JxJ Film Festival: Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal

This is a funny, charming, and quite educational documentary created by (and starring) two pals since high school of Ashkenazi heritage, Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman. They are (obviously) foodies who grew up in the ‘burbs of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Eli and Jamie are both self-described “liberal Jews” and part of a comedy troupe (YidLife Crisis); they perform in Yiddish. Some of you (theater fans) may know re: the Yiddish-language theaters of NYC; these also existed in post-WWII Montreal. I noticed that this film drew in more of a younger audience (20s-30s) than some of the other films in the festival.

Eli and Jamie (who have great chemistry and joke around often) are joined on their journey by a young historian (Zev Moses) from the Museum of Jewish Culture. They start by going to a family-owned bagel restaurant (Fairmount) that has been around for 100 yrs. It’s in a neighborhood that was the center of Jewish life in the 1910s-1960s. The Russian Jews arrived first (pre-WWII); they got the sense that “something bad could happen” if they didn’t emigrate. The current owner explains that the first bagels were shaped like horseshoes, then they became a full circle (representing the circle of life). Bagels were all the same (made w/ sesame seed on top), until one day, a customer recommended poppy seeds.

For a “light lunch,” they head to a small lunch restaurant (Wolensky’s) that still looks like it did in the 1940s. It’s a family business that serves simple sandwiches w/ bologna and salami. Many factories (w/ many newly arrived immigrant workers) were situated in this area, so places to grab a quick lunch were in demand. Next, they head to another restaurant for huge corned beef sandwiches! They talk to historians along the way, including non-Jews and a young Hasidic woman. In Montreal, Jews historically faced many hardships, including not speaking English (or French), being discriminated against (even in college admissions and while working as doctors), and being excluded from certain neighborhoods and professions.

For dinner (and dessert), Eli and Jamie head to the ‘burbs to have dinner w/ a large family of Sephardic Jews and some of their close friends. We get to know a bit about the Sephardic heritage; these individuals have parents who came from Morocco and Iraq. In the ’60s and ’70s, Sephardic and Askenazi Jews weren’t always on friendly terms; the earlier arrivals looked down on the newer ones at times. The food at this gathering looks amazing! There is a dish w/ stewed tomatoes (along w/ several other stews), couscous w/ different roasted vegetables, and desserts (some of which are also eaten by Muslims during Ramadan). Check out this site to learn more re: this film: https://www.yidlifecrisis.com/chewdaism-watch

Chewdaism will continue to play at film festivals, and the filmmakers have partnered with the tourist board Tourisme Montréal, which will use it to lure visitors to the city. They’re hoping for a TV release, possibly on PBS, down the line. Jewish Journal (April 24, 2019)

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JxJ Film Festival: Working Woman

This is a timely movie (w/ high production values) from Israel; it is in Hebrew, English, and French (w/ subtitles). The protagonist, Orna, is a 30ish wife/mother of 3 in Jerusalem who wants to help her family get ahead. Her husband, a chef, opened his own restaurant a few months ago; unfortunately, customers are few and far between. There is also bureaucracy holding up a license he needs. We learn that Orna just quit her job at a childcare center (where her mother has been working for 20+ years) to pursue a job in real estate. The hours aren’t regular (9AM-5PM), but she has the potential to make more money and learn new skills from her boss, a successful/well-connected older man- Benny.

Orna quickly takes to her role as Benny’s personal assistant; she is a fast learner and very dedicated. Benny comments on Orna’s hair and clothes (which he thinks are too conservative); she thinks nothing much of it, and goes shopping to fit into her new work environment. Her husband has to take on more domestic responsibilities, such as bathing and feeding the kids. After a few months, while working late, Benny suddenly kisses Orna; she is SO shocked that she freezes (doing nothing). He apologizes right away, then gives her more high-profile work. In few more months, Orna is promoted by Benny to sales, where she continues to shine (selling several units of a luxury condo building). In pursuit of some wealthy older clients (who live in Paris), Benny plans a trip to the city… w/ Orna.

[1] The movie is very well directed and the actors have all done a great job! I just hope that in the real world women will voice whatever happens to them (even if it is a very small deal) to their loved ones.

[2] Director Aviad is right on here, presenting a realistic look at a plausable situation.

