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Maybe it's just a prequel, but it's a good one and it can stand alone
One of my favorite movie lines is from "Les violons du bal." The protagonist is a filmmaker determined to make a movie about his childhood. Someone asks "But why is your childhood so important to you?" and the protagonist says "Because it's mine."
Matan Yair's attitude is similar. He plays himself in the movie, he wants us to see his relationship with his father (who also plays himself), and he wants us to see not his childhood but his work with disadvantaged students (who mostly play themselves)-- although the movie is scripted and not a strict documentary by any means. The question is whether he manages to make it all interesting to the audience, and the answer is yes, partly because when a teacher walks into a room of problem students you never know what's going to happen and whether he can handle it.
The story goes that while Yair was making this extremely low-budget and personal movie, another movie idea of his got funded-- rather a similar idea-- and it turned into the movie "Scaffolding." "Scaffolding" is a more traditional movie, and a bit easier to watch, because it focuses strongly on one particular student of his (a charismatic fellow who plays himself) and it uses that student, instead of Yair, in the subplot about the father-son relationship. Although "Scaffolding" replaces Yair with an actor, you can see that it was filmed in the same school and the students present the same challenge to the teacher.
Back to "Bagrut." It was finished and released after "Scaffolding," and in a way it looks like a less developed version of the same movie. But it turns out different, and it establishes its own raison d'etre.
The title refers to the Israeli examination that Israeli kids take at the end of high school (if they're even good enough to take it), but it also means "maturity," which is what everyone in the movie is reaching for. In English, the title is "Unseen." The teacher is working with kids who go largely unseen in society, and he's largely unseen himself-- even by them. The surface-level justification of the English-language title is that apparently it's the name of a poetry unit that the kids need to study. But I didn't find that point particularly clear. Why "Unseen" in English when the poetry is in Hebrew?
Relatively harmless farce
This is a short, seriously dated, but relatively harmless farce with some serious improbability here and there but with some praiseworthy touches too. The hero has to overcome not only external obstacles but also an inner choice regarding his direction in life. The comic villain too turns out to have a choice of his own to make, and he makes it with a newly acquired self-understanding. Oddly, the director of this 2003 comedy revolving around Eurovision and the Israeli army has gone on to make a 2019 comedy revolving around Eurovision and terrorists, "Douze Points." I haven't seen that one, but I'm a little more inclined to consider watching it on the basis of "Hallelujah."
Yeled Tov Yerushalyim (2016)
A slightly serious variation on a reliable formula
The publicity guy who decided to call this movie "Mr. Predictable" in English was leading with his chin. It's a movie about encountering that stock character called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl-- the one who is always eager for adventure and takes you out of your shell and shows you what fun is. "Live for today" is normally the lesson of such movies, and if you've seen one (like "Something Wild" with Melanie Griffith or "Who's That Girl" with Madonna) you'll find a good dose of predictability in the others. But in this instance, in comparison with some, the scriptwriter has kept his feet, if not on the ground, maybe at least little closer to it. The protagonist has a son, he'd like to teach that son how to be gentlemanly but not a chump, and he's not sure himself where the balance lies. The son, and the protagonist's parents for that matter, are flawed in ways that aren't intended to be completely funny. The movie winds up in a middle ground that certainly isn't entirely comic but does prioritize comedy much of the time and sort of clings to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype as an reliable formula.
Study of a tragic character. Not all women like it.
This is largely a character study of a man who works hard at doing the right thing and doesn't have particularly sensitive emotional antennae. Isn't doing the right thing more important, and shouldn't it be sufficient? The proposition (and how it fails to work out) is enough to carry a movie, and along with first-rate acting it does carry this one; but there are a few flaws too. As the IMDB storyline says, "Avner suspects his wife Ella of having an affair. Secretly recording her telephone conversations, he turns into a spy in his own home, listening to them again and again." The movie returns repeatedly to conversations he's already listened to, and it advances the arc by letting us hear a little more of what Avner has already heard. An intrusively artificial device. A better script would have perched us on Avner's shoulder and let us learn details as he learns them, rather than informing us later of what he learned earlier. Another problem, perhaps relevant only in Israel, is the casting of Guri Alfi. It's not his first role in a dramatic movie, but still he's much more familiar as a TV wisecracker, and there is near-zero room for lightheartedness in the character he plays here. I think that someone known for serious roles, or not even well known at all, would have been better accepted by the audience (regardless of the quality of the performance).
