Sunday, January 20, 2008

2008 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival - Days 3 and 4, and 6 Day War and More

The Eighth Atlanta Jewish Film Festival continued to screen at the Regal Atlantic Station Cinemas. Through an odd coincidence of choices I made, the next two days seemed to focus on wars.

SIX DAYS (dir. Ilan Ziv, Israel/France/Canada, 2007, 107 mins.) is an exceptionally detailed documentary about the Six Day War, that took place in 1967, and continues to be a motivating force behind acts of terrorism. The lead up to the war is presented in all its complicated and manipulated glory, as Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Egyptian President Nasser, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and a faceless Soviet Union react and maneuver around the mere reports of movement by each other. I found the opening 30 minutes totally fascinating and relevant to the present. Once Israel makes the first strike, the film reflects the snowballing situation by speeding through the consequences. In fact, I seemed to have missed the move by Jordan, which launched Israel's offensive into Jordanian held Jerusalem. This is a HUGE clincher in the fallout of the Six Day War, as Palestine continues to hold that occupation at the heart of their opposition to the State of Israel.

I may not be aware of, or sensitive enough to Zionism to have realized what was viewed as an anti-Israel subtext in the film's depiction of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This was expressed in a post-screening discussion led by Dr. Kenneth W. Stein, Director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel of Emory University. I did not take copious notes, as the discussion was not related to the film itself, as much it was focussed on the world's perception of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Stein's bottom line was that, "The state of Israel must exist as a state and has the right to take whatever actions it must to protect itself." This would not be a discussion you'd necessarily hear at the San Francisco Jewish Film Fest! Please READ THIS for a much more intelligent reflection upon the film, than I am prepared to do.

My next selection would be GOLDA'S BALCONY (dir. Jeremy Kagan, US, 2007, 95 mins.) This is a bit more than a recording of Valerie Harper's brilliant performance in William Gibson's one woman play about Golda Meir. (It was performed on Broadway by Tovah Feldshuh and off-broadway and on its national tour by Valerie Harper.) In Gibson's play, Golda is telling her life story as she is facing the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where she will eventually be faced with threatening nuclear warfare in which to motivate the international community into action. During her recollections, she acts out all the characters, in what may have been a bit confusing on stage, it is much clearer in the film, as she plays against herself in video effects. The script was presented 99% intact, as she explained, during the Q&A.
Harper's performance is simply fabulous. There is no sign of "Rhoda", much less Harper. Her work on the characterization on stage is wonderfully transferred to the screen. The make-up effects are extraordinary, as well. It was a daily three and a half hour transformation. In fact, as she arrived in the theater for the screening and subsequent Q&A, she was simply gorgeous and nearly unrecognizable from any of her previous performances. (I'm afraid I was not in a great spot to snag any GOOD photos.)

The only real cinematic effects that director Kagan gave it was that the entirety was shot against a green screen, so that a montage of clips, images and paintings are used for settings. It is actually an adaption of the rear screen projections that were used on stage.

During the subsequent Q&A, Harper was accompanied by director Jeremy Kagan and producer (and husband) Tony Cacciotti. Kagan remarked that his visual style was to create a "historical, ethereal memory". With only two weeks of rehearsal and an outrageously short FIVE DAY, three camera, shoot, he did spend over six months in post-production, creating the scenic backgrounds. As far as Harper's preparation, she spoke of what she did for the play, in that there is of course a plethora of footage to study Meir, but that to reach the soul of her subject, she used the documentary SHOAH as her reference. When asked if she felt sort of typecast as a Jewish woman, though she, herself, is not, Harper replied, "If you look back far enough, we're all Jewish... It's not about being Jewish or not. It's about being human." Her husband, producer Cacciotti explained that they were not seeking distribution, but wanted to tour it as a special event tied with the 60th anniversary of the statehood of Israel.

Valerie Harper also remarked on the "feeling of party, community and family" that she was experiencing at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. A feeling that I can completely validate! I have yet to go on one of my typical diatribes about festival mismanagement, since this festival is so polished and organized! Even the pre-screening titles are a relatively beautiful presentation of the festival calendar and sponsor credits. The seating announcement, or as is being jokingly referred to as "the voice of god", is a fabulous, professional and incredibly efficient way to get the programs started! The speakers have all been quite energetic and enthusiastic. Well, with just one exception, so far...

