By William Wolf

THE WOMEN'S BALCONY  Send This Review to a Friend

Let’s give three cheers for the gallant, feisty women depicted in “The Women’s Balcony,” and let’s give another three for the film itself, a captivating, entertaining import from Israel. Although it delves into the serious problems of rigid Orthodoxy, the tone is spiritedly amusing and graced with appealing performances portraying women who rise up against their being shunted aside and overridden. It is clearly in tune with efforts to defend and expand women’s rights the world over these days.

Trouble begins during a bar mitzvah when the women’s balcony in an Orthodox synagogue in a Jerusalem neighborhood collapses and seriously injures the rabbi’s wife as well as leaving the place a shambles. The elderly rabbi has been ill and somewhat out of it, and therefore is unable to rise to the need for leadership in restoring the synagogue.

Enter the at-large young Rabbi David, played with smooth, seductive villainy by Aviv Alush, who worms his way into leadership of the congregation and attempts to impose his ultra-Orthodox ideas. He delivers fierce, fundamentalist sermons that appeal mainly to the men and treats women as totally inferior. He orders them how to dress and even blames the fall of the balcony on women’s alleged immodesty. Instead of a reconstructed balcony, the women find themselves confined to an area that resembles a jail cell.

Banding together, women raise money for a new balcony, but Rabbi David schemes to appropriate the money and use it for new Torah scrolls that he deems more important in the eyes of God. But he doesn’t realize the gathering force that he will be up against.

Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama and director Emil Ben-Shimon give the film a warm but comedic touch when the woman fight for control, drive out Rabbi David and get their balcony back. Along the way there is even a romance and a welcome assist by a principled young man in the mix, all adding to the enjoyment.

Two especially appealing performances come from Einat Sarouf as Margalit and Evelin Hagoel as Ettie, friends and companions in battle. But the entire cast is well chosen, and the characters well delineated in the busily plotted doings.

“The Women’s Balcony” is reported to be a major box office success in Israel, and it is easy to see why. The film taps into fights involving different and competitive religious outlooks and the effect on members of a community closely tied to religious life. Instead of being pedantic, the film clips along at an amusing pace and enlists audience sympathy, and there is a nifty ending.

To parallel an old advertising slogan once said about rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the issues and enjoy this film. Of course, it can’t hurt. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed May 23, 2017.

AFTERIMAGE  Send This Review to a Friend

The last film that the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda made before his death in October, 2016, is a profound and important stand for artistic freedom and a condemnation of censorship. “Afterimage” is also a deeply human story about a real-life artist, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who dared to stick to his vision of art ad theory in the face of persecution by the Communist regime in Poland during the early 1950s. It is one of the most important films of this year thus far not only because of the issues raised but because it is a fine example of Wajda’s principles and artistry.

Bogulsaw Linda gives a memorable portrayal of the controversial artist, around whom students gather to absorb his theory that the eye retains images from viewing art. We learn during the film that the reason he is missing one leg and one arm was a blast when he served during World War I. Strzeminski has learned to deftly deal with his handicap. His personality is partly established when students see him rolling down a hill as the easiest way for him to descend.

The artist has a teenage daughter Nika (13-year-old Bronislawa Zamachowska), who must grapple with her parents being divorced. (Her mother, Katarzyna Kobro, was a sculptor.) Nika wants a close relationship with her father, and it is clear he loves her despite his tendency to withdraw into his own world. A young student becomes attached to Strzeminski, who doesn’t want any intimate relationship with her, but when she begins to run things in his meager living quarters, Nika becomes jealous. As we see later in the film the artist harbors a lingering fondness for his ex-wife.

The most upsetting parts of the story involve authorities abolishing an exhibit of his work, defacing his murals and seeing that his opportunities for employment are squashed. He also loses food stamps and, with his lack of money, is literally going hungry. In one pitiful scene the woman who assists him withdraws a bowl of soup that she has poured when he can’t give her the back pay he owes.

The artist is attacked because he refuses to paint the kind of works that the authorities demand as part of the so-called Soviet realism. He is an avant-garde painter with his own stubborn vision. In real life Strzeminski was friendly with other important artists, including Marc Chagall. Students loyal to their mentor take risks standing up for him.

