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  1. #1
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    Jul 2002
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    San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2018

    Ron Yassen's Crossroads


    San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.38 July 19-August 5, 2018

    About the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
    The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), presented by the Jewish Film Institute, is the largest and longest-running festival of its kind and a leader in the curation and presentation of new film and media exploring the complexities of Jewish life around the world. Presenting more than 65 films and 135 individual screenings, performances and events in five Bay Area cities (San Francisco, Palo Alto, San Rafael, Oakland, Albany), SFJFF attracts more than 40,000 filmgoers and industry professionals to its 18-day program.

    SFIFF website

    Planned for coverage are these titles:

    Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (Sophie Huber 2018)
    Budapest Noir (Eva Gardos 2017) preview
    Crossroads (Ron Yassen 2018)
    Mossad, The (Duki Dror 2018)
    Naila and the Uprising - X
    Playing God - X
    Prince and the Dybbuk, The ( Niewiera, Rosolowski 2017)
    Red Cow - X
    Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me - X
    Simon & Théodore - X
    To Dust - X
    Twinning Reaction
    Wajib (Annemarie Jacir 2017) SFIFF preview release 5 Aug.
    When Heroes Fly - X
    Winter Hunt - X

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-21-2018 at 08:56 PM.

  2. #2
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    Jul 2002
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    BUDAPEST NOIR (Éva Gárdos 2017)



    Sleuthing before the Nazis come

    Éva Gárdos' period thriller Budapest Noir is a bit timid at first. It hits its stride half way through when Zsigmond Gordon, the reporter who operates like a homicide detective, gets knocked out by the arm of a manikin wielded by Skublics, a photog who snaps prostitutes, for going too far - detecting connections high up. The starting point is a classy young dame on her uppers who charges dinner to Gordon, then turns up dead. She is a prostitute, two months pregnant, killed with a lethal kick in the stomach. But who is she, who did it, why? We will find out, and it will have something to do with Hungary's rapid movement toward antisemitism and fascism, and the fact that Fanny, AKA Judith, was in love with a boy who was decidedly Jewish. The book by Vilmos Kondor this movie is based on launched Gordon as the lead in a series of detective novels. He has an on-and-off girlfriend, Krisztina (Réka Tenki), a photographer.

    All the events mesh well with the historical moment in Hungarian life and politics, but what recommends this conventional, even rather derivative, noir, is the beauty of the film and its enjoyable decorative texture. It's saturated with browns, maroons, golds, pale sunlight. The black Thirties sedans slither and gleam. We learn again why a satin slip was the sexiest thing. Every room has its own memorable lamps. And an important character higher up, a coffee baron, lives in modernistic splendor, with cactuses like egrets, an impossibly large, but beautiful, Kandinsky, and a view of the city out the windows. Backing it all up is an award-winning period- and genre-appropriate score offering melodies right for each scene, maintaining a quiet energy, even when the punching-bag protagonist, played by Krisztián Kolovratnik, is so battered he requires Krisztina to hold him up.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-20-2018 at 09:31 AM.

  3. #3
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    Jazz's most famous label


    A big Blue Note hit: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: Moanin'

    Let's hear it for Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. They're two Jewish guys, old friends, who fled from Nazi Berlin in the Thirties and started a little company in New York called Blue Note Records. I have loved jazz since I was a kid. So did Al and Frank. Only I just bought records. They made them, setting up a studio that became the most distinguished label in jazz. This is their story, and essential jazz history, old and new.

    A "blue note" is a shift in interval, coming up with a note whose sound's not quite what's expected, especially in jazz. And first and foremost, Blue Note Records put out jazz albums, the best. They gave jazz music - jazz artists - a place to grow and breathe; be itself; themselves. Blue Note was the rarest of things, a wedding of business and art that favored the art. They took chances, and trusted in their artists, put creativity and freedom first and let the musicians stretch out. They didn't know anything about making records. They didn't know much about jazz. They just loved it. So they made records and sold them.

    They took their lumps, not dictating the terms or content of recording sessions or records and willing to survive if a record didn't sell well. (Eventually some did sell, very well indeed.) It's hard to imagine what the rank and file of us would have, we who love jazz, from the late Forties up till the Eighties, were it not for Fred and Frank and the artistic freedom they provided to some of the greatest geniuses of jazz, to grow and experiment and set down their best ideas.

    This documentary by Sophie Huber is for and about Fred and Frank. And Frank in particular, snapping photos and husbanding the album-making, is omnipresent in the background of the story for the first three quarters of the story. But what makes this one of the best documentaries about jazz in a while, though, are those in the foreground, both in the dozens of black jazz artists who made the recordings that are a serous part of the legacy of John Coltrane, Thelonoius Monk, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter - this lists goes on, and it's dazzling - and in present-day interviews and recording sessions.

