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Thread: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2013

  1. #16
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    Maurice Linnane: Amy Winehouse: the Day She Came to Dingle (2012)

    Moment of a young lost singer

    "The Russian bankers loved me, see, because I'm a Russian Jew," says 22-year-old Amy Winehouse in her London vernacular voice to the Irish interviewer John Kelly. This terrific little movie about the brilliant young singer who flowered swiftly and then died tragically does what such a film should do. Maurice Linnane's Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle (2012) records the moment six years ago when the young artist came to the unique Other Voices festival held in a church in the remote Irish fishing village, interweaving a film of the entire concert with images of the beautiful place. it also includes not only Amy's modest, articulate, and information-filled interview with Other Voices' series editor Philip King, but judiciously placed clips to show us the influences and passions she mentions performing the music: Sarah Vaughan doing "I got it bad and that ain't good"; Carleen Johnson's "Don't look back in anger"; her favorite English jazz group Soweto Kinch and "Doxology"; Thelonious Monk; Ray Charles doing "Unchain my heart." Talking to Philip King, she vividly recalls her discoveries at the ages of six, nine, ten, fourteen.

    She explains how her brother was a source: he "had everything" on recordings, jazz, blues, soul, Madonna, gospel, the latter, she says, only an influence in the past eighteen months. The film shows Mahalia Jackson singing, you're instantly swept away, and you know why the influence has become central for her. There was also rap, R&B, and girl bands in her eclectic mix.

    In between is Amy herself on the church stage with her two guitar backup, including longtime accompanist Dale Davis, bass: "Back to Black," You know I'm no good," Love is a losing game," then again "Back to black," and you hear all the influences cunningly interwoven, jazz, soul, blues, gospel, in that flexible and moving young voice.

    I love you much
    It's not enough
    You love blow and I love puff
    And life is like a pipe
    And I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside

    We only said goodbye with words
    I died a hundred times
    You go back to her
    And I go back to

    Black, black, black, black, black, black, black

    It's the kind of quietly extraordinary concert where you can guess the audience members at the time probably pinched themselves, knowing they were lucky to be in that place at that time. It's quiet, offhand, yet remarkable musical portrait. Happily there is none of the public drunkenness and bad behavior that marred her later performances.

    Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle, 60 mins., was shown as an episode of the "Arena" BBC arts documentary series (1975-present), voted by leading TV executives in Broadcast magazine as one of the top 50 most influential programs of all time. Maurice Linnane is an Irish TV and film director who has done films about U2 and The Cranberries. Screened for this review as part of the 2013 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

    Reference: My Space: Amy Winehouse.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 08:38 PM.

  2. #17
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    Dan Shadur: BEFORE THE REVOLUTION (2013)


    Dan Shadur: Before the Revolution (2013)

    Good old days for Israelis in the Shah's Iran

    In the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival film Before the Revolution/قبل إز إنقلاب Dan Shadur compiles, in a sense, a family album. His parents and sisters lived in Iran under the Shah when there was a thriving Israeli community. He was only a baby. Only at the end he tells us that his father died of a heart attack shortly after their return to Israel and his mother died of cancer a decade or so later. He provides a wealth of home movie footage about his family with interviews with his sister and family friends and neighbors during what they recount were idyllic years in Iran.

    Shadur goes beyond a mere personal album, though, because he has located and interviewed top Israeli officials, a man who worked closely with the Shah's generals, the former Israeli ambassador to Iran, a former embassy guard, Israeli businessmen who worked there, and others to fill out his picture.

    The approach is to say, imagine this: we used to be chummy with our arch-enemy, Iran. But it should be no surprise to anyone that, as Israel was and is a client of the US, and so was the Shah, Iran should have been a lovely colonial outpost for Israelis to live and work in. As today, Israel was an arms manufacturer, and sold lots of weaponry to the Shah. Like the French coopérants in North Africa I encountered personally while a Fulbright lecturer in Morocco, the Israeli ex-pats in Teheran liked to brag about how they lived high off the hog, in houses so large their kids could skate around in the living room, with multiple servants, all in a lovely neighborhood.

