Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Movies

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”— An Angry and Impressive Look at an Angry and Unimpressive Man

 

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”

An Angry and Impressive Look at an Angry and Unimpressive Man

Amos Lassen

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” takes its title from a question that Donald Trump asked those around him when they failed to stop attorney general Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Then we take a trip back in time to Trump’s formative years followed by interviews and archival footage and we are off on a chronological tour of the critical events that followed. Director Matt Tyrnauer has a knack for pacing and gives us a documentary that gets more engrossing as it goes along; the most vital bits are reserved for the bitter end, when, even in death, Roy Cohn still refuses to admit defeat.

Roy Cohn was a corrupt lawyer, political dirty trickster, mafia associate and all around scumbag. He was a self-hating Jew who powered the engine of one of the worst anti-Semitic moments in American history, the demonization and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was a closeted man who refused to publicly identify as gay even as he was dying of AIDS. He was famous for being a mean bastard.

Cohn was born in New York in 1927 was heir to a number of fortunes on his mother’s side. She was said to be so ugly that she had trouble finding a husband. Cohn’s father agreed to an arranged marriage so long as her powerful family made him a judge. This blatant, unfeeling corruption came to be a hallmark of Cohn’s life. He graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and quickly found himself as one of the leading “red-baiters”, rooting out communists in government positions and the U.S. Army for the good of democracy. He worked with Senator Joseph McCarthy whose last name is a now a synonym for political witch-hunting.

McCarthy and Cohn’s harassment of presumed communists and sympathizers has overshadowed a subsequent “lavender scare” in which the pair harassed and exposed homosexuals. (It is rumored that McCarthy, like Cohn, was also secretly gay as was FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who encouraged these witch hunts.) A series of hearings in 1954 suggested that much of McCarthy’s pressure on the US army was led by Cohn’s desire to secure a better position for a man named G. David Schine, who was either Cohn’s boyfriend or someone he was infatuated with.

Cohn fueled himself off accusations and fighting. His strategy was always to deny then lie even louder. As a personal attorney he would win high-profile cases through the use of “deflection, misdirection and fear-mongering.” He had powerful friends and attracted wealthy clients in New York, most notably the heads of organized crime families and the young real estate mogul Donald J. Trump.

Tyrnauer’s film is a collection of talking heads (including and news clips. We see that despite a twenty year age difference between Trump and Cohn, Trump seems to have been nurtured by Cohn’s disgusting work, the two were close for many years. They first bonded over a shared love of denying African-Americans  their civil rights. This led to corruption and kickbacks during the erection of Trump Tower. Cohn loved to see his picture in the paper, and was known for his must-attend parties, so there are ample images in this documentary to make you sick.

This film is part of a forthcoming wave from film-makers who are trying to grapple with just how in the hell we got to where we are making this an important film. For many years, Donald Trump was a joke (and never a harmless one). The damage he’s currently doing makes us ashamed that we laughed at him especially as he strives to get the last laugh. “This film connects a direct line between Roy Cohn’s belligerent, boorish and obstructionist ways and our current, less eloquent nightmare.”  We now know “where’s my Roy Cohn?”— he is in the White House.

Tyrnauer exposes Cohn as a modern Machiavelli who influences our country today at the highest level. Cohn first came into the public eye as an assistant to J. Edgar Hoover and handled the prosecution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, a Jewish couple  who were arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spying for Russia and securing Manhattan Project documents for the Russian government. Cohn was then a twenty-three-year-old fast-rising attorney and he claimed to have not only persuaded the presiding judge, Irving Kaufman, to impose the death penalty but also to have had said Judge Irving assigned the case. Cohn’s reward for the Rosenberg execution was an appointment as special counsel to Joseph McCarthy.

Tyrnauer provides compelling evidence that Cohn was responsible for much of McCarthy’s demagoguery and rise to power. Soon, however, Cohn would cause his own and McCarthy’s fall from grace. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, direct questioning it was revealed that Cohn had a “special relationship” with G. David Schine and pressured the U.S. Army to give Schine preferential treatment. Cohn would resign after he was humiliated and pummeled with homophobic comments during the televised hearings. He, then, claimed that everybody wanted him to stay on. According to those who worked with Cohn, this was not the case.

