Monthly Archives: January 2017

“THE STUDENT AND MR. HENRI”— Henri and Constance

“The Student and Mr. Henri” (“L’Etudiante et Monsieur Henri”)

Henri and Constance

Amos Lassen

Ivan Calbérac brings us his film a adaptation of his hit play “The Student and Mr. Henri”. Henri (Claude Brasseur who at 79 is in excellent form) is a grouchy old man forced into sharing his apartment with Constance (Neomie Schmidt), a penniless student. We might think at first there is nothing really original here but surprises await us as does great chemistry between the two main characters. The film is equally funny and moving.  We get two hours of pure, old-fashioned entertainment.

Because of his fragile state of health, Monsieur Henri (Brasseur) can no longer live alone in his Parisian apartment and reluctantly agrees to rent out a room to a student.  He makes no effort to welcome the young woman into his home and help her adjust to life in the big city— he rather has something else in mind. He decides to use Constance to carry out his malevolent plan to destroy his son’s marriage to Valérie.

Basically, this is a classic tale of the older generation passing on the wisdom of their years to today’s youth.   There is a slight difference here, however. Monsieur Henri and Constance are very alike.  Henri feels he’s missed out on the opportunity to lead the life he wanted, while Constance’s self-doubt (having been overly criticized by her father) leads her to the same conclusion. They both decide to really live now. Henri isn’t moved by Constance’s lack of money or academic failure and he is much too bitter to see the error of his ways and too proud and selfish to correct them. Constance lies with consummate ease and accepts Henri’s unpleasant suggestion to ruin his son’s marriage without too many qualms.

Because she has no cash, Constance accepts Henri’s offer of a free room if she can drive a wedge between his son Paul (Guillaume de Tonquedec) and his airhead daughter-in-law Valerie (Frederique Bel). Constance deploys her seductive skills and soon enough the forty-something Paul is falling for her. Not only that, he begins dressing in cool leather jackets, clubbing and sending text messages in slang. Even more interesting is that bitter old Henri who is usually misanthropic and graceless, sees his defenses crumble before Constance and her sweet nature. Henri is a former accountant, filled with regrets about what might have been. He tells Constance not to make the mistakes he did and to enjoy life and pursue her dreams.

Claude Brasseur is excellent as Henri and he shows both comedy and pathos in the same scene in this intergenerational comedy that deals with the themes of the difficulty of housing, especially for young people, family conflicts and relationships, the fear of making a mess of one’s life at any age, middle age crisis, the temptation of adultery and the courage to follow dreams.

Noémie Schmidt as Constance is very convincing as a young provincial student who is cursed by her panic fear of examinations. This does not prevent her from being successively full of life, playful, sensual, generous and courageous. Her main flaw in the story is her lack of confidence, to the extent that when she fails her retake exam at the university, she lies to her parents because she feels ashamed of herself. Her budding friendship with Mr. Henri is touching. Especially when Henri pushes her to develop her musical skills.

Guillaume de Tonquédec as Paul, a man who would like to get along with his father and he is disappointed that Henri despises him and never accepted his marriage with Valérie also turns in an excellent performance. When he meets Constance, he starts to lose his inhibitions and reawaken his youth.

Frédérique Bel is Valérie, the perfect bigoted and goofy wife of Paul. Her silly thoughts, her false air of maternal complacency and her cheesy attitude are fun to watch. This is a movie filled with charm, emotions and incredible situations.

“On Turpentine Lane” by Elinor Lipman— A Comedy of Manners

Lipman, Elinor. “On Turpentine Lane”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

A Comedy of Manners

Amos Lassen

At thirty-two, Faith Frankel has returned to her suburban hometown and where she writes institutional thank-you notes for her alma mater. Her life is peaceful and now that she has bought a cute

bungalow on Turpentine Lane, her life seems to be finally on track. Her fiancé is off on a crowd funded cross-country walk and seems to be too busy to return her texts (but not too busy to post photos of himself with a different woman in every state). That does not yet bother Faith as neither does her “witless boss” or her mother who lives too close, or a philandering father who thinks he paints like Chagall. 

