THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN – movie review

THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
20th Century Fox
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriter: Mark Bomback, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Garth Stein
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Gary Cole, Kathy Baker, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Martin Donovan, voice of Kevin Costner
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 8/1/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

[ ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN POSTER ]

The novel’s first line is “I knew I was different from other dogs,” which may be true but I doubt it. Enzo, a Labrador retriever picked up by race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), is smart but not necessarily brainier than other dogs. We simply do not know how our best friend thinks, what any pup knows, what he is capable to learn about life. We do know, however, that we learn a lot from our dogs, perhaps justifying the bumper sticker I saw once on a humble Kia “The more I know people, the more I love dogs.”

One of Denny’s friends wonders how he can be there for the dog when he’s out of the house zooming down the track at Daytona or some of the lesser locales, a point which comes up painfully past the half point of this film when he stands to lose custody of his daughter, but we’ll get to that. Following the best-selling novel by Garth Stein, Simon Curtis, who directs this adaptation, is in his métier, his last movie being “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” which deals not with a writer’s inspiration to create a dog movie but close: the writer’s relationship with his son evokes the creation of an anthropomorphic teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh.

As with the novel, Denny picks up this dog, names him Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, Italian motor racing driver and entrepreneur, the founder of the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor racing team, and later of the marque Ferrari. Enzo (the dog) knows that life is not simply one day after another like Groundhog day but something that moves forward like a racing car and eventually sputters out. To this dog, death is not a problem since he is believes in the Mongolian legend that a dog who is “prepared” will be reincarnated in his next life as a human. (One wonders what a really really good dog can become instead.) Enzo is committed to his human since he is not often left alone in Denny’s modest quarters but is taken with him in the racing car, looking out the window, and loving everything about life.

His days as an “only son” are limited as Denny meets, courts, and marries Eve (Amanda Seyfried), they have a beautiful daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), though Denny is considered a poor match by Eve’s parents, Trish Swift (Kathy Baker) and especially her dad Maxwell Swift (Martin Donovan). Maxwell believes that race car driving is dangerous, that his son-in-law could be injured or killed on the track, all of which makes it ironic that Eve is the one who develops a serious illness (the word “cancer” is never mentioned), looks really bad after chemo treatments (if you believe that Amanda Seyfried could ever look bad), and will die.

After Eve’s death, a lawsuit is pursued by Zoe’s grandfather asking custody of the girl since he is rich and could give the girl the kind of life she presumably deserves. Though Denny’s lawyer suggests that his client compromise and accept part custody, Denny has learned a lesson that he picked up through his racing career. Don’t panic. Never Quit. Life has its ups and downs just as drivers can win some and lose some. By the time that Enzo is fifteen years old, the dog has learned more about the human condition from observing his human beings who love him that most people ever do.

The result is a comedy drama which may or may not be suitable for children. It has a PG rating, presumably because there’s no sex or violence, but you can judge whether your small fry is up to seeing a mighty pale Amanda Seyfried and observe an old dog just lying around, ball-chasing days over, close to death. The tale is based on the true experiences of Garth Stein, who was inspired to write after watching the 1998 Mongolian documentary “State of Dogs,” then hearing poet Billy Collins give a reading of “The Revenant” told from a dog’s point of view. Stein was himself a race car driver who left the field after crashing while racing in the rain, and director Simon Curtis, using a script by Mark Bomback that pays due respect to the best-seller, turns out a sentimental, two-hanky movie with several comic turns, but one which might tempt the child who accompanies you to the multiplex to cry until you get him a dog.

The narration throughout by Kevin Costner emphasizes dog as philosopher in a film that does not condescend but rather one that has ample entertainments even for arrogant humans who think they are smarter than Enzo.