Cohn came to be the personification of the dark arts of 20th-century American politics. Cohn became a mover and shaker of dubious and odious means. He fluffed his persona despite inflicting financial losses on his clients and family. Trynauer reveals how Cohn, a deeply troubled master manipulator, has shaped our current political world. He continually and persistently defended himself by attacking his adversaries and using the press to generate sensational public sympathy for his plight.

It appears that his political clout came from his wide social circle of wealthy, influential friends. Cohn was known for throwing lavish parties and hobnobbed with almost every imaginable socialite of the day including then artist, Andy Warhol. Cohn became a New York power broker, mafia consigliere, white-collar criminal, and he mentor of Donald J. Trump who began his flamboyant rise first on Cohn’s shoulders and then his back. Eventually, Trump became the master of personal attacks, hyperbole, sensationalism, and using the press to get out in front of the story.

As a closeted homosexual, Cohn was at the forefront of “The Lavender Scare,” and convinced Dwight D. Eisenhower to ban all gay men from working in the federal government; when dying from AIDS-related complications several decades later, he insisted that he was suffering from liver cancer, and used his celebrity to provoke contempt for other victims of the growing plague.

Cohn had an unparalleled talent for making the worst of every bad situation. He always attacked and he never surrendered. Cohn was a byproduct of trying to outwrestle his own insecurities and lack of self-worth.

Cohn might have been a footnote in American history until the 2016 election. It was then that he became seen as a modern Machiavelli. That this delayed emergence of him as a figure of immortal, worldwide political importance is fascinating and sickening at the same time.

The film is a Must-See, given the times we’re living in. It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump learned everything he knows from Cohn. Every time we see him lie outrageously, every time you see him respond to an attack by attacking back with twice the force, we see    Roy Cohn’s legacy at work. And when Trump finally finds himself in court, as he inevitably will, they will never get him on anything. He’ll just use Cohn’s tactics to bury everyone involved in counter-lawsuits.

“JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE”— Up Close and Personal with Gay Porn Star from Israel

“JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE” Up Close and Personal with Gay Porn Star from Israel Amos Lassen Jonathan Agassi is one of the world’s most successful gay porn stars who built his fame and success on a global taboo that pleases millions. ”Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” is an intimate look at the world of porn and escorting and at a unique relationship between a mother and son, who courageously redefine familiar family concepts. In essence, this is a film about a lonely person who seeks love and meaning, but is condemned to a destructive lifestyle, understanding that the extreme fantasies he chases are not necessarily his own.
Tomer Heymann who directed this new documentary says that the title says it all. Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” was eight years in the making. Tomer Heymann first discovered the titular Agassi by chance in Tel Aviv. Tomer was struck by his looks and charm but completely unaware  that he was a well-known individual. His friends told him that he was crazy because he didn’t know that Agassi was a hugely famous porn star.
Heymann set out to discover more about him with the idea  to turning his life story into a film. Agassi was living in Berlin and Heymann arranged to meet him in a hotel and it was strange because Agassi thought Heymann was trying to have sex with him. Agassi had seen a couple of the Heymann brothers’ films, but his initial reaction was that he had no interest in starring in his own, particularly for any monetary reasons.
He had received an offer of ils500,000 [$140,000] to be in the Israeli version of Big Brother [which he turned down], but he said he wasn’t interested in money. Heymann told him we wouldn’t pay him one shekel because it was our principal to never pay anything to documentary characters. Agassi struck a deal with the director that if he could convince his mother, who he insisted would never speak about Agassi’s life as an escort and porn star, to appear in the documentary, he would consent to the project. He gave Heymann his mother’s number and they met for a coffee. It took time to convince her she told him that she trusted him to do the film.
The director filmed across a period of eight years, following Agassi’s wild life as a global porn star. Jonathan Agassi is a symbol for this generation,” says Heymann. “He is young, gay and has the freedom and the luck to have any fantasies he wants without being in the closet.” As they worked, Heymann discovered the story of Agassi’s early life. “Jonathan Agassi was born with a very Hebrew name, Elkana Yonatan Langer, he was feminine and had a very tough childhood in one of the suburbs of Tel Aviv,” the filmmaker explains. “His father left him a year after he was born. He changed his name and built a strong character for himself. He met his father for the first time once he was living in Berlin as a porn star.”
The film is comprised entirely of original footage shot by Tomer and was funded by the Heymann brothers themselves with Israeli broadcaster Channel 8 (which will broadcast a four-part episodic version of the film), HOT, Makor Foundation and Mifal Hapais. The Heymann brothers have produced two versions of “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life”. One contains uncensored X-rated footage and one doesn’t.

