Category Archives: Boston Jewish Film Festival

“THAT SUMMER”— The Prequel to “Grey Gardens”

“THAT SUMMER”

The Prequel to “Grey Gardens”

Amos Lassen

During the summer of 1972, photographer Peter Beard and socialite Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, discussed making a film about the changes being caused by the rapid development occurring in East Hampton, Long Island and the history of Radziwill’s family. Upon arriving with their crew, they soon realized that the real story was already with Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, Radziwill’s aunt and cousin who were living in squalor and l isolation in the dilapidated mansion known as Grey Gardens. For unknown and/or unexplained reasons, the project was left unfinished but two of the members of the film crew, documentarians Albert and David Maysles, were so fascinated by the Beales that they returned later and made “Grey Gardens” in 1975. This documentary made cult figures out of the Beales and was responsible for the documentary “The Beales of Grey Gardens” (2006), a 2006 stage musical and a 2009 HBO movie staring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore playing the two women. Some four reels of 16mm footage from that original abandoned shoot were never shown and for years were thought to be lost. Having been recently discovered, that film is what makes up the new documentary, “That Summer”.

We wonder how could a blue-blooded mother and daughter have gone from high-society debutantes to feeding cats and raccoons in the attic? This is what makes Göran Olsson’s “That Summer” important. We see how the Maysles brothers came to decide on make their original documentary. Lee Radziwill, hired them to help film a documentary about her father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III. To tell his story, she deigned to interview his sister, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and niece, Edith Bouvier Beale, who were known as Big and Little Edie. But as I said, that film was not made but Maysles soon turned their fascination with the women into their own next project. The new footage in “That Summer” shows the Beales amid their cousins’ attempts to save the Grey Gardens estate from its fallen state.

It is immediately striking how much less flighty and flirtatiously Little Edie is. In the other documentaries, we see that she had an intense crush on David Maysles, and that probably was why she welcomed his camera into her home but that is far less prominent in “That Summer.” Here Little Edie seems more conspicuously embarrassed by what her life has become. We see as much a lack of patience for her cousin Lee as she has for her mother and she thinks about what will happen to her if she spends one more winter in the Hamptons. We see Razdiwill as a helpful lifeline (but then the footage here was commissioned by her).

“That Summer” fills in the gap of the period when the Beales then became famous in the media for being the poor relatives of Jackie O. Aristotle Onassis and Radziwill paid for renovations of the mansion and helped with other bills. We see visits from the county health inspectors who threaten to evict the women, reporters and a lawyer who came to their defense, and contractors hired to make plumbing and roof repairs. Radziwill’s children, Prince Anthony and Princess Anna Christina, also show up and feed bread to the raccoons. There are also wonderful new things for us to see here.

We actually see the known, but never seen background to the women’s story. The film’s introduction shows Beard leafing through a book of his photographs of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger and others, plus African wildlife, without explanation. Eventually it becomes clear that this is all set up for how Beard and Radziwill got together and came up with the idea for the project in the Hamptons. The voice-over narration recalls the experience of meeting and filming the Beales.

When Beard, Radziwill and the crew arrived at Grey Gardens, there had been no real visitors there in more than five years and the house and grounds had fallen into such disrepair that county authorities were threatening to evict the Beales. The presence of the film crew and past bad experiences with the local authorities upset the Beales. Edith was much crueler towards everyone other than Radziwill—at one point, she talks about how the many cats they have (including one she claims bears a resemblance to Ted Kennedy) get rid of all the vermin and snaps to her daughter “The only vermin here is you, Edie.” For Little Edie, there are moments in which a certain melancholia about her life comes through.

The footage in “That Summer” is more empathetic towards its subjects but they and their quirks are regarded by Radziwill with obvious love and affection and no small amount of admiration for the way that they have chosen to live life on their own unusual terms. Little Edie indeed publicly trashed Radziwill in later years.

“That Summer” is basically a prequel of sorts to a key Seventies movie that fills in a little of the back-story of a couple of its most notable characters.

“SCAFFOLDING”— Torn Between Two Worlds

 

“Scaffolding”

Torn Between Two Worlds

Amos Lassen

17-year- old ASHER has always been an impulsive troublemaker. It’s hard for him to concentrate in class, and he is filled of rage and violence. He also has a lot of charm and street wisdom. His strict father sees him as a natural successor to the family’s scaffolding business but Asher finds a different masculine role model in his gentle literature teacher Rami and has a special connection with him. Asher is torn between the two worlds and looks for a chance for a new life and new identity. Then a sudden tragedy takes place and he has to take the ultimate test of maturity.