Then she finds some strange relics in her attic and begins to wonder if her life is as it seems. She is just lucky to have Nick Franconi, a colleague at work as a friend and officemate.

“On Turpentine Lane” is a novel about the many forms of love— married love, the love between siblings, the love between friends. Faith Rachel Frankel works at a private day school in the Development Department. Her “fiancé” Stuart has given her with a red string which he says is he claims is an engagement ring. He then takes off for Boston (with her credit card) so that he can begin a cross-country odyssey that is to be his way of self-discovery. That journey only lasted as far as Missouri and comes home to discover that Faith has dumped him and moved into the bungalow she bought

Turpentine Lane and has moved in. I am not familiar with Elinor Lipman’s writing but I understand that it is driven by its characters and she does develop some wonderful characters. Here there is also a touch of mystery.

 

 

 

 

“The Kaiser’s Last Kiss: A Novel” by Alan Judd— The Kaiser, the Maid and the Reality of War

Judd, Alan. “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss: A Novel”, Touchstone, 2017.

The Kaiser, the Maid and the Reality of War

Amos Lassen

In 1940, the exiled monarch Kaiser Wilhelm is living in his Dutch chateau, Huis Doorn. He spends his days chopping logs and thinking about what might his staff is replaced by SS guards, under recently commissioned SS officer Martin Krebbs, and an unlikely relationship develops between the king and his keeper. While they agree on the rightfulness of German expansion and on holding the nation’s Jewish population accountable for all ills, they disagree on the solutions. Krebbs becomes attracted to Akki, a Jewish maid in the house and begins to question his belief in Nazism. Soon The Kaiser, Krebbs, and the mysterious Akki find themselves increasingly conflicted and gravely at risk.

In 1918, after the German loss in WW1, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, losing both his crown by and his home in Germany. He, his wife, Dona, and his household staff moved to Holland where he in exile for the last twenty-three years of his life. He died at Huis Doorn, in June, 1941, at the age of 82.

British author Alan Judd takes some liberties with facts as he writes a story of the old Kaiser’s last days. It is the story of young Nazi Waffen-SS officer, Martin Krebbs, who has been ordered by the German government to take over the running of Huis Doorn after the Germans took over the Netherlands. Once there, Krebbs meets Akki the maid who has become close to the Kaiser since her employment. – She also becomes close to Krebbs once he arrives. The novel is about how the three characters interact with each other or as a group of three. Other characters come and go – some more important than others but the plot of is about these characters.

Krebbs is tested early when he makes reference to a real act of German atrocity at La Paradis in Normandy and we are left to try to understand whether he was involved in the massacre and if he would or would turn a suspected spy in or let him escape. We also begin to wonder if Kaiser Wilhelm is an anti-Semite and how he feels about the killing of Jewish children. Akki’s story is the most difficult to figure out. She is both the ghost and the connecting figure between the two men.

This is a story of personal power, ambitions and conflicts that even the most tyrannical regimes are made of real people who deal with real issues. Based upon fact, Judd is able to bring forward the different kinds of responses that exist both between and within his characters. Kaiser Wilhelm is one of the most forgotten people in history and he comes alive again here. The novel has already been made into a movie starring Christopher Plummer, Lily James, and Jai Courtney and will be released later this year.

 

 

 

 

“Torah Told Different: Stories for a Pan/Poly/Post-Denominational World” by Andrew Ramer— Opening the Torah

Ramer, Andrew. “Torah Told Different: Stories for a Pan/Poly/Post-Denominational World”, Resource Publications, 2016.

Opening the Torah

Amos Lassen

Andrew Ramer brings us a different Torah than the one we read weekly in temples and synagogues all over the world. This is a Torah of midrash— interpretive stories that have come about after the writing and codification of the Five Books of Moses. We might say that his midrash is a reinvention of Jewish history as well as a reinvention of Ramer’s own family, of the Talmud, and of the Hebrew Bible and ultimately challenges us to ask to answer what it means to be a Jew today. Here we are presented with an alternative reality that allows us to seriously explore Jewish tradition.

