SYNONYMS – movie review

SYNONYMS
Kino Lorber
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nadav Lapid
Screenwriter: Nadav Lapid, Haïm Lapid
Cast: Tom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevilotte
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/5/19
Opens: October 25, 2019

Synonyms Large Poster

Thomas Wolfe said you Can’t Go Home Again, in fact that is the title of a novel published in 1940. The novel tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book that makes frequent references to his home town of Libya Hill which was actually Asheville, North Carolina. The book is a national success but the residents of the town had been unhappy with what they view as Webber’s distorted depiction of them, send the author menacing letters and death threats. Nadav Lapid, a brilliant director whose “The Kindergarten Teacher” tells of a New York teacher who becomes obsessed with a five-year-old’s gift for poetry, now takes tackles a film thematically alike Wolfe’s novel, about a 20-something who not only can’t go home again: he does not want to. You can’t blame some critics who, like the writer for “The Jerusalem Post,” in effect blames director Lapid for washing Israel’s dirty laundry in public in a similar way that Thomas Wolfe disturbed his townspeople.

“Synonyms” is a bold, original, impressive movie that has critics divided though it took top prize at the Berlin Film Festival this year. That’s not surprising. The best movies are strong enough to divide audiences, since unlike pics that are febrile, that do not hurt anybody’s feelings, controversial ones may have some people hating while picking up other people’s praise.

As for the fellow who has no intention of ever going back to his homeland, Yoav (Tom Mercier) left Israel after fulfilling his military duties, traveled to France without a shekel in his pocket, and refuses to speak Hebrew. He pores over grammar books, walking the streets around the Seine mumbling words together with their synonyms, takes a demanding and exciting citizenship class where he is required to sing the second stanza of the Marseilles, and even when visited by his father who is worried that his son is not eating and is living in a shoebox refuses to respond to the older man in Hebrew.

But he is not at all out of luck. In the film’s opening he visits a strangely vacant Left Bank apartment, wakes up nude (full frontal nudity: beware), discovers that someone has stolen his backpack with all his clothes and wakes up in the home of Émile (Quentin Dolmarie) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte). Émile finds Yoav an impressive young man, given that Yoav is filled with stories about his life in Israel, making analogies to the Greek legends about Homer’s Hector, represented as the ideal warrior. By contrast Émile responds that his own life is boring, that he has no stories to pay his new guest back. For her part Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), an oboist with the local symphony orchestra, is likewise fascinated by the immigrant, not surprising since he has sworn off Hebrew, knows the complete French national anthem, and is more Gallic than the typical person born in France and knowing no other tribe.

Despite his reverse nationalism, Yoav appears qualified only to be a security guard at the Israeli consulate, where one officer goads him into a fight as though training him for the Israeli Defense Forces. Yoav is slim, yet seems rock hard from his army training and is occasionally interested in starting a fight—particularly with a member of Caroline’s orchestra who chastises him for rudeness.

Émile soon sense that Caroline is more interested in Yoav than in him, no considering that Caroline and Yoav fell into each other’s arms—Caroline muttering that she “always knew that we would sleep together.” Perhaps the most emotional scene occurs when Yoav, determined to flee the militaristic country of his birth, becomes enrapt hearing a classmate in his French class sing the first stanza of the Marseilles, following up with the next which speaks of the “purity of the French blood” and the needs to spill the blood of the enemy.

All this makes “Synonyms” as arresting a film that you’ll see this year, perhaps later competing against great movies like the South Korean “Parasite” for Best Foreign Picture. Note especially the great performance coming from Tom Mercier in his early career, a likely candidate for those organizations like NY Film Critics Online which give awards for Best Actor.

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

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

THE UNORTHODOX – movie review

THE UNORTHODOX
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliran Malka
Screenwriter: Eliran Malka
Cast: Shuli Rand, Yaacov Cohen, Yoav Levi, Golan Azulai, Shifi Aloni, Or Lumbrozo
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/19
Opens: June 4, 2019 at JCC in Manhattan

A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’

 

The old saying is that you put two Jews in a room discussing anything under the sun and they will not only disagree but will come up with three diverse positions. This is true to some extent among diaspora Jews in the U.S., people of the book who love endless discussions to such an extent that many Gentiles do not understand the verbal mayhem. And it is surely true of Jews living in Israel, who may have seemed unified when the nation was founded in 1948 with its iconic, socialist members of kibbutzim (collective farms), but has since fractured into more political parties than you can count on your fingers, with maybe your toes thrown in. “The Unorthodox” may seem at first look like a deadly serious film about ethnic discrimination but is filled with comic outbursts and undertones and includes many cartoonish figures—not excluding rabbis.

