There’s a Jewish saying that goes, “If they give, you take; if they take from you, yell.” In a year that’s seen plenty of giving and taking in the Jewish community, there has been reason to yell, too.
An online readers poll for AskMen.com recently concluded that Jewish Daily Show host Jon Stewart is the most influential man in America, and the website The Moderate Voice even wondered if Stewart is our first Jewish President. The name on everyone’s lips in the movie world was Mark Zuckerberg thanks to a little film called The Social Network, penned by fellow Jew Aaron Sorkin, and Jewish midterm candidates like Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Eric Cantor have led an unusually high number of Jewish political hopefuls to the forefront of politics.
Of course, it’s hardly been all good news on the Jewish front this year: Beloved White House correspondent Helen Thomas was forced into early retirement after making comments that seemed to sympathize with Palestine. Just days before the U.S. elections, two alleged al-Qaida explosives packages were discovered en route to the U.S. destined for Jewish centers in Chicago, and the old racist standard – drunken anti-Semitic remarks – dribbled out of a new batch of idiots, from CNN’s Rick Sanchez to director Oliver Stone and even folksy Garrison Keillor.
Giving, taking, yelling. That’s also seemingly the theme of this year’s crop of Jewish-related films at the 12th annual Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by Enzian Theater and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando. The four films being shown over three days comprise a broader view of Jewish relations than seen in recent years; rather than confining the subjects to the war-plagued modern-day Middle East, this crop tells its stories from Brooklyn, London, Canada, Japan and the upper-middle-class Israel of the ’80s. The result is a festival that feels truly festive, a celebration of a people who can make anywhere feel like home.
The Infidel (4 Stars)
Two well-known Western actors anchor this delightful comedy about a liberal British Muslim and loving father (Omid Djalili of Gladiator) who discovers his son is in love with the daughter of a radical Islamic leader. (“Fatty fatwah face” and “Arshad Al-fucking-Stalin,” the dad calls him.) And as if that weren’t enough, Djalili’s beer-bellied Mahmud Nasir, in preparation for a visit from his son’s future father-in-law, digs up his own birth certificate and finds that he was born to Jewish parents. Nasir, or Solly Shimshillewitz as he was once known, quickly buddies up to a Jewish friend (The West Wing’s Richard Schiff) to learn the ways of his people. British director Josh Appignanesi creates a fanciful, if unrealistic world in which ethnic, religious and territorial disputes can be resolved with humor and a triumphant climactic speech (one in which Nasir can barely lift his heftiness onto the stage to give). Djalili and Schiff are wonderful here, taking on a prickly subject with ballsy confidence in their comedy and its ability to transcend cultural barriers.
Inside Hana’s Suitcase (3 Stars)
A remarkable tale of a Japanese schoolteacher’s quest to bring to life the story of a girl killed at Auschwitz with the help of her young students is at the heart of this moving but troubled documentary. Ten years ago, Fumiko Ishioka came across a suitcase allegedly found amidst the rubble of the Holocaust; the suitcase belonged to little Hana Brady. The object captivated Ishioka and her students, and she made it a school project to uncover who this girl truly was. In the process, they locate her guilt-ridden brother and several artifacts that paint a lovely portrait of an artistic, good-hearted young woman. It’s a story that, if told in a straightforward manner – as it was in a bestselling 2002 book – has the capacity to open hearts and restore hope. But in the hands of veteran documentary filmmaker Larry Weinstein, it becomes a crass, extended version of that sappy TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, where actors like Brooke Shields trace their lineage to French kings. Weinstein has Ishioka and her kids recreate the events that led them to Hana through poorly staged, highly scripted reenactments, overproduced missions to historical sites and needless, almost insulting motion-animation versions of Hana’s drawings, which Ishioka “walks through” wistfully. The tone is all wrong for a girl who needs no polishing.
Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (2 Stars)
Essentially 2 a.m. History Channel filler, this artless, meandering and ultimately pointless blurb-fest about several Jewish people who broke the apparently thin Jewish barrier in baseball serves as a reminder of just how difficult Ken Burns’ job is. Focusing mainly on Brooklyn, New York, and the Dodgers – relatively fertile ground for Jewish baseball players – the film gives brief bios on players, from Hank Greenberg to Sandy Koufax, who had to battle expected heckles and overcome stereotypes to prevail. These are supplemented by self-serving talking-head interviews with the likes of Larry King (who wants it known that he never says no to playing catch with his son – awww). The problem is (besides the auto-pilot scrolling of photographs and standard footage of Nazis and Pearl Harbor) director Peter Miller never properly delves into the stakes behind the struggle for Jews to be able to play, aside from the name-calling and dirty looks of the day.
Lost Islands (3 Stars)
Here is something completely unexpected and refreshing: A John Hughes-esque coming-of-age movie set in the 1980s with a great soundtrack full of Yazoo and A Flock of Seagulls … that just happens to take place in Israel. “A family is like a hand: Each finger is easily broken, but if you stick together you’re invincible,” says mother Levi, a suburban matriarch with a philandering husband and five children, two of whom (Oshri Cohen and Michael Moshonov) are twin teen virgins who prowl the cinema and dance clubs for girls naïve enough to sleep with them. Along comes Neta (Yuval Scharf), an endearingly cynical naïf as emotionally intelligent as the boys are stunted. A battle for her attentions breaks out as the Lebanese war looms and internal tragedy strikes. What plays out, thanks to writer-director Reshef Levy’s thoughtful guidance, is an involving yet scatterbrained dramedy that gets within striking distance of a truly moving family portrait but misses the mark with melodrama and aimless subplots.
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