BEAUFORT (dir. Joseph Cedar, Israel, 2007, 125 mins.) I did not catch the name of the man who introduced the film (the program lists former IDF Commander, Uri Rosenheck), however he lacked any real enthusiasm for the program and basically gave a small lecture on the authenticity of the production. "I hope you enjoy what is a very interesting film." Hmmm. Interesting? BEAUFORT is Israel's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar this year, and as of today, it is on the short list. (Nominations will be announced Monday morning!) So, I think "interesting" should have been an understatement. What followed was a near minimalist observation of the final days of a military unit's occupation of Beaufort Castle, in Lebanon. The widescreen cinematography is not to capture the spectacle of warfare, but to reinforce the monotony of being stationed at a lookout post. The emotional impact of the film rests on the apparent futility of that function, as the unit knows that a withdrawal is imminent, as well as the lives that are lost during those last few days. This is where I found the screenplay a bit cliched as each tragedy is foreshadowed by having the victim have a "when I go home" moment. ("I am only three days from kissing Michele!" Guess what...) However, the overall bleak sense of helplessness and demoralization that fills the film, is commendably achieved, though not necessarily entertaining.

Maxxxxx says
re SIX DAYS: "Cranky bird!"
re GOLDA'S BALCONY: "Wooooo!"
re BEAUFORT: "Is it bedtime?"

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Friday, January 18, 2008

2008 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival - Opening Nights, the Films

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival launched its eighth year in what was a truly impressive pair of opening weekend events, at the Regal Atlantic Station Cinemas. The screening committee also programmed a pair of suitably festive films.

The 'official' opening night feature was THEN SHE FOUND ME (dir. Helen Hunt, US, 2007, 100 mins.) Helen Hunt makes her directorial debut, in a film starring herself, as well as a screenplay which she co-adapted from Elinor Lipman's novel. Now, whether she is gifted as a director could be debatable, but her performance is extraordinary, especially considering she is in nearly every frame! There is no question that she is in full control of her performance abilities and understands a script and what she can give to it. The performances by her supporting cast, Bette Midler, Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick and Ben Shenkman are good. Midler, in particular, gives the film its jolts, when it most needs them, and Firth is, as Lipman described during a Q&A, "the thinking woman's pin-up". The film isn't necessarily frothy, but I simply can't seem to bring any real analysis to it, nor was I unusually moved by it. It is performed far and beyond what the Hallmark Hall of Fame-like plotting would necessitate. It is a nice film. There was a Q&A with Lipman on Opening Night, and a video interview with Lipman, recorded on opening night, which was screened at its encore screening on Friday afternoon, which was a really cool surprise and an idea that I hadn't seen used before.

The second event featured CHICAGO 10 (dir. Brett Morgen, US, 2008, 102 mins.), an innovatively constructed documentary about the Chicago Conspiracy Trial of the "Chicago 8", who were held responsible for the disruption and riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Morgen eschews talking heads and uses news reels and archival footage, whenever possible. The transcript of the trial is performed by a cast that has been animated via rotoscope, featuring the voices of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright. I found it outrageously effective! Not only is the animation a creative alternative to the Ken Burns school of stills-and-narration, but it adds an appropriate pop-culture and psychedelic flair to the subject matter. There might be some argument as to the characterizations at the trial, as the judge and prosecution are played as incompetent villains. However, the transcripts are assumingly intact. Since the trial was for "conspiracy to incite", Morgen is able to effectively build to a climax, as the transcript lays out a virtual flashback of the organizing and planning of the protests during the convention. The film's inclusion in a Jewish film festival was arguably due to the presence of co-defendants Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and courtroom players William Kunstler and Judge Julius Hoffman. During the Q&A, it was also discussed within the context of having occurred only 20 years after the holocaust. And during that Q&A, the opinion that the film was too long, was expressed. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated the film, I would have to agree that it felt longer than the 100 minutes. There could be some minor pruning, especially of some of Abbe Hoffman's nightclub material and radio interviews, but that's just quibbling.

Maxxxxx says
re THEN SHE FOUND ME: "Hello?"
re CHICAGO 10: "Such a cranky bird!"

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

8th Atlanta Jewish Film Festival - Opening Nights!

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival launched its eighth year in what was a truly impressive pair of opening weekend events. Since I am still in my first year of living in Atlanta, I had not attended the AJFF before, and its reputation had preceded it as being the premiere film festival in the city. If Opening Night is any indication, that is not understatement!

Opening night, or the official title, "Opening Night Red Carpet VIP Event" was extraordinary, in my festival going experience. And at $250/pair, the sold-out crowd is made up of obviously fervent supporters of the festival and the American Jewish Committee (the sponsors of the festival). Upon entering the Fox Sports Grill in Atlantic Station, which is next door to the Regal Atlantic Station Cinemas, where the film would be screened, and being greeted by a phalanx of volunteers and house managers (a good sign regarding the crowd control to come?), photographers were available to record your entrance. I was immediately greeted by the p.r. representatives from GCI Group and given a quick briefing on who's who in the room in the festival administration. After a short conversation with Festival Co-Chair Darren Katz and AJC Assistant Director, Dov Wilker (where I could hear myself babbling! argh!), I tripped upon the buffet dinner served before the film. I do not know who the attendees were, but if the parade of Sachs and Neiman-Marcus fashion was any indicator, these were movers and shakers of Atlanta society. The event itself was buzzing with several photographers (photos to come) and videographers. It was well staffed and the menu was delicious! I was actually pretty excited for what lay ahead for dessert after the film! Kudos to the Event Planner, whose name I regrettably did not write down during the opening remarks before the film.

