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Thread: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2019

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    WHAT SHE SAID; THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL (Rob Garver 2019)

    ROB GARVER: WHAT SHE SAID: THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL (2019) CAPSULE


    PAULINE KAEL

    And she said a hell of a lot

    Even if you have read a lot of Kael's movie criticism, there is a lot to learn about her. You realize she grew up when there were still silents. The menial jobs she had. That she had a child with the experimental filmmaker James Broughton. Paul Schrader said she was his second mother. What does that mean? That she was important. For a film reviewer who loves film reviews, she was unique. Those who ween't around when her reviews were being published can't imagine what it was like. Seeing this film will help them figure it out. She was smart, she was provocative (she could dare to be cruel), she was passionate, she had a huge memory of film. There's been nobody who's come close since.

    What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael ((2019), debuted at Telluride in Aug. 2018 and has shown at 18 festivals. It was screened for this comment (not a review) as part of the SFJFF (July 18-Aug. 4, 2019)
    Showtimes:
    Saturday July 20, 2019, 4 pm, CineArts
    Sunday July 28 12 pm Castro Theater
    Sunday August 4, 4:05 pm Piedmont Theater
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-27-2019 at 11:42 PM.

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    CARL LAEMMLE (James Freedman 2018)

    JAMES FREEDMAN: CARL LAEMMLE (2018)'



    A great Hollywood motion picture story

    ThOS is a slick promotional documentary film history narrated by great-grandniece, Antonia Carlotta Laemmle and by Bob Balaban and Peter Bogdonovich and several film historians. It sells us on the idea that Carl Laemmle is the seminal Hollywood personality we should all know about. As the director of Universal Studios (founded in Fort Lee, NJ in 1912, when he was 45), he was responsible for having 11 female directors working at one time, and sent out a movie with an African American woman and a Caucasian woman as business partners. With Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, he fostered a "humanizing" of monsters. The film goes back to Karl's emigration - sent by his father - to the US in the 1880's at the age of 17, and gradual progression of many jobs, starting as an errand boy in New York, then later for a while in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which had a big majority of Germans. At first, he had spoken virtually no English.

    Then at some point he began renting and selling films, starting out at that in Chicago, becoming a movie man, getting investors because of his entrepreneurial charisma. We learn of the monopolistic and manipulative business practices of Edison and Eastman in the early days of filmmaking - and of the fight of Laemmle and the other independents to compete with Edison's controlling "Trust." Edison exploited actresses; Laemmle stole them away and promoted them by their own names, such as Mary Pickford and Florence Lawrence, starting the star system, then founded his "Universal Studios." Edison sought to dominate the market by suing his rivals for patent violations. He sued Laemmle 289 times, but lost every time. The move from New York to California was partly done to get away from the eastern courts and under a more anti-trust regime. Also the sunny weather and 200 acres of a San Fernando Valley chicken ranch for the studios - which could still give eggs to visitors who paid for a studio tour to watch films being made.

    Trouble came for Laemmle's Universal in the wave of anti-German fervor during WWI. German internment camps were set up - supervised by a young J. Edgar Hoover and Laemmle wound up making anti-German propaganda films for the government starring Erich von Stroheim as a negative stereotype. Yet Laemmle maintained his warm relationship with his beloved hometown in Germany, Laupheim. which didn't condemn him for the anti-German films and even named a street for him - Lämmlestrasse (hie original German name was Karl Lämmle).

    Universal was perhaps the biggest studio in the world in the silent film era. In the late Twenties, Laemmle's son Carl Jr. took over management of the studio. He hired the son of a neighbor at his summer home in Edgemere, New York and made him his secretary: Irving Thalberg. Thalberg had a congenital heart disease and did't live beyond he age of 37, but he was brilliant, and became the "Boy Wonder" of movie production and discovered stars such as Rudolf Valentino, Stan Laurel, and Lon Chaney. He also became the model of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. Lois Weber was an important, activist director. Between 1912 and 1919 women directed 200 mostly feature films at Universal. Laemmle's trust and risk taking got him two major Oscar winner directors, John Ford and William Wyler (the latter imported from Mulhouse, northeastern France).

    Laemmle's extraordinary nepotism- he had 70 relatives on the payroll at one point - culminated in hiring his son Junior as studio director, but Junior was hard working and talented. He pushed asked Westerns and slapstick and brought in monster movies, prizewinning ones like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, The Man Who Laughs plus Dracula and Frankenstein.

