Posted by Larry Mark
By Larry Mark
Park City’s Main Street is now home to a hummus and nouvelle-Israeli cuisine restaurant, which was so filled each evening during Sundance, that one was unable to get a reservation prior to 9 p.m. It had previously been located a few miles from the town center. Main Street was also home to several Israeli films and shorts, as well as a place to visit for other filmmakers with Israeli roots.
“The Messenger,” which premiered here this week, is an American war story by Oren Moverman, who was born and raised in Israel and moved to the United States after his army service. The film stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as two soldiers affected and scarred by their service, and currently working towards redemption as “messengers” who must inform next of kin that their loved ones have been killed in action. Working for the Casualty Notification Office is an honorable but stress-filled assignment that is guided by specific, unbreakable rules and methods. Between notifications, these two soldiers form a bond that helps them as they struggle to get back to “normalcy.”
At the premiere, Moverman said that no matter how noble their task, the role of these soldiers is among the toughest in the army; he likened it to serving as “two angels of death.” Soldiers would rather be in combat than in this assignment, which is currently being transformed by the Pentagon.
The film is not about the actual casualties, but the people who must continue living after a loved one is killed. One the of soldier characters, who is looking for a new reason to live after surviving the death of his friends, faces a dilemma when he is attracted to one of the young widows, now a single parent.
Producer Alessandro Camon developed the idea for the film in response to the lack of information on the real messengers who bring the consequences of war to families.
Moverman, who co-wrote Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There,” and collaborated with Ira Sachs on the films “Married Life” and the upcoming “The Goodbye People,” took on “The Messenger’s” directorial duties after Ben Affleck bowed out of the project.
Moverman said the script was a way to deal with his own “military experience demons” from Israel, where he was aware of casualty notifications, but never personally experienced them. The late Sydney Pollack, whom Moverman praised as a “one of a kind, real teacher,” was initially involved with the project because he liked its taboo love story, but bowed out as the plot began to focus more on the relationship between the two soldiers.
Viewers who watch closely will notice that one of the families notified of a husband‘s death, the Cohens, display a mezuzah on their front door.
Another Sundance premiere was “Zion and His Brother,” an Israeli-French production that deals with social issues rather than war. As mentioned in an earlier posting, this sibling drama by Eran Merav (“Underdogs”) revolves around 14-year-old Zion (Reuven Badalov), who is constantly fighting with his 17-year-old brother, Meir (Ofer Hayun). The boys live in a poor area of Haifa with their 35-year-old mother, Ilana (Ronit Elkabetz of “The Band’s Visit,” and “Late Marriage”); they wait each week for a call from their estranged father at a neighborhood pay phone. Also present is Ilana’s current boyfriend, who is pressuring her to choose between him and her children.
A train passes behind the neighborhood buildings every 20 minutes, but no one ever waits for it, and it never stops. The weather is hot and sticky, and the sun mercilessly parches the landscape. When an even lower-class son of Ethiopian immigrants, an outsider living among outsiders, is killed in an accident, Zion must decide whether he should keep certain details about the incident a secret. This coming-of-age film has created a good amount of “buzz” for its story and cinematography; the atmosphere of isolation is enhanced by images of identical apartment buildings cutting residents off from the sea.
Merav attended both the Camera Obscura and Sam Spiegel School of TV and Film and is an alumnus of the Sundance Lab, which helped him to hone his screenplay and directorial skills. He filled his script with real-life conversations he remembered overhearing while growing up in the poor area of Kiryat Yam; because that neighborhood has since been gentrified, he said he shot the movie in a decrepit area north of Haifa.
After his first three Sundance screenings, no one asked any political questions, which surprised Merav. He had expected at least a query or two about the current situation in Gaza, and was prepared to lend his opinions, but the questions instead focused on the movie’s production, casting, and the phenomenon of brothers in general.
Merav said he intends the movie to tell a universal story of an alienated immigrant society filled with despair and on the edge of economic catastrophe. “It has no specific place of language,” he said. “It could take place in any country of the world.”
“Bait,” a 12-minute short by Michal Vinik, was selected to screen with Merav‘s film at Sundance. The short revolves around about a tomboy named Nitzan, who plans to go out for a day of fishing near her home in the environs of Ashdod—but ends up accompanying her sister to the beach. They hitchhike and are given a ride by a Filipino guest worker who is heading to a nearby moshav. He joins them for an afternoon of swimming, tanning and more. The audience if left to determine exactly what Nitzan is fishing for.
