Category Archives: Film

“COURT”— The Indian Legal System

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“Court”

The Indian Legal System

Amos Lassen

When an elderly folk singer and grassroots organizer known as the “people’s poet,” is arrested on a trumped-up charge of inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide, we see a ridiculous trial and harrowing display of institutional incompetence, with endless procedural delays, coached witnesses for the prosecution, and obsessive privileging of arcane colonial law over reason and mercy. Director Chaitanva Tamhane’s first film has a brilliant ensemble cast of professional and nonprofessional actors and is a wonderful union of comedy and tragedy.

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The film is set against the background of Indian society as represented by its legal system, and what it reveals is none too flattering. “The plot involves an activist poet, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who, during a public performance, is arrested on what are soon revealed to be trumped-up charges of indirectly abetting the alleged suicide of a sewer worker after he supposedly heard a song of Kamble’s which implored people like him to kill themselves—and in a manner similar to the way he died”. The charges come from outdated laws that the Indian government has apparently not seen fit to either revise or repeal altogether. While Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), argues for the reconsideration of such laws, the public prosecutor, Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), sticks to the letter of these laws. There is procedural rigidity that the legal back and forth ends up being dragged out over the span of many months. The film actually goes deeper than merely exposing the flaws of a country’s judicial system. This is where those character-building detours are crucial.

A lunch scene with Vinay and his parents implies much about the generational gap between the progressive young single lawyer and his more-tradition-bound parents, especially when it comes to love and marriage (his parents are more concerned about having grandchildren than he is at the moment). While Vinay, for all his political activism, lives in a comfortably upper-class background, Nutan is squarely part of the working class, possibly without the upbringing to imagine a way of thinking beyond her immediate daily concerns of caring for her family. We see anti-immigrant sentiment running throughout India’s working class—perhaps the kind of sentiment that Kamble is constantly fighting against in his public performances.

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Tamhane looks at these flawed characters and troubled institutions and dissects them. Each scene makes the points it wants to make, clearly and economically, before moving on to the next. Tamhane purposefully has extended scenes in order to include a seemingly unrelated detail that nevertheless adds an extra layer to the film’s overall societal critique.

We see the scenes in the courtroom with a mix of realism and an eye on the absurd. The court case itself is bizarrely fascinating as we watch the two lawyers chip at each other’s arguments and the judge occasional halts proceedings to record a statement that a clerk types into an ancient computer. There is no urgency to it and no scenes of anger or heightened emotion.

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The prosecutor complains that she’s bored of seeing the same faces. “Sentence him to 20 years and let’s go onto something new,” she says allowing us to see the careless erosion of human freedom by a system that is nevertheless run by human beings with all their frailties and complexities. The film is reminiscent of Kafka in the way it shows inhumane bureaucracy.

“SEMICOLON: THE ADVENTURES OF OSTOMY GIRL”— The Girl with Crohn’s Disease

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“Semicolon: The Adventures of Ostomy Girl”

The Girl with Crohn’s Disease

Amos Lassen

 “Semicolon” is a documentary about Dana, a twenty-five girl who is living with a severe case of Crohn’s Disease. She and her mother are living life to the fullest life to the fullest under circumstances not of their making. Dana’s world is not pretty yet it is filled with humor and surprises. Everyday is a battle of some kind and Dana spends as much time in the hospital as she does out of it. She is totally dependent on intravenous nutrition, constant vigilance and does so with a wicked, gut-busting sense of humor to keep her alive. The documentary focuses on the months before the biggest decision she has ever made, is it worth it to risk everything in order to get an intestinal transplant.

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I recently met someone whose son is battling Crohn’s and I could immediately sense the burden he is under. However watching this film showed me that this terrible disease can also be dealt with humorously. While a chronic illness is certainly nothing to laugh at, we see how Dana faces it even though her twenty-five years have been an endless round of surgeries, medication, intravenous feeding, and close encounters with death. Dana smiles as she relates this to us as she teaches us about courage and the values of things we take so much for granted. We see an amazing story that is filled with hope and it is quite easy to become lost in this film.

