. Justice cannot be served without a clear memory of what happened.

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Both Zev and Max know well their chance of evenness has evaporated with the passing of the years. There’s no justice without memory, and we must ask if one of these is subservient to the other? This film asks this question and it does so with intelligence that has characterized Egoyan’s films.

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Zev is slowly but surely losing both his memory and his mind to a degree. There are four individuals with the stolen-name/identity that the Nazi official used to avoid trial and get refuge in the US. Four Rudy Kurlanders are detected, spread across the US and Canada. But only one of the two avengers can cross the country, and only one can do the planning. Here’s where the Golem motif comes in. Max, has no body for the enterprise, his has failed him a long time ago, while Zev, the able-bodied, has no mind to undertake the search, his is slowly forgetting where time goes. So one, Zev, becomes the other’s body while Max is the mind.

“CYANIDE” (“CYANURE”)— Waiting for Dad

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“CYANIDE” (“CYANURE”)

Waiting for Dad

Amos Lassen

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 Achille, a young hopeful teenager is waiting for his unknown and fantasized father to come out of prison. He has been dreaming about family but that dream is seriously undermined by an exhausted mother and a man who, after so many years in jail, has become unable to be a responsible father.

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We see the uphill battle facing Joe (Roy Dupuis) once he is released from prison after over 14 years. He cannot read or write and he has no job skills and a prison record. He loves his wife (Sabine Timoteo) but she will have nothing to do with him, other than to encourage him to develop a relationship with his son. She has a relationship with her current boss and she wants a divorce from Joe. His son (Alexandre Etzlinger) idolizes his father and tries very hard to reconcile his parents. This story is funny, touching, and sexy. For a Roy Dupuis fan, this movie delivers. The performances are excellent.

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This film was totally unexpected from the beginning to the end. Told from the boy’s perspective, it is a film that is hard to forget.

“COMIN’ AT YA!”— With 35th Anniversary Re-release and Debut On Blu-ray 3D

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“COMIN’ AT YA!” 

With 35th Anniversary Re-release and Debut On Blu-ray 3D

Amos Lassen

The cult classic film “Comin At Ya!” is a fan-favorite spaghetti western that is having a special The studio plans a 35th Anniversary re-release on home video that includes its debut on Blu-ray 3D. Directed by Ferdinando Baldi and written, produced and starring spaghetti western legend Tony Anthony, the film has been largely credited with the 3-D revival in the early 1980’s.

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Independently produced it was originally released theatrically in 1981 and grossed over $12,000,000 domestically in only 200 theaters in North America (over $30,000,000 in 2016 dollars when adjusted for inflation), long before independent films were a regular staple in multiplexes. It embraced the 3-D technology of its time, not only taking advantage of the depth that the technology provided, but also taking every opportunity possible to throw, shoot and point things at the viewer at every possible turn and created a cult classic movie as a result. When it was released in the 80s, it was the first 3D film distributed by a major company since the 50s and it went on to set box-office records and turned Hollywood and the world onto 3D once again. I read where someone wrote about remembering this film from their youth but not being allowed to see it because it has an “R” rating.

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It has been said that “Comin’ At Ya” is 3D for the sake of 3D. With guns, snakes, fists, even a bare baby bottom hurtling at you, you are never allowed to forget that. It was the first film in a short-lived 3D revival in the early eighties. The title has nothing to do with the plot of the movie, and it only refers to all the things, flying, flying, flying at you. It’s a spaghetti western, complete with villains, a hero and a female singing “ooh-oohs” over a dramatic Ennio Morricone-inspired score. Tony Anthony stars as H.H. Hart, a bank robber on the search for his wife and partner in crime Abilene (Victoria Abril), after her abduction by greasy bandits, who plan to sell her into white slavery.

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Hart’s attempts to rescue Abilene and dozens of other kidnapped women make up the majority of the film. which probably would run about 30 minutes without the long drawn out scenes, frequent use of slow motion and, of course, all those things lunging at the screen. It often is silly but it also brutal.

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It is hard to laugh at attempted rape, women being abused and sold into prostitution, and a man being eaten alive by rats. Watching Abril spend most of her screen time being beaten, dragged behind a horse and attacked by bats is not fun either.

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Anthony is good as the hero though, and it’s a surprisingly decent western, despite being full of clichés and strange dialogue. Director Ferdinando Baldi brings few stylistic elements to the table beyond objects flying towards the camera, opting for a slow-motion segment here and the use of selective color there. He is mostly preoccupied with throwing stuff at the camera: rats, bats, snakes, yo-yos, darts, spears, flaming arrows, apple peels, gun barrels, golden coins, grasping hands. And when in doubt, any of those items and more are simply dropped down upon the camera and, in effect, the audience (watch out for beans!) Speaking strictly in terms of bang-buck ratio, the film certainly lives up to its title.

“HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON IN WHITE COMPANY (AND ENJOY IT)”— Looking at Melvin Van Peebles

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“How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)”

Looking at Melvin Van Peebles

Amos Lassen

“How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)” is a feature-length documentary on renegade filmmaker, novelist, musician and theater impresario, Melvin Van Peebles. It presents us with a broad scope of the man and his career but only on the surface. The film delves into many anecdotes of Van Peebles’ life including his flying air missions over the Pacific during World War II, his stay in Paris as an American expatriate novelist (including archive footage from French television, where Van Peebles shows off his mastery of self-taught French), his career as a rap artist and Wall Street trader, and his career as a filmmaker before and after an earlier documentary about him made by his son, Mario.

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It is just too bad that we do not get insight into what drives Van Peebles or about the flaws he suffers with yet he remains fascinating as an artist and a man who promotes himself. He is multi-talented and prolific; a man who defies categorization who boasts of a life and career as diverse and unexpected as the art he’s best known for creating. He is a trailblazer of the tallest order and he has had turns making his living as a filmmaker, a pilot, a novelist and a stockbroker. He has never been deterred by opportunity that failed to knock; he’d just get on with it. After Hollywood rejected his early filmmaking efforts, he self-produced 1971 feature film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and it earned more than $10 million at the box office and changed independent cinema forever. He was a pioneer of rap music, has been a Tony-nominated playwright and a civil rights activist then and now and here is van Peebles’ life story given to us both playfully and candidly, illuminating an artist and a man whose groundbreaking impact on art, politics and pop culture remains.

Director Joe Angio makes a convincing case that Renaissance man Melvin Van Peebles has never gotten his due as a filmmaker, musician, writer, icon, and revolutionary. But in his bid to honor Van Peebles’ achievements, he lapses into worshipfulness while hardly dealing with the issues like Van Peebles’ attitude toward women and skipping big chunks of Van Peebles’ career altogether. Van Peebles has been known to get off on inspiring both adulation and contempt yet there are no critical voices in this documentary. After serving in the military, Van Peebles moved to France, where he fell in with a clique of irreverent bohemian intellectuals and began writing novels in French before writing and directing first short films and then a feature. He moved back to the States and revolutionized independent and black film with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, had two musicals running on Broadway simultaneously, was nominated for a boatload of Tonys, and in the ’80s became a trader on Wall Street and wrote a guide to commodities trading. He also managed to find time to help invent rap when not attending to his own personal collection of women.

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Angio captures the outlandish twists and turns of Van Peebles’ life with humor, color, and a welcome lightness of touch. He brings us old clips of Van Peebles sarcastically suggesting that hookers lend their beds to the homeless when not using them in a tongue-in-cheek local news commentary. It is a fun movie even though it skips over substantial parts of Van Peebles’ career. Van Peebles continued to write, direct, and act in films throughout the ’80s and ’90s but this film pretty much ignores everything that happened in his film career between 1973 and 2000. We see Van Peebles as resilient, overcoming seemingly insurmountable hurdles and setbacks all his life. “Watermelon” manages to be at once a thorough recounting of the startlingly full life of the man who is credited with fathering the blaxploitation genre, while at the same time shedding no light on who he was behind the scenes.

“BABA JOON”— Father and Son

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“Baba Joon”

Father and Son

Amos Lassen

“Baba Joon” is Israel’s entry into the Best Foreign Film competition for the 2016 Academy Awards. It looks at Israel’s Iranian Jewish population and is the nation’s first-ever film in Farsi. It stars Navid Negabhan (“Homeland”) as the immigrant father, Yitzhak who runs the turkey farm his father built with his own two hands after they emigrated from Iran to Israel. When his son Moti (Asher Avrahami) turns thirteen, Yitzhak teaches him the trade, hoping that he will continue the proud family tradition. But Moti doesn’t like working in the turkey barn; his passion is ­fixing up junkyard cars and bringing them back to life. Moti’s mother Sarah (Viss Elliot Safavi) tries to reconcile between the two, while his grandfather pushes Yitzhak to take a firm hand with his son. Yitzhak takes Moti’s refusal to work in the turkey barn as a personal rejection. Though he loves his son dearly, he makes it his mission to impose the family farm on Moti. When the uncle who lives in American, Darius, arrives  things begin to happen that undermine the familial harmony. Soon enough Yitzhak will learn that his son is just as stubborn as he is and conflict is inevitable.

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The focus of the drama is the age-old inter-generational conflict and changing times – thirteen-year-old Moti’s distaste for turkey farming goes against his father’s and grandfather’s ambitions of continuing the family business. In fact, the turkey farm is framed not merely as a business but as the core of the family’s identity – as the grandfather, a sympathetic but dictatorial patriarch figure, reminds Yitzhak, their family name signifies poultry-breeders. Viewers see photos of the turkey lifecycle, with chicks, young birds and mature turkeys featuring prominently. Moti wants none of it, he has a talent for mechanics and is obsessed with driving. The conflict heightens when Moti’s uncle Darius (David Diaan), a jewelry maker, arrives from California for a visit and takes Moti’s side, encouraging his mechanical talents and trying to persuade Yitzhak to get rid of the turkey farm. The film built around intensifying ways of looking at this conflict.