109 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

BRIAN BANKS – movie review

BRIAN BANKS
Bleecker Street
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tom Shadyac
Screenwriter: Doug Atchison
Cast: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Xosha Roquemore, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont
Screened at: Tribeca, NYC, 6/5/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

Brian Banks Movie Poster

When Spain in the 15th century determined to make the entire country Catholic, Jews and Muslims were told that if they did not convert to Catholicism, they would be expelled from the country. Most did. The authorities set up the Spanish Inquisition. If a converso, i.e. a Jew who converted to Catholicism, could be caught secretly practicing Judaism, e.g. by lighting candles on Friday night, he or she could be hauled before the court of the Inquisition and, if found guilty, could be tortured and executed. Some say that it was enough for a servant to accuse her boss of heresy, of practicing Judaic rituals though professing identity as a new Catholic. The servant’s word would be taken. A similar event in a way, made into art by the 1960 novel by Harper Lee “To Kill a Mockingbird,” deals with a false accusation of rape made by a Mayella Ewell, a white woman against Tom Robinson, a black man.

It took some guts to produce the movie “Brian Banks” at a time that the #MeToo movement carries momentum as women have stepped forward in greater numbers than ever before accusing men of sexual harassment and more. Men who have questioned the veracity of accusers are ostracized as Neanderthals who want to bring back the 1950s, when women, having pledged to honor, cherish and obey their future husbands, stayed in the kitchen and sucked up (so to speak) any harassment of a sexual nature. “Brian Banks” is the anti-#MeToo movie, though since it’s based on true facts, the cast and crew cannot legitimately be faulted for standing up for a man who had been falsely accused of rape.

The title character is played by Aldis Hodge in a career-making role. Hodge, one of the most muscular guys you’ll see in the movies, delivers a stunning performance in a powerful movie closely based on true events that took place beginning in 2002. Though his director Tom Shadyac is known largely for comedies like “Bruce Almighty” and “The Nutty Professor,” Shadyac does quite an impressive job hammering home the injustices of our legal system, here specifically against what is called California’s “broken system.” (If a blue state’s system is broken, what must be going on in Alabama?)

Brian Banks had everything going for him. A football player at Long Beach, California high school offered a scholarship at USC which may have seen him as destined for the NFL, he briefly flirts with a female high school student, Kennish Rice (Xosha Roquemore) in the hall. They go past other classrooms into a secluded area known as a make-out spot, kiss, and are spotted by a security guard. Returning to class, Kennisha—who later admits that she was afraid to tell her mother that she was sexually active—accuses Banks of rape. Banks’s lawyer, who must have been as stupid as Kennisha, never insisted on DNA evidence, tells her client that he should plead guilty and take probation rather than risk a 41-year-sentence, but looks as shocked as Banks when the judge denies probation and hands down a six-year sentence with years of parole following. His football career appears over, Banks cannot get a job, and he is harassed repeated by his parole officer when Banks temporarily leaves the county to interview for jobs.

Banks contacts Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), founder and head of the California Innocence Project, who at first sees the man as another of the hundreds, more likely thousands of petitioners asking for help in getting their sentences overturned. Behind the scenes, Kennisha’s mother (Monique Grant) sues the school for providing lax security, winning a $1.5 million settlement. With that kind of money, we cannot expect Kennisha to ‘fess up and admit that she lied, thereby losing the award and freeing Banks to get his life back.

Many scenes should enrage an audience of fair-minded people who still think that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Watch how the technicalities of the law prevent common sense judgments. Best example: during the end of his parole period Banks gets Kennesha to admit her lies, the confession is taped, but the tape cannot be admitted in court since Kennesha did not give permission to be recorded. Banks is provoked into a fight in prison, breaks the guy’s jaw, and is sentenced to 60 days in the hole, in solitary, a tiny room that could be used on the set of a movie taking place on Devil’s Island. If Americans who regularly cite the Second Amendment would protest violations of the Eighth Amendment as forcefully, maybe we would get somewhere to creating a more just society.

Greg Kinnear delivers mightily as a man who has noble ideals but can disappoint since he must choose his cases among thousands of requests, while Sherri Shepherd plays the kind of mom we all want who will stick up for her boy, wanting his happiness more than anything else. Contrast her role with that of Kennisha’s mom who, in sticking up for her lying daughter enacts a scene that smacks of racist stereotypes.

Yes, the movie can be schmaltzy, but the schmaltz is what brings tears to the eyes and joy in the ultimate outcome. This is a movie that’s easy to recommend for large public consumption, a “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 21st Century.

