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Sipur Ahava Eretz-Israeli (2016)
A beautiful album
At one point the heroine asks an actor to sign her album, and he remarks that it's a beautiful album-- which is an apt way to describe this movie. The movie is based on the true memories of one woman, from the hard days of pre-state Israel. It originated as a monodrama, and the story is very much from the woman's point of view. She wants to marry a member of a kibbutz-- a community where everyone votes on everyone else's budget, housing, and so on-- and she complains that she wants to be with him but not with everybody else. The movie too pushes everybody else a bit to the side; the performance of the lead actress, who had already played the part on the stage for years, compensates for the sketchiness of the other characters. And there is also a continual, appealing picture-album of period settings in 1940s Galilee, with pleasant music that provides relief from the sometimes grim happenings. Even in Israel (as the original author remarked at a pre-release screening) young people don't connect with this history of blood, sweat, and tears; and here we have an effective reminder, or an attractive introduction for those who need one.
Fine, but carries its message a little heavily
Eran Riklis likes stories in which a long, picturesque trip is paralleled by an inner journey of discovering the past, or the self. In Zeytoun, the trip is from Beirut across the border into Israel, and although I'm an Israeli who's never been to Lebanon, an aerial stock shot or two of Beirut was enough to sell me on the Lebaneseness of the locations seen in the first part of the movie, which were actually well-chosen sites in Israel. Unlike another viewer here on IMDb, I had little trouble accepting Stephen Dorff as an Israeli. Israelis come in all colors and sizes. Granted, his English was too good, but so was the Arab kid's. A brief sequence showing kids learning English verbs at school didn't really solve the problem. One makes allowances, though, when the visuals look realistic and the situation depicted is compelling, as here. My problem, and perhaps the problem of the Israeli public (which did not flock to see this movie), was that the audience is invited, a bit heavy-handedly, to sympathize with the Arab family's desire for repatriation to Israel without any balanced mention of the context in which such families found themselves outside Israel in the first place.
Matti Caspi: Confession (2015)
Revealing, although not a confession
"Confession" in the English title represents the Hebrew word "vidui," which the dictionary says means either an admission of what you've done or a revelation of your private thoughts and feelings. Though in English we tend to assume the first meaning for "confession," in this documentary Caspi reveals his private thoughts and feelings without admitting any guilt. I'm reminded of Donovan-- like Caspi, a curly-headed eclectic singer-songwriter who suffered from polio in childhood and who burst onto the scene as a coruscating genius and then lost his hitmaking touch. Between the lines of Donovan's autobiography you sometimes get an impression of insensitivity to others. Caspi, for his part, can't forgive his father for being emotionally distant. He realizes he's inherited his father's outward impassivity to an extent, but while he says it's something he eventually overcame, he doesn't stop to think that maybe his father would rather have overcome it too.
So here's a documentary with more than a little pain in it, and as one of the interviewees notes, it's in contrast to a lot of Mati Caspi's music and public persona-- which is often rich in fun and humor. What the film is missing is the fun side. I suppose it is intended primarily for an audience who knows Caspi's work and who takes the fun for granted. There is somber coverage of the death of Ehud Manor, a soulmate and a talented lyricist (although seldom profound) who worked with Caspi a great deal, and the implication is that Caspi without Manor has been at a loss, although Caspi in the past produced brilliant work with other lyricists as well.
The points of view of Caspi's three wives are missing-- not only the vexatiously remembered first two, but even the last one, whom he warmly praises. But as the many tight close-ups of Caspi's face imply as he is interviewed, the movie is about his own point of view. It presents that point of view well. A broader documentary would be welcome, but in such a small country, with little funding available, we should be thankful that this film exists.