    As with most such colonial accounts, the talking heads show they wore blinders. Sure, the ambassador knew there were rumors of atrocities committed all the time by Savak, of people disappearing all the time, but he preferred not to know about any of that. Others chose to ignore the extreme poverty of much of the population: where they lived, things were nice.

    The Israelis lived "in a bubble," one says, as they realized when they went to another part of the country, and found locations under heavy guard. Gradually they learned that Khomeini supporters and Islamists were mounting an insurrection. There are ironic similarities between the situation that arose and what happened to the Americans in Saigon; and even deeper ironies touching on the Jewish experience under the Nazis, the unwillingness to believe that the halcyon days were over. There was also official policy. Israel's relationship with the Shah's government was strategically important. Israeli officials opposed getting out of Iran, because if they fled, and the threat to the Shah went away somehow, they would have come to be seen as no longer friends, and would never be able to return.

    So when women and children fled, in many cases after living in semi-hiding for some time, some of the key Israeli men remained, until they no longer could. No mention is made of their considering supporting or protecting the Shah, by the way. It seems the Israelis were the takers and not the givers in this romance.

    The man who worked closely with the Shah's generals thought they would protect him. It was promised that when Khomeini returned from France the generals would kill him; instead, they protected Khomeini. And then he recounts that the generals were sat in a chair one by one and shot. No more generals.

    The film shows powerful footage of the revolution that viewers of Ben Affleck's Argo may find familiar. When demonstrators picked up corpses and walked toward the guns, one speaker says, it was clear that the Shah's men could not repress this movement.

    Local color includes one man's account of what it was like to visit the Shah's palace for a dinner, with four servants in white robes and gold belts to pull out his chair, and an invitation to drink whatever alcohol they liked: "In this room there is no Islam," the Shah tells them. Several speakers comment that unlike Europe, here there was no restraint to the grandiosity of the dictatorship -- though they thought it was "benign," despite the rumors to the contrary. A man whose father was an Israeli spy in the embassy as a boy was made to play the piano for a visiting general; the general was so impressed he insisted on giving him his gold watch as a reward. The man who worked with the generals went to market to buy food after the situation had become tense. He was trapped by people who knew he was not Iranian and asked who he was. At first he said his nationality was secret. Then on an inspiration he said he was a Palestinian working for the PLO and they embraced him and insisted he be given the food for free.

    Alumni of the Tehran days in Israel, who had loved living high under the Shah ("kubbutzim with servants!"), and found it hard to readjust to life back home, still get together once a year and dance.

    All this should surprise no one, and is just a footnote. Those who think it news, or have a personal connection, will rush to see it.

    Before the Revolution, documentary about pre-'79 when Israel and Iran were allies, about the large Israeli community in Teheran who woke up one day and had to flee. 60 mins. This is a production of the Heymann brothers, Israeli documentary filmmakers. No release info, but now (Aug. 2, 2013) showing in Tel Aviv. Screened as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 08:41 PM.

  3. #18
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    David Ondrícek: IN THE SHADOW (2012)


    David Ondrícek: In the Shadow (2012)

    Toiling against communist machine bigotry in Fifties Prague

    Seven years ago at the San Francisco film festival I watched David Ondrícek's light, surreal Grandhotel. Why did he turn to dark noirish stuff, as he's done with the aptly named In the Shadow? The opening scenes are so dark you can hardly make out anything, and some of the later ones are too. Apparently he felt a compelling need to comment, as others in recent years have done, on the dark evils of the Soviet era. But that is the trouble; others have done it, and sometimes better, as a reminder of which, this film even has an actor from von Donnersmarck's impressiveThe Lives of Others in a lead role. In the Shadow is very well done, particularly in its atmosphere and images. The grayish but richly sepia-hued images are beautiful. The street scenes have a rickety authenticity. The old cars are sublime, the raincoat-and-fedora cast are all pros. But the characters are somewhat underdeveloped, their private lives sketchy, the scenes a tad too grim and inconclusive to offer any pleasure or intellectual reward. Perhaps you had to be there, of need to be living closer to the aftermath of these times, to feel fully engaged. The lightness and originality of Grandhotel is missing. And it didn't need to be: other films about the Soviet era have been surreal.