For the actual facts of the case go to https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3901

99 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – b+
Overall – A-

AFTER THE WEDDING – movie review

AFTER THE WEDDING
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bart Freundlich
Screenwriter: Bart Freundlich based on “After the Wedding” (2006) written by Anders Thomas Jensen and directed by Susanne Bier
Cast: Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 7/16/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

After the Wedding Movie Poster

It’s not as though everything that takes place here occurs after the wedding. The cast has a great deal of information to load in to set us up for some plot twists—reversals that occur so frequently that you may be kept on the edge of your chair, wondering what terrible secrets are going to go down next. This is a remake of the Danish movie of the same name, though in Copenhagen they called it “Efter bryllupper,” directed by a woman, Susanne Bier, who made two men the center of her universe. This time Bart Freundlich shows that he knows how to write and direct women, placing two of the greats in the leading roles. In fact were it not for the talent and charisma of Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore and Julio Macat’s stunning photography in India, you might be tempted to write this off as an expensive weepy, a soap, one whose wheels you can see moving, carrying you to a final resolution.

Whereas the Danish version takes place in Mumbai, this one opens in Calcutta where Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an American Mother Teresa by helping to run an orphanage, having adopted eight-year-old Jai (Vir Pachisia) who becomes teacher’s pet and who will eventually be asked whether he wants to move to New York. Isabel’s orphanage is regularly short of money, so miraculously she hears that Theresa (Julianne Moore), a media executive who built her company from scratch, wants to donate two million dollars to the Calcutta institution. Big catch, without which, no movie: Theresa insists that Isabel leave Calcutta to be interviewed in person in New York, which Isabel is reluctant to do since she is so connected to her do-good role in the East. But money talks, Isabel confers with Theresa—who is not yet committal, and is invited to the wedding of Theresa’s daughter Grace (Abby Quinn) to Jonathan (Alex Esola). At the wedding, she spots Oscar (Billy Crudup), who brought Grace up, a single father until he married Theresa, and boom. Isabel is stunned. We know that something’s up, and any attempt to go into detail on their history would be a spoiler.

The two women are opposites in temperament. Theresa is jubilant, a demanding executive who can be brittle especially when chewing out her personal assistant. We are introduced to her as she sings along lustily in her car to Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory.” Isabel is reticent, taking in the scenery, a listener rather than a big talker who nonetheless shows visible disappointment having to leave her profession in India, downcast once again when she finds out that the two million is not necessarily a done deal.

“After the Wedding” is theatrical, centering on some major ethical questions regarding, adoption, marital problems affecting the young bride and groom just weeks after the ceremony, the nature and importance of one giant white lie, the importance of finding an identity in what you do for work and must decide whether to compromise by giving up what you love in exchange for a greater return.

Production values are spot-on; a gorgeous house in suburban New York for the Theresa and Oscar, a sumptuous outdoor wedding presided over by a monk (Hank H. Kim), shots of two tall temples in India. Whether you prefer the Danish version to the Hollywood is a matter of opinion, so after you see the current version you can shell out $3.99 to Amazon Prime and watch Mads Mikkelsen in the Danish.

110 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B-

ONE CHILD NATION – movie review

ONE CHILD NATION
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 7/25/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

One Child Nation Movie Poster

It’s not only reactionary states like Alabama that want to control women’s bodies by restricting their reproductive rights. The oppression was far worse in China for thirty five years, ending only a couple of years ago when the government in Beijing aborted the law. “One Child Nation” deals with the Chinese policy of allowing only one child per family, reasoning that the country would be more prosperous and peaceful as a result of cutting back on overpopulation. But there was nothing peaceful about the way they enforced the edict. Not satisfied with splashing billboards with happy trios of mom, dad and child and using kitsch propaganda shows on TV trying to impress the folks to do their patriotic duty, the village elders, acting like Nazis looking for hidden Jews during the 1940s caught families hiding their second child, fined the mom and dad beyond the family budget, and for good measure took away the product of disobedience.

But wait, its worse. A lot worse. The hapless baby would be trafficked over to orphanages which would pretend that the little ones had no parents and would do international commerce in recruiting families interested in adoption and charging them, $10,000, $20,000 and up per child. This would explain why some of our fellow Americans have adopted Chinese babies in their homes who when grown up would never realize that they had siblings in China.

