Sunday, January 18, 2009

Atlanta Jewish Film Festival 2009 - Day 3

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival graciously sent me a HUGE ENVELOPE of screeners of nearly the ENTIRE festival! (One must be careful for what one asks for!) The festival continues at the LaFont Sandy Springs, until Sunday, January 25, 2009.

ROAD TO MECCA: The Journey of Muhammad Asad (dir. Georg Misch, Austria, 2008, 92 mins.) In the spirit of full disclosure, I just couldn't get through this. I found it filled with a lot of trivial detail that wandered from the central subject of Muhammad Asad, by not only providing a biography of him, but adding a travelogue of sorts, as it details the areas that Asad lived in during his wide spanning career and life. However, all of this seemed to distill the effect of the man's life and I found it incredibly dull. I tried three times, but I just couldn't get through it.

RUN FOR YOUR LIFE (dir. Judd Ehrlich, US, 2008, 96 mins.) This documents the life of Fred Lebow, the creator of the NYC Marathon. The amount of historical footage, most of it from those fabulously geeky 1970's, is fascinating. The "talking heads" warmly remember the times and the man for the party that the era was. Once it goes into the third act, which focuses on the controversy that the almost TOO successful marathon ran into, it feels forced and drags a bit. It is as if the director felt the need to create some sort of drama within the piece, where it could have remained a cinematic love letter to Lebow. And for those first two thirds of the film, as well as its exceptional soundtrack and sound design, it is a really nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

THE WAVE DIE WELLE (dir. Dennis Gansel, Germany, 2008, 102 mins.) [Viewed via screener] Director Dennis Gansel has taken the risky move of transplanting the true story of a 1967 California high school experiment (that was also the subject of a memorable ABC After School Special), involving the establishment of an autocracy within a classroom setting and how easily fascism can take hold of a group of individuals, to a German school. The opening moments in which the students express disbelief that fascism could ever take Germany again, mixed with the the students ennui of another lesson about the Nazi regime, establish the exceptional setting. However, after that brief introduction, the story becomes a universally applicable warning of the pain of teenage alienation. The production does cross a melodramatic line, though in this post-Columbine world, may not be as implausible as it is dramatically played out. Part of Gansel's challenge here is it begs comparison to the work of Larry Clark or Gus Van Sant. The performances lack the spontaneity that American audiences have come accustomed to. On one hand, I began to feel that this was something of a "safety net" for Gansel, and that taking a cinema verite' approach would be too controversial for the German public. The production values are relatively glossy for this genre and there is something of a polished, dare I say, WB network feel to it.

A LIGHT FOR GREYTOWERS (dir. Robin Garbose, USA, 2007, 93 mins.) The festival is featuring one of the most peculiar and invention films you will see at this, or any other year. A LIGHT FOR GREYTOWERS, is a musical comedy directed by Robin Garbose, and is the first theatrical release by Kol Neshama, an all-female performing arts conservatory. The film unashamedly, if not proudly, relies on the musical theater constructs that Disney (if not Charles Dickens) has perfected. A young girl of orthodox Jewish background, finds herself in a Victorian England orphanage, and... well, hilarity, self affirmation and reunion ensue! Now, if you are NOT of the musical-theater inclined, you'll probably hate this. But I LOVED this! The performances are duly large and there is an unassuming innocence that treads perilously close to "cute", without falling into that. The production values and particularly the orchestrations are surprisingly polished! (The soundtrack is recorded and available from various sources!)

The film is nearly dominated by Judy Winegard's fabulous performance as the SEVERE orphanage mistress, Miss Grimshaw! Her diction and physicality are economical and tread perilously to the line of stagebound overacting, but Winegard, under Garbose's direction, keeps her charqacterization within cinematic boundaries. Also to Winegard's credit, she keeps from succumbing to the temptation of becoming another "Miss Hannigan" rip-off. Abby Shapiro as the orphan, Miriam Aronowitch, is obviously inexperienced, yet her performance naivete actually balances against the professional and (theatrically justifiable) hamming that surrounds her. However, in a position of "armchair directing", I would suggest a bit more post-production and with some judicious editing, correct some of Shapiro's faulty timing, as well as delete or wipe out some of the camera glances that the entire cast make. There are also standout musical numbers by supporting cast, however I am unable to find available production notes with which to credit them. (Note to producers: PLEASE post on IMDB! Or make a press kit available!)

