October: serious movies return to the multiplex, Chicago film lovers flock to festivals, and this year? Abbondanza!
First up, three new commercial releases arrive at local theatres with lots of buzz.
Howl will be called a BioPic about Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco), but it’s really a “PoemPic” about the genesis and impact of one of the 20th Century’s most ground-breaking art works. Meeting face-to-face with co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman recently, I asked them point blank: “Is Howl a Jewish film?” “No,” quipped Epstein (who won an Oscar in 1984 for his documentary The Times of Harvey Milk), “it’s a legal brief from the firm of Ginsberg, Epstein, and Friedman!”
A real lawyer appears in the cast of Conviction; he’s Barry Scheck (played by Peter Gallagher), and should anyone wonder, one character even snarls “You’re the Jew lawyer!” after he asks her to sign an affidavit. Conviction (which stars Hilary Swank) is a dramatization of an inspiring case from “The Innocence Project” (co-found by Scheck and still based at New York’s Yeshiva University).
A Film Unfinished by Israeli director Yael Hersonski analyzes recently discovered film stock buried away in German archives. Even as the Nazis were building Treblinka, cameramen were sent into the Warsaw Ghetto to make a “documentary” for the Red Cross. Some of this footage was eventually released and assumed to be authentic, but Hersonski shows that many scenes were actually staged for propaganda purposes. Deeply unsettling, A Film Unfinished is extremely graphic, and although I’ve already seen dozens of Holocaust films, I found it almost impossible to watch.
CIFF: Chicago International Film Festival
This year Jewish characters are all over the place, from here in Chicago (Polish Bar) to Argentina (Brother & Sister) to Communist Poland (Little Rose). There are also three Israel-based films: Circus Kids (a documentary), The Matchmaker (a dramedy), and The Debt (an English remake of a film which played in our CFIC ’08 starring Dame Helen Mirren in a role created for Gila Almagor). As we go to press, CIFF programmers are still finalizing their schedule, so I’ll have to tell you more about these films online.
CFIC: Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema
Our month at the movies ends with the 5th annual CFIC. This year there are three new venues: Opening Night (Thursday, Oct. 21) at the Chicago Cultural Center (screening plus reception); Saturday night (Oct. 23) at the 600 North on Michigan Avenue; and one full week at the AMC in suburban Northbrook Court (Sunday, Oct. 24 through Sunday, Oct. 31).
Our CFIC shows theatrical features and documentaries (each around 90 minutes long), plus short docs and dramas (often made for Israeli TV). I haven’t seen them all yet, but here are four strong options (one in each category).
Brothers (Feature): Separated in childhood, Argentinian brothers “Dan” and “Aaron” have grown up on opposite ends of the earth, never knowing what became of the other. Then Aaron, now a famous American Torah scholar, comes to Jerusalem to argue a case before the Israeli Supreme Court, and Dan, a kibbutznik, is both intrigued and appalled. Shot on a shoe-string, Brothers is an archetypical Israeli film, so well-acted and thematically riveting that, despite the primitive production values, I was literally on the edge of my seat for the last 30 minutes.
Clementine (Short Doc): Tal Haim Yoffe (creator of last year’s wonderful CFIC doc The Green Dumpster Mystery) needs a project to occupy his mind as he awaits the birth of his first child. So as wife Ravit grows ever bigger, Tal builds a treasure trove of memorabilia, photos, and stories. From the Russian pogroms to the first streets of Tel Aviv, from the camps of Cyprus to the border kibbutzim, from the Palmach to the Yom Kippur War, Tal assembles a hundred years of Israeli history on the branches of one schematic family tree. Fantastic, and totally true!
Ruth (TV Drama): When “Ruth” (a religious teenager played by luminous Lucy Dubinchik from Saint Clara) first meets photojournalist “Erez” on the beach, she doesn’t realize he already knows her family story and has deliberately chosen her as the subject of his news piece. The unfolding drama vividly depicts the evacuation of Israel’s Gaza Strip settlements. Awareness of what has happened in Gaza since 2005 drapes the film in sadness, and yet whatever your political views, you can’t help but be touched by the human cost to all involved.
Yes, Miss Commander (Documentary): Young female officers are assigned responsibility for training new male recruits from troubled backgrounds (crime, drugs, and family dysfunction). Israel cannot afford to lose a single soldier, and so Zahal has devised fascinating methods for bringing strays back into the fold. Once again, truth is stranger than fiction: if you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you’d never believe it, but apparently it works!
Last but not least, fans of the phenomenally successful TV series Srugim (an Israeli version of Friends) also get four new episodes from Season Two. You can catch up on Season One by subscribing to The Jewish Channel (www.tjctv.com) on On Demand.
For complete CIFF information (for the Chicago International Film Festival), visit: www.ChicagoFilmFestival.com.
For complete CFIC information (for the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema), visit: www.ChicagoFestivalOfIsraeliCinema.org.
Information about specific festival events plus reviews of all films described above will be posted on my Blog (www.SecondCityTzivi.com), along with more local news, reviews, photos, etc.