“Holy Lands” by Amanda Sthers— To Love and Accept

Sthers, Amanda. “Holy Lands”, Bloomsbury, 2019. To Love and Accept Amos Lassen I am a very lucky guy in that there are publishers that know me so well, they know exactly what kind of books to send me. I used to laugh about how in Israel pigs are raised even though eating pork is a violation of Jewish dietary laws. What the pig farmers do is fix the stys on wooden platforms so that the pigs’ feet will not touch the holy ground. Now I am not exactly sure how to define the term holy ground because I am sure that in the centuries that the ground has existed, it has been touched by something that has violated the dietary laws. Anyway… this is “a witty, heartwarming, and heart-wrenching epistolary novel, soon to be a major motion picture starring James Caan, Rosanna Arquette, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.” It is about a dysfunctional family (led by a Jewish pig farmer in Israel)  that is struggling to love and accept each other. (Now throw in a gay Jewish character and you got me). What I find so amazing in this little book of just 160 pages is that it is both very moving and highly humorous at the same time. Basically we read about an estranged family of colorful eccentrics. There is the patriarch, Harry Rosenmerck, an aging Jewish cardiologist who has left his thriving medical practice in New York to raise pigs in Israel. His ex-wife, Monique dwells on their once happy marriage even as she is quietly at war with an aggressive illness. Their son, David is an earnest and successful playwright who has vowed to reconnect with his father since coming out. Annabelle, their daughter, finds herself in Paris with no direction as she deals with the aftermath of a breakup. Harry does not like technology and the only way the family communicates is via snail mail. Their correspondence is fun to read and we see them grappling with challenges as they really go at each other. The book wonderfully captures an a dult family in all og its poignancy and craziness. Here is a family that strives to be connected even though they all have different and radical perspectives on life. The dialogue and the jokes are caustic and gentle and deal with important topics such as Israel’s militarized security, Jewish identity, and the dysfunction of Harry’s family. Writer Sthers manages to keep it balanced between sensitivity and ribald humor. We are irreverently and endearingly reminded that “blood is thicker than water.” Those of you who are familiar with Jewish humor know that it is laced with “ironic taunts, familial reprimands, and cries from the heart”. Each of the letters we read in this novel has a new secret in it each of the letters that form this gripping novel reveals a new secret or asks a new question on the topics of sex, love, friendship, religion and/or connection. We also realize that conciliation is best when based on truth and that the letters we write are intense whether we mean for them to be so or not. Each character goes through life-altering experiences as they question crucial matters of religion, morality, inheritance, compassion, and love. “Holy Lands” is set in Nazereth, Israel (because today it is one of the few places in Israel where pigs can be raised) and New York City, Marrakesh and Paris. The characters move  between places but as individuals and not as  a family. They simply do not get along like many other many other families. The inability to communicate in modern terms is tearing the Rosenmerck family apart more than it is already. The parents are divorced parents and the two adult children are somewhat caricatures of today’s dysfunctional family members. David who is gay and brilliant has problems communicating with his father who has practically disowned him (I resemble that remark). Annabelle is the 30 year old “child”, who goes through life not wanting to settle down and become an adult. We see characters like these in almost every book about dysfunctional families but we have something a bit extra here and that is “being the child of a father-who-has-a-pig-farm-in-Israel can’t be too helpful to family dynamics…”
The novel is written in the form of letters and messages among family members and others. It is set in the spring of 200 and the  idea of a pig farm in the Holy Land, where many people won’t eat pork or ham sets the backdrop. Harry receives many letters from a local rabbi concerning the pigs, the morality of having the pig farm, and so on. Then there is Harry’s son David who is gay and there is some confusion, particularly on Harry’s part about accepting David as he is. This is a family that does nothing together and cannot seem to do anything together.