    Blue Note began by recording boogie woogie piano masters Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. But they soon moved on to newer stuff. The creativity and personalities of the most advanced jazz artists, and the successive styles of bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, avant garde and free jazz (shortchanged in this film) and more mainstream stuff, are such a rich story that frankly it swamps the history of the label itself at times, and we don't really get to know the men who first ran it very well. But it hardly matters. I would throw the rest away just to hear Herbie Hancock tell the story about what he learned from Monk about open-mindedness when he made a horrible mistake and Monk saved it in a recording session. There are magic moments here, and they're from the present as well as the past.

    The film samples the recordings, narrating the record company's history. It shows archival films of the artists and - key to the beauty of the film and the style of the label - the LP album covers, using still photos by Frank Wolff and graphic art by Reid Miles with those distinctive color tints, the unique period "look" of the classic Fifties and Sixties Blue Note album covers essential to the label's image. There is nothing more iconic in the world of records. This film does not betray or cheapen this look but allows it to permeate the screen. Few historical films come supplied with a more distinctive and handsome set of images.

    Let's hear it also for producer and music historian Michael Cuscuna, the successor and heir to Francis Wolff and manager of his photographic and recording legacy. He is much heard from here. And let's hear it also for the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, technical supervisor of thousands of recordings, specializing in jazz. He passed two years ago next month, but we hear from him here in a recent interview where he talks about how he started a studio for Blue Note in his parents' living room in New Jersey, then eventually built a cavernous, temple-like independent studio, still in New Jersey.

    Besides the voices of Shorter and Hancock, Lou Donaldson is an oldtimer, present nearly at the conception of Blue Note bop recordings but a musician of great longevity, is frequently heard from as a lively independent talking head. We also hear from time to time throughout from Don Was, current president of Blue Note Records - which has died and been reborn several times since the departure of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. And we hear from hip hop musician and producer Terrance Martin, a current force in the new Blue Note Records, who shows how much jazz, and Blue Note jazz in particular, is a part of hip hop music. I didn't know this, and have a little trouble believing it. But assuming Terrance Martin is right, it's another proof of the eternal youth of this amazing label. And the longevity of - some - jazz greats as well as the energy of today's jazz are shown when Hancock, a youthful seventy-something, and Wayne Shorter, a youthful eighty-something, join young Blue Note leader Robert Glasper and his group for a present-day recording session.

    It is a little astonishing to see the succession of great Fifties and Sixties Blue Note artists as they appear in brief films of them recording at the time, many of them whose looks were unknown to me. So many of them look nondescript. That's part of the story too. This is just creativity, not showmanship. The elegant matching suits of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles' flash and provocation, are for for show. But there is a part of jazz, which Blue Note quintessentially expresses, that lets us in on the creation, into the studio, the workshop, the very minds of the musicians doing their best and most original work.

    There is a 1997 film shown on TV, Blue Note - A Story of Modern Jazz, which I have not seen. Information about it is provided in Joe Bendel's review of Huber's film from Tribeca, which gives more names and facts.

    What gave Blue Note the edge over the also good jazz label Prestige Records, we learn, is simply this: Blue Note paid the musicians to rehearse. Hence they could develop new and more challenging work.

    Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, 86 mins., debuted at Tribeca Apr. 2018, also showed at the Sheffield doc fest. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it shows at the Castro Theater in San Francisco at 3:15 p.m. Sat. 21 July 2018 and at the Paramount in Oakland at 4:01 p.m. on Sun. 5 Aug.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-20-2018 at 04:07 PM.

  4. #4
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    Jul 2002
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    There are many classic Blue Note albums on YouTube now. You can hear all of Thelonius Monk's recordings with the label here.
    Here is a recording that's not Blue Note, but a superb date, with great sound, from Monk in Japan in 1966. Nine minutes of sheer perfection. MONK IN TOKYO. (CBS Redords 1973 release.)
    Thelonious Monk – piano
    Charlie Rouse - tenor saxophone
    Butch Warren – bass
    Frankie Dunlop – drums
    What a team!
    If you cue in "Monk in Tokyo," you can get other cuts from the album on YOuTube.

    See here Wikipedia Monk in Tokyo.

    The film notes, the other labels would not record Monk.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-20-2018 at 12:07 AM.

