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New York Jewish Film Festival
Through January 22, 2019
The 28th edition of the New York Jewish Film Festival comprises its usual enticing mix of features and documentaries for its annual two-week stay at Lincoln Center.
Bille August's A Fortunate Man
The closing night film, Bille August’s potent and engrossing A Fortunate Man, is a return to the kind of rousing, old-fashioned epic that August made his name with 30 years ago when he directed Pelle the Conqueror. Based on a novel by Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan, A Fortunate Man follows a young, intelligent, headstrong engineer who abandons his deeply religious Lutheran family to move from the countryside to Copenhagen, where he marries into a wealthy Jewish family. However, despite his brilliance and exciting new ideas, his stubbornness ultimately leads to his downfall. It sounds like a soap opera, and it is, more or less; but with August’s expert direction, superb cinematography, exacting set design and costumes, and a terrific cast led by Esbven Smed as our hero and Sara Viktoria Bjerregaard Christensen as the woman who loves him, A Fortunate Man is a richly rewarding experience.
Israeli director Amos Gitai is unafraid to tackle thorny questions that have no easy answers in his home country; his latest, the episodic A Tramway in Jerusalem, is a typically complex Gitai journey, on a rail line that connects Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods. Alongside glimpsing the locals who share the trams—and who interact at times cordially, at others antagonistically—are visitors like French actor Mathieu Amalric, who plays a tourist with his young son, oohing and aahing over an oud player on board and later being laughed at for his naïve views on Israel.
Michał Rosa’s Happiness of the World
Polish director Michał Rosa’s Happiness of the World casts an amused but weary eye on the exploits of a beautiful young Jewish woman, Rose (played with gusto and verve by Karolina Gruszka), who lives—and loves—freely in an apartment building on the Polish-German border in 1939, delighting and offending her neighbors in turn.
Silvia Quer’s The Light of Hope is the best kind of docudrama, making us care for its heroic, selfless real-life characters, especially a Swiss Jew named Elisabeth Eidenbenz (a powerful Noémie Schmidt), who helped save the lives of hundreds of young children as head of a maternity home in Vichy France, just miles from the Spanish border.
Part of an illuminating selection of documentaries, Roberta Grossman’s Who Will Write Our History gives trenchant and necessary voice to those killed in the Warsaw Ghetto thanks to a cache of documents discovered after World War II in which their writings were saved.
Elizabeth Rynecki’s Chasing Portraits
Elizabeth Rynecki’s Chasing Portraits—based on her own absorbing book of the same name—follows the filmmaker's emotional journey as she tries to track down the artwork of her great-grandfather, killed by the Nazis.
And Oren Rudavsky’s Joseph Pulitzer: A Voice of the People—a PBS American Masters documentary—succinctly explores the life of the great American newspaperman, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant whose story and legacy are even more relevant in this benighted era of “fake news” brought on by the current imposter in the White House.
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
The Third Murder
Hirokazu Kore-eda makes intimate, insightful films about families, some dysfunctional, others not, but always shown with sympathy and subtlety. His latest is a left turn, a courtroom drama that dramatizes a showdown between a defense attorney and a client who may not be guilty of a murder he’s already confessed to.
Although the film goes too far into the weeds to keep up appearances as a standard procedural, the tense moments between the two men—including a truly stunning ending—make it all worthwhile. The film’s muted colors look really sharp on Blu; extras include a 30-minute on-set featurette.
After a group of dumb teenagers traipses down to the local amusement park for a Halloween-themed party, the horror soon becomes reality as bodies start piling up in ever more grotesque—and, occasionally, admittedly inventive—ways.
If you crave yet another “let’s kill teenagers” flick, you could do worse than director Gregory Plotkin’s entry: there’s enough blood and cleverness to make its 90 minutes go by relatively quickly. One big red flag: it took six writers come up with this. The Blu-ray transfer looks splendid; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
DVDs of the Week
This candid documentary portrait of Joan Jett—former Runaway, huge MTV star (briefly) in the early 80s and Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame inductee—allows the trailblazing lady herself to speak uncensoredly and even angrily about her career in the male-dominated rock’n’roll world.
Director Kevin Kerslake has unearthed a plethora of vintage stage/backstage footage, photos and mementos, and Jett is our guide every step of the way, with her longtime manager-guru-partner Kenny Laguna. Extras include music videos and live footage.
This heavyhanded and redundant would-be comedy is set in an America where the current president wants everyone to sign a loyalty oath to him—a couple declines to do so, which leads to the ruination of the family’s Thanksgiving dinner thanks to the arrival of two Homeland Security goons.
Ike Barinholtz, who wrote, directed and stars, wears three hats too many; he even manages to make the heretofore indestructible Tiffany Haddish unfunnily wearying. This witless movie wants to be a sharp, witty satire-cum-cautionary tale, but even the converted it preaches to probably won’t find it watchable. Extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.