“SCAFFOLDING”— In Two Worlds

“Scaffolding”

In Two Worlds

Amos Lassen

Seventeen-year-old Asher has always been something of a troublemaker at school. He has difficulty concentrating in class, and he is compelled by a lot of rage and violence. Surprisingly, he also possesses charm and street smarts. His father is quite strict yet he is preparing him to take over the family’s scaffolding business. However,  Asher has a different masculine role model in his gentle literature teacher Rami and forges a special connection with him. Asher is torn between the two worlds and looks for a chance for a new life and identity. When a sudden tragedy occurs, he has to take the ultimate test of maturity.

Director Matan Yair taught literature in Israel for almost a decade before he switched to film-making. I did the same but for a longer period and instead of turning to filmmaking, I turned to film reviewing. Israeli society is a true melting pot with  individuals from various backgrounds  including challenging youngsters. Both Yair and I believed that we could inspire his pupils by letting them follow their own path of self-discovery.  Yair had a special student, the aforementioned Asher who was the inspiration for this film.

We start with a question—how much does it take for a person to achieve their full potential? Asher (Asher Lax) is a 17-year old student, short-tempered, yet sensitive. He doesn’t care much for education and makes little effort to prepare for his final exams. Besides being a student, he helps his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) with his scaffolding business. Since the old man expects that his son will take over the company one day, the boy doesn’t believe that he has any options for a different life available. But everything changes when Rami (Ami Smolartchik), a literature teacher, becomes both his mentor and a role model. He helps Asher with his studies and shows Asher that he has other options in life apart from his father’s business. Although the teacher gives it his all, he himself is also lost. One day, Rami suddenly disappears from the students’ lives and leaves them with anger and sadness. With a new professor on board, Asher might not be able to carry on with what he has already set out to do.

This is a sincere and compelling portrait of a young man’s self-discovery. Asher has dreams of becoming a student of literature and history – but his temper and circumstances often get in the way. Only Rami has a chance at changing his life for the better. “Scaffolding” is largely the story of the relationship between the teacher and his student; as well as that between a domineering father and his son. Asher is not a likeable character: even if we feel sorry for him a lot of the time, he keeps making aggressive mistakes and never learns from his actions.

The performances are excellent all around. Asher, as a real-life student of the director and a first-time actor, is brilliant in the leading role. His vulnerability, anger, and internal conflict are all visible just by looking into his eyes Ami Smolartchik is also incredible as the polar opposite: the sensitive teacher. Again, there’s a lot of internal conflict in this character, and the understated way with which Smolarchik carries himself in all his scenes, complete with the physical display of vulnerability, is remarkable. Yaacov Cohen is impressive as the domineering yet weak father – by turns supportive and kind; but then tragically oppressive the next sentence. What goes on between Rami and Milo for Asher’s heart is the heart of the film.

There’s something that is fascinating about watching Israeli films. I have remarked in the past that there was a time when you could not pay an Israeli to go to a movie made in Israel but that has changed greatly. 

“BENT”— We Shall Never Forget”

 “Bent”

We Shall Never Forget

Amos Lassen

Film Movement is rereleasing a remastered and Blu Ray copy of “Bent” as part of their classics series. “Bent” is one of the most difficult films I have ever watched. It is also one of the most important films we have today about the treatment of gay men during the Holocaust. The darkest period in the history of mankind is what the movie “Bent” is about. It is not an easy movie to watch but it should be required viewing for all mankind so that we may see what man’s inhumanity to man can engender. It is also important that we never forget the atrocities that we see in the movie that are brought about simply because people are different. It was Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime that sought to rid the world of those who did not fulfill the Aryan characteristics and this meant Jews, Catholics, gays and gypsies. I think that we forget or perhaps just didn’t know that gays were punished and exterminated during that time. The movie “Bent” and the play upon what it was based attempted to make sure we would never forget. I, personally, can never forget because I fall into two of the categories that called for extermination, being both gay and Jewish. I lost part of my family to the Nazis, a family I would never know and I am determined that the world will never be allowed to forget.

“Bent” is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen and yet, for some reason, I felt it could have been even more powerful. I remember seeing the play in New York with Richard Gere and I was silent for a week afterwards. The movie made me very angry, very very angry. As I have matured I have grown aware of prejudice more and more That is exactly why this movie is so important, it reminds us of just how awful life can be and how humans, with misguidance, can become sick animals just as the Nazis were in both reality and in this film. 
From the first frame of the film, it draws the viewer in and the matter at hand, the Nazi persecution of homosexuals was presented with dignity and grace and respect. What is lacking in character development was made up for by the long silent periods in the film that continuously drive the viewer to realize what is happening. Intensely psychological, the movie drives its point right into the lap of the viewer.