My wife came with me to see this movie although a girlfriend of hers had warned that it's not very good. My wife didn't like it either. I guess it's a movie for men. In a chick flick, after all, it's the women whose motivations the audience is supposed to identify with while the men's motivations are simplistically obvious. unfathomable, or just not worth thinking about. In "Echo," the woman's motivations function as part of the mystery.
No Blood (2018)
A movie you can learn from
The protagonist is a writer, and that can be a bad sign. Often it means that the writer of the movie hasn't yet discovered anything more interesting than himself. But here it's a device that lets the protagonist give us a few words about the difference between a play and a movie: a movie is realistic, he says, whereas a play depends largely on the audience's imagination to fill in what's not visible on stage.
Then, impishly, the movie proceeds to show that a movie can also be largely about what it leaves you to imagine. The plot makes interesting feints, there are three mysteriously sketchy dark-haired women (I'm not sure I always managed to tell them apart), and while commenter Dromasca may be right that the movie's major femme fatale doesn't project all the appropriate charisma, there is a character billed as the Investigator--played by Sasi Samucha, who is a teacher of acting-- and that character does more than anyone else to carry the film. He seems to be so self-confident a master of his job with the police (or perhaps not exactly with the police) that he doesn't need to bother looking tough or impressive. The audience never knows what he's going to do, and the protagonist apparently fails to respect him as a source of danger, but he provides an anchor in that he alone seems to have a theory regarding what's going on.
Ultimately, it's a filmed play
"Fractures" started out as a play, and its theatrical roots stick out. There is not a lot of dynamic visual interest, and there are long dialogues that sound more crafted than spontaneous, at a nervously speedy pace that detracts from the realism. The two lead roles are played by stars who are well liked but are in and out of the acting business-- one also known as a TV interviewer and the other as a comedian and sometime politician. They get the job done, but they're not up to the level of, say, Levana Finkelstein, a prize-winning veteran with a brief role here as the mother of the third side of the triangle. That side is played by Liat Etka, who I have to admit I failed to recognize from the quite recent "Noble Savage" which earned her a best-actress nomination. Her character here is ambiguous, but unfortunately not because she sends contradictory signals but merely because other people contradict her. The story is in the dialogue, and for the most part it's a worthwhile story, touching on important issues. The movie is time well spent, just not very strongly cinematic.
Rises admirably above its unpromising material
The film begins with a burst of music that sounded very likeable to me, particularly the percussion. And it turns out that indeed there's an indispensable drummer whom the protagonist is trying to recruit in order to get their old band back together. (What, a "get the old band back together" movie? In 2018?) He needs to perform with the band in order to raise funds for his daughter's cancer treatment. (We are not getting any less hackneyed here...) And it's a little complicated because he's become religiously observant. (Again? We just had an Israeli "music star becomes religiously observant" movie, The Other Story, earlier in the year.)
As if it understands that these elements are pretty well known to the audience, the movie skims over them without too much exposition. We follow the protagonist as he faces his challenges, the way we would follow any generic protagonist, until at a certain point he stops being generic. He turns out to be a troubled man in his own specific but philosophically resonant way, and having already begun to root for him against the world, we begin in addition to root for him against himself. That he needs redemption is a little overobvious from the movie's English-language title. Its Hebrew title, Geula, does mean "redemption" but it's the name of his little girl as well.