But wait once again! To ensure that women in China would obey the restrictive reproductive laws, they would force pregnant women who already had one child to have the fetus aborted. For good measure, the women would be sterilized. As cited in the most prescient comment in this documentary, it may be ironic that American states restrict abortion while China coerces the procedure, but in the end, both China and particular American states are controlling women’s bodies. This is what makes Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s colorfully photographed movie of special interest to an American audience.

Exceptions were made to such an extent that up to half of the Chinese families were given permission to transcend the one-child rules. The exceptions would be mainly for rural people and those whose first-borns are girls, but even there, prospective parents would have to allow five years’ separation between the two. Yes, boys are still valued over girls. Some personal discussion humanizes the film as we hear director Wang’s interviews with her own kin. Her name Nanfu = man + pillar, indicating her parents’ wish for a boy. In Wang’s own community, a midwife boasts that she performed 50,000 abortions and sterilizations, the whole idea motivated as members of this profession would be rewarded if their village had a low birth rate.

The one-child policy which went into effect in 1979 and continued until 2015 has changed, but Chinese are still not free. The current propaganda films call for two children per family, though Wang and Zhang do not look into how this new ideology is enforced. The rationale is that more young people are needed in the work force and can later serve to take care of the older folks. Whether China desires cannon fodder for the next war is also not covered.

One heroic American couple, Brian Stuy and Long Lan Stuy who have three adopted Chinese daughters discuss their organization, Research China, designed to help parents locate the children removed from their care and women in general to seek their sisters who are now abroad. The organization urges involved Chinese to spit into a cup, using their DNA to search for the lost youngsters. Sometimes a Chinese woman would find that her sister was in the U.S. and would text her but would be fearful to ask for the exact location figuring that this would prompt an “unfriending,” as the Chinese-American would fear being Shanghaied.

This is not only a valuable documentary, one that would have been censored had it been finished in China rather than in the U.S., but is particularly heartbreaking for those Americans who had already adopted Chinese kids only to find out that they may have mommies and daddies in the People’s Republic.

85 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

TEACHER – movie review

TEACHER
Cinedigm
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Adam Dick
Screenwriter: Adam Dick
Cast: David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/2/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Teacher (2019)

Melania Trump’s took on a mission as First Lady to deal with cyberbullying. Her “Be best” message is probably at least as effective against bullies as Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No made a dent in drug addiction. Cyberbullying aside, the most painful kind of bullying occurs directly, physically, not on the ‘net, although the latter has been unfortunately responsible for suicides among victims. “Teacher,” Adam Dick’s movie, which deals with both forms of bullying, has a clear message, which is that bullies are people who have been abused themselves. His characters, from a 16-year-old student who commits horrendous acts of torturing others, to the title character himself, now an English teacher who had been physically attacked in the past, commit acts of bullying which reflect back to their own childhoods. One of the abusers is a sixteen-year-old kid who you will think has always been coddled and who is sufficiently respected by his classmates, turns out to have been a victim, while the teacher, picked upon when he was of middle school age, has a psychotic break, doing what you’d never expect such a meek gent to execute.

There are surprises in “Teacher,” making it often riveting in its brutality. James Lewis (David Dastmalchian) serves as an English teacher in a suburban Chicago high school. It’s no coincidence that the play he chooses for his class, “The Merchant of Venice,” is his preferred text given that Shylock, like the teacher and like one particular kid in his class, is both victimizer and victim. As a kid himself (played by Bryce Dannenberg), he was endlessly taunted, in one scene pushed into the mud by a body of water by young men who threaten to drown him. Now, as an adult with a drinking problem and undergoing the stress of an impending divorce and anxiety about making tenure, he has the making of a gentle, almost saintly man who is ripe for a psychotic break.

