Monthly Archives: February 2020

“The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: Exodus (Hebrew and English Edition)”by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks— Innovative and Refreshing

Sacks, Jonathan. “The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: Exodus (Hebrew and English Edition)”, Koren Publishers, , 2020.

Innovative and Refreshing

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings us a new, innovative and refreshing approach to the Hebrew Bible. He brings findings by modern scholars on the ancient Near East with the original Hebrew text and a brand new English translation together in “The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel”. The commentary clarifies and explains the Biblical narrative, laws, events and prophecies in context with the milieu in which it took place. 

This is the first in a multi-volume series and it is dedicated to the book of Shmeat (Exodus). We get wonderful visuals of ancient civilizations including artifacts, archeological excavations, inscriptions and maps, brief articles on Egyptology, geography, biblical botany, language, geography, and more. Much of this material has been unknown to earlier generations of Torah scholars.

In order to use this volume to best advantage, one needs to have the context in which it all came together and thus means understanding the realities of the time, including social and political realms and how they worked in Egypt.

Editor in chief David Arnovitz’s work here is extraordinary in that we see the stories in the context of the milieu in which they took place. The commentary explores and explains the Egyptian context of the stories and narratives here.

Ten academic contributors with expertise in Egyptology, Assyriology, plants, animals, geology, ancient near east, tabernacle, and priestly garments Biblical scholarship and Biblical Israel are found here and “explanations based on the following eight categories: archeology, near east, language, flora, and fauna, Egyptology, Mishkan, Geography, and halakha.” With these we gain a much deeper and meaningful understanding of what was happening in ancient Egypt.
We see that many of the Torah’s laws revolutionized concepts of workers’ rights, slaves’ rights, care for the poor and resident alien, women’s rights and so much more.

While there is a lot here, we still do not have all the answers we might want. We have no evidence from Egypt nor from Sinai as to whether that Israelites actually were part of an exodus in the desert. We do, however, have several possible explanations for the reasons for not having evidence.

The book reveals a lot, but there is still is a lot to be answered. As with all that, there is still no direct evidence from within Egypt, or in the Sinai peninsula that testifies to an Israelite sojourn in the desert. The editor’s note several plausible explanations for the lack of evidence. What we really see here is that the Book of Exodus is both radical and revolutionary. The translation here follows what Maimonides said to his translator of “Guide of the Perplexed” into Hebrew. This is not a word for word translation because what seems fine in one language does not always make sense in another language. By inserting the intent, this is easier to understand.

 The commentary is quite extensive and provided by highly respected Modern Orthodox rabbis. It is rational and contains and many comments and essays on ancient Egypt and other Near Eastern countries. We learn why the numbers used in Scripture must be understood metaphorically. We have histories and customs of surrounding nations and “maps, charts, timelines, dates, articles on language, Egyptology, the plagues, the Ten Commandments, what is the Masoretic Text, comparing the Torah to ancient Near East law collections, geography, biblical botany, pictures of the Tabernacle and items used during its service, and detailed discussions on subjects such as an introduction to the book of Exodus, archaeology items found in and near Israel such as the Mesha Stone, the story of the Golden Calf, the power of ancient covenants, the idea of a seven-day week with a day of rest being introduced by the Bible, and the purpose of the tabernacle with detailed pictures.”

“Little Altar Boy” by John Guzlowski— A Noir/Crime Novel

Guzlowski, John. “Little Altar Boy”, Kasva Press, 2020.

A Noir/Crime Novel

Amos Lassen

During the 1960s in Chicago in a refugee and immigrant neighborhood, detective Hank Purcell is at home when there is a knock on his door. Sister Mary Philomena has come to him because she has seen something terrible at Saint Fidelis Church and it is a violation of all that she considers sacred. She asks Hank and his partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, to look into a pedophile priest who she believes is abusing altar boys. Not long afterwards, Sister Mary is found murdered in the convent basement, next to a furnace stuffed with old papers and photographs. The case now becomes more complicated as it seems that the murder and pedophilia are connected in some way. As if his hands are not already full, Hank’s teenage daughter, has disappeared and she just might have been kidnapped by drug dealers.