As the screening approached, I began to wonder HOW they were going to move these hundreds of diners into the cinema and start anywhere near on time. I have grown used to festival opening nights running late, the record being held by last year's Altanta Film Festival which started over an hour late. An announcement was made over the restaurant's p.a. system and the crowd began to excitedly finish and move out. Scheduled to begin at 7:30, at approximately 7:40, a p.a. announcement settled the crowd and Sheri Labovits, President of the AJC, Atlanta Chapter, stepped up to the podium and began the evening, which was perhaps the most impressive moment of the evening! The crowd was there and ready FOR THE FILM! It wasn't the social circus that can mire such nights in an bog of networking and air kisses.

Ms. Labovitz was followed by an introduction to this year's festival by the 2008 AJFF Co-Chairs Darren Katz and David Kuniansky. They announced that as of that afternoon, ticket sales had surpassed 12,000 sold and that the AJFF was now the second largest film festival, next to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Their presentation included a stunningly professional and impressive short subject, "2008 AJFF: CINEMATIC BRIDGES", directed and produced by David Shapiro. The short was a concise and fairly thorough profile of the festival, it's goals and the incredibly involved selection process. There are no less than SEVENTY members of the film selection committee, so "the AJFF ensures a diverse range of movies which appeal to audiences of all kinds."

After the short subject, the AJFF Opening Night Honorary Chair, Eleanor Ringel Cater, introduced the film, "THEN SHE FOUND ME" (which just won the Audience Award at Palm Springs) and the author of the book upon which it is based, Elinor Lipman, who was adorably thrilled to be there. I will recap my experience of the film under a separate post, but will suffice to say that it was the a crowd pleaser and an excellent choice for an opening night!

After the film, Elinor Lipman discussed the eighteen year hiatus that the novel spent after it was optioned by Sigourney Weaver, and her brief experiences with Helen Hunt when she was contacted about its eventual production. It would seem that the novel was liberally adapted into the screenplay, however, Lipman seemed so pleased with the final product on screen, that she didn't mind. After the film, and back at the Fox Grill, Lipman and her publishers provided free copies of the book, and she was available to autograph, during the dessert, which also featured a table LOADED with cakes!

The evening was a rousing success in my book!

I was ready for the next event, the "Young Professionals Night Party", which was the only screening on the second night of the festival, and it too was located at the Fox Sports Grill and the Regal Atlantic Station Cinemas. I was expecting something much more low key, in the form of a cocktail party. I was wrong! THIS was what I had come to be used to as an Opening Night! At an outrageous bargain of only $18 per ticket, the dinner buffet may have been a slight step down on the menu compared to the night before, but was equally yummy and plentiful! This was a much more buzzing crowd and the transition from restaurant to cinema was even more excitedly managed.

Though the networking and air kisses were more prevalent, the program began promptly at 7:30, with a p.a. announced welcome, which silenced and settled the crowd. Why don't more festivals do that?! It was the most simple and effective crowd control device I've seen. It got everyone settled and allowed a 'space' for the introductory speaker to begin. At so many of these events, I've seen the speaker wander up to the podium, look out over the crowd and apparently HOPE that people will sit and quiet down. Anyway, the night's committee chairs, Katie Kolesky and Jackie Naggar introduced the evening, which included a number of trailers of films that the 'Young Professionals Committee' recommended (or sponsored?). Then the guest of the evening was introduced: Mark Dunn, who is a founding member of the Weather Underground, which was quite apropos for the evening's film, "CHICAGO 10". (Again, I'll recap my experience of the film under a separate post.)

Mr. Dunn does not have any associate with the film or its subject beyond his association with the peace movement at the time. After the film, Dunn was not so surprisingly frank about his feelings about the film. "It's long!" Har! Also, he has an aversion to documentaries that would suggest "movements are made by leaders. It was the movement that created [us]." During the rest of the Q&A, it became more of a lecture about the work of the student protesters in the late 60's as well as the state of foreign affairs today, which became just a bit heated once Iraq was brought up.

These opening events have me quite excited to see how the rest of the festival will be run! I inquired about who their projectionists are (to be answered later) and found that the house management is made up of volunteers. However, these volunteers are exceptionally involved in the process of the festival. The people taking audience ballot cards for "CHICAGO 10" were actually members of the film selection committee, as I found out after a brief chat. They had seen a minimum of 50 films to discuss in the committee, which is an exceptional commitment in itself, much less 'working the doors' of the fest.