    This film has a lot to say about the Thirties and the rise of HItler, which made Laemmle pull out of Germany professionally and personally (while other studios didn't). The great pacifist hit All Quiet on the Western Front was a key moment, driven out of the theater by Hitler's Storm Troupers. Then Laemmle Senior began focusing on the project of getting his many relatives - and lots of other Jews - out of NaziGermany. The Nazis were happy to see them go; the trouble was, they were not welcome elsewhere. He got them into America by giving them jobs at Universal. By 1936 Carl and Junior were forced out of Universal due to financial failures and neither made any more movies. Uncle Carl had done a lot of good. He died of a hart attack in 1939 at 72. Against difficult odds, he had saved 300 Jewish families from Nazi Germany. This seems like a labor of live by William J. Freedman, whose only other feature is the HBO bio Glickman about Marty Glickman, the first jock turned sportscaster, who faced anti-semitism in the Thirties to become outstanding in a new field. Like Laemmle. This walks us back over a bigger set of events.

    Carl Laemmle, 90 mins., debuted at Miami Jewish Film Festival Jan 2019, also playing at Toronto Jewish Film Festival and the San Francisco one, at which it was screened for this review.
    SFJFF showtimes:
    Friday July 19, 2019 11 am Castro
    Sat July 20 11:30 a.m. CineArts
    Sat July 27 12 pm Albany Twin
    Fri. Aug 2 2 pm Smith Rafael
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-17-2019 at 06:51 PM.

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    ECHO הד’ (Amikam Kovner, Assaf Snir 2018)

    AMIKAM KOVNER, ASSAF SNIR: ECHO הד’ /HED (2018)


    YAËL ABERCASSIS AND YORAM TOLEDANO IN ECHO

    Home surveillance

    In this Israeli film with a "noirish tone" (Hannah Brown in The Jerusalem Post) set in Haifa, Avner (Yoram Toledano), a chief engineer on the Carmel Tunnels project, discovers through a traffic report with a photo that his wife Ella (Yaël Abecassis), a shrink, may be having an affair.

    Rather than confronting her, he spies on her by recording her phone conversations. As he listens over and over to these recordings, more and more - the movie wants to tell us - he comes to find his wife a stranger, their relationship a mystery. A Hebrew comment on Letterboxd says "A lot of genre, but it's a great movie." Regretfully, I must disagree. It's not enough genre, and despite interesting ingredients, doesn't generate sufficient excitement and winds up feeling flat. When Avner tells his two kids he has been "very angry" at their mother we realize we didn't feel that anger. He has to tell us, and he's telling us too late.

    The directing team, who were working together for the first time, say they were inspired by Hitchcock's Vertigo, Coppola's The Conversation, and Kieslowski's Red. Excactly the trouble is that they're playing with a few too many ingredients, and the dish they've served up hasn't the strong clear, satisfying taste of that rare thing, neo-noir. "Noirish" it is, but that winds up being like slightly pregnant.

    The opening shot is pointed and suggestive: a tunnel, one of the ones on the underground traffic shortcut network Avner is working on, and an explosion. It's a punchy intro. A little bit obvious, of course: Avner is going to be tunneling into the secrets of his marriage, and he's going to take apart its security and its structure forever. He is - spoiler alert - going to find out who his wife Ella was having an affair with. But she has disappeared from the action halfway through, muting the tensions. (This situation may have taken a hint by the Israeli film The Cakemaker by Ofir Raul Graizer, with its jointly aggrieved spouse and secret lover.)

    Nothing about the phone conversations Avner records particularly stands out, not do they, like Coppola's film, have a quality of unfolding mystery. But he does do detective work, with some plausibility unraveling the chain of events that led Ella to meet the other man a little over a year earlier. Only the unfolding of this lacks the sense of drama and danger that accompany real noir.

    The contrast between the steely, macho Abecassis (a cross between George Clooney and Boris Karloff) and the soft, unassertive Guri Alfi who plays the lover, hints at a pulpy effectiveness. The movie presents its upper middle class milieu suavely. The posh modern apartments, the glamorous birthday picnic, the roughhousing at the gym and Avner's anger at his sexy young coworker-pal Shay (Tsahi Halevi) when he advocates serial adultery. The key subplot of Ella's lost patient and his senile mother in care; the misconceptions of the cute, well brought up kids, Tali (Ron Zimmerman) and Dafna (Tamar Zur). The subtle widescreen images, equally glamorizing landscape and interior. This is sophisticated filmmaking with a consistently polished surface. But it lacks an edge, even a muted scream. It has so many possibilities, but it winds up disappointing.