The case is especially difficult because the Catholic Church is involved and Hank and Marvin must find a way to break through the wall the Church as around itself, attempting to protect its own. The story is based on a memory from Guzlowski’s childhood in his church parish in 1955. Three of the five priests there were pedophiles and quite naturally the Archdiocese of Chicago was determined to keep this quiet. Hank and Marvin had been affected by what they witnessed in World War II and this adds another layer to the plot. Guzlowski uses this subplot to show how war affects those who participated in it. He also reflects on the crimes that are committed in refugee/immigrant neighborhoods and his descriptions are full and often brutal and that unlike some of the dramas we see in public media, crimes like these are not easily solved. Not only do our detectives face terrible crimes, they have to deal with their own feelings as they work through the case.

I find that the fact that pedophilia in the Church is not only shocking but that it is still going on and devout Catholics still place their church above all. When the news first broke about pedophile priests, many refused to believe it and continued reacting to the church as they had always done while knowing that abuse remains active. The uniqueness of this book is the way we are pulled into the story and are constantly aware that not much has changed regarding pedophile priests. It only took a couple of pages before I was totally immersed in the events of the story—so much so that I finished the book in one sitting and wondering why these kinds of events are happening still today. Have we not learned from the past?

Guzlowski is a fine storyteller and as I stated earlier, he is a whiz at description. This is, by no means, an easy read and there were times that I was so emotionally involved in the story that there were several times that I had to look up from the pages and relax a bit. On the other hand, I could not stop reading. I did not feel a sense of relief upon finishing the novel because knowing what we know, it is only a matter of time before more cases of pedophilia at the hands of priests will come to the fore. Guzlowski makes us very aware of this. I deliberately have avoided writing in detail about the plot because I want readers to share the experience of reading a well written novel without knowing some of the facts ahead of time.

“MINDGAMES”— The Vacation that Became a Nightmare

“MINDGAMES”

The Vacation that Became a Nightmare

Amos Lassen

Director Bob Yari’s “MindGames” stars Maxwell Caulfield in this taut psychological thriller about a family’s battle for survival against a cruel, scheming stranger.

Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Dana Lund (Edward Albert) and his wife, Rita (Shawn Weatherly) try to bring new life into their relationship by taking a trip through northern California with their 10-year-old son Kevin (Matt Norero). Along the way they pick up Eric (Caulfield) an amiable hitchhiker who is a psychology student. Eric’s charm mask something much deeper— he is psychotic. Eric senses the Lund’s vulnerability and decides to take control of the family and destroy it through deceit and emotional manipulation. At first the Lunds are easy prey until they realize they’ve become victims of a bizarre reign of terror. They begin to fight back in a desperate attempt to save themselves.

 Caulfield turns in a masterful performance making this more than a typical horror flick.  Eric’s motives were not transparent but were revealed slowly and surely through his journal. We see how one twisted individual can wreak havoc on unwitting people. The film also shows why families should be protected and why strangers should be kept away from children.

We know what’s going to happen because it’s what happens in this kind of film. The stranger sleeps with the unhappy wife and then decides that the father has to go.

There is little violence and a lot of tension.

SPECIAL FEATURES 

  High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the main feature in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. 

  English 2.0 Stereo Audio

  Optional English Subtitles

  NEW! The Making of Mind Games (HD, 108 mins) [brand new feature length retrospective of the film featuring interviews with stars Maxwell Caulfield, Matt Norero and Shawn Weatherly, producer Mary Apick and director Bob Yari] 

  NEW! ”Bob Yari: Portrait of a Producer” (HD, 33 mins) [retrospective featurette on the career of the producer of the Academy Award Best Picture Winning Crash , The Illusionist , Find Me Guilty and many others] 

  Original Theatrical Trailer (SD, 01:13) 

  Reversible Sleeve Featuring Alternate Artwork

  Collectible Mini-Poster

“ARE WE LOST FOREVER”— When Love Ends

“ARE WE LOST FOREVER”

When Love Ends

Amos Lassen

David Färdmar’s “Are We Lost Forever” is his first feature film as a director. It is a development of acclaimed separation drama about a couple breaking up from a destructive relationship. Each scene exudes sorrow, desperation and unrequited love.