It is easy to rationalize the period by saying that in times of desperation and fear, people do terrible, incomprehensible things. Everything is taken away, self-esteem is stripped, comforts of life disappear and people are places in situations that they are completely unprepared for, We. Who live in a free country, cannot comprehend something like this happening, we cannot understand what is like to face death because we are different. But we do need to be aware that if this happened once in history, there is no guarantee that it will not happen again.

I ask you to try to imagine what is like to watch a drag queen who sings every night to a lonely bunch of men and has the power to protect herself by bribing the Nazis. How can that be? The drag queen saves her life by paying for it with the lives of others. And after one has been turned in and is on a train to a place unknown and which takes him from everything has ever known after being tracked down like an animal where is the justice in that? Then he watches as they drag his lover away. This is the reality of “Bent”.

For so long it was only the travails of the Jews that we heard about regarding the Holocaust. Other groups were treated as badly and this is what “Bent” shows us. “Bent” is a perspective on the holocaust from the unknown number of homosexuals who suffered alongside  the Jews. It is a simple story — a love story between men in terrible circumstances and the bond of love presented in the movie is convincing and moving. Somehow this love maintained with no physical contact and hardly any eye contact. The love scene is not like any you have ever seen. The two men bring each other to climax by words alone, no touch and no looking at each other.

This movie is not a masterpiece, far from it but it is a movie that needed to be made if for no other reason than to remind us of the time. It is a very sad but romantic story. The story and the characters are what made this movie so powerful. The producers were a brave group to even attempt to bring this to the screen. It is an untouched piece of history that has been elegantly brought to us.

It is hard to even write about “Bent” without tearing up. The absurdity of killing people for no real reason except that they are different is something that is hard to understand perhaps because it cannot be understood. The punishment that was supposed to be for a crime against nature was forced labor and ultimately death. Bent depicts a world devoid of physical and eye contact, devoid of humanity, and devoid of understanding. Profound and incredible, “Bent” is a movie that must be seen to be believed and it must be viewed with an open heart and mind so that one can actually feel what the actors feel, not only because they were gay men in love and pain but because, above all else, they were human.

 Here is what Film Movement has to say about this release:

RELEASED FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER ON BLU RAY IN NORTH AMERICA 

FEATURING ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEES CLIVE OWEN (CLOSER), IAN MCKELLEN (LORD OF THE RINGS), JUDE LAW (COLD MOUNTAIN), AND ACADEMY AWARD WINNER RACHEL WEISZ (THE CONSTANT GARDENER), AS WELL AS PAUL BETTANY (THE AVENGERS), NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU (GAME OF THRONES), AND MICK JAGGER. 

MUSIC BY LEGENDARY OSCAR-NOMINATED COMPOSER AND GOLDEN GLOBE WINNER, PHILIP GLASS

Bonus features included Cast and Crew Interviews, Mick Jagger music video Streets of Berlin, Behind the Scenes footage, and new essay written by Steven Alan Carr.

Review

WINNER – Prix de la Jeunesse – Cannes Film Festival 
NOMINATED – Outstanding Film – GLAAD Media Awards 
WINNER – Best Feature – Torino Int’l. Gay & Lesbian Film Festival 
WINNER – Best Actor – Gijon Int’l. Film Festival —

Martin Sherman’s play about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany makes its transition to the big screen with triumphant results. The acting is superb and the ingenious score by Phillip Glass adds a haunting, surreal texture to director, Sean Mathias opulent, Greenaway-esque production. – Stephen Holden, The New York Times 

Martin Sherman’s harrowing concentration camp drama about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals still has some power to unsettle…Bent has earned its place in cultural history. –Film Threat

The film is a punch in the gut and a kiss on the lips… – Mark Savlov, Austin Chronicle 

Director Sean Mathias has made a very stylized yet substantive movie about the plight of homosexuals in the Holocaust. –Spirituality & Practice

“FLAWLESS” (“HANESHEF”)— Three Teens

“FLAWLESS” (“HANESHEF”)

Three Teens

Amos Lassen

“Flawless” is the story of three teenagers from Jerusalem who sell their kidneys to pay for cosmetic surgery and prom dresses. As a secret uncovers they realize nothing is as it seems. Tal Granit and Sharon Maimon co-directed. The film has been nominated for 12 Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscar) and among them is a nomination for best actress. Stav Strashko is a 25-year-old trans actress who landed that nomination.