The film can, of course, be seen in the context of censorship anywhere in the world apart from the specificity of Poland at the time. Wajda is at his best in telling the story scripted by Andrzej Mularczyk. There are ample examples of the artist’s work, and the director accomplishes the challenge of keeping a focus on both the overall anti-censorship theme and the human toll that it can take. The tragedy climaxes when Strzeminski is reduced to doing work involving store window decoration. But nothing would compel him to abandon his principles right to the end of his life. “Afterimage” is a fitting finale to Wajda’s career that has included such vital films as “Canal,” “Ashes and Diamonds,” “Man of Marble,” “Man of Iron” and “Katyn.” A Film Movement release. Reviewed May 18, 2017.

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL  Send This Review to a Friend

A scandalous prosecution has been exposed in “Abacus: Small Enough to Fail,” a shocking documentary directed by Steve James. With all of the hanky-panky going on in the world of banking mortgage fraud in the late 1980s, which bank does the government pick on to prosecute? The relatively small Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown became the victim.

Although there were admissions of regularities, for which the bank took corrective steps, the situation was minor compared with what was going on in the larger banking world. The Abacus Federal Bank was founded in 1984 by Thomas Sung to serve the Chinese community, which it does.

We meet members of the Sung family—the bank has been very much a family affair—and that is an appealing part of James’s film. We also get a lowdown on issues and charges involved. It is painfully clear that the selective prosecution, perhaps with a racial overtone, was a giant example of overkill.

It should be stressed that this was the only bank ever criminally charged. It was costly for the Sung family to fight the accusations, to say nothing of the government funds used in the prosecution. What did the jury find? You can, of course, look it up on the internet, but if you are going to see this film, and you would do well to do so, you may want to wait in suspense to see how it turns out at the trial in 2015. James has provided a useful public service in the documenting this case.

The action against Abacus strikes a personal note with me, although the example is small potatoes in comparison. There was the story of my grandfather, who in a small New Jersey town ran a low-key shoe and gent’s furnishings store. There was shoe rationing at the time, during World War II, and my grandfather, who was an honest man, felt sorry for family customers who ran out of ration coupons for their children. He sold some shoes without them. The government found out and closed him down for six weeks, while larger shoe outlets ignoring rationing on a lavish scale went unpunished. It is always so much easier to pick on the little guy. A PBS Distribution release. Reviewed May 19, 2017.

A WOMAN'S LIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

Stéphane Brizé, who previously directed the excellent “The Measure of a Man,” has gone to Guy de Maupassant’s “Une Vie” for inspiration in making “A Woman’s Life,” the story of a woman in 19th Century France. It is ultimately a sad tale of what happens to Jeanne, sensitively played by Judith Chemia.

We meet Jeanne in lovely colors as a young woman being taught how to plant and nurture a garden. We subsequently follow the trajectory of her life, including her marriage to Viscount Julien de Lamare, played by Swann Artaud. The film progresses step by step to her later years, when events, disappointments and loss of money have sent her into depression and anger.

The director adopts a muted approach to telling Jeanne’s story. Scenes are episodic, some, such as happy memories, in joyful colors, and unhappy later ones filmed bleakly. There are flashes of memory throughout, and the director attempts to capture the ambiance of Normandy in the film’s time period.

It is sad to witness Jeanne’s gradual decline amid life’s blows, including her being estranged from her son, who upon growing up goes off to England and is constantly appealing for money to save him from his failed investments.

One portion that I found harrowing is what happens when she confesses to a priest her knowledge of a secret adulterous relationship. Spouting religious dogmatism, he presses her to tell of the deception going on, or otherwise she will be complicit in a lie before God. Her good judgment and feeling that telling would lead to utter disaster makes her keep defying the priest’s admonitions, with a result that he says he then must be the informant. Her instincts prove to be true, and it is gratifying to see Jeanne hold her ground in the face of the priest’s invoking the fear of God.

One is drawn into the story by the director’s approach and by the acting, although at the end, despite one little ray of hope in the form of a baby grandchild, one cannot help feel sorry for what has happened to the cheerful young woman we meet at the outset. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed May 5, 2017.