Like Madmoni's early film The Barbecue People, this one has a climax that depends perhaps a little too much on narration of antecedent action. But it's obvious that, as one of the external reviewers says, the filmmakers felt like keeping the audience at a remove. Some incidents go unshown as the plot proceeds, and from time to time the action occurs in about a quarter of the frame while a blank wall fills the rest of the screen. Not a problem. By forcing the audience to make a bit of an effort, and leaving bits unsaid and unshown, the movie strengthens the audience's feeling of participation.
Largely a study of one man's struggle, the movie doesn't pause anywhere to let the supporting actors shine forth. It does pause to let brief musical sequences serve as punctuation. Although Madmoni has been quoted as saying that all the actors are musicians, the filmmakers make little attempt to convince us that the actors are actually playing their instruments; most of the time the camera simply avoids their hands as they play.
Not too much of the movie rests on the daughter's shoulders, but little actress Emily Granin handles her role with all the necessary believability. The settings and the throngs of extras are believable too. As an Israeli, I'm always interested in exactly where Israeli movies are supposed to take place. This one mentions at one point that it's in Bnei Brak, but there is no emphatic linkage to that specific place by means of the plot or photography. Maybe we're supposed to understand that the story is universal; but it's admirably told and I think we would have understood that point anyway.
A Tramway in Jerusalem (2018)
An offbeat anthology
The Jerusalem tramway (more commonly called the "light rail") is the setting for a series of vignettes, songs, and even literary readings. One passenger reads at length from Flaubert to his son, another from Trotsky to his friends. The end credits name several other authors as "inspiration"-- Sayed Kashua, Hanoch Levin... I didn't catch them all, but I suppose they're the sources of some of the scenes and monologues. Maybe none of the material is completely original? I don't know. Regarding the tramway itself, you will learn very little from the movie, which doesn't even begin with the expected establishing shot. Toward the end, any logical relation between the tramway and the content is discarded as a woman simply recites a poem in German to the camera. The people are all photographed very nicely; Jerusalem itself is sometimes clear and picturesque and sometimes goes by in a blur. The international audience may or may not understand that the tramway passes both through Jewish neighborhoods and through Arab neighborhoods, but the movie makes a point of presenting Arab grievances dramatically while the Jewish side of the conflict is presented only satirically. The presentation of the Jewish religious sector is perhaps the weakest element in the movie; the moviemakers go for the low-hanging fruit, presenting a religious song that is extremely well known anyway and a Talmudic passage that is also extremely well known anyway. The movie invites comparison with Gitai's 2013 film Ana Arabia, in which a reporter circulates through a Jaffa neighborhood interviewing people one after another-- except that in this case there is no connecting character. It would be tempting to say aha, the connecting character is the tramway. But other than a possible gnomic significance in the announcement of the stations along the way, there's no reason that this anthology of mini-performances-- some more engrossing, some less engrossing, but certainly none overlong-- takes place in a tram rather than in a café or in a bowling alley.
Not very commercial, but well worth the time
This film finally achieved commercial release in its home country, Israel, after more than two years. Apparently it belongs to a project founded to bring out films that are based on Bible stories.
It's easy to name modern characters Abraham and Sara to match the Bible story, but what's a good match for God? The writer uses music. Abraham and Sara are blessed with musical ability, which they pass on to their children-- members of a chosen family. The children grow up with Biblical speed. Just as the Bible skips years and years, so does the movie. And also like the Bible, it doesn't go deeply into motivations.
Lots of episodes are rough around the edges in terms of plotting. The moment the audience can guess what's going to happen, the script skips past it to begin the next episode in medias res. It skips past emotional confrontations that would have been sure-fire ways to engage audience attention.
What the movie does include to keep the audience interested is fine photography, mostly of faces and interiors. Abraham has a Jerusalem apartment to die for, apparently located above the philharmonic orchestra's concert hall. The music is nice too, although some of it is unimaginatively chosen.
All in all, the movie is intriguing and well worth watching, although those who apparently doubted its commercial appeal appear to have been right.