Vinik graduated from the Film and Television Department at Tel Aviv University and now teaches screenwriting at Tel Aviv University’s Minshar School of Art and the Beit Berl Academic College
She told me she also prepared for questions about Gaza at the screenings. But none came. She did, however, have several private conversations at parties and welcomed those opportunities because they provided time to discuss and get her point across. Because both “Bait” and “Zion and His Brother” are coming-of-age stories about teens, I asked Vinik if she saw this as a trend in Israeli cinema. Her answer was “No.” The emerging trend, in her opinion, is the phenomenon of Israeli women obtaining more work as writers and directors.
While nearly all American Jewish film festival programmers know about the short films from Camera Obscura, the Sam Spiegel School of TV and Film, and the Ma’ale School, fewer are aware of the student films from Tel Aviv University. A representative from that school, Rachel Wallach, visited Sundance this year in an effort to improve the awareness of the program, which is called the Yolanda and David Katz school. She was also a figure on Main Street, distributing flyers and pamphlets about the program.
For more information contact the Sundance site.
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January 23, 2009 | 8:59 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Things are not going smoothly for SAG President Alan Rosenberg. He’s been trying, unsuccessfully, to unify his guild in order to renegotiate actor contracts. On the eve of the SAG awards, set for this Sunday, The Hollywood Reporter is forecasting “turmoil ahead”:
Since the Screen Actors Guild officially rejected the AMPTP’s “final offer” last July, SAG president Alan Rosenberg has been a man under siege, enduring an endless barrage of attacks on his character and his competence. He’s lost weight and many hours of sleep.
While viewers will be focused on the stars at Sunday’s 15th annual SAG Awards, insiders will be watching Rosenberg, studying his body language, seeing if he is in any mood to compromise. As for Rosenberg, he’ll have to break bread with some of his mortal enemies. His mood may be even blacker than his tie.
Friday was meant to be the day that Rosenberg was going to find out if guild members would support his request for strike authorization. Instead, he and his main ally, chief negotiator Doug Allen, had to delay sending out the ballots at press time, following pressure from dissenting board members who even tried to have Allen ousted. The strike-authorization vote could be tabled for good and replaced by a possible vote on AMPTP’s previously discarded June 30 contract proposal.
“We have people on our board—even on our negotiating committee—who have vowed never to strike again, from now until the end of time,” Rosenberg complains. “They’ll do anything to demonize me and demonize Doug.”
What Rosenberg’s future will be if he doesn’t win this battle is anyone’s guess. He has managed to infuriate the men who lord over Hollywood and split a guild that has usually been supportive of its leaders. No matter what the cost to his own career, he remains convinced about the rightness of the negotiating points he has so long defended—especially how much the other side should pay for new media.
“They’re going to change from one platform—where they have to pay actors—to another one where they don’t,” he insists. “And they’re using the bad economy and the Writers Guild strike to scare the hell out of our members. And that’s a shame.”
January 23, 2009 | 7:10 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It’s no secret—Hollywood loves the Holocaust. It’s this ever-flowing well of stories that are tragic, dramatic, ethnic and historic; the perfect Oscar bait. This awards season (as A.O. Scott declared, two months ago, in his story “Never Forget. You’re Reminded,”) was no exception. Movie theaters would be, as he put it, “overrun with Nazis.”
A minor incursion of this sort is an annual Oscar-season tradition, but 2008 offers an abundance of peaked caps and riding breeches, lightning-bolt collar pins and swastika armbands, as an unusually large cadre of prominent actors assumes the burden of embodying the most profound and consequential evil of the recent past.
David Thewlis, playing a death camp commandant in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” will be joined by Willem Dafoe, who takes on a similar role in “Adam Resurrected,” Paul Schrader’s new film. In “The Reader,” directed by Stephen Daldry and based on Bernhard Schlink’s best-selling novel of the same name, Kate Winslet plays a former concentration camp guard tried for war crimes. Tom Cruise, the star of Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie,” wears the uniform of the Third Reich though his character, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, was not a true-believing Nazi but rather a patriotic German military officer involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Yesterday after Oscar nominations were announced, the trusty Carpetbagger pointed out that Kate Winslet’s nomination for “The Reader” (in which she plays a sexy, illiterate Nazi) won out over her performance in “Revolutionary Road” (in which she plays a sexy, suburban housewife). Conclusion? The Holocaust is just more interesting.