Director Matan Yair had once been a teacher who believed that he could inspire his pupils by letting them follow their own path of self-discovery. One of his students was Asher who was the inspiration for this film.

Asher (Asher Lax) 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 Milo thinks that his son will take over the company one day, Asher doesn’t believe that he has any options for a different life available. But everything changes when Rami (Ami Smolartchik), a literature teacher, becomes his mentor and a role model. He helps Asher with his studies, and shows Asher that he has other options in life aside 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 nothing but anger and sadness. Asher has to decide if he will continue with what he has already set out to do and if it will give him enough inner confidence to try to find happiness and fulfillment.

This is a sincere and compelling portrait of a young man’s self-discovery. It is also an allegory for Asher’s life. Asher Lax gives an incredible performance and this is first shot at acting. Ami Smolartchik’s Rami is an honest, heartening performance. This Israeli-Polish co-production is a finely woven production with a profound ending.

“THE BOY DOWNSTAIRS”— Young Love

 

“The Boy Downstairs”

Young Love

Amos Lassen

Diana is forced to reflect on her first relationship when she inadvertently moves into her ex boyfriend’s apartment building. She has just returned to New York after living in London for the last four years. Finding an apartment in the city can be a nightmare, so when Diana finds the seemingly perfect place, but unfortunately, after moving in, she discovers her ex boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear) is her downstairs neighbor. We see that the two still have feelings for one another making this an interesting living situation.

Diana is an aspiring writer who works in a bridal shop to pay the bills, and in her spare time, she helps out her landlord, a retired actress (Deirdre O’Connell). Although she tries to use all these things as distractions, she can’t help but think Ben, despite her constant denial regarding the feelings she has for him. Ben has attempted to move on with his life and is dating a bitchy realtor who quickly sees the attraction between Ben and Diana and does her best to stop a reconnection from happening. Throughout the film, Diana looks for sage advice from her best friend Gabby (Diana Irvine) who has relationship troubles of her own.

Writer/director Sophie Brooks gives us a light, enjoyable romantic comedy that is a well-scripted, well-performed film. We see the magic and awkwardness of New York love through a strong dry humor and quirkiness. The screenplay is sharp, gritty, and real.

The best thing about the film is that aside from being a cute and engaging love story, it is sympathetic to audiences. It’s difficult thing to revisit past feelings, and Diana and Ben have a vulnerability that is very relatable.

“WINTERHUNT” (“WINTERJAGD”)— A Psycho Thriller

“Winter Hunt” (“Winterjagd)

A Psycho-thriller

Amos Lassen

One cold, wintry night, Lena (Carolyn Genzkow) shows up at the Rossberg family mansion. She claims her car has broken down, but her arrival is intentional. Lena is in pursuit of Anselm Rossberg (Michael Degen), an aged Auschwitz guard who lives with his daughter Maria (Elisabeth Degen). Anselm and Maria both deny Anselm’s past, but Lena is determined to get him to confess. At first Maria denies her father’s guilt. At the same time, the story of Anselm Rossberg is being dealt with in the media.

Maria tries to get rid Lena but Maria, who has been living in the shadow of her overpowering father and his controversial past for decades now wants to find the true motives of the young woman. And when Lena brings a horrendous charge against Rossberg at a relentless family court and Rossberg pleads for his life as his daughter faces a great moral decision.

The film by director Astrid Schult tells the story of three people and three generations.Anselm Rossberg is 90-years-old and at first Maria tries to defend him by saying that he is not at home. However, Lena finds him and threatens him at gunpoint. She accuses him boldly about his role at Auschwitz and we see that it is not only Maria who faces a moral dilemma but so do Lena and Rossberg.

The film is very tense and viewers sit on the edge of their seats as we too become part of the moral crisis.I find myself having great difficulty trying to assess the quality of the film since it affects us so deeply. This is not a film that is comfortable to watch but it is an important film as we realize that it is not always easy to understand another generation that was determined to see the end of the Jewish people.