We find here that Ramer’s world is one in which a third Temple stood in Jerusalem, and where, in the year 404 CE, Rabbi Judith the Wise canonized a fourth and final section of the Jewish Bible. Using quotations from the Damascus Talmud, the Wisdom of Ben Sirach and the Visions of Rachel the Dreamer (and his grandmother, Rosanna), Ramer brings together the wisdom the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim are joined by Zichronot – Remembrances. The stories of our fathers are joined by stories of mothers, daughters, angels and even aliens from the planet Quingi.

It is always fun to hear a new story but the real purpose here is to allow us to hear the stories of those who have been omitted from history. In this way we can “imagine the richness of wisdom that our tradition”. Each of Ramer’s tales of “Torah Told Different” give us the opportunity to stop and think about not only the history of the Jewish people but also about what can happen to it in the future.

We are taught (through tradition) that there are two Torahs: the stories we read from the scroll itself, and those we do not yet know how to read and that is written in the white spaces between in the scroll. If we add Ramer’s pseudepigrahic writings from a 3rd Talmud and a 4th section of the Torah called Zichronot (Remembrances), we will then have three. Pseudepigrapha is in fact a rather traditional way of presenting new ideas within a tradition but I am sure there are those who will not look at Ramer’s writings and additions favorably.

In effect, Ramer has created an entire alternate history (complete with a Third Temple and the ordination of women rabbis in the 3rd Century). What he gives to us seems to be so real and such a part of tradition that it is easy to assume that is all there and that there really is a book called Remembrances and a Damascus Talmud.

One of our traditional beliefs is that the souls of all Jews, past, present and future, were at Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Torah. Further this means that each Jew received his or her own personal revelation of Torah. I have always loved this because it legitimizes what I have to say about the Torah and gives each of us the right to write our own Torah. It is from here that Ramer takes his cue to begin this new interpretation. Likewise, each of us becomes, therefore, part of the Torah are allowed to write our own Torah.

Ramer gives us a Judaism with diversity of genders and sexualities and we can finally sing and dance with God instead of struggling. We see and understand that there is a new and different way to understand the relationship between God and human. Yes this is radical but it is based on our tradition and lore. In this “new” Torah, we have new truths that aid us in living in a new world. By combining personal memoir, introspection, text study and invention, we get something brand new that is exciting to read and even more exciting to execute. Ramer is not a new storyteller— he has been telling stories in his books for many years now and he has enhanced lives and aggravated others who write him off. Here he adds a different kind of midrash that is based upon Biblical texts that come out of his own imagination. By reinventing Jewish history, he gives himself the opportunity to tell new stories. With his concept of a “usable Past”, he creates a counter-history. He does not eschew the profundity of the past, he simply adds to it. He says that in imagining what might have happened in the past gives us the opportunity to look at a parallel reality. Ramer created Judith the Wise because he feels that there are women’s voices that need to be heard. In studying Torah, I continually face the question of what is truth and what is history. Now with Ramer’s stories and explanations, I no longer have to do so.

“By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God” by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein— The Development of the Religious Personality

Lichtenstein, Aharon. “By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God”, Maggid, 2017. Maggid, 2017

The Development of the Religious Personality

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein advocates a life that is centered on God but his is also recognizes there are many ways to reach that goal. the development of the religious personality. He understands and respects that both the Jewish value system and human experience are multi-layered and multifaceted and he looks at the relevant issues from a wide perspective.

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s essays show his firm commitment to Halakha as well as a solid grounding in Torah study. We also sense his deep spirituality, a profound moral sensitivity, and a keen awareness of both the challenges and opportunities of modernity. I love this because so many others do not take the times into consideration. Rabbi Lichtenstein enlightens us as he analyzes many topics including -character refinement, openness and insularity, commandment and choice, secular studies, Torah and career, setting religious priorities, religion and morality, trust in God, the Holocaust, the State of Israel, Jewish solidarity and repentance. It is a pleasurable experience to read about these and I really love that the reading takes us to thinking.