The suggestion that the Holocaust has a massive draw on the Academy picked up a lot of traction today on Wilshire Blvd. Critics and Oscar pundits were far more smitten by her role as a tragic suburban housewife in “Revolutionary Road,” but it was her turn as a former concentration camp guard with a thing for a young man that ended in the money.
Indeed, Winslet’s performance was the best thing about “The Reader.” And although I haven’t seen Revolutionary Road, having read the book, know the unrelenting power of its dialogue. For an actor, does material get much better than Richard Yates? ? And, since it was Winslet who pushed the novel into production, I can only imagine the depths she plumbed to unearth the repressed desires of one of the darkest female characters ever written.
None of this is new. It took Steven Spielberg directing Schindler’s List to finally win his Oscar, even though he had already been nominated five times (three for best director and two for best picture). Unsurprisingly, it was the Holocaust film that enabled him to prove his artistic legitimacy. Before that, he had only directed Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, three Indiana Jones films, E.T., The Color Purple and Jurassic Park—you know, easy, unsophisticated stuff. Even for Spielberg, a Hollywood icon, it was the heavy-hearted Holocaust film that made people comfortable calling him a legend.
This zombie-like blindness to other good material results from what Scott calls a “morbid preoccupation” with the Holocaust. Up against burning smokestacks and murdered children, an ordinary housewife just won’t do. And he wonders whether the moral imperative to “never forget” means there is unlimited scope and scale to the ways the Holocaust might be exploited (anyone see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?):
The moral imperatives imposed by the slaughter of European Jews are Never Again and Never Forget, which mean, logically, that the story of the Holocaust must be repeated again and again. But the sheer scale of the atrocity — the six million extinguished lives and the millions more that were indelibly scarred, damaged and disrupted — suggests that the research, documentation and imaginative reconstruction, the building of memorials and museums, the writing of books and scripts, no matter how scrupulous and exhaustive, will necessarily be partial, inadequate and belated. And this tragic foreknowledge of insufficiency, which might be inhibiting, turns out, on the contrary, to spur the creation of more and more material.
If the point is to catch up with the 6,000,000 people who perished, than Holocaust regurgitation through art does seem an awfully inadequate equivalency test. But what of psychological reckoning? It’d be easy to dismiss the compulsivity with which the Holocaust is interminably etched onto our subconscious as some neurotic tendency. And yet, one of the functions of art (if one agrees art has utility) is that it has the power to motivate change. Could we, just for a second, consider that the creation and subsequent experience of all this Holocaust material is actually what heals us?
January 23, 2009 | 4:17 am
Posted by Larry Mark
By Larry Mark
On Thursday morning, I awoke early to watch the Oscar nominations, and grabbed a bagel at a Park City bagelry. Yes, they have bagels everywhere now. I also checked out two feature films with Palestinian themes: “Amreeka” and “Pomegranates and Myrrh,” which touch on the Middle East conflict in very different ways.
“Amreeka,” the feature film debut of Cherien Dabis, chronicles a Palestinian family’s journey from the Middle East to the Diaspora of post-September 11 Illinois. Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) is a divorced, single parent struggling to remain optimistic and make a new life for herself and her teenaged son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem). When she obtains a green card to work in the United States, she makes the difficult decision to give America a try, staying with her sister and her sister’s family.
The film begins with checkpoints, first Israeli ones, and next an American one. In one memorable scene, a U.S. immigration officer asks Muna her name and nationality. When he queries, “Occupation?” Muna misunderstands and replies, “Yes, occupied for 40 years,” rather than that her former job was in a bank.
With humor, nostalgia, sadness, and authenticity, Dabis creates an absorbing story of immigration and struggle. Muna secretly takes a job at White Castle, while Fadi must confront racism at school, where classmates call him “fatty” and “Osama” and taunt him as an outsider and possible terrorist. Muna’s brother-in-law, a physician, begins to lose patients since he is Arab American, and the family falls behind in its mortgage payments. Neighbors look at the family with suspicion. Joseph Ziegler plays Mr. Novatski, the compassionate high school principal, who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
Dabis said the film was inspired by her own family’s experiences. After two screenings, each with standing ovations, she related how she was born in Celina, OH, the daughter of Palestinian-Jordanian parents who immigrated to the United States and settled in the Midwest. Her father, a pediatrician, became a local hero due to the lives he had saved. Yet during the Gulf War, he lost patients, and even as the father of five daughters, he was falsely rumored to have a son who was fighting against coalition forces in Iraq.