The Other Story (2018)
Rewardingly complex but not hard to follow
An old criticism of Israeli movies is that because of the nature of Israeli society, too many filmmakers are less eager to present a protagonist we can easily identify with and follow than to present a gang of friends without a clear central focus. Avi Nesher's recent movies, although fascinating to watch, have sometimes lacked a very dominant protagonist and given the audience (by which I mean me) too many characters and too many plot threads to easily keep track of all at once. The Other Story has a lot of main characters but it doesn't suffer from that problem. Initially, it has a different problem. An engaged couple have embraced ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the parents of the bride-to-be want to torpedo the relationship and ultimately persuade the girl to leave the ultra-Orthodox environment. The movie's problem is that the audience (by which I mean me) can't root for either side in the conflict. They're both presented as offputtingly extreme. The movie comes to life when a new couple is introduced, a younger couple who are fighting over their child and over the woman's participation in a pagan cult. Here Nesher has done some interesting casting. He's perhaps Israel's foremost moviemaker today and he can get pretty much any actors he wants. The bride gone ultra-Orthodox, her parents, and her grandfather are all wonderful actors and well-known faces. But the younger couple are not very familiar actors, and that makes them a presence of a different kind; when you see them you don't say "ah, here's one of my favorite actors, this will be good." Their story (The Other Story? Maybe that's one meaning of the title) seems more concrete because the audience (by which I mean me) hasn't seen them outside it. And even as their story impacts the main story and everything affects everything, the movie proceeds without confusion. It takes a couple of strategically inserted speeches of exposition to keep the audience aware of all the background, but the audience doesn't lose track. And the question of who, if anyone, can intervene to save this dangerously unstable young couple, or at least to save their child, gives the plot an impetus that wasn't present in the conflict over living or not living the ultra-Orthodox life.
The movie is the acting debut of singer-songwriter Nathan Goshen. Nesher may have been charmed by the fact that Goshen himself is a musician who did at one point become ultra-Orthodox, like the character he plays, and was even able to contribute a song or two to the movie, but unfortunately his musical contribution is not very compelling. The incidental music, although a little heavy on the sentimental violins, is much better.
The various plot threads ultimately resolve themselves with a kind of Shakespearean simultaneity, and the audience (by which I mean me, and the critics I've read) goes away impressed that Avi Nesher has done it again. If not his best movie ever-- though it has been called that-- then the best-integrated movie of his career's second Israeli phase.
Builds suspense, but stumbles at the finish line
Six episodes long, the series doesn't take time to explain how, in this alternative or future reality, first a civil war split Israel into a secular state and a religious state and then a controversial proposal to re-unite the states became an option. But since the premise is so fundamentally imaginary, the integrity and credibility of the environment is vital to the series. And although a more thorough exposition would have been welcome, the presentation is believable. The first couple of episodes set us up and introduce some interesting and well-acted characters, the middle episodes crank up the tension with a well-scripted surprise or two, and the ending holds a surprise of its own in which a relatively minor character assumes importance. But too much else in the final episode seems to be, as we say in Hebrew, "patches upon patches," as if everyone at the conference table got to have a different idea stitched onto the script. I was disappointed, because some of Israel's favorite actors are involved and, up to that point, the series had done a good job of selling the characters and their story.
The Unorthodox (2018)
Fine work, but didn't need to be so "based on fact."
At a certain point in the movie, someone listens to "How Deep Is Your Love" by the Bee Gees. Or so they say. It doesn't sound like the recording we all know, and apparently it's actually a different version recorded in an Israeli studio. Not that it's a bad version, even considering the singers' accents, but why say it's the real Bee Gees when it isn't? Similarly, the movie has a fine story, basically a tragedy played as a comedy in the context of Israeli politics (much like NORMAN a couple of years before), but it insists on connecting itself to the real-life story of the Shas political party in Jerusalem-- although it does admit that it combines fact and fiction. Rather than muddling the two together, a better idea would have been not to use the Shas name, and to set the story in a fictitious Israeli city to stand on its own merits and let any resemblance to the history of Shas be for the audience to discover.
Still, the movie is very amusing while bringing serious issues to the fore regarding society and politics, the setting looks very realistic, the music is top-notch, and the tragicomedy is a well-proportioned blend.