Still, it’s regrettable that Israelis fell into the kind of discrimination that pit those of European background, some of whom migrated to the land while others (Sabras) were born there, against those known as Mizrahis and Sephardim—generally of darker skin including those thrown out of their birth lands including Iran, Dagestan, Syria, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The differences are not only in skin color, though you might scarcely tell by looking who is of European stock and who is Middle Eastern, but in culture, involving music, clothing, food and the like.

Because of this discrimination, one fellow, Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand), partly comic and otherwise passionate, becomes radicalized when his daughter is suspended from high school twice within two weeks and then told by the headmistress that she “does not fit in.” Turns out that she is Sephardic attending a school filled with Ashkenazi Jews, and is dropped from the register though she is neither a discipline problem nor a bad student. Forced to accept the decision, Yaakov, heretofore apolitical, realizes that the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Jerusalem can show power only by forming a party, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, or Shas (an actual party of Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern extraction actually founded in 1984). Nobody but he thinks the organization will get anywhere, but in running for the City Council, Yaakov must get the endorsement of at least one rabbi, preferably the head rabbi of the city.

Given the overlong presidential campaigns here in the U.S., each election considered by the media “the most important ever,” you may not be in the mood for another culture’s campaigning, but you will be drawn into writer-director Eliran Malka’s debut feature movie. Eliran Malka presents “The Unorthodox” soon after helming his groundbreaking TV show Shababnikim, an irreverent look at the shenanigans of four ultra-Orthodox fellows studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva. Malka, intent on showing ultra-Orthodox as people misrepresented by the media as a closed society, highlights each of the major personalities with his or her own quirks, whether they be from the movie’s idealistic anchor played by Shuli Rand, the local rabbi actually named Yaacov Cohen, who was born in Morocco, or the henchmen who try to absorb the Shas founders into their own party thereby hoping to dissolve the divisions. But like political parties everywhere, Shas began with admirable ideals when Shuli Rand’s character ran for the Jerusalem City Council, then rubbed up against the daily corruptions of the game, wherein at least five Shas members of the Knesset were busted for fraud, forgery, and conspiracy to commit crimes.

Notwithstanding the writer-director’s championing of the party through his film, today Shas has moved to the far right, against any cutback in activities settling the West Bank. At least the party as we see its members in action in “The Unorthodox” summons us to cheer their ideals, while knowing that somehow Yaacov, its founding member, will become not only corrupted but thrown under the bus by his fellow party members.

“The Unorthodox” was selected to screen at the Israel Film Festival.

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

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

RED COW – movie review

RED COW
Menemsha Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tsivia Barkai Yacov
Screenwriter: Tsivia Barkai Yacov
Cast: Avigayil Koevary, Gal Toren, Moran Rosenblatt
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/28/19
Opens: June 4, 2019 at the JCC in New York

Image result for red cow movie posters

The five books of the Hebrew Bible contain information about Jewish customs in ancient times, and specifically, in the fourth book, Numbers 19:2 there appears this item. “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.” In other words a sacrificial cow must be a redhead, must never have worked, and must be without flaws. Does anybody today put this ancient ritual to use? Surprisingly, one fellow in Jerusalem-born Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s feature length directing debut actually raises a red heifer as a calf preparing to do just that, despite the affection that this fellow’s teen daughter has for the shy and lonely animal kept outside their home. Specifically Yehoshua (Gal Toren), a politically extreme Orthodox Jew believes that the sacrifice will bring about an age in which Jews would no longer be banned from walking on the sacred Temple Mount in the holy city.

His daughter Benni (Avigayil Koevary), who chafes under her dad’s helicopter upbringing, is confused about religion, politics, and especially sexuality. She hears her father’s lectures to like-minded right-wingers who protest a possible evacuation from their illegal East Jerusalem settlement, but she cannot for the life of her understand what’s happening to her country politically. (The action takes place before the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a Jewish zealot opposed to his leader’s willingness to give up territory to Palestinians.) And though she is awakened by her father regularly and forced to put on Tefillin with him (the Tefillin contains parchments from the Bible), she has no particular feel for religion.