    Echo/ הד’ (Hed), 92 mins., debuted at Jerusalem July 2018, and is showing at 19 Jewish film festivals. It was screened for this review at the San Francisco one.
    SFJFF showtimes:
    Friday July 19, 2019 3:40 at the Castro
    Mon. July 33 8:30 at CineArts
    Sat. July 27 8:50 at Albany Twin
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-18-2019 at 12:30 PM.

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    ABE (Fernando Grostein Andrade 2019)

    FERNANDO GROSTEIN ANDRADE: ABE (2019)


    NOAH SCHNAPP IN ABE

    Mixed cuisine

    If you are not too demanding, this Sundance film may provide charming entertainment. But the trouble with it is that while geared ostensibly to youthful audiences, it contains political conflicts too bitter and intense to be pleasant or understandable for them, while the rest of the content is too simplistic for adults. The idea is reconciliation of family differences through cooking.

    Noah Schnapp, "Will" in the series "Stranger Things," has sweetness, earnestness and charm in the lead role of one of those budding boy genius chef types who are popping up all over now. Flynn McGarry of the documentary Chef Flynn was about this age, just turned twelve, when he started his at-home subscription supper clubs. Abe, aka Abraham, Avi, Avram, or Ibrahim, isn't quite that ambitious yet. But when his parents try to send him to a Mickey Mouse summer cooking class for kids, he runs off and begs Chico (musician turned actor Seu Jorge), an Afro-Brazilian fusion chef, to mentor him. The apprenticeship segment is the film's simplest and best, when Abe has to wash pots and pans and put out the garbage, then gradually has his talent recognized and is granted an official apron.

    The danger is that this will be construed as child labor, or something, or simply that, out of character, Abe is lying to his parents and doing this in secret.

    Abe is a fusion dish himself. His father is Palestinian, his mother Israeli, and their Brooklyn household is frequently visited by all four in-laws. And they don't get along whenever politics is mentioned, which it is whenever they sit down together. Abe's effort to do a Jewish-Arab cuisine fusion meal for Thanksgiving, with a roast turkey which is neither, is such a diplomatic nightmare among parents and in-laws he runs away to Chico, and the stress of his disappearance unites the family's two sides. It's all very emotional and cute - and manipulative and fake. The versatile character actor Mark Margolis of "Breaking Bad" stands out as Benjamin, the macho Israeli grandad, who wants only for Abe to have his bar mitzvah and be an observant Jew. The boy's Palestinian-American father Amir (Arian Moayed) is an atheist. One feels for a kid pulled in so many conflicting religio-ethnic directions. But the treatment of this situation isn't realistic or specific enough to take seriously, even though the one big mealtime fight is disturbingly bitter.

    I noticed that Josiah Hughes of Exclaim.ca finds the "online" visuals, meant to be trendy, used to depict on screen Abe's Internet food researches "through a series of zany hashtags, Impact-font memes and Tumblr notifications" is really retro, "the sort of outdated web interfaces that suggest Andrade [the director] "hasn't seen the internet since 2011." I simply saw them as annoying, as it always is when a film throws a mass of barely legible on screen crap at us to "read," when we actually can't.

    The point of this stuff is valid though: to show how today's middle class American kid lives a life of Facebook and Tumblr and Tweets, when temporary "grounding" deprivation from his smartphone and laptop is worse than observing Ramadan. Abe admits he has few real friends, only online ones. Unfortunately whether or not ABe's web navigations are up to date, the massive amount of food porn fails to pay off, because the cuisine is too eclectic to be readable, or look appetizing.

    Another aspect that eluded me is the music. Joe Bendel of of the movie review blog J.B.Spins knowledgeably lists the rich variety of Brazilian pieces that provide the soundtrack, including cast member Seu Jorge doing several songs, including one by the late Caetano Veloso, plus Tulipa Ruiz doing a number, and the film's "musical supervisor" Jaques Mandelbaum doing cello arrangements of Jobim. In the context I can't agree with Bendel that these "sound fantastic" because they wind up sounding schmaltzy, a part of the film's effort to manipulate our emotions. This, plus the various interesting actors, are indications that there are good materials here, waiting to be edited into a more effective whole.