-Excerpts from IMDB review

This is a slice-of-life film where we follow the POV of the protagonist (Orna). She is warm when interacting w/ her family, but composed and all-business in her attitude at work (which is male-dominated). In truth, Orna could be you (or a gal pal or female relative); in the #MeToo era, stories like this need to be told. Benny, who comes off as highly confident and somewhat gruff, yet also helpful to Orna (and her husband), is the predatory antagonist. Orna (like many women) never saw him as a threat, though there are warning signs throughout the story. If you’re in the DC metro area, check out this site for more info: https://www.jxjdc.org/films/ (I volunteer at this event).

Magic Town (1947) starring James Stewart & Jane Wyman

Very Frank Capra-like (not surprisingly since screenwriter Robert Riskin collaborated with Capra numerous times)…

If you liked James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Philadelphia Story,” this one’s for you.

This is one of those “just sit back and enjoy” pictures that isn’t particularly deep, but that is charming and great fun to watch.

…this film has lots of treasures in the performances, dialogue, physical comedy and rich diversity home spun Americana characters. I recommend this to all fans of the Capra-Riskin genre.

This movie is classic Jimmy Stewart. He is terrific, showing his ability to seamlessly mix comedy with drama.

Interestingly, the town people… were asked whether they thought a woman could function satisfactorily as president. 79% responded “yes.” This was considered an outrageous result.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

In this William Wyler directed film, Jimmy Stewart plays Lawrence “Rip” Smith, an NYC opinion pollster in search of a small town whose opinions reflect those of the U.S. as a whole. When he finds out that Grandview is such a place, he seizes his opportunity to make money (since his office is failing), and heads off to this town. Rip interrupts a conference held by the mayor and convinces him and his committee not to change the town. He’s smooth-talker putting on a facade; he appears boyish, drawling, folksy, and idealistic- the usual Stewart character.

Rip (along w/ Donald Meek and Ned Sparks- veteran character actors) poses as an insurance agent. He even starts coaching the basketball team at the H.S. where his old war buddy teaches. Rip also takes an interest in the newspaper editor, Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who is standoffish at first. After her father died, she wanted to keep his legacy going by building a new high school and civic center (yet was rebuffed by the town council).

In one funny scene in a classroom, Rip loudly recites Charge of the Light Brigade while Mary (more subdued) recites Hiawatha. An elderly janitor sees them and begins quoting Romeo’s balcony scene from Shakespeare. Gary Fishgall, who wrote a biography of Stewart, pointed out that the actor decided to use exaggerated facial expressions and pieces of slapstick (I liked when he tripped going up some stairs while saying “I can be tough.”) One viewer commented that Stewart might’ve been influenced by the Three Stooges; he says “Wise guy, huh?” and “What kind of a lamebrain do you think I am?”

Some of Riskin’s films were playing at AFI in April, but I discovered this film on YouTube. I thought Stewart and Wyman had very sweet and playful chemistry; they made a cute couple. Though Stewart’s character isn’t always 100% honest, you can’t help but like him (b/c he’s a decent man at heart).

Here is the full movie:

Birds of Passage (2018): Shortlisted for Academy Award – Best Foreign Language Film

It’s set in a community that doesn’t belong to you, but it speaks about us. This is a family film… We talk about the conflicts between the traditional community and modernity. We also talk about the conflicts between women and men, and the real and the spiritual world, and this is something that touched us in a very deep way. -Cristina Gallego, co-director/co-writer

We wanted to make a genre film, but this gave us the opportunity to put a twist on the genre film- a genre like the gangster film or noir film… which has developed into the glorification of criminals, a celebration of violence. -Cirro Guerra, co-director/co-writer

Few films have captured quite so powerfully the tension between the old and new worlds — a feat “Birds of Passage” accomplishes while simultaneously allowing audiences to channel the Wayuu’s surrealistic view of their surroundings, where spirits walk the earth, and wise women interpret their dreams. -Peter Debrige (Variety)

What first comes to mind when you think of Colombia? Aside from the actors and beauty pageant winners turned models, I bet it’s the drug trade! This movie, set between 1968 and 1980, is mostly spoken in the Wayuu language of the indigenous people of Colombia’s northern Guajira peninsula. Spanish is also spoken, as well as bits of English. The filmmakers are a young (under 40 y.o.) formerly married pair from Colombia, Cristina Gallego and Cirro Guerra. They worked with a team of about 80, incl. 30% of Wayuu actors, non-actors, and crew.

