Good Jews, Bad Jews
No, it's not the big one. But the Summer Mini-Fest presented by the Miami Jewish Film Festival does offer a welcome respite from the blockbuster madness that rules at your local multiplex. True, this time around there is nothing here on the level of previous festival discoveries such as Walk on Water or Perlasca. But festival director Ellen Wedner is right in looking for pictures "you don't see anywhere else, such as Sentenced to Marriage." More important, she succeeds. Here is a look at some of the highlights.
King of the Corner (U.S., 2004): A middlebrow mensch having a midlife crisis, nothing major, just an ordinary life lived on the edge of melancholy. If that doesn't sound promising, there you are. King of the Corner, based on Gerald Shapiro's Bad Jews and Other Stories, is by no means a perfect picture. The whole affair at its best falls somewhere between the worlds of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, though most of it is more like Mordecai Richler Lite. Still, Peter Riegert's directorial debut is a touching, gentle affair. It also boasts what must be considered an amazing cast by any standards, a tribute to Riegert's reputation in the business as well as to the dearth of meaty, complex roles for good actors in an industry where most acting takes place opposite imaginary aliens in front of green screens.
That it has the feel of a television movie (practically all closeups, and the shot-to-shot continuity is no joy either), or that the picaresque script is often uncertain in tone -- these are quibbles. That at times the movie is almost too quiet for its own good is also par for the course; this is the key to Riegert's well-worn screen persona as a put-upon Everyman, successful everywhere from Animal House to Local Hero and beyond, and here it carries through to the script and direction. Riegert the mogul does not yet know exactly what to do with every element of filmmaking. But Riegert the Jewish humanist has his heart in the right place. He plays Leo Spivak, a market researcher who spends his time delving into the minds of focus groups for such subjects as spray-on pasta sauce. Nicely ensconced somewhere in the burbs is his wife, played by the glorious Isabella Rossellini in a restrained, almost dowdy performance. Then there is Sol Spivak, Leo's old dad left to live out his days in an assisted-living hellhole in the middle of nowhere; Eli Wallach's devastating, humorous performance as this shrinking senior citizen is alone worth the movie. The rest is icing on the cake: Rita Moreno, looking stunning and acting up a quiet storm, as Sol's second wife; Eric Bogosian as an unemployed rabbi without a congregation but up for a gig praying at Sol's funeral; Beverly D'Angelo as the gorgeous shiksa from Leo's past; Dominic Chianese, fresh from The Sopranos, as an oily funeral director; priceless cameos by Harris Yulin and Penny Fuller. And one major find: a subtle, very funny performance by Jake Hoffman as the up-and-coming snake in the grass who just might take over Leo's job. He happens to be Dustin Hoffman's son, but he'd be worth keeping an eye on no matter where he came from.
Sentenced to Marriage (Israel, 2004): And you thought Catholics had it tough when it came to divorce! This controversial Israeli documentary follows three young Orthodox women as they fight for their freedom in the religious courts. The catch is that a divorce can't be granted without the husband's consent, and of course they are forbidden relations with other men because they are married. The irony that all of this takes place within the laws of a democratic nation in the 21st Century is not lost on Anat Zuria, an uncompromising director who observes with almost cruel clarity the real-life saga of Tamar, Sari, and Smadar's surrealistic and frustrating dealings with rabbinical justice. A unique festival offering, not likely to turn up on cable anytime soon. In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Ushpizin (Israel, 2004): Giddi Dar's ultra-Orthodox fairy tale about a childless couple in need of a miracle has been making news in Israel precisely because it marks the first time the very Orthodox themselves have gotten involved in secular moviemaking for a mainstream audience. Written by Shuli Rand -- who also stars alongside his real-life wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand -- and set in contemporary Jerusalem, the picture is meant as a parable of faith and love based on the apocryphal (Midrash) story of Abraham's encouraging guests to his house. Ushpizin, which is set for domestic release this fall, was not officially available for review for this festival. Still, it sounds promising. Like a happy mitzvah. In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Campfire(Medurat Hashevet) (Israel, 2004): This film wasn't available for review either, but it definitely seems worth seeing. For one thing, it is certainly unusual to have an Israeli motion picture offering up a less than flattering portrait of religious "settlers," and word has it that Joseph Cedar's Campfire -- which was also Israel's official entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Picture -- does just that. Yes, there are liberals in Israel, even if Sharon is what passes for moderate these days. This festival pick is also a rare chance to catch up with Israel's Assi Dayan, a former heartthrob and fun actor now graduated to character roles, whom we just don't see often enough. In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Summer in Ivye (U.S., 2001). This one is a story about a story, a movie about a play about the loss of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. Tamar Rogoff's documentary about prewar Jewish life and culture in Belarus, based on interviews with local townspeople, wins the festival's award for the picture least likely to turn up next at your local multiplex.
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