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The movie revolves around a brother and sister, and nothing in their lives interests them except sex. The brother says something conventional about how he's young enough to be anything he wants to be, but he shows no sign of wanting to be anything, or even having any interesting abilities. We have no reason to like them, unless we admire them for being edgy enough to have incestuous sex. They meet a number of other people who declaim monologues-- sometimes straight at the camera-- which are either also about sex or about what's wrong with their lives. None of this engages the audience, because the characters appear to be right: their lives are a waste.
The film opens with a telephone prank, reminding me as an American that it's to the Spanish we largely owe the art of pulling someone's leg and of amusing exaggeration. But the prank introduces an important theme, also Spanish, of who's getting the upper hand at whose expense. And the additional theme of how hard it is to retain a traditional sense of honor under 21st-century economic pressures. The plot is of the very simplest-- save the ancient olive tree!-- but the characters have side concerns of their own which, while not indispensable to plot, serve to humanize the movie and inspire empathy. The man beside me in the theater remarked two or three times, "Excellent acting." Nice music, too, and flashes of humor. My wife, who knows a little Spanish, let me know how colorless the English subtitles (here in Israel, anyway) were in comparison.
We should care about performers for what they do, not for who they are and certainly not for who their family is, but I couldn't help it. I went to see CHOCOLAT because the actor playing second lead is Charlie Chaplin's grandson. And even if I'd been expecting Charlie Chaplin's reincarnation, I wouldn't have been disappointed. As the movie introduces his character, he does a tour-de-force of solo clowning that's jaw-dropping. Later on, the movie focuses rather more on the title character as he and the second lead make a revolutionary pairing of the white clown and the Auguste in the same act. We don't quite get an explanation of what the traditional white clown and the traditional Auguste are, but we do get a vivid, picturesque depiction of 19th- century France and a pretty strong story line.
Filmmaker Avida Livny remembers seeing a movie that no one else seems to remember. At least he does remember the title (some of us aren't that lucky) and he finds that the movie played less than a week and is remembered, if at all, as the worst Israeli movie ever made. Attempting to find the film's writer/director, Moshe Guez, he phones the star and finds she has mixed feelings. She walked out on the project before it was finished, but she admired Guez' dedication, she encourages Livny to continue his research project, and she only wishes someone were as interested in her. Livny finds that the unsuccessful movie means different things to different people who worked on it or who saw it as friends or relatives of Guez, but he discovers that far more vividly than they remember the plot or the characters, they remember Guez himself, who made the movie almost single-handedly over a span of five years. Was it worth five years? Is it worth an hour and a quarter to watch a movie about a bad movie and the one-flop wonder who filmed it? Guez turns out to be a unique character but at the same time someone with whom we can all identify, I think, so I recommend Looking for Moshe Guez.
Abulele is, as the movie says, a traditional Jerusalemite version of the bogeyman. In this film, which bills itself as "for the whole family," he is shown to be frightening and sometimes out of control but not malevolent. It's explained near the beginning that he appears only to "special" children, and I was worried that we were on our way to another version of the protagonist who turns out to be "the one," but it turns out that "special" means something quite different, as the movie-- after an opening that may seem to promise little but boredom for adults-- takes a turn toward more mature and somber themes. Abulele seems sometimes like a film for the whole family in turn, rather than for the whole family at once, and at one point where the tension mounted I noticed a couple of small children leaving with their grown-up escort. As its "making of" short makes clear, the movie is notable for special effects and music. Abulele himself is played by a man in a furry suit with carefully engineered prehensile hands and with a computer-animated face superimposed. And although, as the filmmaker remarks, the whole project was brought in on a budget equivalent to the catering for a full-scale Hollywood movie, the music was recorded by a good-sized orchestra at a prestigious studio in London. The music does the job, setting the appropriate mood throughout, and the acting of Abulele by man and computer will satisfy any but the greatest sticklers. Much of the story retells E.T.-- sweet things tempt the creature to befriend the boy, there's a girl who comes to function as the boy's sidekick, the creature's return to its home becomes a constantly pending concern-- and the script even acknowledges the debt once or twice. But Abulele takes place in a different world, where inescapable reminders of the distant past take the place of futuristic visitors from elsewhere.