Most important, when Benni meets Yael (Moran Rosenblatt), more or less the same age but more mature, she is drawn to her. Their mutual feeling results in a lesbian relationship, which is trouble, because Judaism does not condone homosexuality. Dad senses what’s going on between the two girls but restrains himself for the sake of his daughter, though similar leniency may not be in store for Yael. (The scene where the two young women “get it on” is filmed tastefully. Sorry.)

“Red Cow” has universal resonance given that Yehoshua mourns the death of his wife in childbirth, and at the time of the film’s action is sitting Shiva for his own mom, Benni’s grandmother. Yehoshua is so wrapped up in religion and politics that he hasn’t much of a clue on how to deal with his girl’s sexual coming of age, nor can Benni “come out” given that she cannot confess her feelings to another adult notwithstanding her attendance in a class in sexual education. Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov behind the lens makes good use of close-ups, allowing us in the audience to read Benni’s emotions, as she gives in to her rising sexual needs both with and without her young partner.

Extremist politics is woven seamlessly into an intimate family drama, the three principal performers doing their jobs with authenticity. Leaving the film, I felt that Benni will manage to make accommodation with her community but her dad is destined to drive his daughter completely away. Still, I felt bad particularly for the fate of that cute red calf and disgusted by people who feel a need to conform literally to the Bible, not only for the silliness of animal sacrifice but for the prohibition against homosexuality..

“Red Cow” was selected for the Israel Film Festival and will open in New York at the JCC on June 4.

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

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

WORKING WOMAN – movie review

WORKING WOMAN (Isha Ovedet)
Zeitgeist Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Michal Aviad
Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad
Cast: Liron Ben Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/16/19
Opens: March 27, 2019

Isha Ovedet (2018)

It should not be difficult to discourage men who harass women (or other men) for sex, stalking, wheedling, begging, demanding, and the like. But when the men (assuming 90-95% of the guilty are men) have something over you, things get complicated. We know from recent exposés by the #MeToo movement and journalists in general how easy it must have been for Harvey Weinstein to get what he wanted from women. As the leading producer of films in the U.S., he could make or break careers. This explains why so many women waited for years before getting the courage to testify against him.

But Harvey Weinstein is only one guy. There are local schlemiels who are able to get away with harassment simply because they employ women. It’s not so easy to fight off an employer when you need his recommendation for a new job. This is why dominant males do not always need to use a great deal of force to touch, even rape women who are, so to speak, under them. Nor is sexual harassment found only in the U.S. and Europe, as Michal Aviad points out forcefully enough with “Working Woman,” or “Isha Ovedet” in the original Israeli title. Aviad, in her sophomore dramatic feature (in addition to documentaries she is known for “Invisible,” dealing with two women who discover that their rapists are in common), illustrates the way that Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) is drawn into the sordidi network of her boss, Benny (Menashe Noy). She is such a valuable employee that one may wonder why she needs him more than he needs her.

As a marketer of real estate property, she has gone beyond her boss’ skills. In the case on view here, she is able to sell apartments in the Israeli city of Rishon La Zion using tactics that Benny would not have thought of. Things get hairy when Benny at first asks her to wear her hair long, then tries to kiss her. Like so many other predators, he apologizes “It won’t happen again.” It does, culminating in a situation in which Benny tries to rape her in a Paris hotel, though Orna, at first trying to fight him off, gives in—only partly because he outweighs her by a hundred pounds. She is probably thinking that since the new restaurant business started by her husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen) may go belly-up, nobody will be around to support her family of five.

That’s the situation, one that must be repeated thousands, maybe millions of time by the male of the species, those who are in controlling situations. And since most business is owned by men, these predators must be having a field day, using their dominance to get what they want.

With a stunning principal performance by Liron Ben Shlush and with a direction by feminist Michal Aviad that refuses to degenerate into noisy melodrama, “Working Woman” is able to get the message across in an entertaining format with a direct, narrative style—no animation, flashbacks and the like. The film is in Hebrew and some French with English subtitles.