    Abe, 85 mins., debuted January 2019 at Sundance, playing also at Montclair. This is the 38-year-old Brazilian-born director's feature debut. The screenplay was penned by Arab-American theater director Lameece Issaq. It was screened for this review as part of the SFJFF.
    SFJFF showtimes:
    Saturday July 20, 2019 11:15 am Castro
    Sun., July 28 11 am Albany Twin


    TRAILER
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-20-2019 at 01:08 AM.

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    SAFE SPACES (Daniel Schechter 2019)

    DANIEL SCHECHTER: SAFE SPACES (2019)


    JUSTIN LONG (LEFT) IN SAFE SPACES

    Plea for compassion - but what about taste?

    A jejune but eager, up to date, and assertive "writing" teacher called Josh Cohen (Justin Long) who the festival blurb calls "a 38-year-old Brooklyn man-child" is an adjunct creative writing professor in New York City who tells a girl student in class to "write what hurts," which in this case turns out to be to describe a date where the boy asked her to let him jerk off on her butt and she did. The premise and scenes feel like the hip HBO anthology series "High Maintenance" except this is about a subject that's become trite of late: political correctness. While everybody uses foul language - college students in front of teachers in class, adult children in front of elders in a hospital - a writing student is criticized for including no people of color in a story that's about his Jewish summer camp. Well, there could be people of color at the camp, as employees. If an African American might be tricky, Josh suggests in private the student might try an Asian. In a smaller, seminar-style class, we learn from a militant African American woman student that for her, "hashtag" and "me too" take on a special, inferior meaning: she uses them to refer to a white male's feeble efforts to be politically correct.

    The issue of "appropriate speech" is tossed around, as Josh is repeatedly hauled in to a faculty committee to rehash his discussion of the jack-off moment and the girl's objection that Josh's pressing the girl student to reveal it awakened painful memories of a sexually abusive experience of hers. Josh makes the situation worse for himself by refusing to apologize. Does anyone consider that, first of all, you can't really teach writing and second, Josh gives no evidence of knowing anything about this art? He is only seen, and then only briefly, discussing content, not the quality of writing itself. Can he put a sentence together? Does style matter to anybody? You can't teach people how to write, and you certainly can't teach them style.

    But while the issue of the campus and the eggshells teachers walk on is a running theme, the screenplay spends more time on the squabbling New York Jewish family to which Josh belongs as the "boy" who can no longer justify acting so childish. It's not funny anymore, as his brother David (Michael Godere) tells him. Most the the movie is domestic drama about siblings and parents. A grandmother (Lynn Cohen) is in the hospital. First she wants to die. Then she rallies and declares her willingness to undergo radiation, use her walker, and forge ahead. Meanwhile under the tutelage of Josh's hellish mother Diane (Fran Drescher), the grandmother's, her mother's, property gets divided up or dispersed, with her still alive. She's not in a very safe space, evidently. Is this funny? Perhaps it's realistic, and grandma's not really going to last very long.

    It's a pleasure to encounter Richard Schiff, a mainstay of the Aaron Sorkin series "The West Wing," as Josh's father. He makes his initially minor role seem important because his line delivery is caustic and felt. Instead of the flailing improvisational manner we get from some of the other cast members, Schiff makes his words pointed. Other characters, like his wife Sherry (Dana Eskelson), or their hostile little son Ben (Tyler Wladis), are reduced to gestures, and even Schiff can't save a schmaltzy death scene. They do show up en masse for grandma's final hours, though. This family fights like cats and dogs. It's not pretty - or funny - and that may make it hard to care about them; the added-on treacle doesn't help. This is not unusual, though, perhaps not really all that bad. But it reads like a quite conventional domestic drama that has gotten hashtag campus politics tacked onto it to make it seem more contemporary.

    Safe Spaces debuted at Tribeca April 2019; it was Reviewed there by Alison Crist for Hollywood Reporter. It also showed at Monclair and Woods Hole, and was screened for this review as part of the SFJFF.
    SFJFF Showtimes;
    Saturday July 20, 2019 8:50 at the Castro
    Sun., July 21 6:10 at CineArts; Wed. July 31 8:30 pm Albany
    Sunday August 4, 6:30 p.m. San Rafael.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-02-2019 at 10:11 PM.

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