Sidney Stumbles; Israeli Directors Take Up the Slack.

Long(ish) time between drinks, huh? I would have referred you to my new piece in Jewish Week on the Israel Film Festival but the JW website has been out of order for several days now. Instead, I'll give it you below, shortly.

Sidney Lumet has been a prime whipping boy of mine since I was a college film critic way back in the Iron Age. He has always worked fast, chosen good casts and interesting material. But he has invariably betrayed that material and those casts with a visual style that is obfuscatory at best and downright incoherent at worst. There are a few notable exceptions -- Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City -- but for the most part, I find his films not up to the level of his aspirations.

Lumet has been making feature films for 50 years now, and he is probably best known for his deep attachment to New York locations and the fast, off-the-cuff directorial style that he learned in his formative years in live television. His latest film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, falls into the crime genre, which he has explored repeatedly. Unlike Serpico, Q&A and Prince of the City, the police are a minor afterthought in the new movie.

Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are ill-matched brothers; Andy, the older of the pair, is a successful real estate agent who is living way beyond his means, nursing a serious drug habit and a shopaholic wife (Marisa Tomei), while the younger Hank is a perpetual screw-up with a mountain of debt and an ex-wife clamoring for child support payments. Each of them needs a way out of the tightening noose of debt that hangs around their necks and the ever-resourceful Andy has a simple solution: rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store in the suburbs. The catch is that this particular mom and pop are their parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris). Needless to say, as Hank reports early in the film, “Everything fell apart all at once.”

Lumet tells this part of the story, the first two-thirds of the film, in a complicated series of time-travelling flashbacks from a profusion of points-of-view. Only in the film’s last 40 minutes does he eschew this device and allow the final movement of the narrative towards revenge and devastation – this is a really nuclear family -- to take its linear course. And that is a big part of the problem with Before the Devil. The flashback structure, which was present in Kelly Masterson’s original screenplay and preserved by Lumet when he did rewrites, is rickety and gimmicky. There is no particular reason to tell the story this way; the same shifts of point-of-view could be accomplished in a linear narrative. The time jumps don’t tell us anything extra, add nothing to our understanding of the characters or their situation, don’t even add to the suspense, since we see the robbery go sour almost from the start of the film. All this structure does is to make a film that would have been riveting at 95 or 100 minutes seem attenuated and strained at 116.

Although Lumet has certainly provided us with some memorable screen moments over the past half-century, but the most striking scenes in the new film are ones that stay in my memory because of the lost opportunities they represent. I will merely offer one example, the scene in which the family is informed that Nanette has been declared brain-dead and is on life support. Lumet shoots the scene in a single take, which could be very effective, except that he chooses an elevated long-shot with the camera viewing all the participants from such a distance that we cannot see how anyone reacts to the news. Even the doctor’s face is obscured. The only communication with the audience comes from Albert Finney’s body language, his slow slump into his chair as the light and energy are drained out of his home and life. Too much of this film feels as drained of life as his character, drained by Lumet’s odd directorial choices.

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For obvious reasons, Israeli culture has a high tolerance for ambiguity and contradiction. As the English-born Israeli theater director and playwright Robbie Gingras says, “You must remember that Israeli artists celebrate ambivalence, questions and problems.” Anyone attending this year’s Israel Film Festival, which opened on October 23, could tell you that.

Clearly, that fascination with gray areas is the source of the new-found strength of Israeli cinema. Consider, Aviva, My Love, by writer-director Shemi Zarhin, knowon here for Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi and Passover Fever. The film’s central figure, the eponymous Aviva (Assi Levy), is juggling her job as a hotel cook, caretaker for her crazy mother (Levana Finkelstein), unemployed husband (Dror Keren) and three kids who suffer from a variety of character flaws and tics. At the same time, pushed by her sister Anita (Rotem Abuhab), she is trying to pursue a writing career under the guidance of one-book wonder Oded (Sasson Gabai).

As the plot synopsis might suggest, Zarhin starts the film off in a highly comic vein, bordering on TV sitcom. But after the first 20 minutes, it takes a sharp but well-modulated turn into something much darker. Perhaps Oded sums it up best when he asks his pupil, “You’re a funny woman, why are your stories so tragic?”

This is a difficult balancing act, one that Zarhin couldn’t quite bring off in Monsieur Shlomi. But his new film is exquisitely judged, a bittersweet tale of the Faustian bargains at the heart of creating art. The film is filled with images of his characters framed in doorways, hesitating between bad choices, trapped by their own self-images. The result is a deeply satisfying and very accomplished piece of work.( Zarhin is also represented in the festival by Noodle, directed by Ayelet Menahemi from a script the two co-wrote.)

Ironically, two of the festival’s most successful documentaries, “The Modern Ones” and “Film Fanatic,” center on similarly dismaying sets of possibilities. Each is concerned with the difficulties facing Orthodox Jews confronted with the modern world. “The Modern Ones” examines the dilemma of young Orthodox singles who have gradually come to the realization that, despite all the pressures to marry and have children, they will probably never find a satisfactory mate. Cheli Roesnberg tells this story with a mordant, dry wit, starting from a meeting of a couple dozen matchmakers that bears a startling resemblance to every shadkhen joke every told.

The protagonist of Shlomo Hazan’s “Film Fanatic” is Yehuda Grovais, one of the pioneers of the exploding Haredi cinema, a film-obsessed ex-insurance salesman who, like the young men and women of “The Modern Ones,” is caught between the demands of his community, his conscience and his passion. Grovais has made over 50 feature films that you probably have never heard of, let alone seen, working on less-than-shoestring budgets with an ingenuity that would do Roger Corman proud. He is also a sweet, deeply sincere and somewhat na├»ve young man who we see desperately trying to find foundation money to film a dream project on the Psalms. Hazan treats his subject with respect and affection and at the film’s close Grovais is making something of a small, richly deserved, career breakthrough.