"On the Waterfront" Israeli style
Like "On the Waterfront," this movie portrays the docks as under corrupt union control and harder to deal with than a hopeful honest man might realize. My wife preferred not to come see it, because the previews were mostly a bunch of men in hard hats and reflective vests arguing and scuffling, with a hint of a perfunctory domestic subplot thrown in. Actually the main plot and the domestic subplot intensify one another as the problem of the home and the problem of the port reflect mutually. The well-meaning protagonist finds himself disappointingly unwelcome in both. The many confrontations on the docks are about work stoppages, and what's missing in the movie (and perhaps in the budget) is a reasonably lengthy look at work as usual that might give the audience a more vivid sense of the environment. In addition, there appears to be a relatively small crew at this port, a little like the massive crowds in Shakespeare that are represented by four or five actors. Okay, not that extreme. But with the cast of less than thousands and with the lack of realistic dockworking scenes, "Homeport" could almost as easily be a stage play as a movie. Yet it would be a good play. The issues are put forward clearly, they are (as one critic noted) not just about the docks but symbolic of larger issues, and the action proceeds with a certain inevitability punctuated by one or two surprises, including a surprising but basically realistic ending.
Tragic for sure, but with a light touch
In drama the word "tragedy" has a meaning that is more specific than just "bad things happening." It refers to the way a powerful figure is brought to a complete downfall by an inherent aspect of the same power within him that raised him up in the first place. Arthur Miller set about in Death of a Salesmen to show that plain folks can, and perhaps often do, have lives just as tragic as those of ancient kings. Joseph Cedar has the same idea in Norman, and my wife called it a "heavy" movie, but I wouldn't entirely agree. The audience is prevented from becoming too emotionally invested in the tragedy because, first and foremost, casting Richard Gere as a hapless Jewish luftmensch (a person whose source of livelihood is deals, not products) creates a sort of insulation between the actor and the part regardless of how well he plays it. So does casting Steve Buscemi as a rabbi. The music, which is excellent, often implies a comical perspective. And there are satirical touches of mild exaggeration, with some of the scenes playing out like comedy skits. In fact, the production seems for the most part to take place on the scale of a TV movie. There aren't many incidental characters or details widening the scope and enhancing the realism of it, and what seems less than important can turn out to be perfectly, maybe even predictably important later (which, in a tragedy, may not be an imperfection).
The film is a joint US-Israeli production, but for nice recent Israeli cityscapes and landscapes you'll have to turn to other good recent Israeli movies (and there are many). In this one, unless I missed something, all we see of Israel is the inside of the Parliament (the real hall, used with permission). Maybe one reason Israeli audiences would find the film "heavy" is that they watch with fear that the plot will reflect badly on our politics. But it doesn't indulge in any particularly mean-spirited portrayals, and Richard Gere himself probably did more damage by coming to Israel for the premiere and patronizing the government with a political dose of California dreaming.
Bar Bahr (2016)
Not a lot of action, but well presented
I don't know what "Bar Bahr" means in Arabic, but I liked the English title-- "In Between"-- less than the Hebrew, which is "Neither Here Nor There." The movie is about how its three heroines suffer from belonging neither to traditional Arab society nor to secular Westernized society. Any base that they may seem to have established for themselves "in between" seems to crumble beneath their feet.
Despite the serious predicament, though, the movie is also very much about sisters doing it for themselves. There's an automatic solidarity whereby women-- at least young women of similar ages-- are all automatically soulmates; and men, it almost goes without saying, are swine. (Well, the gay guy is of course okay and a bit amusing.) Despite those stereotypes, the movie holds interest by virtue of believable acting and believable situations. My wife says it's one of the best we've seen in recent years, and she had the chance to appreciate it a little better than I did not only because she's a woman but also because she understands Arabic somewhat. For those who don't understand Arabic, though, there's still the added benefit of a look into another culture. The Israeli press was particularly impressed that not only traditional Arabic life is glimpsed, but also the small, rarely-explored community of young Arabs in Tel Aviv. (Is it possible that they all really smoke that much?) We see a succession of situations that by no means always involve much action or even much tension, although a couple of crises do come up. Mostly the appeal of the movie is in allowing us to feel like a fly on the wall among interesting people facing interesting day-to-day challenges.
A.K.A Nadia (2015)
At least initially, the film rests on the shoulders of Netta Shpigelman, who is not a big name in Israeli film. Her career has been primarily on the stage, although she popped up on TV in a tour- de-force impersonation the late Israeli poet Yona Wallach that had much of the audience guessing. Most films that are this focused on a single character provide a confidante or a sidekick so that the lead character's feelings can be given voice. In NADIA, the Aschers dispense with that convention and Shpigelman carries the ball, together with a script that sometimes skips details (or skips twenty years) and trusts the audience not to demand them, until the male lead pops up rather late in the movie. Although he appears in a scene or two without Nadia, he is not much of a character in his own right; he is just a garden-variety dead-handsome husband out of any woman's summer reading.
