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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, February 22, 2014

 
Saturday Night at the Movies

And such small portions: 2014 SJFF preview 

By Dennis Hartley

 

Tonight, I'm keeping Kosher as I gear up for the 2014 Seattle Jewish Film Festival. This year's event, billed as "The Good the Bad, the Funny" runs March 1-9 and features 25 films and programs from 15 countries. I've had a chance to preview several selections, so here's a few highlights (hopefully, some of these are coming soon to a festival near you!)

















Aftermath (Poland, Holland, Russia, Slovakia) - This intense drama from writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski (which reminded me of the 1990 West German film, The Nasty Girl ) concerns a Polish émigré (Ireneusz Czop) who makes a visit from the U.S. to his hometown for the first time in decades to attempt a reconciliation with his estranged brother (Maciej Stuhr). He quickly gleans that his brother (whose wife has recently left him) has become a pariah to neighboring farmers and many locals in the nearby village. After some reluctance, his brother shows him why: he's been obsessively digging out headstones from local roads that were originally re-appropriated from a Jewish graveyard during WW2, converting his wheat field into a makeshift cemetery. Oddly, he's also learning Hebrew (the brothers are non-Jews). Not unlike the protagonist in Field of Dreams , he can offer no rational explanation; "something" is compelling  him to do this. It seems he's also dredging up shameful memories amongst village elders that they would prefer not to process. It is a powerfully acted treatise on secrets, lies...and collective guilt.




















Brave Miss World (USA, Israel, Italy, South Africa) - Cecilia Peck's documentary is a portrait of Linor Abargil, an Israeli beauty queen turned women's rights activist. That conversion was borne of a horrific personal trauma. At the age of 18, and just 6 weeks prior to being crowned Miss World in 1998, she was kidnapped, stabbed and raped while visiting Italy. Peck and her camera crew followed the seemingly tireless Abargil around the world for five years, documenting her drive to ensure that her attacker (eligible for parole this year) never sees the light of day, and continue her ongoing campaign to promote awareness of this often unreported crime. Everywhere she travels, she encourages victims to begin their healing by giving testimony. This is the most moving and inspiring aspect of the film; listening to these women (of all nationalities, social strata and ages) recounting their experiences and realizing how much courage it takes to come forward. You can't help but feel outrage at the most maddeningly puzzling aspect of this vile and violent crime: Why does the burden of proof fall largely upon the victim?


















Hotel Lux (Germany) – So Stalin and Hitler walk into a bar. Actually, it’s a hotel bar, and in reality, it’s a pair of German vaudevillians who have developed a musical comedy act based on their impersonations. Onstage, Hans (Michael Herbig) plays Stalin, and his partner Siegfried (Jurgen Vogel) portrays Hitler. Since this is Berlin in 1938, their act is becoming a bit risqué (more and more brown shirts in the audience these days, if you know what I’m saying…tough crowd). Siegfried, a dedicated Communist, is the first to see the writing on the wall and decides to get out of Dodge, informing his partner that he’s going underground, dragging their mutual love interest Frida (Thekla Reuten) with him. Hans, who is apolitical, just wants to keep his eye on the prize (he dreams of one day making it in Hollywood). He flees Berlin some time later via a forged Russian passport. Through a series of mix-ups, Hans ends up at the Hotel Lux (where the real Stalin and his inner circle are ensconced) mistaken for Hitler’s personal astrologer, with whom Stalin is eager to consult. At first, Hans ingratiates himself with Stalin, who likes the positive card readings he’s giving. But Uncle Joe is mercurial, so Hans doesn’t know how long his charade will protect him from arbitrary execution. Much political intrigue (and hilarity) ensues. Sort of a cross between The Last Metro and The Court Jester, Leander Haussmann’s film is uneven at times, but carried by the winning performances.















Wagner's Jews (USA) – Operas weren’t the only things that Richard Wagner (1813-1883) composed. He also published some virulently anti-Semitic manifestos (later parsed and rebranded by the Goebbels propaganda machine). Yet, an historical conundrum remains: Some of his most stalwart patrons and artistic collaborators were Jews (even Wagner scratched his head over their unwavering devotion). Director Hilan Warshaw sets about trying to make sense of it all in his documentary, using a mix of historical re-enactments and interviews with biographers, Israeli classical musicians and academics.  While predicated on an intriguing premise, I found the film a bit on the dry side; although at just over an hour, it isn’t pretending to go too deep. It does raise an interesting question regarding whether it’s possible to separate an artist’s creative achievements from their peccadillos and/or politics (for a more absorbing exploration on that theme, see Ray Muller’s great 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl).

















When Comedy Went to School (USA) - In this documentary, co-directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akaaya tackle the age-old question: Why are there so many Jewish comedians? Who better to ask than some Jewish comedians? Robert Klein narrates, providing some historical context (my Jewish grandfather emigrated from Russia to escape Tsar Nicholas’ pogroms, so as an ex-standup myself I wasn’t too surprised to learn that it can all be traced back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe). Unfortunately, after a perfunctory nod to Vaudeville, Frank and Akaaya drop the ball as per any further parsing of the symbiotic evolution of the Jewish-American experience with the development of modern comedy, instead leaning on the tired shtick of bussing in the Borscht Belt veterans to swap war stories about the halcyon days of the Catskill resorts (which is where, the filmmakers posit, comedy “went to school”). There is some fun vintage performance footage (Totie Fields! Buddy Hackett!), and some poignancy has been appended by the recent passing of Sid Caesar (who shares anecdotes in the film) but ultimately, it is a somewhat rote affair.

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