“HARPER LEE: FROM ‘MOCKINGBIRD’ TO ‘WATCHMAN'”— The Facts and Speculation about Harper Lee

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“Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman”

The Facts and Speculation about Harper Lee

Amos Lassen

Mary McDonagh Murphy’s documentary on Harper Lee is an updated version of “HEY, BOO: HARPER LEE & TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD “. Now that Lee has released “Go Set a Watchman”, the director felt that it would be more informative to add to the film that she had previously made than to make an entire new film which probably have been repetitive. “Go Set a Watchman” came out some fifty-five years after “Mockingbird” eve though Lee had actually written it before. Murphy takes a look at all of the fats and the speculation about both books and does so by having conducted interviews with many of Lee’s friends, her sister and fans and these include Oprah Winfrey, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokaw, Wally Lamb and more. The manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” had been believed lost or destroyed and the story of Atticus and Scout might have been lost to us forever had this earlier book not been found. The film looks at the mystery surrounding it and talks about the speculation that has surrounded “Mockingbird” since its publication.

My generation loves “To Kill a Mockingbird” as do so many other generations and what is even more amazing is that as the times change, people continue to read it and love it. It is perhaps one of the most influential books ever written with over a million copies sold every year and it was responsible for an Academy Award film. Nelle Harper Lee gave us this treasure and this documentary looks at her and her book and we get answers to many questions and we understand why she did not publish another book until now. The film was obviously made with great love and respect and we are entertained and educated by it.

“AWAKE: THE LIFE OF YOGANANDA”— “The Father of Yoga in the West”

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“Awake: The Life of Yogananda”

“The Father of Yoga” in the West”

Amos Lassen

“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” is a documentary by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman that looks at life and work of Paramahansa Yogananda. His autobiography (1946) is considered one of the instrumental works in bringing the teachings of yoga to the West.

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The movie was filmed over three years with the participation of 30 countries around the world and it examines the world of modern and ancient world of yoga in the East and the West and explores why millions today have turned their attention inwards and the pursuit of self-realization.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) is known as the “Father of Yoga in the West.” In the film we learn about the extraordinary life and work of the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship. As a boy Yogananda had visions and felt that the Divine Mother was watching over him and had great plans for him. As a young man he spent many years refining meditation practice with his guru and Yoga master Sri Yukteswar. Then in 1920, Yogananda came to America where his first teaching was on “The Science of Religion.” He knew that the major challenge facing him was to make the ancient Vedic teachings relevant to modern day needs and concerns. He discovered that many Americans were open to his fresh messages about energy, the body as a vehicle for God consciousness, and the spiritual significance of will power.

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In 1925, this zealous spiritual teacher turned his attention to California where there was a huge interest in his renditions of the riches of the Eastern spiritual tradition in the West. Yogananda went on to spend fifteen years in the United States speaking, teaching, and setting up centers. He was one of the first yogis to share techniques for controlling and rewiring the brain.

Di Florio and Leeman have put together wonderful interviews on Yogananda, his life and legacy. Among those featured are Kirtan master Krishna Das; George Harrison of the Beatles; bestselling author Deepak Chopra; Jesuit priest Francis Clooney; Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California; Sri Daya Mata; and Philip Goldberg, author of “American Veda and many others.

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The film is an excellent overview for those who know very little or a lot about the man and his message; frustratingly incomplete for everyone in between. It is more of a hagiography than a biopic; there is nothing about Yogananda’s private life or personal habits and even his sudden death

in 1952, is treated as inevitable. The film does explore early parts of his life, much of the focus is on Yogananda bringing Hindu spirituality to America, and eventually the world. Yogananda teaches an all-inclusive form of spirituality, and the practice of yoga and meditation is very much a mystical, dreamy practice. We feel this coming through in the film, and it slowly penetrates the viewing experience until we feel ourselves swept up in the love, kindness, and spirit of Yogananda.

The film jumps back and forth in time and some may see this as a fault but I found the film to be fascinating throughout. In the same way that Yogananda would teach his beliefs with pressure, the film allows audiences to experience what Yogananda was teaching, and allows them to decide if it could be a path for them to follow.

“MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE”— From Hood to Rap Star

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“May Allah Bless France!”

From Hood to Rap Star

Amos Lassen

“May Allah Bless France!” is the true story of Abd al Malik (Marc Zinga), a French teenager who managed to rise out of the underprivileged suburbs through love, education and rap music. He is a culturally gifted boy who has dreamed of success for his rap band, but he had to accept drug money for the sake of his project. Then discovering Islam and love, he dealt with the harsh loss and paybacks of delinquency, until he found the strength to express himself through music and slam-poetry and ultimately he has become a major artist of the French music scene.

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Parisian rapper Abd al Malik grew up in a housing project in Strasbourg. In this black-and-white film, he presents himself as different characters wrapped up into one. He was a gifted philosophy student who was so good student that he was given a chance to study and excel as a scholar. However, another part of him is proud of his expertise as a street thief stealing wallets and snatching purses. Yet another aspect of his character builds on his talents as a rapper trying to break into a very popular field. He has also been a drug dealer when he is trying to purchase recording equipment. He has another side as well as the man who loves and marries Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani) and who converts to Islam after the shooting death of a brother. His story is that of one young black man’s struggles to free himself from a life of crime and find his place in a world where love, devotion to Allah, and passion for rap come together.

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Abd Al Malik is also a film director making his debut with this film that is based on his published memoir about his early life. He starts out in Strasbourg as a petty hood as a man of Congolese-descent. He was born Regis Fayette-Mikano and it did not take long for him to become involved in picking pockets and drug dealing. He was articulate and educated and he found release in writing and performance. When he was twenty-four, he converted to Sufism at age 24 and wrote a memoir. This black and white film both visually and thematically takes us into his life.

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Abd Al Malik’s cast is made up of lively Arab, black, and white males who talk the lingo and have the speech rhythms of the Strasbourg ghetto. He shows the serious consequences that crime brought to some of his comrades. But with the distancing effect of the black and white images and the schematic treatment of day-to-day events, “May Allah Bless France!” sometimes seems abstract. The unique part of the film is his conversion to Islam and we see him on a trip a trip by the protagonist to an unspecified Muslim country where Qur’anic recitation is heard, and he says the Fatiha while sitting among mature holy men. Something else that is very interesting is that while following his devout Muslim faith, he depicts his relationship with his sweetheart Nawel (Sabrina Ouazani) as chaste. His piety seems to explain the film’s unwillingness to depict the uglier side of his early life with graphic realism.

Critical opinions have been divided over the film. Some have loved the upbeat message while others have felt that the film called too much for immigrant homogenization and is generalized and generic. Abd Al Malik embraces his identity as, above all, not blacker Muslim, but as a citizen of France, unified, new, and democratic.

“THE DOVE FLYER”— The Jews of Iraq

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“The Dove Flyer” or “Farewell Bagdad” (“Mafriah Yonim”)

The Jews of Iraq

Amos Lassen

Set in Baghdad, 1950, a young man named Kabi (Daniel Gad) sees his family as the final person in a legacy of seventy generations in the making. His family faces the news that the Jewish community is being forced to leave Iraq and depart the land where their ancestors lived for many years. Kabi’s family explodes both from within and from without. “The Dove Flyer” looks at the world through the eyes of one young man whose perspective shifts constantly.

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Each of Kabi’s kin moves in a different direction and the rift begins when, in the opening scene, his uncle Hazkel (Eli Dor Haim) is arrested for allegedly publishing subversive articles and essays. Kabi finds himself with a mission for which he is much too young but for which he nevertheless steps up to– helping find justice for Hazkel. He is an ally to Hazkel’s wife, Rachelle (Yasmin Ayoun). Kabi’s parents look to different futures as his mother (Ahuva Keren) wants to return to the Muslim quarter and his father (Igal Kabi) wants to move the family to Israel. His uncle Abu (Uri Gavriel), finally, just wants to take care of his doves in peace and pretend that good.

“The Dove Flyer” is based on the novel “Farwell, Baghdad” by Eli Amir and is a look at a little-told chapter of history. The film strongly conveys the political ideologies, religious affinities, and cultural identities that clashed at the time and still do today around the globe. It gives us a portrait of collective loss by intersecting various family members throughout their own journeys.