The BUZZ film of the fest is "THE MEMORY THIEF" screening next Thursday! I can't wait to see it again!!

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Atlanta Jewish Film Festival - Preview!

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival launches in just one more week! Due to the generosity of the AJFF and their press representatives at GCI Group, I had access to 35 programs and was able to screen 25 of the films. (The holidays got in the way of finishing!) As the festival approaches, I'll be posting 'daily previews', three days in advance of the screenings, with more detailed reactions to the individual films. For now, briefly, here are the highlights of what was in that big, box of screeners!

The Opening Night feature is Helen Hunt's directorial debut, THEN SHE FOUND ME. Frankly, I've never been a big Helen Hunt fan, however she gives a great performance here, though her direction is satisfactory. Casting Bette Midler as her mother is nearly inspired. It is a really good choice for an opening night film, as it is commercial, accessible, enjoyable and the opening night crowd should leave feeling good and ready for the rest of the fest! It has encore screenings throughout the fest.

On the opposite end of the "comfortable/accessible" scale is THE MEMORY THIEF, directed by Gil Kofman. Though it is fiction, the performance by Mark Weber as a young man who becomes obsessed with survivors of the holocaust is disturbingly real. I MUST see this with an audience to see their reactions, as well as what should be a very animated Q&A afterward! It screens on January 24th.

Speaking of great performances, Valerie Harper gives a brilliant performance as Golda Meir in GOLDA'S BALCONY, which is an adaption of William Gibson's one-woman play (which Harper performed on Broadway). It is not necessarily cinematic, however it does capture a performer at her peak and in the role of a lifetime. It screens several times throughout the festival.

In the middle of the festival, the programmers have actually pulled together a near brilliant triple-feature of films that are aimed for young audiences. Sunday, January 20, begins with the documentary PRAYING WITH LIOR, about a 13 year old boy with downs syndrome whose "uncanny spiritual connection has made him a savant in the eyes of classmates and earned him a following among local synagogues". It is followed by MAX MINSKY AND ME, which is a sweet comedy from Germany about a 13 year old girl's dilemma between preparing for her Bat Mitzvah or obsessing over a boyfriend. The day continues, and matures some, with the documentary AS SEEN THROUGH THESE EYES, which features the artistic depictions of the holocaust by the survivors - when they were children and now as adults. It features a wide range of expressions, from art to theatre (i.e. the children's opera, BRUNDIBAR).

As one might expect, there are quite a few documentaries. Unexpectedly, though, my favorite by leaps and bounds, was MAKING TROUBLE: THREE GENERATIONS OF FUNNY JEWISH WOMEN. The film profiles Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner and Wendy Wassertsein. It is 'hosted' by Jackie Hoffman, Corey Kahany, Jessica Kirson and Judy Gold. It was informative and really entertaining! LOVED it! It screens several times throughout the fest, however it is SELLING OUT!

Of the narrative features, my favorites out of the selections I saw include the SOMBER, yet GORGEOUS MY FATHER MY LORD and the delightful SIXTY SIX, which is equally a visual treat in its production design and recreation of 1966 London. They are both 'family oriented', with the former looking at the dark side of religion and family relationships, and the latter being a humorous, if nearly farcical story of a boy preparing his Bar Mitzvah, scheduled on the day that Great Britain played in the finals of the 1966 World Cup. Two totally different emotional experiences, but equally satisfying. MY FATHER... plays on Jan. 20, 21; SIXTY SIX screens on the 23rd and 24th.

Two films which might interest special interests within the local community are JERUSALEM IS PROUD TO PRESENT...", which documents the drama and struggle of hosting the 2006 World Pride Celebration in Jerusalem, where the city literally melts down in riots against the concept of "gay pride" in an Orthodox capitol. And for regional interest, there is the documentary SO LONG ARE YOU YOUNG, which profiles Samuel Ullman, who was from Birmingham, AL, and the influence his poem (initially made famous by General MacArthur, and then numerous state leaders since then) has on the world.

There are a couple films that I was unable to appreciate in a 'screener' situation (regardless of my home projector, which is nearly the size of San Francisco's Opera Plaza Screening Room), that I look forward to a second attempt at the festival itself. They are the award winning AVIVA MY LOVE and DISENGAGEMENT starring Juliette Binoche. Both of them are quite subtle and requires a focus, or at least a submission to their pacing and language.

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screens January 16 through the 27 and will be primarily based at the Lefont Sandy Springs, with a mini-fest at the Regal Medlock Crossing Stadium 18, and special events at the Regal Atlantic Station and the Fox Sports Grill next door. It has an excellent website where tickets can be purchased:

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