We are first introduced to Zaida (Natalia Reyes), a beautiful young woman of a high-standing Wayuu clan (which is a matrilineal society). When Zaida leaves her traditional one-year seclusion and is ready for marriage, she catches the eye of Rapayet (Jose Acosta). He’s a confident young man who has been working among the alijunas (outsiders, incl. those who speak Spanish and are non-indigenous) and comes from a less prominent family. He was raised by his highly respected uncle, Peregrino (Jose Vicente), a “word messenger.” In this society, it is forbidden to cause harm to a messenger. Rapayet and Zaida do a fast-paced mating dance; he declares: “You are my woman” at the end. We suppose that he could be thinking of family prestige and also genuine attraction.

Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Zaida’s formidable mother, explains that Zaida’s hand will only be available w/ a large dowry (incl. cattle, goats, and 5 necklaces). Ursula looks down on Rapayet, thinking he can’t come up with it. Rapayet sees the chance to get the dowry fast by selling marijuana to a drug-dealing American, Bill (who may or may not be connected to the Peace Corps). Rapayet’s business partner/best friend is a jovial, hard-partying Afro-Latin man, Moises; previously, they smuggled alcohol and cigarettes only. It turns out that (high in the hills) is a big crop of marijuana; the land is owned by a cousin of Rapayet’s, Anibal. When he sees just how much money can be made from the gringos, he’s up for the (dangerous) business.

[1] The landscapes of the film are stunning, and I particularly appreciated the cinematography. But perhaps my favourite thing about the film was it’s heavy use of spirituality and what I can only describe as “magical realism” transposed into film. I thought it was brilliantly done.

[2] It is very easy to look at cultures in real danger of extinction and place them in a pedestal, but “Birds of Passage” very intelligently avoids this by portraying these Wayuu people as greedy, ambitious, lustful and definitely not above using their cultural norms to get their own sinful way, as any other group.

[3] It is gripping and intense and handles its subject material in the best of ways. It is obvious that the creator of the film did everything he could so that the movie feels realistic and interesting to the viewer. Its beautiful and colorful visuals, the exceptional sound design and the strong and immersive soundtrack made you feel as a part of a whole and the film never felt boring or cliche. It is masterfully crafted and really well-paced.

-Excerpts from IMDB comments

 

Quick Reviews of Recent Views (FEB 2019)

A Star is Born (2018)

There is something missing in this movie, BUT I don’t know what! It could’ve been 15-20 mins shorter. It’s (mostly) predictable, BUT has some nice dialogue and scenes; I esp. liked the first 3rd of it. Lady Gaga did a good job in her movie debut; she has acted before on TV (FYI). Bradley Cooper’s tan makes him look a BIT older and worn out, BUT he’s still got that engaging smile and blue eyes. I was impressed by how well he played the guitar and sang (much better than debacles made by Gerard Butler in Phantom and Russell Crow in Les Mis). I learned that he had help from Willie Nelson’s son (a back-up guitarist in the film). The meet cute scene is quite well done; Jack is impressed w/ Ally’s voice. The parking lot scene was also good; they open up to each other as friends first. And yes, Gaga and Cooper have an easy chemistry (as many others have pointed out)! It’s easy to feel empathy for Ally as she goes from struggling unknown singer/songwriter to Grammy-winning pop star. I loved all the scenes w/ Sam Elliott; I wanted to see a BIT more of him (though the Oscar nom was well-deserved). Unlike the older versions (I’ve seen them all, aside from the Streisand/Kristofferson film), the man gets a FEW more scenes and is more sympathetic. Cooper does a good job for a newbie director.

Cold War (2018)

I don’t understand the love for this Polish film (which got an Oscar nom); it was playing recently at AFI (across the street). The B&W photography is very nice to look at, BUT Roma does it better. The main song which is woven through the story is lovely, and a BIT haunting. There is NOT enough characterization of the leads (an older male composer and a younger female singer). Sorry, that’s a deal-breaker for me (as my regular readers can guess)! Why are these people even in love!? The 88 mins. seems much longer- a bad sign also.

Everybody Knows (2018)

This is a Spanish language film (released earlier this month in the US) which stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, BUT was written/directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar previously). Some of you may have seen A Separation or The Salesman, two of his critically-acclaimed films; this movie was actually shot before The Salesman. The scenery is gorgeous, the tone shifts (from joyous to tense), and each supporting character gets their own moment to shine. Cruz and Bardem are married; they have great chemistry together! Even w/ no makeup and mussed up clothes, they look great, and project charisma and star power (BUT in a toned down way). The acting is in the eyes mainly. Even w/ the mystery at the center, you’ll find things common from Farhadi’s other works: extended families, long-held secrets, money pressures, and class issues. My two gal pals and I really liked it!