Friday, October 12, 2012

An Old Story Retold/A New Festival Carries On

Simon and the Oaks, the new Swedish film that's opening today in NYC, retells a familiar story of adopted chldren with biological family secrets. By putting the story in the context of the Shoah, it makes the cut for me to review it for Jewish Week, and you can find the story here


 When the Gold Coast Film Festival was launched last year on Long Island, my long-ago stomping grounds, I was as much amused as pleased. Certainly the metropolitan area needs more film festivals like I need . . . more film festivals. However, on the strength of their second year schedule, they probably are filling a real need on the Island. Certainly two the Jewish-themed films on the program are worthy of much wider audiences than they have had so far. When it played New Directors/New Films earlier this year, I wrote of The Rabbi's Cat:

The Rabbi’s Cat is Joann Sfar’s second directorial effort (this time in collaboration with Antoine Delesvaux) and it’s a definite upgrade from his Serge Gainsbourg biopic, if only because the energy never flags and the eponymous hero has none of Gainsbourg’s questionable behaviors. The cat, who has no name, is a creature of pure appetite, given to eating fish and birds without hesitation. (Come to think of it, he’s more like Gainsbourg than I thought, but he doesn’t do drugs or booze.) After apparently eating the rabbi’s parrot, he gains the ability to speak and almost immediately adds two new tricks to his repertoire, Talmudic disputation and lying.

Adapting his own books for the film, Sfar has concocted an entertainingly elaborate story that combines such classic elements of children’s adventure as a quest for a lost utopian city, a hunt for treasure and a close-knit band of friends to share it all with. Sfar and Delesvaux also have an eye on the adults in their audience and the film is as rich in its supply of inside jokes as the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the ‘40s and ‘50s, ranging from a playfully snarky homage to Tintin to a rather pointed dig at contemporary Russian monarchists. The underlying message of the film is one of tolerance for diversity and for feline desires for fish, both of them admirable themes energetically enacted.

Restoration, also in the festival, is even better, one of the best films I've seen in 2012. Here's what I said back in January:

Restoration, an Israeli film by Joseph Madmony, opens with  a pair of hands removing a wristwatch and putting it inside a old tin. We then see a series of shots of those same hands working old wood with a combination of fervor and delicacy that one can only find in a dedicated master craftsman. Fidelman (Sasson Gabai, head  of the Egyptian police band in The Band’s Visit) is just such a craftsman, although his antique furniture business is on the edge of bankruptcy. When his partner dies of a heart attack, Fidelman is forced to rely on his upwardly mobile son Noah (Nevo Kimchi), a lawyer with connections and plans and a very pregnant wife (Sarah Adler)  Or would he better off trusting the enigmatic younger man, Anton (Henry David), who has turned up looking for work?

Although the plot line about a stranger who inserts himself into an unstable family situation is an old chestnut, Madmony manages to work an interesting series of variations on the story. From that opening shot of a man who puts time aside (literally) in the pursuit of a vocation that is more like a calling through the entire credit sequence of Fidelman’s hands at work, ending with a close-up of Gabai peering at his own reflection in a glistening table top – the first time we see his face, albeit  in a fragmented form – you are immediately aware that this master craftsman is being depicted by a filmmaker who is his equal. The progression is also an inspired metaphor for a man who has stepped out of time in order to reverse its effects, but who is, at best, only a partially integrated human being whose only identity comes from his work.

Madmony eschews the easy, melodramatic choices. Like Fidelman, a man who represses his feelings in front of others but is burning inside, Madmony works magic through the manipulation of the physical environment, the shop’s endless, choking clutter, the dust that seems to hang in the air everywhere, the film’s muted palette of cool blues and grays. Restoration is a muted but finally powerful film about inter-generational conflict and loyalty, one of the best films to play the [New York Jewish Film] festival in several years.

The Gold Coast Film Festival opens in Great Neck and other nearby locales on October 22. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to their website.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Second NYFF Piece

It's now up on the Jewish Week website. I'll have a little more to say about a few films other films in the next day or two. (And for those of you with little or no Hebrew, l'dor va-dor means 'from generation to generation.')

In the meantime, on an infinitely more serious note, Jafar Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker currently under house arrest while he waits to begin a six-year prison sentence, and facing a 20-year ban from filmmaking, is not sitting idly by. In an interview with IndieWire, his friend and occasional collaborator Abbas Kiarostami says that Panahi has made a second film, a follow-up to last year's This Is Not a Film, in which he continues his one-man/one-camera battle with the current regime. Panahi is not just a very good filmmaker -- I'd say that on the basis of Crimson Gold, Offside and The White Balloon -- but he's a man of rare integrity and courage.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Russian Truth or Dare

It has been inspiring watching the women of Pussy Riot stand up to Vladimir Putin's private army of bullies and to the Orthodox Church. (It's also been fun listening to broadcasters handling the band's name.) Of course, I support them as prisoners of conscience and am doing the usual things to try and get them out of prison.

