ADVOCATE – movie review

ADVOCATE

Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Rachel Leah Jones, Philippe Bellaïche
Screenwriter: Rachel Leah Jones
Cast: Lea Tsemel, Michel Warschawski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/21/19
Opens: January 3, 2020 at New York’s Quad Cinema

Advocate (2019)

Some of us in the U.S. are proud to say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but Palestinians and ordinary people in large parts of the world may disagree. It’s true that Israel has a working parliament, the Knesset, with real powers (if the multiple parties could ever agree on anything), but Israel continues to occupy land around surrounding it in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. And while the court system really works, it functions better for some (the Israelis) than for others (the Palestinians). One Palestinian a while back sums up: “Israel has democracy for the Jews, dictatorship for the Palestinians).

Where else, though, can you find an occupier which has lawyers within its borders defending the occupied? Berkeley-born Rachel Leah Jones, who majored in Race, Class and Gender Studies with a graduate degree in Documentary Media Studies, and Parisian Philippe Bellaïche, who has been honored by several awards for his films, focus on Lea Tsemel, that rare Jewish attorney who has spent her career defending Palestinians, has been regularly attacked by her own people who presumably never heard of the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. How does she have the chutzpah to take on cases involving suicide bombers and terrorists? Somebody has to do it. If Palestinians do not put forth a lawyer who can compare with Tsemel in the court, she’s the one to do it. (Aside: Even Eichmann had a trial, but with a German attorney.)

No doubt about it. Documentarians Jones and Bellaïche love Lea Tsemel, who is in virtually every scene, someone whom Americans of a certain age might compare to New York’s late great Bella Abzug. Though she has defended Palestinians for decades, the focus is on two cases. One involves a 13-year-old boy who is arrested for taking part in what the prosecution calls attempted murder. He was an accomplice to the kid who actually stabbed two Israelis of about the same age. He too held a knife and that is what dooms him to face either a few years in a juvenile center or, if he went to trial a considerably longer stretch in an adult prison. Tsemel appears to have convinced the family to take their chances on a trial, given that he did not actually commit the stabbing.

Another case involves a woman who is arrested for terrorism when her car, laden with explosives and apparently meant to cause several killings, blew up accidentally, injuring her. You might think that given the injuries she sustained, the judges might not come down as harshly on her as they would had she succeeded.

As for why Tsemel does what she does though by her own admission she is bound to lose most of her cases, she explains that this is the right thing to do. “After fifty years of occupation” becomes almost her logo. Her long-term husband, Michel Warschawski, also a demonstrator for Palestinian rights, was once given the option: either give up all political relationships with Palestinians and be freed immediately, or suffer years in jail. He chose the latter, largely because of prompting from his wife.

Tsemel believes by implication that were there a two-state solution and the Palestinians had their own country, there would be peace. End of terrorism. Whether she is correct is anybody’s guess, but I’d imagine the typical viewer of this documentary who is pro-Israel even while objecting to the Netanyahu right-wing government would be skeptical.

From time to time the screen is bisected with animation to protect the identities of the advocate’s clients. This is a distraction. One wonders why faces could not be clouded over as they are in American movies. Of course there is an imbalance of power. Has any society in history occupying another ever given equal rights to the conquered?

Lea Tsemel turns out not only to be a fine lawyer (despite losing most of her cases) but an excellent actress, who dominates
proceedings and rivets attention. The film played at a couple of dozen festivals and is scheduled to open January 3, 2020
at NewYork’s Quad Cinema. In Hebrew, Arabic and English.

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

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

RBG – movie review

RBG

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net & Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Cast:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Orrin Hatch, The Notorious B.I.G, Gloria Steinem
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/3/18
Opens: May 4, 2018, Streaming August 28, 2018 and sure to be considered for awards votes beginning 11/29/18.
RBG Movie Poster
With whom on the Supreme Court would you feel most comfortable to have a beer?  Roberts? Alito? Gorsuch, Kavanaugh?  These four may be too conservative, even reactionary for you, assuming that you’re a progressive at heart, but that’s not to say they’re no fun. Remember that progressives and conservatives, even reactionaries, can have good times together. As we see from this biopic, the title character, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had a remarkable friendship with Antonin Scalia though they were polar opposites in their legal ideologies.  They were both opera buffs and even shared an elephant ride in India, quite a bit more time together than just enjoying a Bud Light.  If you’re in your twenties or thirties, you probably can’t imagine sharing much with a woman 85 years old and give or take a couple of inches standing five feet tall, but whenever Justice Ginsburg speak before a group of high-school or college students she generates formidable  electricity.  If you can forget about the recent nomination kerfuffle involving Brett Kavanaugh, it’s possible that RBG is the only Supreme Court Justice that a broad sweep of Americana had even heard of.

Co-director Julie West, known for “American Veteran” (a veteran returns from the wars with serious injurious from an IED in Afghanistan) and Betsy West, at the helm of “The Lavender Scare” (President Eisenhower determines that homosexuals are a security risk) are able to express their progressive views again, teaming up for the picture with what will probably be the shortest title this year.
And the picture is a doozy.  If you expect some solemn, government-issued coverage of one of nine Supreme Court justices, you are happily mistaken, because Cohen and West make sure to capture some of the key comic moments of Ginsburg’s life.

To be sure, some portions of the movie will deal with cases that were turning points in American jurisprudence, giving Ginsburg the opportunity to write dissenting opinions with the one-after-another 5-4 rulings.  Most of all, though, the documentarians, who have caught key moments in her life, make this quite an entertainment while grounded in the RBG as a human being.  Chief among her views is that men and women should be considered equal, getting the same pay for the same work and the same chances for promotions.  It should be obvious to all that anything less than such equality is beyond the pale, yet in the case of Frontiero v. Richardson in 1973, a married woman had to fight the U.S. Air Force to get the same housing benefits as her male colleagues.  In United States v. Virginia, a 1996 case held that women must be admitted to the Virginia Military Institute, or VMI.  What woman even today would not appreciate given the choice of dating classmates when outnumbered by men by some 50 to 1?

The film quickly covers her childhood in Brooklyn, New York, her high-school days, and the higher education which allowed RBG to practice law and to climb the ladder to sit with the highest court in the land.  Martin Ginsburg, her late husband, comes across as her leading cheerleader, which may have helped them to enjoy a marriage lasting over half a century.  A Saturday Night Live sketch highlights Kate McKinnon’s gleefully impersonating RBG lifting weights, and so constantly in motion that she is virtually break dancing. And in fact to this day she works out in a gym with a trainer who gets her to 20 pushups at a time while a couple of women approaching her age joke that they could probably not be able even to get up from the floor—or even to get down to the floor!

As a badge of honor she was criticized by President Trump for saying that in effect the man is unqualified to sit in the Oval Office, and while not mentioned in this film, she joked that she might consider moving to New Zealand if he became President.  Caricatures show her as Wonder Woman and other Marvel heroes, roles you would not expect for such a slight, quiet, woman, unassuming—that is until she shows her teeth in trashing some of the Supreme Court majority opinions that set the country back to the bad old days, according to progressives.  She pulled no punches while interviewed by the Senate, which had the power to confirm or withhold Bill Clinton’s nomination of the woman, holding that women should have reproductive rights.  Such a viewpoint in 2018 would probably have a nominee rejected by the world’s most prestigious club, yet she was confirmed 96-3.

It’s a pleasure to take in the full-of-life biopic of the Court’s most vivid, celebrated, and revered woman.

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

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