Strashko, who has made her name in recent years as a top international model, has scored another first as she is the first trans nominee in Israel. “I always saw myself in women’s roles.” “I’m proud to be the first trans [nominee] — it’s a milestone,” she said. Strashko grew up as a boy who identified as girl and this prepared her for a career in acting. “My whole life I played something that I wasn’t.”

In the film, she plays Eden, a transgender teen desperate to raise money for a breast enlargement operation ahead of the prom.“Strashko, who was born Stanislav in Ukraine, was discovered by a modeling agency after leaving her home in Tel Aviv at the age of 16, at first taking on androgynous roles and later modeling as a woman, including a campaign opposite musician Joe Jonas for Diesel.” In Israel, Strashko came to public attention when she took part in the “Big Brother VIP” TV show. She has since become a prominent figure in the LGBT community.

 

“RED COW” (“PARA ADUMA”)— Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

“Red Cow” (“Para Aduma”)

Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

Amos Lassen

“Red Cow is a coming-of-age film that takes place in Israel during the days leading up to the assassination of Rabin. Benny is a 16-year-old girl who was orphaned from mother at birth. She is the only child of Yehoshua, a religious, right wing extremist and she is at that critical juncture when she is forming her sexual, religious and political awareness. The film is set on one of Israel’s orthodox Jewish settlement where Benny has sexual awakening and ideological unraveling. This is a sensitive and assured first feature from Tsivia Barkai Yacov who also wrote the screenplay. We see a community that is rarely explored on screen. The film shows the difficulties of being a young woman in a devout patriarchal system. We also are taken into the complexity of burgeoning female desire and a complicated queer romance.

I can assure you that based upon my own experiences as an orthodox gay Jew that the film is disarmingly authentic. We have a female-centric window into the Middle East filled with intimate insights into a girl defying societal expectations. Benny’s (Avigail Kovari) outsider status is sealed from the outset, her androgynous name and blazing red hair stand out in her settlement home of Silwan in East Jerusalem. An introduction explains the significance of the feature’s title and its links to the Torah, so that we are aware of the importance of Benny’s task of caring for a newborn pure-red calf. We see the potential parallels between the girl and the animal in her care. Although Benny and her extremist father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) might not realize it at first, both are beacons of change.

According to his beliefs, Yehoshua is convinced that salvation is now imminent. When Benny searches for her own faith beyond strict religious instructional classes with the community’s other women and generally assisting her father, she finds it in a burning desire for newcomer to the settlement, Yael (Moran Rosenblatt). A fast friendship soon becomes nervous clandestine flirting, and then passionate secret trysts. The forbidden tenor of their romance is omnipresent throughout. She tells Yael even before things become physical that she is surprised by the intensity of her feelings..

It’s with naturalism and nuance that director Yacov who herself is a native of an orthodox Jewish settlement herself, conveys the teen’s emotional state. She experiences deeply-felt urges that threaten to overtake her entire life while also clashing with the teachings she’s increasingly beginning to abandon thus placing her in a precarious position should the affair be discovered. Benny’s growing distance from Yehoshua and everything he represents is also handled with subtlety— as a relationship fracturing with each passing moment, but with slow and ragged cuts. The film moves between the use of walls, fences and shadows to stress the boundaries surrounding Benny and these mirror her restless fervor.

Kovari gives a performance of internalized turmoil, and uncontainable longing. Her chemistry with Toren is palpable, their glances say everything their characters can’t.

“DISOBEDIENCE”— A Complicated Relationship

“Disobedience”

A Complicated Relationship

Amos Lassen

Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community and depicts the complicated relationship between two women born into this world, whose paths in life have deviated after an earlier affair. What makes this so brilliant a film is how Lelio manages to sidestep overly familiar discussions on sexuality and religious prejudice in order to examine the very nature of freewill when it comes to accepting a love frowned upon by a belief system. It’s a film that is equally romantic and philosophical and I am quite sure that “Disobedience” will be on many ten bests lists for 2018.