As art, or film, imitates life, Cherien’s older sister was falsely accused in high school of plotting against President George W. Bush, which generated a visit to the school by the U. S. Secret Service. The hysteria and investigation was halted only after intervention by the relatively sane high school principal.
I asked Dabis why she decided to make the character of the principal Jewish. Mainly, she said, she needed a fellow divorcé who could relate to Muna on her level, be sympathetic, and draw out her charm and her love for her son. Further, the principal’s Jewish-American background parallels Muna’s experience of immigration and displacement.
“Pomegranates and Myrrh” explores the life of a Palestinian woman making her way between traditional expectations and modern opportunities. The drawback is that the film shows Israeli soldiers and prison guards as one-dimensional, shouting, roughnecks.
The drama opens near an olive grove, east of Jerusalem, on the day of Zaid and Kamar’s wedding. After Zaid prepares, he and his family travel to Jerusalem to a church for the ceremony. Along the way, they must pass Israeli checkpoints, where the tension is palpable. Writer-director Najwa Najjar includes long shots of the barrier wall throughout the film, reinforcing to keen observers the “situation.”
After the wedding, we see that Kamar is a free-spirited dancer, while Zaid runs his family’s olive oil business. But their honeymoon bliss is interrupted when the Israeli Army confiscates their land, charging that someone in the grove had thrown a stone at an Israeli patrol. Zaid is accused of threatening a soldier during the ensuing scuffle and is arrested and placed in administrative detention at Ofer Prison near Ramallah. The film shows him being interrogated and abused.
The grove is surrounded by barbed wire and a handful of Jewish settlers arrive, erect a flag and a tent and squat on the property. The family’s residence is vandalized and covered in Stars of David.
During this time, a new dance choreographer, Kais, arrives from Lebanon and takes a forbidden interest in Kamar, who wants to be a supportive wife to her incarcerated husband, but does not want to give up her dancing. Kais is the son of a Palestinian fighter, and, at age 10, was a witness to the massacres by the supporters of Bashir Gemayal in 1982. He lives for the moment and is without hope. By teaching the local dance troupe new steps, he is a symbol of the changing society and the conflict with new dance forms. He oversteps his authority and garners the wrath of Yusef, who has run the troupe for decades and wants to stay within the strictures of classical Palestinian folk dance.
Lea Tsemel, a well-known Israeli human right lawyer, plays the blunt, realistic, Israeli attorney hired to fight the land confiscation and Zaid’s incarceration.
For more information, visit the Sundance site.
January 22, 2009 | 3:52 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
An Israeli film on the first Lebanon War and an American-German movie recalling World War II crimes entered the final lap of the Oscar race when the Academy Award nominations were announced Thursday morning.
“Waltz with Bashir” by Israeli director Ari Folman was picked among the five finalists for best foreign-language film, along with entries from Austria, France, Germany and Japan.
With a Golden Globe win and best picture of 2008 pick by the National Society of Film Critics already on its resume, “Waltz” is favored to take home Israel’s first-ever Oscar.
The edgy film combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war theme and a psychoanalytical approach in portraying the struggle of a traumatized Israeli soldier trying to recover the memories of his 1980s combat experiences in Lebanon.
The agonies of a different war dominate “The Reader,” which starts with a teenage boy’s affair with an older woman and ends with the latter convicted as an SS concentration camp guard during World War II.
Unexpectedly, “The Reader” garnered five nominations, indicating the continuing fascination by filmmakers (and their publics) with Holocaust-related themes. The nominations are in the prestige categories of best picture, director (Stephen Daldry) and actress (Kate Winslet), as well as cinematography and adapted screenplay.
One competitor to the Israeli entry in the foreign-language picture category is Germany’s “The Baader-Meinhof Complex.” The docudrama looks back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when the West German “Red Army Faction” went on a murderous rampage against some of its leading countrymen as alleged “tools of American and Israeli imperialists.”
Britain’s Mike Leigh was nominated in the best screenplay category for his film, Happy-go-Lucky, while Sam Mendes got a nod for costume design for his film Revolutionary Road.
Overall, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” topped the field with 13 nominations.