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Kabi’s tale is at the center and is fascinating, however, the other storylines aren’t filled out quite as fully realized as his is and this is one of those rare films that could gave been so much more fascinating with an hour added to it.

As Kabi’s story, it is a coming of age tale in which he learns to deal with the competing and conflicting allegiances he has to his father, uncle, and friends. Kabi is on a quest for truth as he investigates Hazkel’s arrest and looks for those who turned him in. He flirts with romance with his aunt-by-marriage Rachelle and his friend Adnan (Tawfeek Barhoum) teaches Kabi that revolution and sex go hand-in-hand. He sees that Adnan’s the smartest teacher a young man could have, so his respect for the women in the tale gives him a strong foothold in the underground and more allies than the other men. He is an innocent who goes through his own awakening as he cannot hold onto the conviction behind the play on home, family, and connection that his family emphasizes as they try to hold onto their homeland and the home of seventy generations of his family.

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Gad as Kabi gives a very strong performance as Kabi searches for answers and guidance along the way. He contains little boyish idealism despite his clean adolescent charm. He is a silent revolutionary and a shrewd observer. All of the other performances are strong as well but Gad stands out because he is one screen throughout the entire film.

Uri Gavriel as Abu is unmoved by what is going on and his love for the doves he raises, blinds him to what is going on around him. In the doves we see a The Dove Flyer finds in Abu’s doves a metaphor for the Jewish Diaspora as writer/director Nissim Dayan sees Kabi and his friend Adnan vent their anger by destroying Abu’s bird sanctuary and setting the doves flee. Some fly east and some fly west, while other doves simply flutter and return home. This is rich imagery that ironically finds itself at the end with the white and winged airplane carrying some of the Jews out of Iraq.

The film is fiction based upon truth as it tells of the130,000 Iraqi Jews in 1950-1951,some of whose families had lived in that region for over 2,500 years. is epic in scope. Nissim Dayan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eli Amir (author of the novel on which the film is based and who has a cameo in the film), shares that history and populates it with no fewer than seven significant characters and a handful of secondary players.

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The film touches the political and social issues as well as the friendships between Jews and Muslims, the communist movement that was active during the same period, the option of assimilation extending even to conversion that was presented to the Jews of Iraq, the Zionist movement, the arrival of Arab refugees from Palestine, and the cultural influence of the West. For those unfamiliar with the experience of Jews in the world of Islam, this is an interesting picture and it gives an important added perspective on today’s tensions. An interesting aspect of the film is that the language spoken is Iraqi.

“OUR MAN IN TEHRAN”— The True Story of “Argo”

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“Our Man in Tehran”

The True Story of “Argo”

Amos Lassen

This 2013 documentary retells the real-life story of the six U.S. Embassy workers who sought refuge from the Canadian ambassador while their co-workers were taken hostage in Iran in 1979. This was depicted in Oscar-winning fashion by director/star Ben Affleck in his 2012 political thriller Argo, which dramatized their eventual successful escape and focused on the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in orchestrating their flight.

“Our Man in Tehran” brings together contemporary interviews and archival footage to present a take on U.S. relations with Iran in the late 1970s and early 80s. Ken Taylor is the film’s surrogate protagonist, a real-life version of Victor Garber’s character in “Argo”. The film is based on the events surrounding a 1980 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where six workers were taken hostage. Taylor facilitated the escape, but he also spent many years as the Canadian ambassador to Iran and he relies less on data than intuition.

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The information throughout comes from testimonies of those who were involved in the events. I felt like what the documentary was saying to is was that “Argo”was incomplete and it is here to fill in the gaps.

It effectively sets the record straight about how boyish Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor helped get six American diplomats out of Iran at the height of the Islamic revolution as well as providing l context to help illuminate how the hostage-taking came to happen at all.