Bringing together character, ethics and psychology and sharing his thoughts in a sophisticated manner makes this volume more than a read—it is a total experience.

This is the first book by Rabbi Lichtenstein that I have read so I really cannot compare it to anything else by him. I feel as if I have been awakened from a long sleep and now see so much in a new light. I wish that I had the ability to be as in touch with the human condition as is Rabbi Lichtenstein who lives a pure life of faith. He is able to find just the right balance. He begins with looking at the merits of

a life of working vs. a life of learning while most of the book looks at questions involving man’s relationship to God, issues of repentance, connectivity and so forth. In the last chapter, we get a look at “Centrist Orthodoxy” and its place in the world.

 

“Country” by Jeff Mann— The Trials of Brice Brown

Mann, Jeff. “Country”, Lethe Press, 2017.

The Trials of Brice Brown

Amos Lassen

I have been reviewing Jeff Mann for over ten years and he has consistently written books that are wonderful in plot and excellent in prose. He is one of the author’s that I always look forward to reading. I am not really a fan of country music (except Dolly) of course so I was a bit concerned when I learned that his new book was about Brice Brown, a country singer. My concern left me by the time I finished the first page.

It is the 1990s and we meet Brice Brown who has quite a name in the annals of country music and is at the height of his career. However, in a very short time all of that changed. The time has come and passed for him to release a new CD and he is living in the closet and paying for sex. What’s worse is that his ex is about to out him. With that Brice begins his downward spiral. What we really see here are the singer’s misfortunes that are based on his sexuality and his hiding his sexuality. Today, the result would not have been so dramatic since the world has changed so much in the last few years. With George Michael’s death, his sexuality was hardly mentioned and no one would dare to say anything to tarnish his name. Do not get me wrong— homophobia is still with us, it just takes a different form.

Brice had to deal with awful stories and no back up and his career and his life crumbled before his very eyes. The assault on his name, music, image, and career is heartbreaking. However, looking at Brice we see something of an anomaly— he judges others the way they judge him and this is not help by his own internal homophobia of hating himself for who he is. He has been and is self-destructive and he struggles with self-hatred. He goes into dark moods from which he has difficulty finding release. We know and we suspect he knows that he cannot stay down forever and there must be some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. He finds a way out and he does so with the help of Lucas, another country guy that steals his heart (and provides us with some very juicy sex scenes).

Brice’s path out of despondency and despair is as powerfully written as was his demise. As Brice moves forward, characters fall away and when he finds a place to be with himself and think, we get a group of characters that form a family around him. We have comedic moments but reality is always close by. Yes, Brice angers and frustrates us but we do not lose our faith that he will be alright.

We must never allow ourselves to forget that there are bigots in this world who use religion and whatever else to back up the way they feel. Brice and Lucas survive the homophobia but do so with scars.

It took Brice to stop being miserable and to begin meeting and speaking with people and it was then that change began. I especially like bringing sexuality into the world of country music (even though we all know it is already there). In doing so, we get a look at a world that is foreign to most of us. After all, let’s face it—love is everywhere; we just need to go and find it. Mann gives us another unforgettable character in Brice and reminds us that as near as the 1990’s there was a danger in being gay.

 

“The Winter Laugh Book” by Fay Jacobs— Her Favorite Stories

Jacobs, Fay. “The Winter Laugh Book”, A and M Books, 2016.

Her Favorite Stories

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to a new book by Fay Jacobs (who probably, I am sure, forgot to send me a copy of this one. Every once in a while I have to dig deep in my pockets to actually buy a book) but the expense here was well worth it. “The Winter Laugh Book” is something of an anthology of Jacobs’ favorite stories that totally entertain and make us wonder how she does it. (There is also a special bonus— a look at the author’s upcoming “Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked!”.

The stories included here are from Jacob’s four published books and her newspaper columns. Centered around her home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, the stories give us a whole new look at the town. Jacobs seems to have the ability to find humor in everything but more importantly, she is able to share that humor with us. She can be acrid when writing about politics and she is downright hysterical in writing about relationships or just people watching.