The Academy Award ceremonies will be held Feb. 22 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
January 22, 2009 | 2:42 am
Posted by Larry Mark
By Larry Mark
Whether it’s because of the inauguration or the economy, Park City seems eerily empty, the lines small, and the buzz relatively low. In terms of anti-buzz, the rumor is that the comedy, “Manure,” had such a poor premiere that the scheduled press screening tonight was cancelled. The film, directed by Michael Polish and written by Mark and Michael Polish, revolves around a manure salesperson in the 1960s and stars Tea Leoni, Billy Bob Thornton and Kyle MacLachlan. After the premiere, the audience—in a venue that holds more than 1,000 – reportedly had no questions, so Thornton began answering a question he asked himself, and directed his answer to an imaginary audience member whom he pretended had asked it.
Speaking of things imaginary, there is much talk each year of the hookup scene during Sundance. I recall one year, I sat next to a woman who told me of her experience at a previous festival. She met a fellow Angelino in the industry, had a brief affair, but when they returned to LA, she was persona non grata to him. It seems the mountain air gives people more license to toy with emotions and break down the barriers of industry caste levels. But in 2009, the well is dry, from what I hear.
To test this hypothesis, I posted an online personal ad this week in Park City. I invited any woman to meet a Jewish New Yorker in town for a film or beverage. I received 17 replies in the course of a week. Sixteen were from prostitutes and porn sites, and one was from a young woman working as a babysitter in a local resort. A friend of mine from Southern California posted a similar ad and got fewer, but more sane replies, although none were of interest to him.
Even so, just walking around Park City with a credential badge that says “journalist” and “Jewish Journal” has its benefits, since filmmakers and publicists will find me and pitch the most unique (read, Jewish) elements of their films. One publicist mentioned that her film’s director was accidentally bar mitzvahed during a visit to a shul as a teenager. I will investigate this. A second filmmaker told me he is Jewish and his two most avid YouTube fans are two Israeli Jewish teens, and at the same time, two other fans are rabid anti-Jewish Muslim teens. I told him to get all four together and make a documentary about the meeting.
An international director confided in me that he is Jewish, but with an Persian surname; while another explained that she was an Iraqi Jew who was born in New Delhi and now resides in London. Yet another director told me that her short is about the late gay, Jewish activist Harvey Milk; it focuses on the tape recording Milk made as Shabbat approached in his camera shop, discussing his wishes and desires should he be assassinated. (The recording is featured as a book-ending kind of plot device in “Milk,” the biopic starring Sean Penn, which will likely receive multiple Oscar nominations tomorrow morning). The message, in short: There are Jewish filmmakers everywhere.
For more information, visit the Sundance site.
January 21, 2009 | 5:39 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I have a confession: I’m watching this video thinking, ‘Ron Howard looks cute in a beanie.’ I can’t help it. There he is, gabbing about Barack Obama and the “death of cynicism” and all that, and I’m thinking, ‘I wish my boyfriend would groom his beard like Ron Howard.’ Scruffy but defined, light and sweet. Qualitatively, it’s the sheer opposite of Howard’s recent filmmaking—A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost, Nixon—which are deep, darkish and meticulously storied. Whereas, his earlier work more closely resembles his appearance as a nice (red-haired) Jewish boy. Remember Happy Days? Or Splash (with a young Tom Hanks at his most Hanks-ish)? And who could forget the irrepressible diarrhea song that immortalized Parenthood? Light and funny, like the beard.
As a completely tangential aside: I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that, besides our mutual and devoted penchant for Russell Crowe, my very favorite Ron Howard product has to be “Felicity,” the short-lived WB show that got me through high school and college (its prolonged run the result of my compulsive purchase of all four seasons on DVD). This is because, as any gal who’s ever made a terrifically misguided decision for love of a boy will tell you, Felicity ruled.
January 20, 2009 | 10:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Only President Obama’s celebrity could outshine his most ardent Hollywood supporters. Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman, Jay-Z, JLo and Beyonce are just a few of the stars who fled the nation’s capital for today’s historic inauguration. And they weren’t the only ones: an estimated two million people swarmed the National Mall to hear Obama’s prosaic speech about remaking America.
Even Spielberg quipped, “I couldn’t afford to do this shot in a movie.”
The Telegraph notes the celebrity quotient as a distinction in how America celebrates:
Unlike a British coronation, foreign monarchs, presidents and prime ministers were not invited to the inauguration, in keeping with tradition, although ambassadors from around the world were present to represent their countries.
So while the Brits pride themselves on the stuffy, civilized nature of their politics, the presence of America’s celebrities evinces a thing or two about American cultural values. Yet irrespective of our celebrity worship, wasn’t it nice that for one day, we got to see our larger-than-life superstars as part of our collective American identity? Today their star power couldn’t outshine Obama’s, so they became, simply, citizens.