“TRUMAN”— Friends

“TRUMAN”

Friends

Amos Lassen

Julian (Ricardo Darin) was born in Argentina but has found steady work in Spain as an actor in film and stage productions. His long-time friend Tomas (Javier Camara) comes from Canada where he lives with wife and children and Julian is very pleased to see him. Tomas, however, teaches at a college, can only spend four days with him. They make the most of their time together.

In conversations in bars and cafes, they reminisce about the past and try to come to terms with Julian’s diagnosis of lung cancer (which has spread all over his body) and impending death. He has decided to stop chemotherapy and other treatments. Although Tomas might be tempted to try to change his mind, he knows better than to do so. Instead, he accompanies his friend as he goes about getting his affairs in order.

Julian is determined to make all the key decisions himself. He visits a funeral parlor to decide what should happen to his body. He talks with his cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and then makes an impulsive visit to Amsterdam to see his college-age son (Oriol Pla). The most heart-affecting scenes are those in which Julian expresses his love and concern for his beloved bullmastiff named Truman. He even asks a veterinarian whether or not animals experience grief and what he can do to make his passing less traumatic for the dog. When he leaves Truman for an evening with a family that is considering adopting him, Julian reveals terrible pain thus getting a preview so deep that the moment becomes a of the other losses that will come with death.

This is an insightful, subtle, sensitive look at a difficult topic. Everything about the film — acting, directing, writing, mood setting — is just right. We realize, after seeing it, that we have had a spiritual encounter with dying, friendship, and love.

This has to be one of the warmest bromances we will ever see. This is a film about the mechanics of friendship, ageing and the inevitability of dying. It is also about human. With Tomás looking on as non-judgmentally as he can, Julian defies convention to define the terms of his own mortality. The two men are firmly in touch with their emotions but there’s no renting of cloth and barely a tear as they face the simple reality that Julián’s life is coming to a close.

The film has emotionally authentic moments that take place over a short period of time and it is gorgeous to watch. The performances by Darín and Cámara perfect as well. You never doubt the intimacy of the friendship between these men. As in life, they are as different as night and day and this probably explains their simpatico relationship.. Julián and Tomás subtly change as the film goes on. We see Julián’s bravado diminish as the gravity of his circumstances gradually sinks in, while Tomás’ initial uneasiness dissipates as he steps up to the plate. Truman’s fate rests in a grand gesture of trust and love.

“Wonder Valley: A Novel” by Ivy Pochoda— Running Away

 

Pochoda, Ivy. “Wonder Valley: A Novel”, Ecco Books, 2017.

Running Away

Amos Lassen

Ivy Pochoda introduces us to six characters that are searching for hope and love in Los Angeles. Ren is just out of a juvenile correction institution and goes to L.A. to search for his mother. Owen and James are twins and in their teens. They live with their father in a commune in the desert where heir father who is a self-proclaimed healer influences his disciples. Britt shows up at the commune with a dark secret and Tony, a bored and unhappy lawyer has found inspiration in a naked runner among the traffic of the city. Blake is a drifter hiding in the desert. The lives of the six come together shockingly. This is a novel tat is filled with emotions— angst, violence, heartache, and yearning. Los Angeles is one of our most iconic, mesmerizing, and confounding cities and we get an entirely new look at it with all of its contradictions.

Our characters come together by circumstance at first but that soon changes as they stay together by the ties of revenge and love. It all starts in 2010 when a naked jogger runs opposite to the flow of traffic causing a major traffic jam. Along the way of developing the story, we see beautiful vistas of the West Coast and meet the people who drive the plot forward and who are searching for community and a way to connect to others. After all, that is what life is about. There are several subplots going on simultaneously and we move back and forth between the stories and time and place. We soon realize that we are seeing the human condition with all of its anger, beauty and joy. I was hooked on the first page and stayed hooked until the last page.

“Tarantella+ by Scot O’Hara— Family

O’Hara, Scott. “Tarantella”, Old Boy Books, 2017.