“ETCHED IN GLASS: THE LEGACY OF STEVE ROSS”— Finding a Second Life

“Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross”

Finding a Second Life

Amos Lassen

We have had so many stories and films about the Holocaust that for one to have something new to say, it must really be special and special is “Etched in Glass”. The film is the real-life story of how one remarkable Polish man found a second life in America and dedicating his life to helping people. This is the story of Steve Ross who spent five terrible and horrific years in ten concentration camps when he was a child and then spent the rest of his life in the service of his adopted country, America, as he searched for the American soldier who helped free him from “the gates of hell” and the most terrible time in the history of the world. I do not know Steve Ross but I am still new to Boston but I have known stories like this as well as others from having lived with Holocaust survivors on my kibbutz in Israel. Perhaps that is why I opened this review the way that I did.   I am worried that too many stories could lessen the impact of what we have to know about German anti-Semitism during the period around World War II.

Steve Ross, along with others, tells us about his survival, his emigration to the United States and his resettlement in the Boston area. We meet Ross’ first and oldest friend in America who is now a retired surgeon and we learn how Steve coped with his first taste of American life.

We follow Ross from being a shy timid orphan to becoming a licensed psychologist. We see how he changed lives over and over again, by getting kids off the streets and away from crime. and into the classroom. We meet a man who was saved from a life of crime, urged to get an education and who became a successful attorney and who feels that he owes his life to Steve Ross, his mentor. Ross worked his own way through college are earned three degrees just so he could be an advocate and advisor to young, at-risk people who needed help most and this is what he has done for over 40 years. Steve Ross is also responsible for the founding of the New England Holocaust Memorial. We learn how it came about with the aid of former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and the idea being fostered with tenacity by Ross.

There was initial opposition but the now-iconic memorial stands on Boston’s Freedom Trail and it is there in order to educate and enlighten thousands of visitors each week.

On Veterans’ Day at the ceremony at Boston’s State House on November 11, 2012, the film ends emotionally. It is there that Ross finally meets the family of the soldier who liberated him from Dachau after a 67-year search (thanks to an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” found on You Tube by the granddaughter of the soldier). This is an amazing and touching story not only about Steve Ross but also about the union of 2 families who were brought together by the good deed of a soldier who showed kindness to a teenage boy near death. Like other Holocaust films, this is a story of survival, perseverance and hope. Unlike other Holocaust films, this has Steve Ross.

“BANG! THE BERT BERNS STORY”— Music! Music! Music!

“Bang! The Bert Berns Story”

Music! Music! Music!

Amos Lassen

“Bang! The Bert Berns Story” is narrated by musician and actor Steven Van Zandt and the first part is interesting in that it is not at all interesting as compared with Berns’ later years. His early years are somewhat pedestrian and it almost seems that he willed himself to be creative so he could escape his ordinary background.

Growing up in the Bronx, Berns was exposed to a wide variety of music in his youth and Manhattan was nearby, which meant that that there were plenty music publishers. aplenty were available to reject him. Eventually one recognized his potential and he began working as a songwriter in 1961 and his first hit came in the following year. Among his earliest hits, the most famous is probably “Twist and Shout,” which he co-wrote. He quickly learned about the power of record producers, and realized his own limitations as a singer so Berns became a producer as for a variety of labels.

That led to further opportunities with the famed Atlantic Records. By the time Berns came along, the label was in need of hits, and Berns delivered. His titles included Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” which he produced, though he did not share in the writing of the latter. The records he made influenced young British bands like the Beatles, who recorded their own version of “Twist and Shout,” and the Rolling Stones (“Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” ).

As Berns’ career skyrocketed so did his reputation. Those interviewed in the documentary all speak warmly about their working relationships.(But then he co-directed this with his son so of course we hear only good things). Berns preferred encouraging his recording artists rather than demeaning them or shouting at them, and helped to produce good recordings.

The documentary is filled with great stories. Berns befriended a good variety of people in his lifetime, and his more criminally minded friends proved to be extremely helpful when it came to certain business dealings — all of which is remembered in an amusing tone. As a child, Berns began suffering from a heart condition, which would plague him periodically through the years and eventually cut his life short. His musical career lasted less than ten years and it is quite amazing to see how deeply the music he wrote and/or produced still continues to resonate.

Berns was known in some musical circles as “the white soul brother” and I learned that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was in awe of his songwriting talent. Janis Joplin covered “Piece of My Heart” and caught all its heartbreak. “Hang on Sloopy” has been loved by many through the years and other notable songs include “Here Comes the Night, ” “Cry Baby,” and “Cry to Me.” He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but many are still unaware of Bert Berns, a Jewish kid from the Bronx who lived a fast and furious life and who died 1967 at the age of 38.