Hetzi Hetzi (1971)
Relaxed, inconsequential comedy
This is an Israeli comedy from before television presented serious competition. It trusts the audience to stay seated and enjoy simply seeing local streets on the big screen (through the eye of master cinematographer David Gurfinkel) and hearing intervals of reasonably entertaining music from David "Karibushi" (more often spelled Krivoshey) in between episodes of farce and slapstick. The humor is occasionally too insensitive or too improbable. Yossi Pollak, today one of Israel's most revered elders in the acting profession, appears in his first movie role, as a simple-minded apprentice baker, and he provides a little pathos in what would otherwise be an offputtingly heartless movie if it were presented at all seriously. Krivoshey's music helps keep it at least ostensibly light, even when Assi Dayan is at an old-age home singing a song about death while his partner in crime is stealing purses from the old people's rooms.
A fairly gritty slice of life
Migdal Ha-Emek is one of those towns that, if you have any great ambitions, you move away from. In this movie we meet a high-school girl who wants to be an actress and travels from Migdal Ha-Emek to the big city for an audition. But that's a subplot. Mostly we have a newly arrived classmate who comes from a cultured background, reads books and so on, but finds no one similar to be his companion. The alpha male of the class is a troubled kid from a broken home, and the question is which of the two boys will more greatly influence the other.
They tell me the Israeli schoolrooms are pretty chaotic, with the teachers suffering a lot of backtalk. I didn't go to school in Israel, so I'm not sure how exaggerated the undisciplined classroom atmosphere is, but I'm sure it reflects a grain of truth. The young actors are believable, the older actors include a couple of Israel's best, and the story holds attention although it's not exactly merry all the way.
Ahare Hahagim (1994)
Bleak Faulkneresque story
This is a bleak, Faulkneresque story. An old man owns a little orchard, and his family consists of unhappy people who can't get along with one another. It's not easy to identify a central character, and there's certainly not any character the audience is particularly inclined to root for or identify with. In fact, I didn't find anyone's motivations very clear, except that everyone is lonely, resentful, and sexually frustrated. The movie may be a case of BOANS-- Based-On-A-Novel Syndrome. It could be that one has to read the novel (I haven't) in order to understand the point behind all the misery and friction. The setting is pre-state Israel in the lead-up to World War II, and the movie does render the time and place well. The loneliness and sparseness of the lifestyle is nicely reflected in the music, which features a wordless soprano solo.
Bayit Bagalil (2017)
Funny & grim
Although it has a very big, dynamic prop-- the name of the movie in Hebrew is "A House in the Galilee," and at the start of the plot, the construction of the house is just beginning-- the movie is basically a dialogue movie. House or no house, it wouldn't take much to adapt the filmscript into a stage play. The dialogue is often witty, and when it's not, it's a painfully realistic depiction of everyday tensions and misunderstandings, which indeed often arise when a couple embarks on a new and unfamiliar project such as housebuilding. The couple that carries the film (with the help of some guest stars) is very believable. You could think some of the dialogue was improvised, and for all I know some of it was, though much of it is too well written for spur-of-the-moment.
A non-Israeli audience might need to be told that the Galilee, where the picture takes place, is a fashionable exurbia for those who can afford to live at a distance from the big cities, and that some of the Galilee communities are moshavim, where you have to be accepted as a member in order to reside and the heir of a member has an advantage in applying for the privilege of building a new house.
Good in its way, but not authentic Agatha Christie by a long shot
It was a mistake to advertise this version as a return to Agatha Christie's original short story. The script does jettison at least one memorable addition that was not in the original, but it also adds a great deal of extra material. Some of the material harmonizes very well with the story, and it has to do with a look, from here in the future, back at things that, during the period in which Christie was writing, were taken for granted. The indelible trauma of the First World War, the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots. The actors help sell the point that these are not just reminders of history but also reminders of human nature. The fleshing-out draws the viewer into the story more deeply than many playful or even mechanical Christie-inspired movies have done, but ultimately it wanders into territory that Christie herself, I suspect, wouldn't have entered and perhaps wouldn't even have endorsed.