As a note that did concern me for a moment, the film's producers advise "the film adheres to traditional Jewish values of modesty and is intended for female audiences only. Appropriate for ages 8 and up." Now, I don't know whether that is tongue-in-cheek, and I even checked with the festival organizers, but it is safe to say that its intended audience IS young girls, though I doubt that males will be turned away.

MY FIRST WAR (dir. Yariv Mozer, Israel, 2008, 82 mins.) There are two documentaries screening Sunday which are particularly heavy, especially considering the news events in Gaza these past couple of weeks. MY FIRST WAR is director Yariv Mozer's first person account of the frontlines of the 2006 war in Lebanon. Mozer's dry narration only intensifies the objectivity of the piece. He was allowed an outrageous amount of access and candor from his fellow soldiers. Even though we know what his thesis is going to eventually state, his clear and emotionally detached and paced editing is nothing less than extraordinary! Though I am not exactly clear on the amount of time he spans, he gives an exceptionally critical view of how the conflict resolved, not only from internal critics in the army, but from the Israel public, as well. At no point do you feel lectured to, unlike the nearly accompanying documentary of the day, THE CASE FOR ISRAEL.

THE CASE FOR ISRAEL: DEMOCRACY'S OUTPOST (dir. Michael Yohay, USA, 2008, 77 mins.) Frankly, I would not normally recommend this film, as it isn't so much a "film" as it is a recorded lecture, this being given by Alan Dershowitz, as a rebuttal to Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. In fact, even as recorded lectures go, this is pretty dry stuff, not to mention, as indicated by its title, it is pretty much on the defensive. I include it as a recommendation here, mostly due to how it will play against the current events in Gaza and how this film is guaranteed to spur an enthusiastic Q&A afterwards.

HEY HEY IT'S ESTHER BLUEBURGER (dir. Cathy Randall, Australia, 2008, 103 mins.) The film is strikingly similar to WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE in theme and structure, and requires someone of equally exceptional talent and skill as Heather Matarazzo. Unfortunately, such is not the case here. Not even the presence of Toni Collette and Keisha-Castle Hughes in supporting roles could save this awkward-teen-coming-of-age film starring Danielle Catanzariti, who is woefully out of her league here. I feel sort of guilty about being critical, as it isn't her fault for being cast. However, for a character that must carry the film, I think it would have behooved director Cathy Randall to cast more carefully. In appraising ...ESTHER BLUEBURGER, it is not dissimilar in kicking something when it's down. So, I'll just stop here.

THE SECRETS (Ha Sodot) (dir. Avi Nesher, France/Israel, 2008, 127 mins.) THE SECRETS has a slightly alarming first five or ten minutes, in which I thought the film was going to be a bomb. One must be patient and really concentrate on getting past the story's prologue before it continues into a series of unexpected and beautifully portrayed characters and situations (most notably the second appearance in this year's festival of Fanny Ardant!). The prologue is extremely bland, but purposefully so as it provides a baseline from which actress Ania Bokstein is able to take her character to exceptional growth. She accomplishes the burden of exploring the role of feminism in the world of Orthodox Jewry. Her character must grow past the discrimination she faces not only from the paternal influences of Judaism, but from the envy and fear that her self-empowerment invokes from her fellow women. Nesher takes Bokstein's character to surprising levels of power and eroticism. Michal Shtamler plays the girl who inspires and drives Bokstein to religious and physical levels that will shock themselves. Though Fanny Ardant's role in the film is something of a cipher, her physical presence is mysterious and sensual enough, that just being there is part of the delicate atmosphere that Nesher has created. It is beautifully filmed and an exceptional portrait of femininity, feminism, sensuality and mysticism in an Orthodox Jewish world. It's an outstanding experience.

Maxxxxx says
re A LIGHT FOR GREYTOWERS: "Dooby dooby doo-ooo!"
re THE SECRETS: "I love you too!"

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