WHISKY GALORE!  Send This Review to a Friend

Reaching back to a 1949 classic, director Gillies Mackinnon’s adaptation from a screenplay by Peter McDougall is a so-so film set in 1943 on a Scottish island where the war has left the people starved for the whisky that has run out. The original was released in the United States under the title “Tight Little Island.”

The new version is an example of films taking place in Scotland that could use subtitles for American audiences who may find it hard to penetrate the accents. Apart from that, the film is amiable but doesn’t soar as comedy.

The plot involves a stricken vessel offshore and the discovery that it has a huge cargo of whisky-—50,000 cases. A scheme develops to steal the booze, and suddenly there is the joy of drinking again. One of the most amusing performances is by Eddie Izzard as an army commander who is being deceived by the wily islanders. Izzard gets the right combination of bluster and bewilderment.

Various personal stories and characters are followed, but although pleasant enough and on occasion amusing, they are not very involving, although the excellent actors try hard. Give the film a mild toast. An Arrow Films release. Reviewed May 12, 2017.

JULIAN SCHNABEL: A PRIVATE PORTRAIT  Send This Review to a Friend

If you want to learn more about the life of artist and filmmaker Julian Schabel, the film directed by Pappi Corsicato, who knows the subject well, will be of special interest.

Via interview with Schnabel himself, and others with takes on his work and life, including Jeff Koons and Al Pacino. There is also the opportunity to see some of Schnabel’s art, which, of course , will evoke matters of opinion on the part of viewers with different taste in art. That’s as it chould be.

The film comes across as primarily a salute to Schnabel, whose life commands interest, given what he has achieved over the years. There are clips from his memorable film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

Add this documentary to those that take us into a world reflecting talent and achievement. You will come away having had the pleasure of meeting one such talent. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed May 5, 2017.

HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY  Send This Review to a Friend

Here is a film that provides entertainment, emotion and education about making movies all in an endearing package that is a joy to watch. Director Daniel Raim has looked into the lives of storyboard and production design artist Harold Michelson and his wife Lillian Michelson, known as a phenomenal researcher. Their lives are a reflection of work behind the scenes in the creation of one major film after another. Their efforts should be known by a wider public, and this film aspires to do just that.

As in the title, the couple’s relationship really was a Hollywood love story, and the film warmly explores the personal relationship as part of the total take on the couple. Although Harold is no longer alive, Lillian is still here to reminisce about their marriage and their work. She is charming and witty in the film’s interview with her, and one comes away impressed by her likability and wisdom. In that sense, she highlights the documentary.

Along the way director Raim leads us through the process of how the work of the Michelsons contributed to so many films, and reveals how much they were admired and appreciated in the industry. Their saga is illustrated by clever drawings that heighten the visual impact.

We see the practical results when Harold storyboards shots for such major films as “The Birds” and “The Graduate.” We are able to note the connections between Harold’s designs and how they were used in the final footage. As for Lillian’s research, she worked to provide authenticity for such films as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Chinatown” and “Annie Hall.” The research library she amassed became a recognized major source for filmmakers.

Included are testimonials to the Michelsons by Francis Ford Coppola, Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito, the latter executive producer of the film. The exploration of the Michelsons’ lives, marriage and work has great appeal as we follow their paths. A very personal element is introduced pertaining to their task of raising an autistic son.

“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story” is a film with heart and director Raim is owed a debt of gratitude for shining a spotlight on the techniques of filmmaking as well as on the work of those who never became as well known as the stars inhabiting the films on which they labored, but who made such vital contributions to many of the most famous films in Hollywood history. A Zeitgeist Films release. Reviewed April 28, 2017.

NATASHA  Send This Review to a Friend

Poor 16-year-old Mark Berman. He is given the assignment by his parents to help orient a newcomer to the Toronto area’s Russian-Jewish population, 14-year-old Natasha. Her mother Zina arrives for an arranged marriage with Mark’s grand uncle Fima. Mark doesn’t know what he is in for.

Natasha, played sexily by Sasha K. Gordon, is a real piece of work. A much older man than Mark would have trouble handling her. Natasha is angry at her mother for uprooting her in Moscow and taking her to Canada. She has a sexually charged past and makes no bones about talking about it and she is open about enjoying casual sex.