Wounded Land (2015)
Good script, with surprising changes of direction
You know the cliche where the distraught woman or child feebly punches at the big guy before falling into his embrace? That's the one thing wrong with this movie. I just wanted to get that complaint off my chest. Otherwise, the script is admirably creative. There's more incident and characterization than is necessary just to compel the main plot, and the main plot turns out not even to be what we might originally think it is. The actors are believable and help nourish the script's apparent message that our arguments are not with purely and obviously malevolent people but with fellow citizens of a wounded land. The same writing/directing team made a similar point in their next film, Homeport, which is about the world of the dock workers. In that microcosm, the script makes it a little easier to point at the flaws in the system; in Wounded Land it's harder.
Ben Zaken (2014)
A good production, but bleak
Eliraz Sade (sa-DEH) was best known for reality TV at the time, and here he chose a job of acting that could get him taken seriously and maybe even win him high standing in the acting profession. A role without a fun side, the role of a failed man who is the weakest link in a miserable family. The problem, apparently, is that the movie doesn't have a fun side either and despite good responses from critics and at festivals, it didn't attract big crowds. It moves very slowly, it is beautifully photographed but with beige and grey predominating, and the characters have all had their major bad luck and made their major mistakes before the movie even begins. There are some plot threads I couldn't quite follow, about the dissolution of a curse and about a woman in love with the protagonist's brother, but mostly the movie focuses on his woebegone daughter. She's vivid and believable, as are all the characters. Watch for the use of water as a recurring symbol in the movie. It's well worth watching if you don't mind the bleakness.
La belle Américaine (1961)
It's only improved with age
I saw this one when it was new, in the 1960s, and with age it's only got better. The simple, lovable people of an idealized Parisian neighborhood have an additional layer of nostalgia value as we recall a country that appears to have found its feet again after wartime but has not yet been overwhelmed by globalization. The threat is certainly there, but in comical form. There's a hapless, primitive espresso machine. There's a lo-tech manufacturing machine that's replaced with a hi-tech one-- involving, by the way, a gag I remember from the 1960s version that wasn't in the version I downloaded from the web. And there's the Belle Américaine itself, a huge luxury convertible that is admired by all but something of a mixed blessing. Anyway, the script presents a charming little world and the story is full of well-scripted and well-performed comical episodes any one of which, if you put it into a comedy of the last couple of decades, would be the highlight of the movie.
Fishke Bemilu'im (1971)
Hasn't aged well
"Fishke Goes to War" (or "Fishke in the Reserves," to translate its Hebrew title) is a comedy by George Obadiah, who was better known for his melodramas and criticized for their lack of subtlety. There is nothing subtle about "Fishke" either. It is a vehicle for comic actor Moshe Solo, whose wide-eyed naif prefigures Andy Kaufman's. He follows his friend Shmil into the army and proves that behind his meek exterior, he has what takes. Shmil is played by Paul L. Smith, a serious actor later famous as the villain in Midnight Express, and Smith helped direct this movie, but the script provides little to work with and indeed the script is the main problem, belaboring one lame joke after another (with minor characters laughing in case we haven't noticed the humor) and stumbling along through lapses of logic. The film was made at a time when Israel's Arab enemies were routinely laughed off (between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War), and in retrospect the movie's treatment of Arabs as ciphers is a little embarrassing. There are times when shots are drawn out to the point where you could wonder whether Obadiah was having trouble stretching the movie to full length. But at the time, there were very few Israeli movies at all and the bar was not set very high.