It has been adapted from Naomi Alderman’s controversial and gorgeous 2006 novel of the same name. It follows Ronit Kruschka (Rachel Weisz) the estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi who has long since fled to New York to pursue a career as a photographer. Upon hearing about the sudden death of her father, she returns to the London community where she grew up to pay her respects, and finds herself to be something of a ghost. While she is welcomed with open arms and shown kindness, yet her existence as her father’s only child has been eliminated from her father’s newspaper obituary, and a renewed social tension has emerged due to the nature of a previous affair with Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams).

Esti is now married to her father’s apprentice Rabbi, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) who lets her stay in their upper middle class home. Since they last saw each other, Esti has become a pillar of the local community and teaches English literature at a local girl’s school. The only thing setting her back from true happiness is that she is incapable of feeling physical attraction to men and knowing that confessing otherwise could jeopardize her devout faith. This becomes even more complicated when she slowly rekindles the relationship she had with Ronit year’s prior.

The film deals with the numerous factors in a person’s life that can stop them accepting their true identity and how that struggle intensifies following the death of a loved one. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams perfectly communicate the frailty that comes with seeing a former flame following the aftermath of a sudden end to the relationship, and the separate anxieties the two share about the developing nature of their romance.

In the opening scene, a rabbi, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), delivers a sermon at a North London synagogue about angels and beasts, free will, and choosing the tangled lives we live. His tone is doctrinaire, poisonous even, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the frail-looking man drops dead on the spot. Meanwhile in New York, his daughter, Ronit, is putting his words into action. She is a photographer and is in session when she receives a phone call one alerting her to her father’s death, after which she’s seen impassively skating around an ice rink, with a time-out for a random hookup with a man inside a bathroom stall.

We’ll learn why she turned her back on the Orthodox world she was born into yet her personhood will remain foreign to us. Everyone in “Disobedience” is representative and every scene is declarative. With the help of her old lover, Esti, Ronit goes to her father’s home to gather some belongings. Seeing an old radio, Ronit turns it on and we hear a song whose lyrics completely speak to the situation of the two women: “You make me feel like I am home again/Whenever I’m alone with you/You make me feel like I am whole again.”

It is here that Ronit and Esti find themselves alone for the first time in many years. They finally talk about their romantic past in a single long take, and it’s some kind of masterstroke how the tension of their reminiscences and flirtations in tune with the audience’s wondering when the shot will dare to cut away.

At first glance, Esti seems to be an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid, we understand that this is compensatory and to show that the past with Ronit is indeed the past.. But then she plays with Dovid’s beard, and subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit. But theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when the two women are alone and trysting in a hotel room and Ronit casually sends a stream of her saliva into Esti’s mouth.

Director Lelio understands that the community at the center of the film is rooted in old-school tradition, but as it’s physically rooted in a cultural capital of the world, no one here is a stranger to gays and lesbians, and so the reactions to Ronit and Esti’s rekindled love affair never rises to hysterics. Ronit is asked at one point why she isn’t married and response is understood as a matter of course. In fact, in the subtlest of glances exchanged between the women of this community, one senses a certain respect for Ronit having broken away from tradition to find her own path through life. Esti, on the other hand, may have the courage to admit to Ronit that she’s only attracted to women, but she isn’t so brave to stand by her when they’re caught kissing by some friends and her survival instinct kicks in and she bolts from the scene. The film is less about the subjugation of the self to the group than the courage to embrace uncertainty by breaking out of the world one has been born into. And the triumph of the film is the grace and gracefulness of the performances and style.

Repression is a major theme Esti and Ronit have always had a special relationship, and they rekindle a love that becomes more than just friendship. But, of course, this community, and Esti’s marital status, can never allow it.

“HAPPINESS ADJACENT”— A Romance

“Happiness Adjacent”

A Romance

Amos Lassen

Since I saw and reviewed Rob Williams’ first feature film some ten years and nine movies ago, I realized that we had a new director who was going to make quality gay themed films and from the moment that I hear that he has a new project underway, I begin pestering him about a screener. I have never been disappointed by the quality and originality of his work. As I could expect, Rob Williams brings us yet another wonderful gay-themed film with “Happiness Adjacent”. This one is actually kind of special for me in that we meet a gay Jewish guy as the main character. For those of you who are not aware, I have personally made it my goal to collect all books and films that deal with the gay Jewish experience so that my younger gay Jewish brothers and sisters will know where to go to find material and it is a pleasure to add this to the canon.