But they are hardly the first opponents of Putin's supposed democracy. A new DVD release from Kino Lorber is an excellent reminder of one of their rather more conventionally attired predecessors,
Mikhail Khodorkovsky. When the film Khodorkovsky played in New York, I reviewed it for Jewish Week enthusiastically. I retain that enthusiasm. Here is a slightly updated version of my original review.

Russian history in the 20th century has consisted of a series of leaps from the frying pan of Tsarist rule into an unabating series of fires of varying degrees of infernal intensity. The “return” to power of Vladimir Putin – does anyone really think he was away? – bodes ill for any dream of positive change in the former Soviet Union. It certainly spells continued prison time for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, who has been imprisoned in Siberia for more than seven years on charges of tax evasion. Last December he was found guilty of stealing all of the company’s oil, a patently absurd charge and his sentence extended until 2017. With Putin once again in the presidency, it is likely he will continue to serve that sentence.

Khodorkovsky’s rise to become the richest man in the world under the age of 40 and his equally spectacular fall are recounted briskly and effectively in Cyril Tuschi’s new documentary Khodorkovsky. Tuschi, a German documentarian, exchanged letters with Khodorkovsky, interviewed many of his former associates and, finally, in the film’s last scene, met the man himself for a brief courtroom chat. He has put this material together deftly, using some eerie animation to complete the links in the chain of circumstance that has would around his protagonist, and the result is a non-fiction thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchock or, more probably, Francesco Rosi.

Khodorkovsky was one of the smart young men who went into the sciences in the pre-perestroika Soviet Union because, as one of his former teachers says, “Business was not for Jews.” In fact, only Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, although many of his closest friends and colleagues were Jewish. Neither Soviet nor Russian law is informed by halakhah – anti-Semites never are. Becoming active in Komsomol, the Communist youth group, he built himself a circle of associates  and rose in the Soviet system. When that system fell and was replaced by one that aspired to become a sort of gangsterish version of the free market, he was uniquely well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities change offered. With two of his partners, Mikhail Brudno and Leonid Nvezlin, both of whom are now living in Tel Aviv, Khodorkovsky started the first bank in post-Soviet Russia. From there, through a series of intricate manipulations they acquired Yukos and found themselves to be wealthy beyond imagining.

Of course, they were being as much manipulated as they were manipulating. And when Khodorkovsky underwent some sort of personal conversion, changing Yukos from the least transparent of corporations (as was the case in virtually all of the oligarchs’ enterprises) to the most, and he began sidling up to and siding with the democratic opposition to Vladimir Putin, he set in motion the machinery of his own destruction.

Or his own rebirth as a democrat and human rights activist. Part of the fascination of Tuschi’s film is watching indirectly as Khodorkovsky begins his transformation and how it affects the opinions of those who are involved with him. Tuschi estimates that of his supporters “one-third are human rights activists, one-third are neo-liberal capitalists, and one-third just think he’s good-looking.”(Hey, given the results of many recent American elections both national and local, we’re probably not that different.) What strikes the viewer is that the billionaire’s conversion started out as a not-entirely-cynical attempt to make his company more attractive to foreign investment, but quickly became the real thing, a realization that the kind of barely legal conniving that characterized Russian business practices in the kleptocracy that followed the fall of Communism was doing no one any favors except the gangsters who pulled the scams and the politicians with whom they were in cahoots.

Although Tuschi never makes it clear exactly what triggered Putin’s private vendetta against Khodorkovsky, undoubtedly because nobody is really sure what it was, it is clear that Putin recognized in the oil magnate a serious rival and a dedicated challenger to his absolute and absolutely corrupted power. The man who emerges from the film is not merely a shrewd power player. If he were, he and Putin would arrived at a division of the spoils long ago. Rather, he is someone who, by his own description, has been liberated from the burdens of protecting his assets and who, in prison, has found the power that comes from such a liberation. If I were Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t want Mikhail Khodorkovsky out on the streets of Moscow either.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

New York Film Festival 1

The first of my two Jewish Week pieces on the Film Festival is up on the newspaper's site. This one focuses on three Israeli films being shown in the event. I'll have more to say shortly.