    The focus is on 1953 Prague's currency devaluation, which wiped out people's savings, and the brutal show trials, specifically the anti-Semitic ones (the chronology is rearranged a bit). Everything is seen from the noncommittal, dogged viewpoint of an honest cop, Capt. Jarda Hakl, played by the stern-faced Ivan Trojan. The film begins with an investigation led at first by Hakl of what seems a routine jewelry theft from a safe. It's immediately pinned on an alcoholic Jewish crook (who has a valid alibi) associated with the Jewish Community Center. The profits of the theft are supposedly part of a secret fund to support Israeli's "Zionist terrorists and US aggressors," and five Jewish immigrants are arrested and made to plead guilty of this "plot." All this is fabricated, as Hakl quickly grasps.

    The Soviets have sent in a German ex-SS man, Zenke (Sebastian Koch, the Lives of Others actor) to go over the heads of the local police to push through the railroading of Jews to show trials. The local man, Hakl, gradually seeking the aid of Zenke, who did eight years in Siberia and is a captive here, determines to fight this fakery, at no little cost to his and his family's safety. The possible alliance between Hakl and Zenke is a ray of hope in the darkness. But Zenke needs to cooperate to be swapped and rejoin his family, and Hakl is blocked by his soon-to-be promoted superior, , Panek (Jiri Stepnicka).

    Hakl's relations with his wife (Sona Norisova) are shaky, Maaybe work tensions kill his sex drive. In an ambiguous ritual gesture, he breaks off part of cigarettes he smokes before lighting them. "He only smokes the healthy part," a colleague quips. Or is it a symbolic self-emasculation? At home the saving grace is how well he gets on with his lively young son Tom (Filip Antonio), to whom he reads Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at night. He tells Tom hes' fighting a giant squid just like in the book. The book says the squid cannot be defeated, but he says if you fight it persistently it will grow weak. The story line, like the images, is dark. The purpose is mainly to use the noirish situation of an honest man fighting a losing battle against corruption as a way of depicting the Fifties communist show trials and commemorate their many victims. Both come off as somewhat artificial; only the dark atmosphere is real.

    Ondricek's Grandhotel was too whimsical, a bit incomprehensible at times. But it was memorable. In the Shadow, for all its skill and mood, has to compete with other equally good or better treatments of the Soviet era. Maybe the director will get off his soapbox next time and achieve a more personal synthesis. Variety's Eddie Cockrell says, "tech package is pro," starting with dp Adam Sikora's subtle colors, and continuing with Jan P. Muchow and Michal Novinski's Forties or Fifties style score, whose excitement has a film noir flavor too. Script by Marek Epstein, David Ondrícek, and Misha Votruba..

    In the Shadow//Ve stínu, in Czech and German, 106 mins., was the 2012 Best Foreign Czech Oscar entry. Released theatrically in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Israel, it has shown in various festivals. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 25-Aug. 12, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 08:43 PM.

  4. #19
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    Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa: JERRY AND ME (2012)

    Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa: Jerry and me (2012)

    A Persian life, through the prism of Jerry Lewis

    Jerry & Me is an autobiographical short documentary film narrated by the filmmmaker, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, an Iranian-born teacher of film at Columbia College, Chicago, where she has been since 1989. She tells her own story via a method another writer about her film, Adrian Martin, who describes it in great detail, calls "fan psychoanalysis."* She describes her life while referring to one of her fascinations growing up as a movie addict in Iran in the Fifties and Sixties, the films of Jerry Lewis, starring himself, hugely popular in Tehran, so they could be readily seen. She uses clips of Jerry Lewis films, many (incongruously, we would think) dubbed into Farsi, to illustrate moments in her own life -- her desire to become another person, her exposure to the violence of war, and so on. Kubrick's Lolita, also seen by the filmmaker in Iran, makes her compare James Mason as Humbert Humbert to her father, who divorced her mother while she was out of the country and married a woman forty years younger, close to her own age.