The ambiguities of Israeli history are too well known to repeat here. Eli Cohen, who is by now one of the grand old men of Israeli film, examines such period with great intelligence in his documentary “Till We Have Built Jerusalem.” The film retells the story of the British Mandate in Palestine, a period of only 30 years in the 5,000 year history of the City of David, but a pivotal interlude. Beginning with a deliciously ironic use of the William Blake poem, now virtually a second British national anthem, Cohen traces the story of the British involvement from WWI through to the dissolution of the Mandate after WWII through a series of talking-heads interviews with historians and wonderful and rare footage from the period. The film is never less than fascinating.

After many years of cheap humor at their expense, Israeli filmmakers have begun to take the Mizrahi community much more seriously. The family in Aviva My Love are originally North African Jews, and at least two other features in the festival are set in similar communities. Kululush by Nati Adler, takes place in an Iraqi community in the Tikvah neighborhood of Tel Aviv, while Three Mothers takes place in a community of transplanted Egyptian Jews. What all three films have in common is the sense of insular, almost dead-end worlds, stifling and claustrophobic. Family in these films is not a source of support but a battlefield.

Kululush centers on an ill-matched pair of brothers. Avi is a sad sack whose emotional life is invested primarily in the B’nei Yehuda soccer team, an aggregation as hapless as he is. Ronni once was the greatest scorer in B’nei Yehuda history but went to Europe to pursue his career; there, his compulsive gambling landed him in some unspecified trouble. His return to their slum neighborhood precipitates a series of crises, including the death of their grandmother, a toothless, beady-eyed nut who spies on the neighbors through a periscope erected on their roof, and the unearthing of an old family feud that has prevented Avi from wooing the girl of his dreams.

Adler handles all the complex action adroitly, but there is a lingering sour taste in the screenplay by Shaul Bibi and Ofer Tabechnik, a bile-filled bitterness that undercuts the film’s attempts at humor and the potential warmth of the relationships between the brothers, their grandmother and their neighbors.

Three Mothers won Israeli Film Academy awards for best cinematography and costumes, and picked up a couple of statuettes at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Directed by Dina Zvi-Riklis from a script by Alma Ganihar and the director, the film is an old-fashioned multi-generational saga, the sort of “women’s picture” that Warner Brothers would have pulled together for Betty Davis, Mary Astor and Priscilla Lane, with Claude Rains as the indulgent father. The three mothers of the title are actually triplets named for flowers, Rosa, Flora and Yasmin, and the atmosphere of their upbringing is definitely of the hothouse variety. Their mother is the midwife to King Farouk’s palace and when the trio are born he bestows a royal visit on them. As one of them later recalls, “He turned us into queens.”

It is very hard for three queens to share one throne, and the smothering closeness of the sisters’ relationship to one another virtually shuts out their husbands. There is a complex set of subplots revolving around Rosa’s singing career and infidelity, Flora’s inability to have children when her husband is crippled in a construction accident, and the mysterious fate of the child she eventually does raise. All of this is told in a densely structured series of flashbacks while the sisters wait for a kidney donor for Yasmin, who is dying of nephritis.

Zvi-Riklis (whose husband, Eran Riklis, co-produced) handles this complicated saga deftly, although the plot contrivances are pretty obvious. She has a knack for the subtle use of camera movements to emphasize the emotional isolation of her characters and she has ample opportunities to do so. The script, too, has some nice grace notes, such as the constant shifting between Hebrew and French when the sisters converse together. The result is a bit too studied to be genuinely moving, but it is handsomely mounted and moves along fairly swiftly. Three Mothers is a film in desperate need of a sense of irony or at least a bit of mystery, but it isn’t dull.

One might say the same of Frozen Days. The film begins strongly, setting up an intriguing situation. Miao (Anat Klausner, who is never off-camera during the film’s 91 minutes) is a drug courier who sets up a date with a guy she met in an on-line chat room. Alex Kaplan, the young man, is supposed to meet her at a local club but they fail to connect when a terror bombing rips through the club, leaving him in a coma, covered with bandages from head to toe. She takes advantage of this opportunity to take over his identity gradually, finally cutting her hair so that she even looks like him.

Lerner gives two great big Hitchcockian clues to what is happening right away. The credit sequence is an homage to Vertigo both in its graphic design and Tomer Ran’s elegant piano music. And the name of the seeming bombing victim, Alex Kaplan, is an echo of the mysterious George Kaplan of North By Northwest. For the first half of Frozen Days, Lerner gives a deft impression of the Master of Suspense, utilizing crisp and inventive black-and-white cinematography by Ram Shweky, with lighting coming from strange and incongruous places. As long as he keeps up the subtler forms of disorientation, the film is a griping and sure-footed genre piece. But in its second half, as Miao becomes absorbed into Kaplan’s life, Lerner pulls out all the stops, with 720-degree pans, sudden, pointless zooms and increasingly crazy camera angles underlining everything we already have suspected. By the film’s end, one realizes that Lerner has taken a story that would make a neat 30-minute episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and blown a lot of hot air into it. There is an undeniable talent at work here, but Lerner needs more seasoning.

The 22nd Annual Israel Film Festival runs through November 8 at the Clearview Cinema (Broadway and 62nd Street) and Florence Gould Hall (55 E. 59th St.). For information, go to http://www.israelfilmfestival.com/iff07.

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