During his youth, Berns spent years in isolation after rheumatic fever scarred his heart. He used the time to learn to play piano and guitar. Early on, he discovered the high cost of making a mark in the music business— it was a business filled with power plays, violence, pay-offs, and more. We see the ease with which the creative people involved celebrate the rock & pop vitality of his songs. We hear from greats including Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ben King, Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid, Solomon Burke and others.

His career only spanned eight years but in that time he completely remade music in his image. In the 50s he fell in love with Cuban music, particularly the mambo and he brought his love of Latin rhythms into his music. He began working as a $50 a week songwriter for a tiny New York publishing firm and wrote a couple of songs that got mild airplay that eventually caught the attention of Atlantic Records, then the giant of R&B music.

The documentary is definitely a labor of love, co-directed by his son Brett. The film is largely a parade of talking heads interspersed with archival stills but that’s largely a necessity. There wasn’t a lot of behind the scenes footage taken back then and performance video wouldn’t become a regular thing until the MTV era.

We hear from those who worked with Berns, from performers to engineers. We also hear from his siblings and most importantly, from his wife Ilene – a former go-go dancer. The music business is full of sharks and Berns rapidly learned to swim with them. He nurtured and developed the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison; he also was one of the most prolific and successful producers in the history of Atlantic Records and he remains one of the few people who ever partnered with the main trio of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun in founding Bang Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic and the namesake of the documentary.

His legacy is mainly in the music and the soundtrack is packed with it.

“HEATHER BOOTH: CHANGING THE WORLD”— “The Most Influential Person You Never Heard Of’

“Heather Booth: Changing the World”

“The Most Influential Person You Never Heard Of’

Amos Lassen

Heather Booth is a renowned organizer and activist who began her remarkable career at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This film explores many of the most pivotal moments in progressive movements that altered our history over the last fifty years: from her involvement with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Summer Project, to her founding of the JANE Underground in 1964, to her personal relationships with respected leaders such as Julian Bond and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Through interviews with close friends, clients, political colleagues and current Midwest Academy students, director Lily Rivlin explores Heather’s legacy in progressive politics and organizing.

Booth at 71, is one of the nation’s most influential organizers for progressive causes. For the last 50 years, Booth has been there fighting for fair pay, equal justice, abortion rights, workers’ rights, voter rights, civil rights, immigration rights, child care and wherever there is inequality. She has improved the lives of tens of millions of Americans who never knew her name.

In the film, Booth describes her first entry into activism when, in her early teens, she stood by herself in New York City’s Times Square handing out leaflets urging an end to the death penalty. Booth was a founder of the modern women’s movement, a role that started in 1964 when she helped set up the covert abortion network. This began when she learned that a friend was pregnant. She recruited other volunteers and other doctors. Eventually it became on ongoing organization called the Jane Underground. By some estimates, the Jane Underground group helped secure between 11,000 and 13,000 abortions for women in need between 1965 and 1973, when the Supreme Court finally legalized abortions in “Roe v. Wade”.

Booth has trained and mentored some of the nation’s most effective and influential organizers and activists. She has worked with liberal and progressive groups and activists that include MoveOn, the NAACP, USAction, People’s Action, Planned Parenthood, Alliance for Citizenship and the Voter Participation Center, to the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Center for Community Change.

This film explores many of the most pivotal moments in progressive movements that altered our history over the last fifty years through the lens of Booth’s work. She combines a generosity of heart, a lifelong commitment to social justice, and a remarkable talent for inspiring others and thinking strategically.

“MUHI: GENERALLY TEMPORARY”— Transcending Identity, Religion and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

“Muhi: Generally Temporary”

Transcending Identity, Religion and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

Amos Lassen

Muhi is a young boy from Gaza who for the last seven years has been living in Tel HaShomer Hospital in near Tel Aviv, Israel. He lives in medical and political limbo at Tel HaShomer Hospital, east of Tel Aviv, Israel because of a rare disease that has caused his limbs to be amputated. During four years, co-director Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander, with American videographer Tamir Elterman, have intimately followed Mubi and his devoted and self-sacrificing grandfather Abu Naim.  Even Mubi’s name has become symbolic of the border that his suspicious father, heartbroken mother, siblings, and cousins can rarely cross from faction-torn Gaza. While his family calls him Muhammad; his affectionate Israeli caretakers have nicknamed him Muhi and include him in their Jewish observances.  