“Happiness Adjacent” is about explores the romance between Hank, a nice gay Jewish boy traveling alone on a tropical cruise, and Kurt, a bisexual man vacationing with his wife, Kate. When we first meet Hank Eisenberg, he comes across as something of a whiner and a “nebbish” (ask your Jewish friends what this means). However as the movie progresses, he becomes quite endearing. While he was not looking for a relationship, he is immediately drawn to Kurt and the two men form an intense friendship connection. They are open with each other about their sexualities— by this I mean that Hank comes out as gay and Kurt as a married man. Hank has his own issues with his past failed relationships and he begins to wonder if Kurt is secretly looking for a bit of action since it seems that his marriage has become quite boring. The two men do sexually come together and it is left to us to determine if what they have is just a vacation fling a chance for both men to find true happiness.

When the film began, as I said, I found Hank to be quite irritating in that he was harping on this being his dream vacation that he looked forward to taking with his best friend Brian who cancelled at the last minute (thus giving Hank a change to use the concept of Jewish guilt to make him seem less than a likeable character). Hank and Brian had compiled a to-do list for his cruise adventure (go to a Mexican beach, be a Pirate, get laid, get over ‘him’, and make a new friend) and now Hank would have to do this alone. I really wanted to scream at him to get a grip and enjoy himself but he realized his predicament and on his own (and after an imagined session with his therapist, a Dr. Mandelbaum), he did so himself and from that moment he became the kind of a guy I want to be friendly with. (director Williams does quite well with the Yiddish terms and Jewish feelings expressed here).

Hank meets Kurt on the very first days of the cruise and the fact that he is a good looking redhead and the very opposite of Hank’s dark Jewish countenance makes for an interesting aspect of their soon to be kindled relationship. But then there’s Kate, Kurt’s wife. At first Hank and Kurt hang out on the ship while Kate deals with her seasickness. But then, after a drunken night, Kurt shows up at Hank’s cabin and they’re off. While Kate is still suffering mal de mer, Hank and Kurt hit the beach and visit a pirate ship. After Kate realizes what’s been going on between her husband and Hank… You will just have to see the film (and enjoy every minute) to find out what happens.

Williams shot the entire film on location on the iPhone 6S Plus and the cinematography is excellent. My only complaint and it is not really a complaint is that old line about being able to sere Hank’s religion through the noticeable outline in his bathing suit outline is a bit old. We can always depend on Rob Williams to provide us with quality filmmaking as he once again proves here. (Is it not ironic that the very next morning I was in a study group with several other people and one was named Eisenberg and another was named Mandlebaum).

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”— Jewish, Gay and in Japan

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”

Jewish, Gay and in Japan

Amos Lassen

In Haruki Murakami’s novel ‘Kafka on the Beach’, we meet a mysterious man who calls himself Johnnie Walker. Is he modeled on Joni Waka, a Jewish man living in Tokyo, or is it the other way round? The charismatic and talkative Waka is a true chameleon and a self-proclaimed outsider, a “mythomaniac”, a homosexual and the natural center of every party. He claims to come from an age-old Jewish lineage.

“The Swedish artist Magnus Bärtås met Waka 20 years ago, and has since been fascinated by how this professional oddball has cultivated his entire life story as fiction. Joni Waka ignores all social norms – and there are a few of these in Japan – and sees himself as a ‘henna gaijin’, the strangest among strangers. He has a self-image that launches him into many confrontations and adventures, and he insists on living it out every single moment of his life. Rumor has it that there is something about the African man whom Waka once seduced in Daqar.”

Waka claims that he is the only Jew left in Japan descending from the old Jewish families in the country. Confronted with a social pressure, he seems to ignore dominating norms and moral, and at the same time using his outside position, as a henna gaijin (the “strangest stranger”) as a space of freedom to stage his life and create an everyday comedy.

This is a mesmerizing documentary with more questions than answers, not just about Waka, but also the very nature of truth.