Although the various talking heads—including the American and Canadian principals in the tense saga have good things to say about Jimmy Carter’s integrity, it’s clear that he set the stage for disaster. First, he aligned himself rhetorically with the CIA–installed shah and then signaled to ready-to-revolt Iranians that the U.S. would stick with its man. Then, after the 1979 uprising, the U.S. took the shah in for medical treatment. Students who previously respected the sanctity of embassy compounds went crazy and the ayatollah’s minions used radicals to goad America into being the Great Satan they wanted.

The film examines the intricacies of an operation overseen, with appropriate caution, by then Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark and foreign minister Flora MacDonald. Pierre Trudeau. “Argo” played up the wildness of the CIA producing a fake science fiction movie, called “Argo,” as a pretext. The Americans were given counterfeit Canadian passports and new identities, but they and the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, were secondary characters, while Affleck’s CIA agent, Tony Mendez; John Goodman; and Alan Arkin’s sleazy Hollywood producer characters were more central.

Argo’s core was in many ways about the toll that a workaholic agent’s life had on Mendez’s family. Its tense ending, where the Americans barely escape from the Tehran airport as Iranian officials finally discover who they really are, has been admitted to be entirely fictional and added for dramatic purposes.

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When the drama of “Argo” is stripped away we learn that six people were living fairly comfortably, though hidden and circumscribed, hosted by friendly Canadians. The documentary is not flashy and is about as traditional as can be. It gives off a somewhat off-putting air of wanting to instill respectable, proper historicity into this series of events. It is somewhat difficult to watch but those who are willing to stick it out, there are enough interesting insights into the time period and alternative viewpoints offered to make it worthwhile.

If you are interested in the era or if you are researchers looking for new primary source material, especially the turbulent period leading to the fall of the shah of Iran, this film has it.

“THE SENDER”— After Attempted Suicide

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“The Sender”

After Attempted Suicide

Amos Lassen

Roger Christian’s “The Sender” is a psychological horror film in which Zeljko Ivanek stars as John Doe #83, a patient admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. When Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold), the psychiatrist assigned to his case, begins experiencing vivid hallucinations, she suspects that she may be telepathically connected to her new patient and is able to envision what he is experiences in real time. As terrifying, dream-like episodes escalate, the audience is drawn into a realm that lies between the waking and sleeping world.

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The film is totally incoherent and watching it is like looking at a piece of abstract art composed of easily identifiable representations of reality.At the center of the plot is the young man (Zeljko Ivanek), an amnesiac who has been brought to a mental hospital after a suicide attempt. When, Farmer, his pretty psychiatrist tries to treat him, she begins to see disgusting things that really aren’t and she even meets and talks with the young man’s mother (Shirley Knight).

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Very early the young man is diagnosed as a ”sender.” He is able to send his own thoughts and nightmares into the consciousnesses of others. We do not see this actually happen or then again, maybe we do. Ivanek is on the screen virtually from beginning to end. The “sending” becomes externalized when the doctors administer shock treatment to the amnesiac and soon everyone in the hospital is involved with his violent visions. Farmer believes the root of this phenomena lies with the young man’s mother who may or may not be a ghost reaching out from beyond the grave to harm her son.

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This is a horror film that sets itself up to be a low-key affair so the bursts of spectacular special effects are always surprising. Both shocks and chills are usually timed perfectly. You might recognize the name, Roger Christian— he won an Oscar for his set decoration for ”Star Wars” and was nominated for another Oscar as the art director of ”Alien.” His beautifully under-rated horror film was hardly seen by anybody when it came out. It interestingly prefigures the themes of dream; hallucination and reality blurring that later became so successful with the “Elm Street” movies. Roger Christian provides a fascinating array of jack-in-a-box reality intrusions (the moment an ECT machine is switched on and an entire operating room erupts in an hallucinatory slow-motion explosion; the Sender’s frenzied attempt to kill a flickering TV set that keeps taunting even when it is ripped from the wall and smashed to pieces, a sequence that culminates in the sensational ripping off of a patient’s head by a slap of the hand). Often the most unsettling effects are the incursions of atmosphere that eerily hover between real and unreal without noticeable division.

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This is a story that involves telepathically mass-broadcast hallucinations, a twisted series of suppressed nightmares and one startling mid-film revelation.

