Saturday, March 11, 2017
Saturday Night at the Movies
And such small portions: 2017 SJFF Preview
By Dennis Hartley
Tonight, I'm keeping Kosher as I gear up for the 2017 Seattle Jewish Film Festival. This year's event runs March 25-April 2. I’ve had a chance to preview several selections, so here are some of the highlights (hopefully, some are coming soon to a festival near you!).
The Last Laugh – Stop me if you’ve heard this one. How many Jews can you fit in a VW? No, seriously...you should stop me, even if you haven’t heard it. Because if you do know the punch line, and you think it’s funny, shame on you. Of course, if you’ve never heard it, and now you’re dying to know the punchline, then, shame on me for propagating this horribly tasteless joke, even in this strictly academic context. Because now you’re going to Google it anyway, and if you do, and think it’s funny, then, shame on both of us.
I’ve had people tell me that sophomoric joke over the years, having no idea that I’m Jewish. And every time, I am so tempted to completely destroy them with one simple sentence: “You know, I have relatives on my mother’s side of the family who died at Auschwitz.” But I don’t. I take the high road; I give a perfunctory chuckle, glance at my watch and mumble something about being late for this thing I have to get to right away.
I think that’s the gist of this documentary, which is built around this rhetorical question: Can the Holocaust be funny? Now, I am by no means a prude, or a P.C. scold. As a former stand-up comic, I firmly believe that when it comes to comedy, no subject is taboo, including the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that I find anything intrinsically funny about the Holocaust...because I don’t. I think it’s possible to cogently stick to my comedy credo as well my opinion that only a sociopath would find the Holocaust “ha-ha” funny.
But, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, right? Anyone? Bueller?
Even Mel Brooks, who is one of the professional funny people on hand to opine on the topic, won’t “go there”. Remember, this is the guy who gave us “Springtime for Hitler”. However, as he astutely reminds us, he may have made fun of Hitler, the Nazis, and the very idea of the Third Reich in his classic film The Producers...but he wasn’t “making fun” of the Holocaust, or milking laughs from it in and of itself in any way shape or form.
And that’s the general consensus from nearly all the comedy luminaries who appear in the film, like Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jeffrey Ross and Harry Shearer; that nothing is off limits in comedy, but everyone still reserves the right to draw their own line, and not ever cross it.
But what about those who actually lived through the Holocaust? That’s where the film gets particularly fascinating; when director Ferne Pearlstein invites survivors to weigh in. It is through their stories that the film ultimately finds not only its heart and soul, but critical historical context concerning a people who have developed a deep-seated cultural fatalism and sense of gallows humor purely as a survival mechanism to get through all the shit that’s been dumped on them for 5,000 years. Hey, quit laughing-that’s not funny.
Rating: ***½ (Plays Sunday, March 26)
Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? – This bittersweet yet life-affirming documentary, which recalls the PBS series An American Family, takes an intimate look at the travails of a 40 year-old Israeli man named Saar, who has lived a happy and fulfilling life being out and proud in London, despite the fact that his move was precipitated by getting barred from the kibbutz where he grew up. However, he is currently weathering a midlife crisis, with an added poignancy: he is HIV-positive and yearns to meaningfully reconnect with his estranged family in Israel, who seem unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their familial love for Saar with their deeply held religious fundamentalist tenants regarding homosexuality. Co-directing brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann were given extraordinary access to Saar and his family, resulting in something rarely experienced at the movies anymore-real and heartbreaking emotional honesty, handled with great sensitivity and compassion.
Rating: **** (Plays Sunday, March 26)
Germans and Jews – Can’t we all just get along? If you’re talking Jews and Germans, even in the context of here and now in a modern, (very) democratic Germany…it’s complicated. This documentary was the brainchild of NYC-based (non-Jewish) director Janina Quint, who grew up in Germany, and her friend, producer Tal Recanati, who was born in the US, but spent some formative years in Israel. The result is a fascinating study about collective guilt, forgiveness, sins of the fathers and sociopolitical backlash. Don’t expect pat answers; on one hand, it’s been over 70 years since WW2 ended…on the other hand, it’s only been 70-some years since WW2 ended (if you know what I’m saying). And yes, there are discomfiting moments, but this film is timely and thought-provoking.
Rating: *** (Plays Monday, March 27)
Shalom Italia – Tamar Tal’s gentle, low-key documentary follows three Jewish octogenarian brothers, as they return to the Tuscan countryside of their youth in an attempt to locate the make-shift forest cave that their family and grandparents called “home” for the duration of WW2 (for obvious reasons…as these gentlemen are still with us). It’s best described as The Trip to Bountiful…with more eating and complaining. A bit slow in spots (and repetitive), but the denouement is quite moving.
Rating: **½ (Plays Monday, March 27)
Ave Maria – Five nuns walk into a bar mitzvah. Actually, it’s the other way around…three Israeli settlers (an elderly woman, her son and his wife) walk into an isolated West Bank convent after accidently knocking over its Virgin Mary statue. Their car has stalled out and they desperately need a phone. The nuns have taken a vow of silence, and the Jewish gentleman can’t use the phone because it’s Friday after sunset. Yes, it’s a fabulous setup for wacky interfaith hijinks, which do ensue. This 2016 Oscar-nominated short film is a clever comedy of mores that gives you some hope for humanity.
Rating: ***½ (Plays with the feature film, In Between, Wednesday, March 29)
Moos – This charmer from Dutch writer-director Job Gosschalk follows the plight of a young woman who is torn between caregiving for her widower dad and pursuing her dreams for a life in the theater. When an old childhood friend comes for a visit, everything goes topsy-turvy. Hanne Arendzen is a delight in the lead; her quirky performance (and the character that she plays) reminded me of the young Lynn Redgrave in the 1966 dramedy Georgy Girl.
Rating: ***½ (Plays Saturday, April 1)
More reviews at Den of Cinema
digby 3/11/2017 08:30:00 PM