Inoffensive pro-brotherhood comedy with forgettable music
Hershele of Ostropol was a legendary Ukrainian Jewish jester. Here we have a fictitious descendant of his arriving among the immigrants to Israel from the USSR. He appears naive, and his proletarian neighbors dismiss him as a representative of the privileged class, but he learns to stand up against manipulation and champions social equality. All this is played out in comedy and music, although the music is not Dov Seltzer's best and its presentation is hopelessly dated. Mike Burstyn, the lead actor, is one of the world's most talented and accomplished all-around performers, but unfortunately in this film he's called upon to pretend he is a clarinetist and he obviously isn't. The theme of conflict and reconciliation between the social classes was very common in Israeli comedies of the time, and here the grievances are presented quite frankly, so the movie can't be blamed if the happy ending rings a little false. In the end, it's just a pleasant fantasy.
Life is an island, rocks are its desires
The film opens with a quotation from Kahlil Gibran. "Life is an island, rocks are its desires, trees its dreams, and flowers its loneliness, and it is in the middle of an ocean of solitude and seclusion." I'm not sure whether that's the exact translation used in the movie. Anyway, the movie shows us two women secluded in a lonely apartment for a good cinematic reason-- one is an agent assigned to keep the other one safe from the bad guys-- while each of them is intent on not only on surviving but on the goal of pursuing a purposeful parental relationship-- nurturing an island of life-- in the face of the ocean of nihilism symbolized by the betrayals and assassinations accompanying international espionage and terrorism.
Writer/director Eran Riklis compares the film to Bergman's Persona because of the intimacy and tension of the relationship between the two women, but I think a closer comparison might be with Coppola's The Rain People, where a woman unsure of herself as a future mother picks up a hitchhiker and finds herself receiving practice in the task of caring for another person.
When the movie ended, a woman in the theater asked me to take one side or the other in a debate with her friend over what actually had happened during the final minutes. The audience is indeed left with some bits to figure out, but I didn't feel seriously cheated. The production was professional, suspense was maintained continuously, and the music-- even if composer Yehonatan Riklis is, one might guess, some kind of relative of the director-- makes a fine, tasteful, enhancement.
The Cakemaker (2017)
Who needs characters?
Here we have a beautiful movie about a woman who apparently has given up religious observance (why?) and opened a cafe although she's not particularly good in the kitchen (why?) and a couple of men who fall in love with each other (why?) but although they're extremely underwritten characters, you don't notice because you're carried along by the pacing and the photography and the architecture and the music and some nice cakes and cookies. ("What cafe would serve such a big slice of cake?" my wife says.) It doesn't hurt that the actors are well chosen, including one of Israel's top actresses, Sara Adler, who seems to specialize in strong but quietly uncertain women. Any movie featuring her is worth seeing, even if there isn't much else to it (as in, for example, 2012's "Aya").
A New Spirit (2017)
This is an "I once was lost, but now I'm found" based-on-fact story about a Jewish problem child in Israel who grows up to be a preacher for Jesus. The Israeli filmmakers seem to give it their all on a restrictively modest budget. (The movie's "making of" shows the filming of a couple of fire scenes that-- I can only guess-- had to be abbreviated a bit in the release because they didn't produce enough good-quality footage.) The acting is fine, although a kindly New Yorker from a Catholic family has a suspiciously sun-lined face and odd accent; it's no surprise that the actor is actually Israeli. The script unsurprisingly presents the proposition that Christianity is not a violation of true Judaism but a fulfillment of true Judaism. What did surprise me is that rather than concentrating entirely on the positive message, the script also takes a smack or two at contemporary Orthodox Judaism, specifically the bidding of money for synagogue honors and the rigorous prescriptions for mourners' prayers. I guess it's not afraid of alienating the more committed members of the Jewish public. In contrast, although the protagonist is believably flawed, the film's Christian characters are utterly saintly, with nothing to distinguish among them, making the film look more like a propaganda fest than it had to look (even if it is). Other glitches in the script are occasional melodramatic timing of events and an unexplained major jump of location within Israel (Kiryat Shmona to Jaffa - non-Israelis may not notice). Biographically true, but a line or two of dialogue could have covered it helpfully. The film was quite well advertised, but when I attended a weekday matinee during the first week of release, the only people in the audience were my wife and I and two elderly women who had wandered into the wrong movie.