  5. #5
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    CROSSROADS (Ron Yassen 2018)



    Coming from behind

    Sports documentary filmmaker Ron Yassen found a fun subject in Crossroads. In fact he himself is doing something here somewhat like Bobby Selkin. Bobby was a successful Jewish ophthalmologist bored with his repetitious professional routine performing LASIK surgeries. He found a highly rewarding and soul-satisfying new thing at Charlotte Secondary School. The 200-student North Carolina charter school, where his daughter happened to be a student, is mostly a haven for boys whose personal and academic problems have led them to bomb out at regular larger schools. At Charlotte Secondary, Bobby coaches some of them in lacrosse, and saves them and himself. Yassen was a very successful and busy sports filmmaker. But here, he finds something that's not commercial or mass appeal but heartwarming and fun, a personal satisfaction.

    Lacrosse was originally a Native American game but it's become very much something preppy white boys do, especially in Maryland. The American Lacrosse Association however, makes it a practice, we learn to provide free equipment to needier schools to promote the game. They supplied such supplies to Charlotte Secondary, and at the request of Teddy Walker, head of athletics, relayed by Bobby Selkin's wife, Bobby came to coach the sport. The program begins in 2015, more as a lacrosse club, not a team. The boys he coached have never played lacrosse. But Bobby soon sees that he has some talent on his hands. And in a couple of years of hard, continual work, the lacrosse team at Charlotte Secondary that Bobby Selkin built beat teams made up of players who had been brought up in lacrosse all their lives. This is a coming-from-behind sports success story, and also the story of a burnt-out ophthalmologist who found a new love and a new family.

    This documentary is very similar in subject to Suzannah Herbert's Wrestle (SFIFF 2018), and invites comparison with it. Wrestle concerns a driven, motivated young white coach at a high school in Alabama. The team becomes the state champions. This achievement not only gets many of the young players from poor black backgrounds into colleges. It very nearly saves the school, which is going under and about to be closed.

    Bobby Selkin need not save the Charlotte Secondary School. But he is giving his players a motivation at school and a springboard to college admission. The handful of key players the film follows all get into college with scholarships. This is not without a struggle. They come from deep poverty, and their early years have left them with inner pain or other handicaps.

    Crossroads has some scenes of parents. We get to know the personalities of key players, handsome and charismatic as they are, and capable of great end-of-game speeches to teammates. But we do not delve into the athletes' family lives quite as Wrestle does. Lacrosse isn't as clear or dramatic a sport to watch as wrestling. On the other hand, the coach-team relationship here is more loving and intense. In Crossroads Bobby brings the players into his big new house and treats them just like family. He loves them, and he says so. The film shows this. Bobby's success with the boys is impressive, and so is his passion.

    After the five original key players graduate, they leave a big void. Bobby promotes the best three remaining players to captain status, but they seem unable to provide strong leadership, and in the first few games, the Charlotte Secondary lacrosse team is a loser. Bobby steps in with strong speeches, and the team has a long string of wins. Sadly, Teddy Walker, the head of athletics who created the lacrosse program, is suddenly diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer. The rest of the games are dedicated to him. There is a visit by the team to an emaciated Mr. Walker to give him the winning ball. Ultimately he doesn't make it, and the film is dedicated to him.

    The final game is not a win, but a loss to Cox Mill, the best team, 6-2. But this is Cox Mill's weakest score, so for Bobby it's a victory. It's clear that this film is about the boys and Bobby Selkin. We see what rewards Bobby reaps in fathering these boys, creating a successful team, and finding a new passion. Crossroads is a heartwarming and enjoyable little film.

    Crossroads, 76 mins., debuted Apr. 2018 at Tribeca, also playing at other festivals. An ESPN Films release. Also playing as part of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, and at Nashville. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, playing at CineArts, Palo Alto Sat. 21 Jul. at 4:15 p.m.; at the Castro Theater, San Francisco, Sat. 28 Jul. at 4:00 p.m.; at the Albany Twin, Albany, Sun. 29 Jul. at 4:45 p.m.; and at San Rafael, Sun. 5 Aug. at 2:05 p.m.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-20-2018 at 06:34 PM.

  6. #6
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    Jul 2002
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    THE MOSSAD (Duki Dror 2018)


    An ugly business

    There have been several boldly revealing Israeli documentaries, namely The Gatekeepers (NYFF) and The Law in These Parts (SFIFF). There was also The Lab (SFJFF), an eye-opening film about Israeli's huge arms production and sales. This one is about Israel intelligence. Like those others, it relies on testimony by retired persons, in this case former operatives of the Mossad, the spy organization. Again this is mostly talking heads (with some archival footage and suggestive imagery), but the filmmakers get information that for a mainstream documentary may be new.