He is pained by the experience of Daniela (Esme Perez), who is cyberbullied for her race and who becomes a candidate for suicide, but even more so by the experience of Preston (Matthew Garry), an intelligent, sensitive boy with a hobby in photography who is tormented by jocks under the leadership of Tim Cooper (Curtis Edward Jackson). In one scene on a school bus, Cooper plunges a needle into Preston’s seat causing a back injury, but that injury turns out to be scarcely worth worrying about when his very life, or at least his eyesight, is in Cooper’s crosshairs. Cooper is a rich kid pushed to achieve as a pitcher for the high school team by his rich, well-connected father Bernard (Kevin Pollak). The stage is set for a showdown involving father and son, the teacher serving to be the surprising combination of hero and villain.

Writer-director Adam Dick, building upon his twenty-minute short “Teacher” about an unbalanced high-school instructor, turns out an expanded freshman film sure designed to engage the emotions of his viewers. He is fortunate in employing the skills of David Dastmalchian, who can do meek and aggressive with authority.

100 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

LUCE – movie review

LUCE
Neon/Topic
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriter: JC Lee, Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/29/19
Opens: August 2, 2019

Luce Movie Poster

Every time I think that the high schools in which I taught are pretty OK, not great but certainly not blackboard jungles, I get a wake-up call that says, “Your schools are OK: but compared to what?” Then I come across this high school in Arlington, Virginia which looks nice and clean with grounds to match and students that really pay attention in class and one teacher who has given the teens fifteen years of her life, sees parents after class, and discusses education with the principal. So I think, “I wish I could have been assigned to this Arlington city High School.” Then my envy of the place gives way when I find out that this school may be in prosperous Arlington but it could in no way deserve real estate in Shangri-La. Things are happening therein that would threaten a parent’s trust of her son, a teacher’s dedication to her students, and would start warfare enveloping teacher vs. principal, mother vs. father, student vs. teacher, and would involve questions of race and class. That Julius Onah, who adapted the movie from a play by JC Lee featured in New York’s Lincoln Center leaves ambiguity not only in the ending but throughout the proceedings is a good thing. In fact without the ambiguity’s causing us in the audience to pause and think deeply about the film, we would be shut off from any thought of discussion save for “Where should we go now for our frappuccino?”

“Luce,” which is the name of the principal character played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., means “light” and light indeed brightens the upper-middle-class home of Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) and her husband Peter (Tim Roth). Unable to have children of their own, they seek out a potential adoptee from the most troubled place imaginable, a seven-year-old who has already been tormented more than almost any American adult by growing up in war-torn Eritrea. With a back-story that involves years of psychological help and any other form a rescue that his adoptive parents have tried, Luce attends a school that gives his room to develop and express his natural talents and is lucky—or maybe not–to have as his history and government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who pushes those in her charge so strictly that she has been called a bitch. For reasons that a movie audience will find ambiguous, she snoops into Luce’s locker, finding illegal fireworks among the notebooks, confiscates them, and, instead of telling Prinicpal Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) calls in Luce’s parents. To add to her suspicions, Harriet has graded the student’s essay on the subject, name a historical figure and write a paper on how you would act in his place. Luce uses the example of Frantz Fanon, whose “Wretched of the Earth” advises violence to get overthrow colonialists. Luce is virtually labeled a terrorist, and when in addition, Harriet hears a rumor that Luce is involved in the rape of Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), the stage is set for verbal, and later physical warfare, involving students, teacher, principal and parents.

What motivates Harriet to go after this one student, a young fellow who excels in debate, track, and can hold an audience of parents in thrall when addressing them in the auditorium? We in the audience are left with an unspoken motif that Harriet, who is on the one hand demanding outstanding work especially for marginalized teenagers, is envious of Luce’s parents, who appear to be upper middle class, who presumably did not have the stresses affecting Harriet, who has lived with her emotionally disturbed sister Rosemarie (Marsha Stephanie Blake). In fact in the film’s most energetic scene the entire school must cope with Rosemarie’s psychotic break as she goes ballistic, removes all of her clothes, and is carted away by the police.

Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play parents who must have had to cope with the frustrations and joys of bringing up a child with a damaged psyche, their most compelling scene involving an argument about how to deal with accusations that their young man has committed an act of minor terrorism. Should he be exposed for what he may be—the emphasis on may be—or should they lie and give him an alibi that would counter charges against him? Still, the film belongs to Harrison, who has appeared in films and TV since his minor role in 2013 in “12 Years a Slave,” but who, at the actual age of twenty-five is too old to convince us that he is a student in high school rather than going for a graduate degree.