The moment the movie starts, with a big-band arrangement (by Adi Cohen) of the Yiddish classic "Oyf'n Pripetshik," it seems we're in good hands. Two plot threads develop. One of them is a familiar meme, the cop who has been disgraced but who has a chance to redeem himself by solving a mystery. To add to the familiarity, he's also been thrown out by his wife and would like to return to her and to his daughter. But the mystery is an interesting one. The other plot thread is less conventional and is designed to give screen time to some of Israel's finest actors of the veteran generation, who all make good use of it and are beautifully photographed. There are some good original lines and some good little surprises. Neither plot thread winds up resolving itself in the expected way, but it's hard to pin down where certain ultimately unresolved and undeveloped plot points simply reflect the modern tolerance for uncertainty in narratives and where the script may have been unsatisfactorily developed or edited.
It's been a while since I saw an Israeli film set in the present day.
Almost all Israeli films need government financing (since the local
market is so small), so fashions are largely determined by the
preferences of the government committee. But I think that the many
recent Israeli films set a generation or two ago, often with an
emphasis on the ethnic traditions of various immigrant communities, may
be a reaction to the population's feeling of rushing into a homogenized
modernity that threatens people's sense of identity.
Officially voted best Israeli film of 2015, Baba Joon portrays three generations of a Persian-Israeli family. The grandfather established a turkey farm, the grandson has no interest in it, and the father is stuck in the middle, committed to his son but to the farm as well. Much of the movie is taken up with escalating episodes of defiance from the son and pained, angry reactions from the father-- maybe more episodes than necessary. A further plot thread and a few more characters would have been welcome, to open out the film a little and give the family drama some concurrent themes to reflect against. But my wife who grew up on a similar Israeli farm says the authenticity is perfect, and inside that small environment the affection and tension among the family members comes across excellently.
A master decides to temporarily change places with his servant and comedy ensues. Comedy has been ensuing from such situations since at least the seventeenth century, and this movie brings nothing new and valuable to the formula. The master, in his temporarily humbled condition, tries to win the heart of a beautiful woman but without his riches to help him he learns that he-- well, you might expect him to learn a lesson in humility, but he learns that money or not, he's a smooth operator who can get a woman to fall for him with nothing but sheer charm. Not even the perfunctory display of skills and good deeds that Phil learned to use in "Groundhog Day." Some respectable Israeli character actors mug their way through this exercise, and they're joined by Mandy Rice-Davies (of the Profumo affair).
Reymond Amsalem and Yehezkel Lazarov already portrayed a bad marriage
set nostalgically in 1960s Jerusalem, in "Resisei Ahava" ("Obsession")
two years before this movie was made. But as the man says, each unhappy
family is unhappy in its own way. This time, back in 1960s Jerusalem,
the woman is not unwisely devoted to a philandering husband but instead
is alienated and unfulfilled despite a weak husband's affection. And
the point of view is primarily that of their preteen daughter, but
Amsalem and Lazarov do a fine job once more and so does the child
As in almost all Israeli movies set in a bygone Jerusalem (and there are a lot), the outdoors is shown very little because you can't photograph much of the real Jerusalem without catching an anachronism. But in this case, the smallness of vista serves the movie quite well because much of the content hints at the threats that people pose to those close to them-- in particular, threats concerning the targeting or withholding or sidetracking of sexual energies. Threats, and hopes as well. Things that would happen in a more commercial movie stop short of happening in this one.
Despite constant reminders of the Israeli pre-war environment with its dangers and austerity, the story would be easy to set in any country; it's universal and intelligently understated. But the colorful specifics of the period setting, plus a little bit of humor from the character played by Hanna Laszlo, help keep the movie from being a drearily stagy chamber drama.
As I left the theater I was reflecting on the similarity to another Israeli movie with a preteen protagonist, "Intimate Grammar." About that one, I wrote that the plot leads to "an episode of a kind that does not just fail to please movie audiences but turns them hostile." It doesn't send the audience home in an emotional mood that generates enthusiastic recommendations. Neither does this one, and between its appearance on the festival circuit and its commercial Israeli release, it waited two years and underwent a title change.
Looking a bit like Joselito the Spanish child superstar of a generation ago, Itai Shcherback as Igor emits sufficient believability to carry the movie. The movie compares a move to Israel, which is more about the travails of adjustment, to the migration of cranes, which is more about the dangers along the way, but the comparison is well drawn, as is the comparison between the cranes' family unit (they mate for life) and the humans' family unit (a little more complicated). Igor is compared to a crane that has lost the support of its parents, as indeed Igor's father has lost the support of his employer and his mother has not exactly landed in a pot of jam either. There is not a lot of wildlife photography, but the human story, proceeding almost but not exactly along expectable lines, works all right.
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