“STUDENT BODIES”— The Thin Line Between Comedy and Horror

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“Student Bodies”

The Thin Line Between Comedy and Horror

Amos Lassen

Mickey Rose’s “Student Bodies” (originally released in 1981 and now available on DVD and Blu Ray) is a great example of the thin line between comedy and horror. It is a spoof of what were then contemporary slasher films. Set at school where the body count rises continuously, we see a where a “goulashes-wearing, eggplant/chalkboard eraser/paperclip-wielding serial killer” who is doing away with promiscuous teens at breakneck speed. Toby (Kristen Riter), an intrepid students goes in search of clues that will reveal the killer’s identity, no one is safe… from horror or comedy. Teachers, fellow students, parents and the janitor are all likely suspects.

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I think that the intention of ”Student Bodies,” was to do to the high-school horror picture what ”Airplane!” did to the ”Airport” movies and other random-disaster films, but it never quite succeeds. It just slowly falls apart and this was quite obviously was not cheap to make. It doesn’t look bad—in fact it looks good but it is not what I would call a good movie.

It opens when a heavy breather calls a young woman, gets hung up on, and then calls back to only to get hung up on one more time. The breather enters the house where the girl and her arrogant boyfriend are hanging out and, after getting gum stuck to his boots and moaning and groaning his way up the stairs, he kills them both. It is after this that we meet Toby who attempts to warn all of her fellow students of the dangers of pre-marital intercourse. But unfortunately for Toby, many of her classmates are being murdered and she finds herself the prime suspect in the investigation.

Toby does a little investigating of her own, however, and soon figures that the killer could only be a member of the school staff and that the guilty party has obviously set her up to take the fall.

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Principal Peters (Joe Talarowski) sends Toby to see Dr. Sigmund (Carl Jacobs), the school guidance counselor, but he turns out to be no help to her at all. Unfortunately for Toby, the killer, who is intent on making as many perverted phone calls as the film’s running time will allow for, becomes bolder and more frequent in his attacks and Toby still remains the prime suspect. Only Toby’s friend Hardy (Matthew Goldsby) is on her side and willing to help her prove her innocence and Toby, clever lass that she is, figures the best time to blow the lead off the killer’s true identity will be at the upcoming school prom.

“Student Bodies” is played with tongue in cheek. It mercilessly skewers slasher film stereotypes by using a completely unoriginal plot and every type of character stereotype you could imagine. With that said, it depends on how you see the film. Friends of mine absolutely love it even though much of the humor in the film is really quite groan inducing and for much of the running time you’re not laughing with the film so much as you’re laughing at it. I think the writers planned it that way.

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The murders aren’t gruesome enough to be memorable and the direction is fairly lifeless but nonetheless, this is an entertaining film. This is one of those movies that shouldn’t work at all but somehow, thanks to a combination of odd humor, horror film homage, and a killer who loves girl sweat and spouts off the most inane dialogue imaginable (“Boobs! Boobs! Bellybutton! I’m taking it out of my pants and doing what my mommy told me not to do!”) it still manages to remain quite entertaining.

“DANIEL”— The Legacy of Pain

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“Daniel”

The Legacy of Pain

Amos Lassen

E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel “The Book of Daniel” is the basis for Sidney Lumet’s film, “Daniel” about the legacy of pain passed from one generation to another, the paranoia of the 50s and the idealism of the 60s, the drawbacks of zealousness, and the necessity to come to terms with family.

Rochelle Isaacson (Lindsay Crouse) tells her son Daniel (Timothy Hutton), “Let our death be your bar mitzvah.” She and her husband Paul (Mandy Patinkin), members of the Communist Party in the United States, are executed for conspiracy to sell atomic secrets to Russia. We first see Daniel as a young graduate student who has buried his anger from the past and wants to remain detached from politics. His sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) has directed her rage against capitalism and is institutionalized following a suicide attempt. This crisis propels Daniel to excavate the past to determine the guilt or innocence of his parents. After talking with many of those who were involved in their case, the young man visits the man who turned them in. He is senile and only momentarily recalls Daniel’s face. In a very contrived and unconvincing finale, the seeker returns home for his sister’s funeral and decides to carry on the Isaacson spirit by dedicating himself to the Vietnam anti-war movement.