I Still See You
After a cataclysmic event that killed many, survivors still see “remnants,” the apparitions of those who died, in Scott Speer’s workmanlike adaptation of Daniel Waters’ novel.
Bella Thorne gives a forceful performance as a high school student trying to solve a murder mystery that may or may not involve her teacher (well-played by Dermot Mulroney). There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer; extras are director Scott Speer and Thorne’s commentary, featurettes and deleted scenes (with Speer’s commentary).
In Takeshi Kitano’s latest gangster flick, a retired yakuza returns to Japan from Korean exile to slaughter seemingly everyone in his path, piling up one of the highest body counts in any “Beat” Takeshi movie.
Although his films are pretty much interchangeable at this point—and this is the last of a trilogy, following Outrage and Beyond Outrage—Kitano’s energy as director provides a car-crash quality that keeps one watching for the next ridiculously overdone bloodletting. The film has a great hi-def transfer; lone extra is a full-length making-of documentary.
In a scuzzy-looking Berlin, two criminals intent on avenging the indiscriminate murder of their family members find to their own peril that their antagonists come in the form of weapon-wielding fairy-tale villains.
Adolfo Kolmerer and William James have made a demented, sometimes enervating horror comedy that has enough outlandishly entertaining moments to be more than just the latest violent Coen-Tarantino knockoff. There’s a solid hi-def transfer.
DVDs of the Week
Elizabeth I and Her Enemies
This informative British docuseries features a pair of historians, Dan Jones and Suzannah Lipscomb, who analyze Queen Elizabeth I’s life from birth—when she was apparently sexually abused by her uncle—until she assumed the throne and became the most powerful (if loneliest) queen that the world has ever seen.
The usual mélange of reenactments (Lily Cole plays Elizabeth in a surprisingly strong performance), camera-ready discussion and narration makes this three-episode series a fascinating historical story well-told.
Although this 90-minute portrait of comedienne Gilda Radner is a touch hagiographic—glossing over less appetizing aspects of her life story—its affection toward its subject (a beloved show biz veteran taken too soon) is contagious.
Director Lisa DaPolito interviews friends, family, colleagues (conspicuous by their absence are Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray), contemporaries and those she influenced, and uses Gilda’s own footage, both home movies and audio recordings, to emotional effect. Extras include additional interviews and Gilda’s home movies.
Our Cartoon President—Complete 1st Season
The problem with tRumpworld is that nothing any satirists do—whether The Onion, Bill Maher, SNL, even the great impersonator Anthony Atamanuik—is as absurdly funny as the real thing. But this Showtime animated series (which started as skits on Colbert’s Late Show) does its level best to show how the illegitimate president and his swinish family are ruining not only the White House but the nation and the world.
But after several episodes, the humor wears thin; Colbert’s brief skits are better. The set includes all 17 episodes, along with the election special; extras include Colbert’s intro, audio commentaries, and more.
(Big World Pictures)
In Radu Jude’s slow-burning 1930s drama, a sickly young man enters a sanitarium and cultivates fruitful relationships inside its walls despite what’s happening in an increasingly right-wing Romania. Based on works by author M. Blecher, Jude’s film is yet another fascinating formal experiment to come out of a rejuvenated Romanian cinema, which features directors Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu.
But Jude—who shot this in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio so it looks like a TV movie or something from the period in which it’s set—has a rigorous technique that keeps this minimalist drama quietly enthralling for 141 minutes.
Book by Amy Heckerling; choreography by Kelly Devine; directed by Kristin Hanggi
Performances through January 12, 2019
Dove Cameron (left) as Cher in Clueless (photo: Monique Carboni)
Amy Heckerling wrote and directed the movie Clueless in 1995, a hip update of Jane Austen’s Emma—about a young woman who fixes up everyone around her but only belatedly discovers the perfect man for herself—which made a star out of Alicia Silverstone as high school senior Cher, she of the valley-girlisms (“as if”).
Now, in 2018, Heckerling has transformed Clueless into an amusing musical that—at least in this spry incarnation savvily directed by Kristin Hanggi and wittily choreographed by Kelly Devine—follows the movie closely enough for those who are content to see the movie played out onstage. Heckerling’s biggest musical conceit is to take a bunch of songs from that era (by the likes of the Spin Doctors, TLC, Des’ree and Crash Test Dummies) and give her characters new lyrics to sing.
So when Cher finds out that Christian, the boy whom she has a crush on, only wants to be friends, NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” is sung as her friends taunt her with “Is he bi, bi, bi?” Obviously your mileage may vary on how annoying all this is—I hit the wall after about the third repurposed tune—but even those who get into it will admit that the repetitiveness is apparent long before Kim Wilde’s euphoric “Kids in America” wraps things up.
Befitting Devine’s exuberant choreographic moves, the ebullient cast is energetic throughout on Beowulf Boritt’s stylishly tongue-in-cheek sets. And superbly filling Silverstone’s shoes is Dove Cameron, a Disney Channel veteran who sings, dances and acts with a flair that makes the part of Cher all her own and makes Clueless anything but.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
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