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

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

DAMASCUS COVER – movie review

DAMASCUS COVER

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Daniel Zelik Berk
Screenwriter:  Daniel Zelik Berk, Samantha Newton, from the novel by Howard Kaplan
Cast:  Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, John Hurt, Jürgen Prochnow, Navid Negahban
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the role of Ari Ben-sion aka Hans Hoffmann is a stiff, his dialogue stilted, though perhaps the oversimplified
English in Howard Kaplan’s book from which the film is adapted is partly at fault.  Literary quality aside, Kaplan himself is no hunched-over author pecking away at a computer but a fellow a great deal more interesting than Ben-Sion.  Author Kaplan, a native of L.A., was sent at the age of 21 to the Soviet Union to smuggle a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm to London. He executed a similar plan on a second trip, got arrested in Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and two days in Moscow.  He has traveled through Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, his experiences giving him lots of background for his five novels, each of which, I would guess, is more interesting than Daniel Zelik Berk’s film.

“Damascus Cover” is Berk’s freshman entry into the full length feature media, one which may have given him enough experience to turn out better stuff in the years to come, though he may have come out ahead if the characters did not all speak English.  For example, Hans Hoffmann, the principal character’s spy name, is allegedly German but he speaks English even to a group of Germans who are being hosted in Syria’s capital.  Saraj (Navid Negahban), is a brutal head of the Syrian secret police, who bears a contemptuous grin most of the time even when questioning an Israeli spy as the movie opens, then later as a guest in a home that includes Ben-Sion, who is pretending to be a German merchant in Syria to buy that country’s famous carpets.

As in the book, Ben-Sion has a weakness for women, as we see when he is virtually stalked by Kim (Olivia Thirlby) a journalist for USA Today newspaper who may be more than she appears.  There are a few standard-issue shoot-outs, a couple of fist fights that are of the usual ridiculously edited type so that you don’t know how is beating whom.  Though the Syrian authorities have become aware that Ben-Sion is an Israeli agent, sent by Miki (the late, great John Hurt), but give him a free hand in navigating Damascus because they’re sure he will lead them to a more important agent known as The Angel.

One role that’s more interesting than the others belongs to Igal Naor as General Fuad who believes that you can get more information from a captive by warmth and interest than by torture—a technique that by now some Americans, even Gina Haspel allegedly believe as well.  Faud states right out while interrogating a prisoner that he is different from Saraj, that Saraj has been “retired,” and ultimately has something to say about current relations between Syria and Israel that may seem difficult to believe but are probably on the money.

Chloë Tomson filmed this disjointed story in Casablanca, Morocco, which, with its narrow, intriguing alleyways and cobblestone sidewalks make the city a more interesting character than anyone in the picture.

Rated R.  93 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

DOUBTFUL – movie review

DOUBTFUL

Rogovin Brothers
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliran Elya
Screenwriter:  Eliran Elya
Cast:  Ran Danker. Yaakov Aderet, Osher Amara, Liron Ben-Shlush, Elroi Fass, Melodi Frank, Adar Hazazi Gersch, Shaley Girgin, Elad Hudara, Riki Hudara, Eli Menashe, Batel Moseri, Idan Naftali
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/28/18
Opens: June 3, 2018 at the Seattle International Film Festival
Doubtful
You might think that Israeli Jews have enough problems on their hands with Arabs inside Israel, in Gaza and in the West Bank; that they don’t have the time or the inclination to fight among themselves.  This is a doubtful premise.  There is probably not a nation in the world whose people live together in a Shangi La location, and that includes North Korea though we in the West have no idea how those folks get along with one another.  Now Eliran Elva, who wrote the script and directs “Doubtful,” uses the experience he has had with two shorts involving gunplay and the IDF, to give us his freshman full-length feature.  He gives us insight into the lives of people who are not the sort that you see in Israeli posters that show a solidarity of human beings unified by a common religion.  Instead his characters, eleven who are non-professional actors, play out a script about dysfunction in a small desert town in Beersheva.

The youths look like something out of “Blackboard Jungle” or “Precious,” with Ran Danker in the role of Sidney Poitier  and the ineffective Bill Sage respectively.  In this case Danker’s character, Assi, is himself an emotional wreck, sentenced to community service for drunk driving.  At one point he reminisces about his youth, about his failure to fit in, about being alone, playing alone, and now dealing with kids who are more scarred than he is.  His small class of students who in New York might fit into a special education class, are bored with everything except horsing around with each other, and who attend Assi’s new film-making class as a condition of their parole.