    As a child in Tehran at the time of Mohammad Mosadegh, then the halcyon days for the bourgeoisie under the Shah, when there were many big cinemas with western names like Rivoli or National, Saeed-Vafa's philandering father took her to the movies every week. There she got to know Jerry Lewis, John Wayne, and other American movie stars. She treats us to a breakneck tour of Jerry Lewis films; they speed by so fast it's hard to take in either them or her narration about her family discontents, her parents' non-communication, self-consciousness about being dark-skinned, and other details -- her father's philandering, her mother's work as a midwife. She also sketches in a quick political and cultural history of modern Iran. That's a lot to saddle Jerry Lewis with, even with clips of John Wayne (saying "There is no God but Allah" as he goes out the door past a sexy Angie Dickenson). She didn't know Jerry Lewis was a Jew, but "that would have been alright because I had many Jewish friends."

    Saeed-Vafa studies film in London and there discovers Bresson. She returns and teaches film in Iran. (One of her students is Jaafar Panahi, the banned, imprisoned, and internationally celebrated contemporary Iranian master director.) She is in Iran for all the big changes, including the arrival of the Islamic revolution in 1979. That leads her like many others to try to live with tight new restrictions by making a film about a child, but the project can't be completed.

    Still later she comes to the US and gets an American MFA in Illinois, begins teaching film, and makes some short films (she gives the titles; as Martin mentions, only a couple are listed on IMDb). She shows a clip of a film she made in Chicago of her little boy -- does she try to pass on to him her discomfort about being dark-skinned, which he does not feel? She mentions having husband problems. In 1996 Jerry Lewis himself comes to speak at Columbia College, and she shows several clips of that appearance including an anecdote where he describes feeling like an Arab among a group of Hollywood screenwriters who no longer welcome him after the big success of The Bellboy in 1960. (Lewis himself has been a considerable teaching of filmmmaking, but Saeed-Vafa doesn't mention this.) In the Q&A after Lewis's Chicago talk an Arab called Hakim speaks up to say the casual racism of his joke about feeling like an Arab made him uncomfortable. Apparently it made Saeed-Vafa uncomfortable too -- she has described being alienated after 9/11 -- or she is just too intimidated by encountering the mythical figure of her cinephile youth in person, because she does not talk to Jerry Lewis in 1996, or at any other time.

    Though the clips and "fan psychoanalysis" are interesting enough, Saeed-Vafa's timidity is a hint that there are missed opportunities here. It's a fabulous idea. And the filmmaker brings her whole sensibility to bear. But one wonders if a narrative as earnest as this really fits with Jerry Lewis' films, no matter how passionate the self-revelation and ingenious the use of film references and film clips. For all the salient points about cross-cultural experience deduced by Martin, this short film doesn't provide as illuminating a perspective on either Jerry Lewis or the filmmaker as it might have done. As so often with autobiographical documentary films, it provides above all therapy for its maker, which serves a similar purpose for those who have had similar experiences.

    Jerry & Me, 38 mins., was shown at the Glascgw Short Film Festival and was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 25-Aug. 12, 2013. Jonathan Rosenbaum is listed as the project adviser; he and Saeed-Vafa are coauthors of a book on Abbas Kiarostami (Contemporary Film Directors Series - University of Illinois Press). Saeed-Vafa has also been consultant for the Gene Siskel Center for festivals of Iranian films for many years.

    *There's another detailed discussion of this film by Ehsan Khoshbakht on MUBI.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 08:45 PM.

  5. #20
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    Karen Thorsen, Tracie Holder: JOE PAPP IN FIVE ACTS (2010)


    Karen Thorsen, Tracie Holder: Joe Papp in Five Acts (2010)

    "A Gatsby-like American"

    It's not till a third of the way into this documentary that we get its greatest revelation. Everybody knew Joe Papp, the fiery New York theatrical producer and creator of Shakespeare in the Park (originally Mobile Shakespeare, in Brooklyn and elsewhere, in the Fifties) was a communist. Papp had been fired from CBS for taking the Fifth when called before HUAC. The New York planner and empire builder Robert Moses had waved around Papp's communism as part of his battle, ultimately lost, to make Papp charge admission for the city's free outdoor summer shows of the Bard. But when Joe Papp was putting on what was to be a magnificent production of The Merchant of Venice with George C. Scott, the New York Board of Rabbis tried to block it by saying the play was "an anti-Semitic play." Joe Papp said, "I myself am a Jew, and I would never do anything that in my opinion would harm my people." It came out that his mother was not English as he had always said; she was Lithuanian, his father Polish, both immigrants, and he was originally named Yusuf Papirofsky. People who had known him for thirty years did not know this. Nobody around him had known the magnetic, sexy, patrician Joseph Papp was Jewish.