Hampus (Jonathan Andersson) and Adrian’s (Bjorn Elgerd) relationship has gone down increasingly destructive paths and then during one fateful discussion it all ends. While Hampus and Adrian are no more, in some way they have to go on living. We see a healing process divided into stages of desperate attempts to reunite as well as rebound. It is a bitter-sweet portrayal of the painful time following the end of a long relationship and when life has to start over.

Adrian and Hampus have been together for three years, and Hampus feels that he must make ends meet in order not to go down himself. For Adrian, the breakup comes as a shock, he cannot accept that the relationship is over.

The film takes place over a year and we can follow Adrian and Hampus  through phases in a painfully drawn-out separation with everything that it includes; crying, anxiety, rebound sex, comically embarrassing encounters, new look-a-like partners, the longing for awkwardness, an uncomfortable couples dinner, an insight into breaking old patterns, and even a streak of hope for reconciliation in some way.

Of the eleven characters, six are gay, two are lesbians, two have unspoken sexualities and one is straight, but at the end of his scene. he is clearly open to other options offered In the story, the norm is to be gay, where the characters should never have to be questioned about their sexuality and that the main conflicts are not about their sexuality. The main conflict is a separation where two broken hearts try to recover and heal after a heartbreaking year. They just have to be ordinary people with everything that it means, when love suddenly ends.

Adrian’s and Hampus’s relationship has taken increasingly destructive paths and in a fateful conversation, everything ends. Hampus and Adrian are no longer there but in some way they must continue to live.

“Are We Lost Forever” begins at the home of the young couple Adrian and Hampus, seconds after they end their relationship. They have barely managed to get out of bed before a new reality flushes over both. “We are no longer there,” Hampus notes coldly. Hampus collapses and moves out. Adrian is left with half a bed, a broken heart and many thoughts. Where did things go wrong?

Between screaming confrontations, regretful declarations of love and hot make-up sex, both guys are forced to re-evaluate their relationship in order to move on and forward, hopefully stronger and wiser.

“THE TIMES OF BILL CUNNINGHAM”— Remembering Bill Cunningham

“THE TIMES OF BILL CUNNINGHAM”

Remembering Bill Cunningham

Amos Lassen

 Bill Cunningham was a one-of-a-kind fashion maven, compulsive photographer and an eccentric. He used to speed around New York City on a bicycle in his blue jacket (that became his trademark) and shoot pictures of street fashion for the New York Times Sunday Style page. He loved his job yet was extremely modest. Cunningham died in 2016. Mark Bozek’s documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham” reminds us of who the man was. The film is  fun and filled with gossip. It is also sensitive and touching in parts.  

The documentary, I understand,  is based on an extensive interview from 1994. Sarah Jessica Parker narrates taking us back to Cunningham’s recalls his conservative Boston childhood, his escape to New York when he was 19, and the day he got his first camera. He lived in the studios above Carnegie Hall and was able to mix with the likes of Marlon Brando, Norman Mailer, Judy Garland, Brooke Astor, Babe Paley, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. His photograph’s capture New York City’s famous and everyday residents. 

Cunningham’s trademark self-deprecating gratitude is felt all through the film as she shares how much he loves both his city and his work. In a sense the film is Cunningham’s elegy and we see and have to accept that the days are gone when the New York Times Style section commanded attention. The city seems to be dealing with nagged by the sense that it has lost some of what made it special.  It was very different when Cunningham was on the streets and now we can see from where it has come.

Bozek combines archival interviews between him and Cunningham from 1994 along with many photographs of celebrities and regular New Yorkers. Cunningham’s humility and vulnerability shine through the film as he candidly shares about where his shyness comes from. His mother was shy; his father was outgoing. In a moment of poignancy, he gets very emotional and chokes back tears when talking about his friends who died of AIDS.