One reviewer was bothered that there isn't enough visual indication that Nadia ages 25 years in the course of the movie. It is a fault, and one or two coincidences are unfortunately forced, but as long as the movie follows Nadia, skipping from incident to incident and inviting the audience to react along with her to the hard choices that life presents, just about everything works.
Ben-Gurion, Epilogue (2016)
More than just an archive dump
Based on six hours of recently discovered film, this feature not only restricts itself to a fraction of the material (understandably) but also breaks it up and contextualizes it with earlier and later footage, so that viewing the movie is not a chore. The filmmakers seem to have been particularly interested in making sure no one misses the point that Ben Gurion believed that Gaza and the West Bank (except Jerusalem) were not too high a price to pay for peace. It's a little strange that so much (including the core interview) is in English, but although Ben Gurion claimed he found English difficult, he has no trouble expressing himself. The interviewer, Clinton Bailey, knows what he's doing (and indeed he turned out to be destined for bigger things). It is certainly to be hoped that the full six-hour interview will become available, perhaps as a book.
Me'ever Laharim Vehagvaot (2016)
Odd pieces that somehow do fit together
Eran Kolerin's previous film, The Exchange, had to do (if I understood it at all, and maybe I didn't) with intentionally attacking the connection between people and their context. In this new one, a man is dislodged from his context-- he retires from his job in the standing army-- and he finds himself a bit of a stranger among his family. His daughter, his wife, and his son all have secrets from him although each of them also reflects an aspect of his own tendencies. The scenes of the film are paced in surprising ways. Some moments last longer than a viewer would normally expect, others are cut off abruptly, and sometimes the film skips moments that we might expect to see. A soundtrack that repeatedly returns to Israeli consensus music, the great Israeli songbook, sometimes sounds ironic against the edgy conflict-ridden situations but also recalls the film's epigraph, in which poet David Avidan remarks that we have nowhere else to go-- meaning not just as a nation among nations, but also as individuals among the vicissitudes of life. The movie leaves some matters unresolved, and it certainly doesn't follow anything like the clean arc of Kolerin's most popular movie, The Band's Visit, but it implies, in a more hopeful way than The Exchange did, that whatever may happen to you or around you, you can decide to define yourself apart from it.
Past Life (2016)
Uncharacteristically low on warmth and humor, but impressive
At one of the preview screenings, director Avi Nesher related that Graham Daniel, the revered sound mixer he'd been lucky to cajole into working on this film, compared him to Kubrick as a pain in the neck. Nesher is apparently a perfectionist on the Kubrick level and the results are not only on the soundtrack but also visible on screen in the lighting, the detail, and the recreation of period settings. After a run of four big successes since returning to Israel, it seems Nesher can manage to raise a bit of a budget. Apparently he even rented and repainted a bus just to insert a momentary tribute to one of his previous films (unless that bus was just a visual effect).
What those previous hits had that Past Life doesn't is a coating of warmth and humor. Past Life is based, apparently closely, on a true story about secrets from the Holocaust. It's been very successful in overseas showings, and it might be said cynically that world audiences love to see spiritually tortured Holocaust survivors, especially when the portrayal is spiced with intimations of personal guilt and, above all, an implication that the Arabs of Palestine are the victims of the victims. But although the warmth is missing and so is the humor (except in some wisecracks from one of the main characters, who is based on journalist Shosh Avigail), it's possible to like the film for the right reasons as well as for the wrong ones.
Nesher said that the film has an odd narrative structure because of its faithfulness to the real story. It does have an interestingly odd structure, as well as some nice feints in unpursued directions, a cliché or two, and an ending that may seem less definitive to the audience than it does to the characters. As in all Nesher's recent movies, the acting is first-rate. Nesher continues his practice of casting comedians in straight roles (this time it's Muli Shulman); he's said that whereas those trained as stage actors give top priority to serving the text, comedians understand the importance of keeping the audience's attention at every moment. I wonder whether the movie will be as popular in Israel as his previous few have been.