    Joe Papp grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the Thirties, where life was tough. He recounts that he learned at twelve that striking the first blow in a fight gives one an immense psychological advantage. He says he'd never have learned about Shakespeare if the library had not been free. That's why he first took Shakespeare to poor parts of New York City like where he grew up and tickets were free, and he kept them free. This film uses a lot of old footage to recreate Papp's raucous urban roots and show the early days of the mobile Shakespeare when a truck with loudspeakers went through the streets to announce a play, and crowds mobbed the open arenas they set up, hanging on every word and having a great time. "It was very much like the original Elizabethan audience," Papp comments.

    A variety of speakers, including Meryl Streep, James Earl Jones, Chris Walken, Martin Sheen, Roscoe Lee Brown, cultural historian Lawrence W. Levine, former associate Pubilc Theater producer Bernard Gersten, English playwright David Hare (a longtime collaborator with many memories to recount in the Guardian), David Rabe, Ntozake Shange, and many others, describe Papp's charisma, his empathy, his pugnaciousness, his determination, his triumphs -- and his secrets. David Hare thinks he was "a Gatsby-like American," someone who burst upon the scene, "nobody knows anything about him." In the Depression when he grew up, his father was out of a job. Joe took any little job. He shined shoes. When he was refused jobs because he was a Jew he began denying it, and it became a lifelong habit to conceal his Jewishness. Hence the Merchant of Venice revelation.

    In the Sixties Papp began looking for a year-round stage and he found it on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan, the old Astor Library, vast ruined spaces that after World War II had been converted into a temporary resting place for homeless Jews, home of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Society. This became the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater. The first play was Hair, which Papp got from somebody he met on a train, "pure serendipity," which put the enterprise on the map immediately. Martin Sheen calls the theater "a mecca for playwrights." And failures did not daunt Papp; they inspired him. Hare's The Knife was brutally panned by Frank Rich, then the New York Times drama critic, the play was finished, Papp read Hare the review, and just said, "So, David, what do you want to do in my theater next?" (Meaning it.) When things started to go well, he'd get bored. Some of his playwrights who speak or are spoken of are: the "Davids," David Mamet, David Hare, David Rabe; Liz Swados, Ntozake Shange, George C. Wolfe; and Larry Kramer, whose The Normal Heart was a dramatic weapon in the battle to get recognition for the cause of men with AIDS.

    Papp wanted to be "radical at the center" (Hare), and he moves plays from the Public Theater to Broadway and wins prizes with his musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona and David Rabe's Sticks and Stones, one of which made $10,00 a week, the other lost that amount. Shange's For Colored Girls becomes a Broadway hit.

    And then came A Chorus Line, Papp's experiment, Michael Bennett's play, one of Broadway's biggest hits. At this point in the film if you do not know, you realize Joseph Papp is not just an important New York producer but an American cultural icon.

    The "Five Acts" that are introduced by Kevin Kline reciting the relevant passages from Shakespeare are I. A Kingdom for a Stage, II. Once More Into the Breach, III. What a Piece of Work Is Man?, IV. Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown, V. A Bright Exhalation in the Evening. These represent successively Papp's start; his fights; his triumphs; his ugly side (saving the film from falling into hagiography); and finally his too early demise in 1991, at 70, of prostate cancer. It's an appropriate structure, not only classically dramatic, but also, like its subject, a small, natty, handsome man who smoked big cigars, at once tidy and expansive. And with this subject, as large as the Delacorte stage with seating for 2,500 that Joe Papp built in Central Park for the free Shakespeare in the summer, the film needs to muster a suitable wealth of drama and pizzazz, and it does. Every biopic must have its death at the end, and this one is extraordinarily moving, since Joe and his 29-year-old son Anthony, who developed AIDS, both learned in the same year that they were dying. Anthony died before his father. The film's final moments show Papp singing "Brother can you spare a dime?" He has a good voice, and it's an unexpected and resonant ending to a moving documentary biography.