Cunningham would occasionally stop by a fashion show or a glitzy affair to take a few pictures of the latest haute couture styles. However, he was more in his element on the streets of New York, snapping photographs of passersby with one of his old-school Nikon cameras.  We hear about his early days as a milliner to his work with Chez Ninon on Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe to his time spent cataloguing the preparations for each of Diana Vreeland’s legendary exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. We see Cunningham’s legendary frugality, his shocking disinterest in his own wardrobe, and his cave-like apartment above Carnegie Hall.

“Cunningham’s smiley self-effacement belies his serious contemplation of fashion and its place in the world.” He saw himself not as an artist nor as a journalist but as a historian, a documenter of politics and social upheaval as reflected in the things people wear.

Cunningham covered New York’s pride marches, while largely avoiding any discussion about this. He was rumored to be gay but he said that whether or not he was, he never thought about it. His life seems to be devoid of romantic encounters.

“15 YEARS”— Headed for Heartbreak

 


“15 YEARS”

Headed for Heartbreak

Amos Lassen

Israeli director Yuval Hadadi’s feature film debut “15 Years” is the compelling story of an outwardly successful gay couple in Tel Aviv who seem to have all that makes for a good life but who are nevertheless destined for heartbreak 

Yoav  (Oded Leopold) and Dan (Udi Persi) are at home celebrating their 15th Anniversary with their closest friends.  Yoav seems disturbed when the conversation turns to swapping stories about their newly acquired babies.  He becomes even more upset when he hears that his best gal pal Alma (Ruti Asarsai)  is also pregnant and people assume that he is the donor.

Yoav does not like children probably because of his own unhappy childhood. He will not go to visit his elderly father who is dying in nursing home.  Nothing usually bothers Yoav who sees himself as an alpha male and is used to controlling simply everything. When one of his major architect  projects gets in trouble. He is pushed over the edge.

Yoav’s partner Dan is a community lawyer has become used to walking around his partner sees that Yoav is unravelling and wants no help. The film looks at the characters accepting their sexuality and is also about the difficulties of adjusting as a gay couple in contemporary life. 

Each of the three actors gives a fine performance and this is probably because the script develops the characters so well.

“Avidly Reads Making Out” by Kathryn Bond Stockton— How Culture Makes Us Feel

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. “Avidly Reads Making Out”, NYU Press, 2019.

How Culture Makes Us Feel

Amos Lassen

Avidly Reads is a series of short books about how culture makes us feel. “Avidly” was founded in 2012 as an online magazine by Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle. It basically is made up of short-form critical essays devoted to thinking and feeling. Coming out of the magazine, “Avidly Reads” is an exciting new series of books that are part memoir, part cultural criticism. Each book “brings to life the author’s emotional relationship to a cultural artifact or experience.” With them we explore the pleasures and obstacles of everyday life.

This volume by Kathryn Bond Stockton explores making out and she looks at it through the cultural and political forces of today’s world: race, economics, childhood, books, and movies.  In effect, it is Stockton’s memoir about a non-binary childhood before that idea ever really existed in her world. Stockton writes about kissing in all of its forms.

Stockton’s brings together personal narrative, historical context, new ideas and the application of popular fictions. Her premise is simple and she gives the reader the chance to try on her ideas from different vantage points.

Stockton shows the variety of colors in the world and looks at important questions about gender, race and identity and we see who we are as sexual and social beings. Her views are personal and we see things as Stockton does. Kissing and making out here are interchangeable. Much of the book is about gender choices and lives

The idea of making out has many meanings and it is both physical and mental and what there is of a narrative is non-linear. It is well written and thought provoking throughout.

“MONSOON”— Cultural Alienation and Displacement


“MONSOON”

Cultural Alienation and Displacement

Amos Lassen

In “Monsoon”, British-Cambodian writer-director Hong Khaou brings us an elegant study of cultural alienation and displacement as a young man born in Vietnam but raised in the United Kingdom returns home after thirty years away.