The film plays with emotions. Here is a disabled child overcoming adversity with infectiously good spirits while his isolation, dependence and adaptation are used as a prism through which we see the ironies, prejudices, difficulties and tensions of humanitarianism when first world medical care is just 43 miles from third-world conditions. This care is impacted by the bitter strife between Palestinians themselves and between Palestinians and Israelis

We see Muhi is as a migrant for medical care because of the limited facilities in Gaza. His dedicated grandfather’s life finds him in a Middle East limbo full of cultural contradictions and heartrending juxtapositions. While his family can only rarely get through the checkpoints to visit (and are not convinced the extreme treatment of limb amputation was necessary), his grandfather Abu Naim tries to maintain his grandson’s Arabic language and Islamic education. The caring Israelis, including his advocate and long-time peace activist Buma Inbar whose son was killed in war and who give him the Hebrew nickname “Muhi” and celebrates Jewish holidays with him.

When his grandfather finally gets a permit to work, the hospital, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to hire him as a translator or liaison for the many Arab patients and families and condescendingly employ him as a janitor. The prosthetic arms and legs, that give Muhammed the mobility to attend a rare bi-lingual school are not available in Gaza and will keep him waiting as he will need new ones as he grows. This is the kind of film that stays with us long after the screen goes dark and the lights come on.

“HUMOR ME”— A Happy Ending

“HUMOR ME”

A Happy Ending

Amos Lassen

Nate (Elliot Gould) is a playwright suffering from writer’s block and is unable to complete his latest play. He has been fired by his producer/agent C.C., Nate and also gets dumped by his wife Nirit who has found herself a billionaire who is able to give her the life to which she wants to become accustomed. Nate’s problem here is that Nirit who has been supporting him. Nonetheless, she leaves and takes their son Gabe with her leaving Nate with no job, no wife and no home. He has only one option and that is to go to New Jersey and stay with his dad Bob (Jemaine Clement) in a retirement community.

Nate’s father only keeps diet cream soda in the house and expects his son to earn his keep by doing chores makes Nate uncomfortable to say the least and soon we have comedic situations as we watch Nate refuse to become an adult. At the same time, Bob refuses to coddle or cater to his son. Eventually, things work themselves out in this sweet film filled with heart and humor.

Elliott Gould is perfect as Bob and his comedic timing is perfection. Going toe-to-toe with Gould is Jemaine Clement who, as Nate, brings his own often droll and sometimes hapless comic sensibilities to the role and shines with exasperation at every turn. The real fun happens when Gould and Clement share the screen. Writer/Director Sam Hoffman has found a great supporting cast that includes Priscilla Lopez, Annie Potts, Bebe Neuwirth, Willie C. Carpenter and Ingrid Michaelson.

“LET YOURSELF GO”— Life Changes

“Let Yourself Go” (“Lasciati andare”)

Life Changes

Amos Lassen

A psychoanalyst named Elia (Toni Servillo) goes to the gym and meets a personal trainer who changes his life. Servillo lives and works in the Roman ghetto, a beautiful neighborhood in the historic city centre of Rome. He is separated from his wife Giovanna (Carla Signoris) but they still share a house with a very thin wall separating their respective bedrooms Dr. Elia Venezia lives a methodical and rather self-centered existence which only gets lively when his patients get weird.

Then, one day his blood sugar levels force him to go to the doctor, who tells him to shape up fast, puts him on a diet and prescribes exercise. Right after this, a Spanish personal trainer by the name of Claudia (Veronica Echegui), comes to his office and drags him into a swirling vortex of mishaps that breathe life back into his dull life.

Filmmaker Francesco Amato will undoubtedly be compared to Woody Allen based on this film yet he manages to find his own Italian way to Jewish comedy. The film takes a few minutes to warm up, with a few overly cold and intellectual jokes, after which Servillo and the others start to win over the audience, ending up in pure slapstick mode with the entrance on the scene of Luca Marinelli who plays a low-life robber who has escaped from prison to recover his spoils and turns to the psychoanalyst to have himself hypnotized so that he can remember where he buried the jewels. This is quite the JewishItalian screwball comedy.

Claudia challenges the doctor’s masculinity, social status, and general sense of well being. She leads him on a merry chase around Rome that changes his life. There’s smart, fast-paced dialogue and the performances are excellent all around.