Family

Amos Lassen

Anthony tries very hard to understand the meaning of family especially with regards to his own. His father is a hard man and his mother is very much like his dad in that respect. She is totally supportive of her husband. Antony’s brother Paddy is rarely around and Rosalia, his sister supports him when she is not angry about whatever. Anthony and his lover Steven are having relationship problems and it is near its end. The only person Anthony can really talk to is his grandmother, Doughna Mira who loves him unconditionally and who seems to be always read to give him advice. We get to know Anthony by reading about his life by flashing back to his past and observing his present.

We are with Anthony on his personal journey as he tries to understand himself and his family. His life is like a dance and many of us have experienced what he experiences here. We travel through time and place with him and see his dysfunctional world. Writer Scot O’Hara has written beautiful descriptions and has created an unforgettable character in Anthony. He tries so very hard to win the love of his homophobic parents and he realizes that Steven is using him for financial comfort and little else.

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“Edge of Glory” by Rachel Spangler— Two Champions

Spangler, Rachel. “Edge of Glory”, Bywater Books, 2017.

Two Champions

Amos Lassen

I am constantly surprised at the diversity of the books published by Bywater Books and it is equally surprising that I have enjoyed every book from the press that I have read. I was not sure what to expect in a love story about lesbians training for the Olympics and I soon realized that this is a very special book with wonderful descriptions and the thrill of competition. More than that, it is a story about friendship and how it grows and develops.

We meet Corey LaCroix, an Olympic snowboarder, and skier Elise Brandies who both feel very much at home in the snow and cold temperatures where they feel safe. Things, however, heat up… (but we will get to that).

Elise is a cold woman who lives life as if it is a business and she knows that she is to be the best alpine ski racer in the world. However, she has already lost Olympic medals on two occasions and this has considerably hurt her ego. As if that does not bother her enough, she has also had to have several knee surgeries and her When she is finally cleared by her doctors, she is determined to make the greatest comeback that has ever been seen and she is not about to let anything hinder that. Compromise is not a word that is in her vocabulary and she demands total control of herself and the environment she is in. What we see that she doesn’t is her vulnerability.

Corey is now at the end of her career, having turned thirty. She has had an illustrious career and was the best at Boardercross since the sport became a main event. She loves life and has been and remains a hard worker. However, she feels unsure about the upcoming Olympics. She is not sure that she can beat the competition and she knows that regardless of how hard she works, her chances are not what they once were. She really wants to add another medal to her collection (and she wants to meet Elise). She is well aware of Elise’s personality and she takes that as part of the game.

Because she is such a nice person she has been lucky in being noticed by other women and she seems to take everything as it comes, even Elise’s overt nastiness. The tabloids have unfortunately not been kind to her. (It takes quite an author to create two such distinct characters and Rachel Spangler is one such writer). It is interesting that we see the two women going opposite ways in regards to each other but then…………. Romance comes but it does so slowly. This is a character driven novel and it challenges us in that we sense that Elise and Corey will eventually become a couple but they must first get to know each other and build trust. When that romance comes, it is very special. I can say the same about this book; it is very special. I am no expert on romance between women even though I review many lesbian novels and this one of the best of them.

 

 

“ALMOST FAMOUS” Contemporary Israeli Youth

“ALMOST FAMOUS”

Contemporary Israeli Youth

Amos Lassen

Shir’s brother Tomer is a talented musician with a lot of friends, good looks and he has just been accepted to sing on an Israeli reality show thus making him somewhat famous very quicky. Shir has one best friend, excellent grades and becomes very nervous whenever she whenever she sees handsome Omri.   She does not feel that being intelligent would cause a guy to be attracted to her and she really wants to be popular.

Tomer is a mediocre student and se thinks that this proves her point about her own self-confidence.

Shir is sure her life will change when people understand that she is Tomer’s sister and she really wants to move up to be a member of the “cool kids” at her school and find both real friends and first love.

This is a contemporary youth drama that vividly and sensitively shows us what teems think is important when they live in a society where the desire to be ‘famous’ is often stronger than the need to fill that 

Society with what is real. We see what it is to be “blinded by glittering lights and about identity – about what and who we dream of being, and about the courage to choose who we really are.”