The film opens with a high, overhead shot showing the beautiful chaos of a busy junction in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam. Brightly colored scooters rush around automobiles and lost among this is Kit (Henry Golding), a Vietnam native who left Saigon three decades ago, when he was six and his parents fled the country for Britain post-Reunification.

Kit has returned to find a place to scatter his parents’ ashes. He looks for “somewhere momentous”, although he soon realizes that his search will not be easy. His memories of his early life are vague and the old spots he does remember have either been Westernized beyond recognition or fallen into ruin. He is stuck for inspiration and even tries taking bus tours. He says “feels like a tourist”.

We often see Kit confusedly wandering the streets with Google maps open on his phone, the look of recollection perceptible on his face as he comes upon a building he hazily recalls from childhood. Around him, the streets are a buzz of activity as locals bustle past, getting on with their day. Meeting a friend from childhood he’ll say he has “good remembrances” of playing together, while later he says the prospect of visiting Vietnam was forbidden by his parents. It’s as if his conversations with his oldest friend have been scrambled through a translator.

Kit finds a kindred spirit in Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an African-American entrepreneur with whom he begins a passionate romance after hooking up via a dating app. Like Kit, Lewis feels uneasy in Vietnam. His father never recovered from doing three tours their during the war. He insists that his T-shirt business is “contributing to the country’s growing economy”, he and Kit both know he’s in Vietnam for the cheap labor. Kit also meets another lost soul in Linh (Molly Harris), a Vietnam native who wants to break away from her family’s struggling tea business, a casualty of the country’s rampant modernization.

The film is inspired by the director’s own biography. His family too emigrated from Vietnam to England, having first fled the Khmer Rouge when Khaou was just a baby. As such, small interactions – the awkward reunions with the friends Kit’s family left behind or the hesitant small talk with strangers who approach Kit assuming he’s a local resonate. We recognize director Khaou’s keen sense of the loneliness of a traveler in a foreign land or the discombobulating effects it has on mind and body.

As Kit, Golding impresses. He is tentative and hurt by his characters existential malaise. He is sensitive in glances and body language, and the fascinating interplay between what’s said out loud and what remains unspoken is beguiling. Kit is confronted with an alternative version of his mother that he was denied because of the turmoil following the country’s reunification, which prompted his family to flee.

“Monsoon” was produced by an entirely female team, and shot on a modest budget, but with a great eye for composition. The opening shot alone conveys not only the controlled chaos of Ho Chi Minh City traffic, but this idea of controlled chaos perfectly suggests Kit’s state of mind when he arrives in his mother-country. It’s a country that hasn’t stopped growing since Kit and his family and the transformation gives the dynamic backdrop to this character drama about negotiating who we are while the what defines us.  

“UNTIL PORN DO US PART” (“Até Que o Porno Nos Separe “)— Mother and Son

“UNTIL PORN DO US PART” (“Até Que o Porno Nos Separe “)

Mother and Son

Amos Lassen

Eulália (Eulalia Almeida) is a conservative 65-year-old mother who finds out that her son, Sydney (Sydney Frenandez) who emigrated to Germany became Fostter (sic) Riviera, the internationally awarded first Portuguese gay porn actor. From shock and disgust to desperately trying to understand him, Eulália goes on an emotional journey that puts her values, expectations and perceptions to the test. The computer and Facebook are her main sources of information and communication. Her quest to get closer to her son makes her click on unexpected websites, meet unlikely people and challenge herself to see her son perform a live sex show at the annual Portuguese erotic fair.

Portuguese filmmaker Jorge Pelicano brings us a touching and often poignant observational film about a mother who is having a hard time coping with the fact that her son is a gay porn star. This is a documentary that uses a very intimate set-up to tell a story about a traditional family, communication in the age of the internet, and ultimately, acceptance and forgiveness.