    The film was written, produced, and directed by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen. Good work was done by directors of photography Jem Cohen (o he current surprise art house hitf Museum Hours) and Toshiaki Ozawa. Credit is due also to Deborah Peretz, Brad Fuller, and Samuel D. Miller for the thoughtful editing.

    Joe Papp in Five Acts, 82 mins., debuted at Tribeca 2012. Previewed at an October 2011 celebration marking 67 years of the Public Theater. Earlier in 2013 Included in Ashland and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festivals, screened as part of the latter for this review. Scheduled for showing on PBS/American Masters in 2013(?).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 08:47 PM.

  6. #21
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    Jan Troell: THE LAST SENTENCE (2012)


    Jan Troell: The Last Sentence (2012)

    The Last Sentence is a film by the senior Swedish director (The Immigrants, The New Land) based on the life of newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, who alerted the Swedish public to the threat of Fascism in the 1930s. "A lapsed theologian writing for a provincial newspaper can hardly set the world aflame," Segerstedt tells the prime minister, dining alone with him. He's been writing editorials blasting Hitler for the Gothenberg paper before the war began and he's continuing now that hostilities have begun, with Sweden remaining neutral. And obviously if the prime minister knows him and has dinner alone with him, he's setting something aflame. Later he's even called to see the king of Sweden, who also asks him to ease off. The foreign minister, whom he knows, is rude, and he slaps him, in a men's room. Finally the government censors a front page article, but in response Segerstedt replies by publishing the edition with a big blank where the article would have been. And so on. Segerstedt does this throughout the war, as long as he lives, though his wish of surviving Hitler can't be achieved because he becomes ill and dies first. Whether Segerstedt changed the course of Sweden in the face of the Nazis is doubtful, but he must stand as a hero of free speech and artists and writers celebrated him during his lifetime. However, this film is strongly drawn also in another, Bermanesque, direciton, as a story of adultery and a bad marriage, and it doesn't all quite fit. Troell endows the domestic scenes with more emotional resonance than the political ones, undermining the accomplishments that made this man worthy of a biopic.

    We wonder what this film is really about -- Segerstedt's affair with Maja Forssman (Pernilla August, Anakin Skywalker’s mother), the rich Jewish woman whose money funds his newspaper, and who's married to its publisher, the passive friend he cuckolds, Alex Forssman (Björn Granath)? Or is this about Segerstedt's tormented Norwegian wife Puste (Ulla Skoog), whom he humiliates in public and who suddenly dies of heart failure, and then is forgotten? (It can't be about just her, but her story sticks in the craw.) Or -- I really mean this -- is the film about Segerstedt's dogs, a big bulldog and two noble black hounds, which he loves so much that Maja says she could never live with him? This strange film interweaves cool Swedish angst with sketchy political drama. And is this filmmaker in his eighties aware that all his main characters are elderly looking, and, except for the tall, elegant Segerstedt, on the ugly side? (The actor who plays Segerstedt is in his sixties, but looks older.) The decadent feel of Segerstedt's life undercuts the high-toned, heedless morality of his anti-Nazi stance. The Variety critic, Dennis Harvey, complains that the realities of the Swedish people and the multiple events of the war are too distant and this feels too much like a closet drama. That's not such an issue. The problem is the undigested clash between Segerstedt's public idealism and his private nastiness. If the film isn't saying anything about this clash, then it shouldn't have such prominence.

    The odd mood and the odd balance of subject matter are interesting, as failed experiments often are, even if it doesn't work, and certainly generates no warmth. Harvey accurately describes Jesper Christensen, who plays the editor, as "vinegary." Segerstedt's private life reminds me of the domestic frigidity Patrice Chéreau depicts so elegantly in Gabrielle, a stylized period drama of a high order: but that is about its domestic clashes and nothing else, and they assume truly heroic proportions, with Isabelle Huppert at the center of them in one of her best roles.

    After the first hour, the political issues in The Last Sentence begin to play a stronger role because Gemany is invading neighboring countries and the prime minister is pressured to make compromises in order to placate Germany and still remain neutral. Segerstedt presses him -- publicly, in front of a lot of people -- to become militarily involved in protecting Sweden's neighbors from being overrun. There is no lack of dramatic scenes. But the chill of Segerstedt's personality dries them up, and the working, political side of the story continues to feel less crucial than the adulterous affair and the household turmoil. Eventually, in another Bergmanesque note, the three key women in Segerstedt's life, his mother, his wife, and his rich Jewish mistress, are all dead, all behind a doorway in dark veils haunting him. There is also a sad, dutiful daughter, and a long-suffering housemaid.