Mark, portrayed by Alex Ozerov, who learns that Natasha had made porn films and has a trail of sexual experience in Russia, is both shocked and titillated. Even for a boy who delivers drugs and has a drug dealer as his role model, Mark is disoriented by Natasha.

But as one might expect, the assignment turns into a romance. This is set against the background of the problems the older characters are having and the existence of the immigrant community.

One might describe the film as a coming of age story, but this is unlike most stories in the category, both because of the ethnicity involved and the sexual aspect. There is more to Natasha than her flaunting of her sexual experience. Beneath the surface beats the heart of a girl who wants more out of life.

“Natasha” has been written and directed by David Bezmozgis based on his book. It is a film full of detail and observations about the characters populating the story. We see different generations depicted, but the adults are really the background to the story about youth as expressed by Natasha and Mark, who are excellently portrayed. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed April 28, 2017.

NISE: THE HEART OF MADNESS  Send This Review to a Friend

The inspirational story of Nise da Silveira, who waged a passionate fight in Brazil to change attitudes about how to treat the mentally ill, is told dramatically in “Nise: The Heart of Madness,” directed by Roberto Berliner. The doctor is played dynamically by Glória Pires, who captures her determination to prove her concepts right.

The doctor is appalled when she joins a mental hospital and finds lobotomies and electroshock treatment the order of the day in 1940s. She believes that occupational therapy makes more sense and is more humane. Bucking the system, she discovers that mentally ill patients can find expression through painting, and she is amazed at some of the results. So is a prominent art critic, and this leads to an exhibition that proves the point.

We see some of the gravely mentally ill who improve under Dr. da Silveira’s care, and we see the hostility on the part of entrenched doctors who see her as a threat and try to sabotage her work. Da Silveira gives her patients as much free rein as possible despite the danger of destructive outbursts. But she doesn’t waiver in her view that patients should be treated as human beings and not as asylum inmates who can be calmed by destroying part of their brains in surgery. We witness the depth of expressions of love they demonstrate when given pets to care for in their living quarters.

Thus the film dramatizes fascinating experiments, and at the end we meet the real Dr. da Silveira at the age of 94, who has some charged comment. She died shortly thereafter in 1999. The film stands as a monument to her ideas, courage and correctness. A Strand Releasing release. Reviewed April 28, 2017.

OBIT  Send This Review to a Friend

When a buddy of mine, Daniel Berman, and I were in college and young firebrands we spoke on a panel and claimed a free press was limited in America by publishers who sometimes tried to squelch stories they didn’t like by burying them on the obituary page. An elderly lady who wrote society stories for the local newspaper raised her hand and said there was nothing wrong with that, exclaiming, “At my age the obituary page is the first page I read.”

I thought of that as I watched “Obit,” the fascinating documentary, directed by Vanessa Gould, examining the people and the process involving the writing of obituaries for the New York Times. It is a skill taken for granted, but very basic to chronicling the lives of important individuals from the high and mighty to other lesser-known persons who have made important contributions to society.

There is the practice of writing advance obits for the famous to have ready even though they may be a long way from death. Then there are the sudden deaths of important individuals that send the obit writers scrambling to have a viable piece ready on a short deadline.

We meet key people, including, among others, William McDonald, obituaries desk editor, and writer Bruce Weber (since retired), who help us by explaining what goes on at the venerable Times. Others in the film include writer William Grimes, former obit writer Douglas Martin, Margalit Fox, obituaries senior writer and Peter Keepnews, assistant obituaries editor, all of whom help complete the picture of the care with which obituaries are researched and composed and the seriousness of the job.

A vast morgue of clippings has been built at the Times over the years and these clips provide handy sources. There is also the problem of weighing how much space to give to one subject in relation to another, or whether someone gets space at all. Timelines are important too. If the news of a death comes in belatedly a decision might be made that it is too late to run an obit.

The film gets somewhat repetitious, but it is mostly an intriguing look into a vital corner of the newspaper business charged with ultimately evaluating who’s who when deaths occur.

I recall that in Neil Simon’s comedy “The Sunshine Boys” there was a funny line when someone hears of a show biz death and asks where the person died. “In ‘Variety’” was the answer. One might also quip that in New York if the person doesn’t die in the New York Times. he or she isn’t officially gone. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed April 26, 2017.

  

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