Jacobs shares life’s most embarrassing moments and she also shares herself and her sexuality as well as the sexuality of those who live around her. She is able to take the mundane and the need to fix the world and turn them into wonderful stories that keep us laughing.

I could relate some of the wonderful stories here but that would ruin your reading experience. I remember in college that my Shakespeare professor once took three classes to explain how difficult it is to write comedy. Tragedies, he said, happen every day, but to laugh is a created experience and everything has to in place if it is to work. Fay Jacobs manages to do that—- not only is she a wonderful storyteller, she is a creator and a very rare person who makes us laugh from cover to cover.

 

 

 

“FREAK OUT”— A Transformation

“Freak Out” (“Mesuvag Harig”)

A Transformation

Amos Lassen

Matan (Itay Zvolon) is a soldier with an administrative role in the Israel Defense Forces who is sent for a week of patrolling at a remote army base in the north of Israel. As he deals with homesickness and feeling out of place, he becomes an easy target for the other soldiers who enjoy provoking him. However, it is not long before strange things happen at the base, leaving all the soldiers fearful.

The film looks at the Israeli military experience, an experience that is terrifying, darkly humorous and thrilling. Over the course of the film, Matan undergoes a transformation into a man (by army standards). In Israel, the army is a rite of passage that carries substantial social significance in Israeli society and it signifies the transition from boy to man. Violence and killing are intrinsic values in the process of transition from adolescence to adulthood within Israeli society. The movie also deals with the Israeli fear of Arabs and Islamic terrorism, a fear shared more recently in societies in Europe and North America.

The filmmaker, Boaz Armoni, has said that “Freak Out” comes from his own personal experience. The film describes social phenomena and behaviors that he remembers from my military service and he gives us an alternative perspective on Israeli society. It was important for me to create a film that maintains the Israeli feel, inside a genre that is considered ‘inferior’ where I come from. We feel the influences from other horror and thriller movies from the 19 as well as from the early Israeli comedies that marked Israel film for so many years.

Matan is joined by three other IDF combat soldiers as they’re deployed to patrol a remote base in Givat Kfir, the North of Israel, for a week. Their job is to protect a radioactive transmitter hat blocks cell phone signals and the soldiers must be on high alert from any attacks from their Arab neighbors. As time progresses, the soldiers realize the base is not all what it seems.

Matan is something of a nerd and has never seen combat. Up until now, he has spent his army days working in offices on computers as a military assistant. When he’s called up to compulsory patrol service, he’s disheartened to find he’s been put with a group of three wild combat soldiers— Yishai (Eran Peretz), Roy (Ofer Ruthenberg) and Uzi (Assaf Ben-Shimon) who clearly enjoy a laugh and see Matan as easy prey to poke fun at and exploit. Their constant pranks and humiliation upset Matan who repeatedly texts and calls his mother for support. Even though he tries repeatedly to go home and get a different work order, he is forced to stay the week with the rowdy soldiers. Even his superior, Stas (Kye Korabelnikov), who Matan thought was an ally, uses him as the four soldiers leave base to spend a night out on the tiles. Once up on the watchtower, a frightened Matan realizes he’s not alone.

Matan is bullied in a role he’s not qualified or mentally prepared to do and we immediately see that he’s going to struggle to during his seven days of torment. It’s quite upsetting to see this and the humiliation is pretty difficult to watch and when things begin to become ominous, we know it’s not going to end well. A bunker lit in red holds sinister secrets we’re not sure we want to uncover especially after the film’s opening scene. Tension mounts as the fear intensifies and we begin to wonder if anyone survive.

Claustrophobic scenes and the isolation of northern Israel keep us on the edge of our seats. This is a very effective horror thriller in terms of storytelling even if the film unravels a bit towards its finale. It’s a bit obvious where the film is leading, especially when we come to the final third, but the high quality of performances from the small cast make it a thoroughly entertaining movie. What really pulls us into the film is the terrible way that Matan is treated. If I have any complain at all it is that perhaps the

horror angle could have been developed or polished a little better to improve the movie yet the build up is so well paced and executed that we are immediately gripped.