    The film never succeeds in interweaving its two levels and two themes, domestic misbehavior, public nobility, in any meaningful way. Though as others have noted, the acting and black and white visuals are first-rate, due to its basic structural problem Troell's film remains distinctly minor. It has nowhere near the general appeal of his warm, old-fashioned 2008 film, Everlasting Moments .

    Seattle Swedish-American blogger Erik Lundgaard sums up the meaning of this film perfectly: "being on the right side of history doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole."

    The Last Sentence/Dom över död man, 124 mins., festivals; in Sweden and the Netherlands already theatrically released. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 25-August 12, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 08:49 PM.

  7. #22
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    Jonathan Holiff: MY FATHER AND THE MAN IN BLACK (2012)


    Jonathan Holiff: My Father and the Man in Black (2012)

    Fraught relationships, in the shadow of fame

    From 1960 to 1973, Saul Holiff, a "sober-minded businessman from London Ontario" who had specialized in celebrity endorsements, served as the manager of the iconic singer Johnny Cash. This was the time of Cash's rise to fame, the Bob Dylan-Johnny Cash recording sessions, and the singer's famous live concert albums recorded inside the Folsom and San Quentin prisons. In the wake of Saul Holiff's death at 80 by suicide, having gotten access to lost recordings and diaries, his son Jonathan, himself a TV producer, has made a film in which he seeks answers to questions long troubling him. They concern his own lost childhood, his difficult contacts with his remote, austere father, and his father's turbulent relationship with Johnny Cash, two painful tales, both dreary.

    Inevitably most of the film is taken up with recounting Johnny Cash's career while his father was managing it, with details about his father's history and problems on the side. Outside sources, lots of photos, and a long series of reel-to-reel tape diaries his father made aren't enough for Holiff, who felt obliged to interject a lot of elaborate reenactments and what are apparently someone doing a creditable imitation of Cash's voice. Holiff even makes still photos move. Is such trickery necessary? Maybe so, because the long chronicle or the two men's relationship is grim and somewhat depressing. Both had drinking problems, with the fathers constant private tippling much emphasized in reenactments. But it was Cash's addiction to uppers and downers plus the alcohol that took the dramatic toll, leading to many, many cancelled concerts, some entire tours blown. Nonetheless Johnny knew he owed a lot to Saul. When Johnny came out to perform in Miami in 1968 and could not, with his manager there with his whole extended family, he called out feebly, "Help me, Saul."

    Ultimately we must read between the lines to see how these two men complimented each other and how Johnny Cash's skinny form and haggard face and nasal, prematurely aged baritone voice were the "baraka," the blessed quality arising from (over-) use that make him so credible in a country of youth-worship as "The Rough-Cut King of Country Music" as the Life Magazine cover calls him. He had suffered, even if he brought the suffering on himself. He had done jail time, even if it was just for bringing pills illegally into the country from south of the border and being drunk and disorderly. Occasionally during this story it comes through that the music was wonderful, the songs unique.

    In the final stretch Holiff finally turns more to his relations with his father. But ultimately there's not much about Jonathan's relations with Saul because there hardly were any, and those that there were were not very pleasant. Saul treated Jonathan cruelly, like a business manager more than a father. But the story is still dominated by Johnny -- his and his wife June Carter's excessive Christian religiosity, leading Saul to quit him, their occasional communications afterwards, the decline of Cash's career in the Eighties.

    This is one of those documentaries that's in large part therapy for its maker. He does make full use of the archival material at his disposal. But if you want a more rounded portrait of Johnny Cash, try the 2005 James Mangold, Joaquim Phoenix movie, <a href="">Walk the Line</a>. Or just listen to Johnny Cash's songs. He was good.

    My Father and the Man in Black , 87 mins., debuted at the North by Northwest Festival in June 2012 and opened in London Ontario a week later. It has been in various festivals. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 25-August 12, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 08:53 PM.

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