    This film seems as devious as its subjects because it keeps changing names. For its German TV release, it was called Inside Mossad - Israels Agenten erzählen. For French release, it was titled Mossad: des agents israéliens parlent. The timid title for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presentation is The Mossad. On IMDb it's called Mossad: Imperfect Spies - the distributor's English title. So what is its direction? Is it an exposé, or is it a puff piece? Or is it just coldly neutral? More a puff piece, I fear. It's revelations are not that. This is a film for Arte, to be shown on German and French TV, and rather routine. The material may be intriguing to the uninformed, but unlike The Gatekeepers and The Law in These Parts, the interviewees are not revealing anything new. Still, since the Mossad has always been officially "sealed off from the media," this participation in a film by many of its veterans does mark a change.

    Ram Ben Barak, Deputy Director, the first to appear, is an engaging presence, a fit fellow of a certain age, with a ready smile. "Let's put it this way," he says. "The image isn't far from reality. And sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. . . And with that" (that smile) "I've contributed to the image." For ancient history so to speak, the film talks to 91-year-old Rafi Eitan, head of Mossad in its first 30 years. He talks about catching and killing a double agent; personally capturing Adolf Eichman in Argentina, and recruiting ex-Nazi Otto Skorzeny, who'd escaped to Spain, then helped train the Egyptian army, then betrayed his German colleagues in Egypt in return for security.

    Zvi Zamir was another Mossad director. He is known for directing the operation "Wrath of God" to enact revenge against the Palestinian guerrillas who captured the Israeli Munich Olympics hostages. The introduction of this is rather propagandistic in tone, and Zamir's extreme displeasure at how the Germans handled the affair, allowing the hostages to get killed, has frequently been expressed before. The revelations of Egyptian 1973 war plans by Nasser's son-in-law Ashraf Marwan, described here by several retired Mossad officers, are also, of course, not news. But this allows for some general remarks about relations between a "handler" and his "asset" in intelligence-gathering.

    An interesting facet of the film is Zvi Zamir's description of his delicate relationship with "The Saint," Ashraf Marwan, their mutual respect, and his real sorrow that Israel betrayed this key asset and allowed him to be killed in London.

    Titillating spy stuff comes with the story of "Tamar," a female agent sent to gather intelligence in Cairo. She is not seen full-face, and many photos of her at the time are shown, but with her and her "partner's" eyes masked. Silly, perhaps; but interesting to learn that after she and her assigned "partner" became a real couple, her commander took steps, unspecified, to break them up that made her "very, very angry." Something for a spy novel.

    The Periphery Doctrine in Israel intelligence is a policy of establishing a network of sympathetic contacts "to break through the ring of hostile countries surrounding Israel." This in effect has led to Israel fomenting rebellion and unrest all over Africa and the Middle East; but they also defended the defenseless, as in South Sudan. This was military activity, not intelligence or counterterrorism. Mossad was great friends with the Shah of Iran and his secret police, the dreaded Savak; "The crowned cannibals" were just fine for them. An even more ugly moment is the 1982 war in Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinians aided and abetted by the IDF and the Mossad. And the chief Mossad operative in Lebanon, in his nice leather jacket, is dismissive, literally shrugging his shoulders about Sabra and Shatila. Here, the filmmakers have gotten something tasty.

    Mossad (and intelligence organizations in general) look rosier when the film arrives at the present day troubles with post-Khomeini Iran. (Incidentally Mossad decided not assassinating Khomeini was best, though some of its members regret this decision.) President Netanyahu wanted to bomb the Iran nuclear plants; Mossad's then leader declared tis a "harebrained" idea. Taking out Iran's nuclear scientists and facilities stealthily was a better plan. What about an international treaty to curb Iran's nuclear arming? Not in the Mossad playbook. Mossad is all about war. It's just not overt war. But as Ram Ben Barak, Deputy Director, the handsome, urbane speaker who bookends the film, declares, intelligence's "unconventional" war is less costly, and far preferable, to the conventional kind. And he realizes in his capacity he has wielded great power in the world. Can he give examples? Well - that smile again - actually, no, he can't.

    In a promotion for this film Duki Dror has declared, in English (all the film is in Hebrew) that "Mossad" is the most known Israeli word after"shalom." "Shalom," he says, and then "Mossad," and "then maybe 'fellafel.'" Sorry, Fellafel is an Arab, not Israeli, word, Mr. Dror.

    The Mossad: Imperfect Spies, 90 mins., debuted on TV from Germany 24 Apr. 2018. It will be available for streaming on Netflix in Jan. 2019. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it shows on Tues., 24 July at CitiArts, Palo Alto; Thurs. 26 July at the Castro, San Francisco, at 1:15 p.m.; and Fri., 27 July at Albany Twin, Albany at 3:50 p.m.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-21-2018 at 09:39 AM.


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