“LATE SUMMER BLUES”— An Israeli Classic

“LATE SUMMER BLUES”

An Israeli Classic

Amos Lassen

Renen Schorr’s classic cult film, “Late Summer Blues” has now been digitally restored. When it was first released in 1988 it won the Israeli Academy Awards Winner for Best Film,

 

Best Screenplay and Best Original Score and was screened at over 30 international film festivals around the world It is set in the summer of 1970 in Tel Aviv and looks at a group of seven eighteen-year old kids just before their induction to the army during the time of the War of Attrition at the Suez Canal. During the “short and charged weeks they will try, individually and as a group, to dream, to fulfill their ambitions and to change reality by their graduation ceremony show.”

It is a beautiful and sensitive film that shows the effects of war on everyday life while barely touching the topic of war. We see a mix of joy and sadness, childhood and maturity and the dilemmas that the characters are facing as they decide to join or not to join the army and in which unit. We meet a variety of characters including the non-conformist who joins the army because he understands that there is no such privilege; the guy that everything works for, an aspiring filmmaker; a hopeful songwriter; a left-wing conscientious objector; a young newlywed couple; and a likable, curly-headed oaf who is the first to be drafted and the first, naturally, to be killed (but not in battle: a nice irony).

The film wonderfully captures all the exuberance and awkward idealism of youth without the stereotypes. We also seethe effects of an unending war on a young generation compelled by duty and circumstance to sacrifice more than just their lives.

“FALSETTOS”— Live from Lincoln Center

“Falsettos”

Live From Lincoln Center

Amos Lassen

William Finn’s “Falsettos” is the story of Marvin who leaves his wife and young son to be with another man named Whizzer. Marvin fantasized that they can all be one happy family but his dream is shattered when he is diagnosed with AIDS. Set in 1992, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence and it was a time when violence against gay men and lesbian women was rabid in certain precincts. This is a story that touches every one deeply and although it starts out on a happy note, it ends on a very sad one.

The musical was originally produced in separate installments which would eventually make up the first and second acts of the combined show: “March of the Falsettos” at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis when Marvin has left his wife, Trina, for a man, Whizzer. This left Jason, his son, confused and moody. The second act, “Falsettoland”, was originally produced in 1990, and the pall that AIDS had cast over the intervening decade in the background. The characters and their sense of family now face devastating reality.

We sense the weight of the history of the gay community, of New York City, of the American sense of family and individuality as the musical moves forward. The tragedies of the second act hit us hard since we had already fallen in love with the characters in Act 1. When we consider how selfish and neurotic and self-obsessed the characters are, we wonder where this love comes from. Yet there’s a charm to everyone from Trina holding onto her sanity to Marvin and Whizzer’s combative yet deeply sexy chemistry.

The original production won Finn two Tony Awards, for Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical. This production has a wonderful cast that includes two-time Tony winner Christian Borle as Marvin; Stephanie J. Block as Trina; Andrew Rannells as Whizzer; Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel, the shrink who Trina later marries. All four received Tony nominations. Yes, there are many clichés here but we still laugh and cry all the way through.

“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.

“The Story of the Jews Volume Two: Belonging: 1492-1900” by Simon Shama— An Epic History

Schama, Simon. “The Story of the Jews Volume Two: Belonging: 1492-1900”, Ecco Books, 2017.

An Epic History

Amos Lassen

This is Simon Schama’s second volume of his illustrated cultural history of the Jewish people. In the first volume, we realized that this is the story of endurance against destruction and it shows the

creativity of the Jews as they faced oppression and affirmed life even dealing with terrible issues. The story of the Jews spans and we read the

philosophical musings of Spinoza and poetry written on slips of paper in concentration camps. We go into detail about the Enlightenment and we see the Diaspora that transforms a country. We meet Freud and see his place in our history. a Viennese psychiatrist forever changes the conception of the human mind.

This is, however, not the story of a people apart but rather the story of a Jewish culture totally immersed in and imprinted by the peoples among whom they have lived making this the story of all of us.

Schama gives us 24 pages of color photos, numerous maps, and printed endpapers. We sense the author’s pride in his people. Schama gives us a new way of reading history and even though the book is quite thick (790 pages), it reads easily and quickly.