Assi will ultimately gain control and respect in the manner of many a movie about teachers perhaps in part because they recognize in him the similarities with themselves.  Though the theme is not a new one, “Doubtful” bears a look from an audience that might consider their own wild ideas and actions when they were younger, seeing at least some part of themselves in the teenagers here.  And the young people do quite a professional job acting out their anxieties and later filming an episode with a student director who yells “cut” with enthusiasm.  In fact Assi takes a special interest in Eden (Adar Hazazi Gersch) whose mother invites the teacher to her abode for some home cooked meals, leading Eden to hope that Assi is in love with her and could become his stepfather.

This is based on a true story, one with a sad ending that involves one character who executed an act far worse that whatever got him into trouble here.  Eliran Elya directs with an appropriately blunt style, encouraging the physicality and even the charm of these roughneck teens.  His script allows a three-dimensional look at the thirty-three year old Assi with some naturalistic scenes including the journey by bus and train from Tel Aviv to Beersheba.

Unrated.  88 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

ITZHAK – movie review

ITZHAK

Greenwich
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Alison Chernick
Cast:  Itzhak Perlman, Toby Perlman, Alan Alda, Amnon Weisntein, Stefan Valcuha, Billy Joel, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman, Evgeny Kissin, the Klezmatics
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/2/18
Opens: March 16, 2018

Itzhak poster

Why do so many Jews play violin? That’s a question dealt with in this intriguing documentary about the career of Itzhak Perlman.  Answer: Because it’s the easiest instrument to carry when you have to run away.  There’s dark humor in that, though a case could be made for the piccolo, but who’s worried about such trivia when you have a film that burrows into the life of one of the greatest violinists of (probably) all time?

Itzhak Perlman, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1945 while it was part of the British mandate of Palestine, had parents who were natives of Poland and who had independently immigrated to Palestine (later Israel) in the mid-1930s.  Lucky parents!  Had they remained in Poland, they would have been shipped into a German concentration camp, and then, no Itzhak.

Perlman is a terrific subject for a documentary like this one because he combines the playing of several classical pieces as though descended from an angel–and for good measure he is a charmer.  And so is his wife Toby, who fell in love with him while still enjoying the benefits of youth.  When they married, Itzhak Perlman is in crutches as he had contacted polico at the age of four.  We see him in this film mostly wheeling himself around in an electric Amigo scooter, and he performs seated whether on the Ed Sullivan show, with Johnny Carson, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, in Lincoln Center, and even in a baseball park where he wows the crowd with his rendition of our National Anthem, shown to the tens of thousands at the game on a huge screen.  (Perlman is a baseball fan who sometimes watches parts of the games during breaks in concerts.)

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice. That’s the watchword that good parents tell their kids when they want them to practice for eight hours a day, but alas, you have to have talent as well if you want to be a concert pianist and you might count on the fingers and toes the number of Americans who have excelled in piano or violin, good enough to play throughout the world as did Perlman.

The film has sometimes been called “Itzhak and Toby” since his charming wife who appears at his side and serves as his muse chats with the movie audience about cooking, about her husband of course, and in groups with their friends where they live on New York’s Upper West Side.  Occasionally Perlman chats with celebrities over tall glasses of red wine, the most endearing being Alan Alda. As the two converse about what it means to grow old, Alda frequently tips his head back and laughs out loud.

The conversations are as compelling as music.  During the all-too-brief 83 minutes, Perlman plays parts from the output of Tchaikowsky, Bruch, Vivaldi, Strauss, Mendelsohn, Mozart, Bach, Schubert and others, particularly enjoying the hours he teaches gifted students such as the young people at the Julliard School in Lincoln Center.

One scene particularly enlightening has Perlman converse with a man who makes his living restoring violins, and of course the word “Stradivarius” will be part of the dialogue as the restorer notes that one violin shown to him by Perlman has a defect that makes it play actually better than one in top condition.

The project features laid-back editing, shifting from Perlman in present days back to his youth where at the age of thirteen he astonished the audience of the Ed Sullivan show, playing with the virtuosity and emotional maturity of a kid who had probably recently been bar-mitzvahed.

Unrated.  83 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-