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Sidney Lumet directs this movie by shifting scenes, characters and time. Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse are properly intense as the Isaacsons. Edward Asner is convincing as their lawyer, the only one who seems to care about the abandoned kids. John Rubenstein and Maria Tucci are perplexed as the adoptive parents of the Isaacson children. Most of us recognize immediately that the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 offers the historical basis for “Daniel”. Although all those connected with this film claim it is not a docu-drama, but would have been better had it been. The movie’s themes aside, at its conclusion one cannot help wondering what was the truth behind those real lives and deaths of the revolutionary minds of two generations.

On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage for their alleged role in supplying nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Their trial and death gained international attention due to widespread suspicion that they’d been victims of post-WWII anti-Communist paranoia. The truth of this case will forever be in dispute, but there is no doubt as to the mark it left on the ensuing decades of cold war. In 1971, novelist E.L. Doctorow fictionalized this story and the generation after in The Book of Daniel. Twelve years later, he adapted his novel for Sidney Lumet’s 1983 film.

We meet Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, a Jewish couple living in post-war New York, and suddenly arrested for treason. They are convicted and executed after having been accused of selling secrets to the Soviets . Daniel and Susan, their young children, must now live as orphans with a tainted name and no understanding of what their parents did. As adults, Susan struggles with mental illness and Daniel searches for the truth behind his family’s shame in light of social revolution during the late ’60s.

Above anything else, this is a film about a man’s search to understand his family while the Isaacson story serves as the backdrop. The story of Daniel and the story of his parents are told simultaneously, with neither one playing a more important role, in spite of the title. It is only the two stories together that give a complete picture of Daniel Isaacson. The early story, instead of looking at it as a political statement, is shown through the eyes of the children watching their parents taken down in front of their eyes. By doing so, we can more clearly see the conditions Daniel grew up under and the shame that was thrust upon him for reasons he never really understood.

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When we first meet Daniel he is a bitter young man; intelligent and capable, but unable to take a stand. He watched his parents turned into villains and executed for the stand they took, is it any wonder that he’s reluctant to follow suit? His sister was too young to understand. Daniel made sure to shelter her from the worst of it. As a result, she sees protest and revolution as a birthright, part of her parents’ legacy, and holds Daniel responsible for squandering their parents’ names. Susan has idealized them, while Daniel just finds himself bitter.

In order for Daniel to move toward action, he must come to terms with what really happened to his family and why. This quest for the truth becomes the focus of the picture and, in the execution, something of a political thriller. Sidney Lumet skirts the line between this and family melodrama so deftly that they become indistinguishable. Daniel’s quest for truth comes from a desire to come to terms with his family in his own head, not as some sort of search for justice. Finding the truth is his justice and, in so doing, is able to act in a way that feels honorable to him.

The performances are excellent throughout and is the actors playing thee characters that propel the film. Director Lumet is known for his ability to work with actors and draw out fine performances from them. Hutton is very strong as Daniel. He walks the line realistically between revolutionary thought and total apathy whose anger is perfectly understandable. Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse play the parents with strength and dignity. They must, at once, be stalwart political organizers and loving parents. They combine the roles well, teaching their children the importance of ideals even in the face of extreme danger. Amanda Plummer is also great as Daniel’s mentally ill sister, but her role seems somewhat diminished since, in many ways, she is the catalyst for change in Daniel.


Screenwriter E.L. Doctorow, working from his own novel, makes clear that anti-Communism wasn’t the only factor behind the railroading of the Isaascsons, and that anti-Semitism played a significant role as well. The melancholy that permeates the storyline extends beyond the legal entanglements as the children are shuttled between city run orphanages and insensitive relatives who care little of their plight. This is an exercise drenched in sadness, to be sure, but one that manages to secure a ray of hope among the lies, selfishness and deceits that comprise the story’s heartbreak. ”Daniel” is a powerful film; a uniquely Jewish story non-Jews will have little difficulty relating to; a film that will stay with viewers long after it is over.