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What the plot lacks in originality it has in charisma and exoticism. Avrahami’s performance as Moti, while often sentimental, is also disarming in its mixture of innocence and resistance to adults’ wishes, while Naghaban’s rugged but sensitive virility fills the screen. Rafael Faraj Eliasi, a non-actor, is excellent as the tough grandfather, clinging to dominance over his grown sons and simmering with nostalgia for the irretrievable past in his native Iran. The cinematography by Ofer Inov is gorgeous especially the almost desert exteriors as a contrast to the turkey cages and coops.

The film has many culturally specific undertones – namely the Iranian experience of adjusting to life in Israel, and the unusual mix of Farsi and Hebrew in the same conversation, it never loses sight of its main premise of generational differences in the lives of immigrants.

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“Baba Joon” was officially voted best Israeli film of 2015 and watching it lets you understand that.

“LAMB”— A Film from Ethiopia

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“LAMB”

A Film from Ethiopia

Amos Lassen

“Lamb” has two firsts going for it. One is that this is director Yared Zeleke first feature film and the other is that this is the first film from Ethiopia to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the story of young Ephraim (Rediate Amare), a half-Jewish, Ethiopian boy who is sent by his father to live among distant relatives after his mother’s death. Ephraim uses his cooking skills to carve out a place among his cousins, but when his uncle decides that his beloved sheep must be sacrificed for the next religious feast, he will do anything to save the animal and return home. 

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Ethiopian cinema and landscape is seldom seen by film fans, and this helps to make this movie so special. We also do not see movies about boys and lambs and so this adds another dimension to the film. Aside from seeing the relationship between the young and animals, we also see a lot of Ethiopia.

Joseé Deshaies’ cinematography is stunning and it looms over every other aspect of the film. There are many transitions from scene to scene and these are often used as a way to highlight the country. What we see is not soon forgotten.

As a contrast to the beautiful scenery, Ethiopian society comes nowhere near it. Ephraïm is deserted by his father, beaten, bullied, and mocked by the men for his being able to cook. Misogyny still reigns with the exception of some older women who have the authority able to give orders. Ephraïm and his cousin Tsion represent change. Reading symbolically into things, we can see Ephraïm’s lamb as an emotionless breed that follows wherever there is food and doesn’t show signs of affection. It comes to represent the “normal” culture, belonging in a group and working towards consumption. Ephraïm tries to lead him in different directions and he even differs from the norm in his choice of a pet. Ephraïm’s behavior is the thing to watch and reward. Amare is a new actor, and has a unique and brilliant quietness to himself; thus causing us to look into his eyes and listen carefully to what he says. His character represents the new generation that is smartly changing standards (along with his cousin), and he makes the film something to watch carefully.

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Director Zeleke has managed to not only create fascinating characters but he also has the ability of getting amazing performances from them. The story is deceptively simple and it is filled with honesty. Ephraïm is nine-years-old and his former charmed life of early childhood has been sadly decimated by the droughts and poverty of contemporary Ethiopia. His beloved mother dies of illness related to malnutrition and his father must take his boy to a more stable home environment many miles away whilst Dad then travels to the city of Addis Ababa to seek employment. Now, some of you might wonder why I am repeating what I stated earlier so just hang on and all will be cleared up.

Ephraïm’s only way of dealing with his sadness is the deep love and friendship he maintains for Chuni, a sweet lamb that his late Mother also loved. His father tells Ephraïm that he will soon need to cross over into manhood by slaughtering the lamb with his own hands. Then Ephraim’s uncle tells him that the lamb musty be slaughtered for an upcoming feast and also to help his daughter is suffering with malnutrition. Ephraïm maintains a constant faith in his wealth of spirit, his love for Chuni and most importantly, his natural gifts which fly in the face of the patriarchal traditions of rural Ethiopia. He has an ally in his cousin Tsion (Kidist Siyum), the eldest daughter of his foster family who challenges convention with her intelligence, literacy and refusal to be married off.

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Life moves in mysterious ways and a big part of Ephraïm’s coming age will, in spite of all his best efforts to maintain the status quo of childhood, lead to a point wherein he must accept that love means learning to move on, to let go, to maintain his own spirit of compassion, but to allow himself to be unencumbered by things which will hold back his natural abilities to excel beyond the demands of rural society.

“Lamb” is sensitively directed, intelligently written, beautifully acted and stunningly photographed and it is an extraordinary, moving and beautiful experience for young and old alike.