Nigerian-born director Jonah Onah, whose “The Cloverfield Paradox” finds scientists testing a device to solve the energy crisis, moves ahead with this intellectually challenging and emotionally gripping tale with metaphoric possibilities that feed into the current sophomoric racism of our president, who does not have a racist bone in his body.

This is an emotionally gripping and intellectually satisfying meditation on racism, parental pressures, and teachers’ expectations.

109 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B+

TEL AVIV ON FIRE – movie review

TEL AVIV ON FIRE
Samsa Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sameh Zoabi
Screenwriter: Sameh Zoabi, Dan Kleinman
Cast: Kais Nashef, Lubna Azabal, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Yaniv Biton
Screened at: Cohen Media Group, NYC, 7/11/19
Opens: August 2, 2019 in New York and Los Angeles

Tel Aviv On Fire Poster Sizes 11x17" 16x24" 24x36" 32x48"

Think of the most talked-about rivalry within a country today. Israel has a Jewish majority and a Muslim minority and, to my knowledge, has blessed far too few intermarriages between the groups. In fact if you set up a TV program with a proposed marriage between the clans, you might get little support from either side. But in “Tel Aviv on Fire,” such an arrangement is possible because in TV soap operas, anything can happen. Sameh Zoabi, co-writer and director, gives us a light comedy that spoofs soap operas with their far-fetched plots and more importantly treats the possibility of a marriage between a Jewish general and an Arab spy. You might consider this the kind of story that would not gain prominence from either side, but “Tel Aviv on Fire” was not only showcased at the 34th Haifa Film Festival but garnered a best actor award for a Palestinian actor. Zoabi is in his métier on the subject of cultural divisions, having directed “Under the Same Sun,” a story about two businessmen from opposite tribes set up a solar energy company, and “Man Without a Cell Phone” about modernization coming to a Palestinian village.

In “Tel Aviv on Fire,” Salam Abbas (Kais Nahef) serves as a low level movie production assistant living in Jerusalem and working in Ramallah. He’s a good-natured slacker given a job by his producer uncle Bassem (Nadim Sawahlha). He is fluent in Hebrew and charged with correcting the way characters on a soap opera speak. Because of his low status, his ex-girlfriend Maryam (Maisa Abd Alhady) is not interested, which motivates Salam with the goal of impressing her. When a clueless Salam is given the job of screenwriter for the soap, he has his chance to become Maryam’s hero but lacks the talent for writing.

The soap being satirized, “Tel Aviv on Fire,” is lightly anti-Zionist but not to the extent that would alert Israeli censors. The cheesy soap-opera plot finds Marwan (Ashraf Farah) training Tala (Lubna Azabal) to be a spy, to use the name Rachel, and acquire military secrets held by General Yehuda Edelman (Yousef Sweid). The episodes are not yet complete. As Salam is writing, he is stopped at a checkpoint separating Ramallah from East Jerusalem by Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton), who recalls that the soap is eagerly watched by both Arabs and Jews. The captain grabs the incomplete script from Samar, making his own suggestions and even insisting that the captain’s script be utilized (and his portrait held on a shelf in the background). The captain wants his family to be impressed that he knows how the story will proceed and insists that Tala and Edelman fall in love and marry.

While this looks as obvious as any soap would be, the entire film is full of surprises, unpredictable right until a sudden coup de théâtre in the final seconds. The entire movie is filled with ironic humor, not the kind that seeks belly-laughs but goes for more subtle, satiric notes. While the entire ensemble performs nicely—probably having to go through may takes as they involuntarily smile at the ironies while acting—you can see why Kais Nahef would take away a best actor award at the Venice Film Festival while Haifa’s 34th International Film Festival awarded “Tel Aviv on Fire” best film and best screenplay.  Nahef exudes loser  authenticity, turning the tide and winning the respect and affection of his ex-girlfriend Maryam. This is one of the best comedies to come out of the Middle East in recent times.

In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.

97 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+