“MAGIC MEN”— Father and Son

“Magic Men”

Father and Son

Amos Lassen

Avraham (Makram Khoury), an elderly Greek Holocaust survivor and an estranged Israeli magician, and his Hassidic rapper son, Yehuda (Zohar Strauss) embark on a journey with absurd encounters that ultimately leads them to a final confrontation of father and son. Avraham is jaded and has renounced his religion and he resents his son who is a pious Hassidic rapper. Avraham decides to return to his native Greece to find the man who offered shelter and taught him magic during World War II and he feels compelled to bring Yehuda as his guardian. Arriving in Greece against the backdrop of its recent financial crisis, father and son are forced to confront prickly relationship with the help of a kindhearted prostitute, Maria (Ariane Labed). In reality, this is a not just a road trip— it is also a journey for absolution and reconciliation.

There are enchanting moments of humor and affection and beautiful cinematography as well as excellent performances. (Makram Khoury won the equivalent of the Israeli Academy Award for his performance). The film was directed by the team of Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor who also wrote the screenplay with Sharon Maymon. The film brings together the memory of the Holocaust, a journey in search of family origins, a religious conversion, Greece, rap music, magic, a bit of Zorba and a Greek whore with a heart of gold. “Magic Men” strives to win us over, using a range of formulas and giving them to us in a visually and musically attractive package.

Yehuda is a former rapper who chose to embrace a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish lifestyle but has not quite given up his music. Since his return to religion, he and his father have been estranged. Yehuda’s religious conversion catalyzes a break with the father and becomes a symbol of generational rebellion. Unfortunately, the way that this is handled here is superficial and the scenes with father and son are melodramatic and lack depth. Their eventual reconciliation is expected from early on and it is presented shallowly and with too much sentiment.

Avraham’s visit to Greece was to look for the boy who saved him from the Nazis 60 years earlier and taught him to do magic. Through this search, we meet Maria the contented prostitute who gives the film an attractive female presence. The search for the boy causes the plot to become a chain of scenes that are conspicuously trying to please and move the audience. Nonetheless we are moved by the gorgeous Greek landscape.

Makram Khoury’s performance is restrained and precise and it is what really saves the film from its own problematic writing. Zohar Strauss is believable as the son, but his performance is limited by weakness in character development. The basic subject has been handled in other features as well as documentaries.

Directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor found that their own grandfathers had gone on a similar journey back to Poland. The Greek setting adds a novel twist, and the film has an opportunity to glance at the recent financial crisis in Greece while the hero revisits his past.

The creation of the three main characters is the best thing about the film. Avraham can be intolerant and disdainful of others, but there is something appealing about his independence and adventurous spirit. He is 78 years old and wants to travel alone, but his family forces him to tolerate the company of his son, Yehuda. Avraham is contemptuous of his son’s piety, and although this is never explained, we can’t help but assume that his experiences during the Second World War shattered his faith once and for all. The orthodox Yehuda doesn’t conform to stereotype. He’s not quite as rigid as when we first see him and his insecurities make him endearing.

“PAINLESS”— A Modern Day Fable

“Painless”

A Modern Day Fable

Amos Lassen

This is really not a review but rather a look at a new film that will premiere in early March where it will be screened at the Cinequest Film and VR Festival (CQFF).

”Painless” is a science-based drama and was written and directed by New York native Jordan Horowitz, whose 2015 documentary Angel of Nanjing took home thirteen best film and best director awards from festivals around the world. “Painless” is produced by the award winning, Rhode Island duo of Anthony Ambrosino and Nicholas Delmenico, whose last film “Almost Human” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival where it was purchased by IFC.

“Painless is a modern-day fable about loneliness and alienation, and the sacrifices one makes for what they believe in,” said Horowitz. He added, “feelings I think we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives.” It was filmed in both New York City and Rhode Island. Montreal native Joey Klein stars .