When we first meet 64-year-old Eulalia in her apartment, she is sitting at the computer, going through messages on Facebook and looking at the profile of her son Sydney, or “Fostter Riviera, the First Gay Porn Star from Portugal”. We learn that she has accepted the fact that her son is gay, and even that he is involved in porn – but also that she cannot forgive him for not telling her. She cannot tolerate his increasingly raunchy (videos and photos yet she can’t not look at his Facebook profile every day. This is the only connection she has with Sydney who has stopped replying to her messages and no longer answers her calls. There are many tears and a great deal of sadness and prayers to her saint, Santa Rita.

Eulalia (Eulalia Almeida) is conservative and religious, but she is not uneducated or stupid. She is not a lonely woman; she has  a husband who we barely see, she gets visited by her family, and she is especially happy to see her daughter (to whom Sydney often goes to when he needs someone to talk to.) Eulalia works as a pollster. There is an extremely sensitive scene when she goes to a gay club and, after making initial contact, ends up polling one of the young, hip patrons.

Halfway through the film, we go to Germany, where we find Sydney preparing to shoot a porn scene. From this moment on, the movie opens up to his perspective (but not in as much in detail as his mother). There are more exterior scenes and a dynamic development as Sydney returns home to take part in a wild live show at the Eros Porto fair. Eulalia intends to see him perform.

The narrative structure takes us from initially feeling very sad for Eulalia, to understanding and eventually liking both her and her son. We also look at the complex and ambiguous combination of themes from traditional family to modern communication and technology, and how they influence once clearly defined social roles. We, of course, wonder how a woman like Eulalia would have reacted to her son’s blasphemous, immoral behavior some 15 years earlier, when gay rights did not include such universal social support and when porn was not all over the internet and Facebook had not yet existed. There is also the question of whether Sydney would have felt as confident moving to Germany and becoming Fostter Riviera.

The film is a structurally disciplined, emotionally engaging and thematically insightful film that cries out to be seen.

“BLACK OCEAN” (“Noir ocean”)— Looking at Relationships

“BLACK OCEAN” (“Noir ocean”)

Looking at Relationships

Amos Lassen

In “Black Ocean”, director Marion Hansel looks at three young boys aboard a French naval vessel in 1972 who take part in nuclear tests in Mururoa, in the Pacific. The film explores the relationships of the men on board who are confronted with discipline, violence, solitude and, occasionally, friendship.

Hänsel uses the remote, isolated environments in which the experimentation took place to communicate a universal story about the power of awe. We follow three young sailors (Romain David, Adrien Jolivet, Nicolas Robin) on a French naval vessel in 1972, who are on course for an unknown destination in order to help carry out the bomb tests that they are to witness. The film is divided into two parts: before and after the blast. Before the blast, a lot of time is spent quietly observing the sometimes-friendly, sometimes-oppositional talk and play between the youngsters as they try to stay awake through long watch shifts and quietly ponder the lives that they left behind.

The sailors become mildly rowdy, but spend a lot of time solemnly staring into the distance during the first half of the film. There’s an obvious bit of backstory whose significance is too-often underlined involving a treacherous childhood walk through a river and a buried message. By and large, Hänsel keeps things refreshingly clean with the most loaded relationship in the film belonging to one of the young men and the dog who follows him around.

Once the bomb hits, the film changes gears and turns into a deep meditation on what it is to witness an event that shifts your understanding of the world. Hänsel succeeds in evoking in the viewer because of the low-key performances, efficient writing and gorgeous cinematography. Even with a late-film lapse into excess sentimentality and the unnecessary “political statement”, “Black Ocean” is transportive, sensitive and touching.

“Black Ocean” is at its best during  its opening half hour, when Hänsel does a superb job of capturing the day-to-day minutia of these guys’ lives (with the fascinating nature of their uneventful exploits proving effective at initially capturing the viewer’s interest). However, as the film progresses that it becomes an increasingly interminable experience when the proceedings become pointlessness and grow more and more problematic as time slowly marches on. There is an unusual emphasis on elements of a remarkably mean-spirited nature, with the director’s sadistic streak reflected in several key moments throughout the proceedings. The film suffers from an aimless final half hour that’s is almost as Hansel stresses the tedious exploits of three soldiers on shore leave. It drawn-out stretch and seen as random and abrupt.