Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

FYI: This film was released in 2018 in France, Israel, and parts of Europe. It is now in theaters here in the U.S. Have you ever been a fan of a soap opera? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

The Farewell (2019) starring Awkwafina

[1] This movie is very touching, and it is broader than just culture by itself. It also talks about individual identity and family responsibility, life and death, and the human experience.

[2] Lulu Wang has written an absolutely beautiful and personal film and has clearly poured her heart out into it. Her dialogue is funny, human, and poetic. 

[3] This story is absolutely deserving of an audience, and combines together through a beautiful lens a clashing of Western & Eastern philosophies of life that really should be examined.

[4] …one film that as you watch entertains you with thought, and fun laughs and has the drama of pain and emotion all wrapped up in one. It has themes of trust, love, and most of all secrets something that all families can relate to. 

-Excerpts from IMBD reviews

Writer/director Lulu Wang’s indie film centers on Billi (Awkwafina- a rapper/actress from Queens raised by her grandmother), a 31 year-old aspiring writer (also living in Queens, NY). She discovers that her Nai Nai (“grandma” in Mandarin) is dying of Stage 4 lung cancer. The extended family has decided not to reveal this to Nai Nai (which is common in China and perhaps a few other Asian cultures). Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma- a prolific Chinese-American character actor) and his older brother construct a story: the family will say goodbye when they return to China for the wedding of Haibin’s son, Hao Hao and his Japanese bride, Aiko. For an Americanized, individualistic, and independent woman like Billi, this lie seems wrong.

Awkwafina does very well in her role; you almost forget that she started out in comedy. (FYI: She was cast in this role before her breakout roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8.) Billi obviously loved her grandma; she calls Nai Nai daily just to talk from NYC. Several film critics have pointed out that the actress has the (rare) ability to do much while seeming to do little. Just notice her posture, sighs, and expressions. Her mother, Lu Jian (Diana Lin- a Chinese-Australian actress) warns Billi that she must participate in the lie. This is tough for Billi, who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao- a very popular actress in China) is a well-rounded character, full of life, jokes, and joy.

As a (Jewish) viewer of this film noted on IMDB, it follows in the tradition of Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Though these three movies center on East Asians, they have universal themes and will appeal to diverse audiences. The parents (or older generations) get their share of screen time and are fully-fleshed out characters.

It was very difficult for Wang to get funding; after all, the film has an all Asian cast, is mostly subtitled, and she had only directed one feature film before. Even one of the potential Chinese investors said it’d be “more interesting” if she added a white guy (“real American”) character for Billi to bring home- WOW! After Wang appeared on NPR discussing her problem, an experienced producer (Chris Weitz) reached out to her. His credits incl. About a Boy (2002), The Golden Compass (2007), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

JxJ Film Festival: Abe (starring Noah Schnapp)

Abe (Noah Schnapp who plays Will Byers on the popular Netflix show, Stranger Things) is a quiet, sensitive, 12-year-old half-Israeli and half- Palestinian kid living in Brooklyn who loves cooking. He has a food blog, IG account, and many (online) friends who follow his progress in the kitchen. One side of the family prefers to call him “Avraham” (in Hebrew), the other side “Ibrahim” (in Arabic), while his atheist parents call him “Abraham.” But he prefers Abe. A few boys in school are turning 13 y.o. and planning big bashes for their bar mitzvah; Abe admits that he’s curious about the Jewish religion. This is music to his (maternal) grandfather’s (Mark Margolis) ears. Abe also wants to know more re: Islam; he tries fasting for a day (like his paternal grandparents).

Abe’s parents, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk, wife of Patrick Wilson and 1st gen Polish-American) and Amir (Arian Moayed, a Tony nominee of Palestinian heritage) want him to make more (real-life) friends, so suggest he go to a summer cooking camp. It’s too easy for Abe, so he decides to bail w/o consulting his parents. He seeks out an experienced Afro-Brazilian chef, Chico, who specializes in fusion food at local pop ups. At first, Chico is reluctant to let a kid work in his kitchen, but then he sees the passion and potential in Abe. He rides the subway on his own, starts working at Chico’s kitchen, and eventually creates some recipes of his own (combining the ingredients used by both sides of his conflicted family).

This is such a well-made, timely, and unique film; I hope it comes out on a streaming service soon (so can get a wider audience)! Abe is just one representative of the many kids in modern society w/ families from different races, cultures, religions, etc. He’s not sure if he wants to be atheist, like his parents, b/c the traditions of his grandparents appeal to him. His maternal grandmother left a box of family recipes; his mom gives these to Abe. He does some research and discovers that Jews and Palestinians, who have a contentious past, use many of the same ingredients in cooking.

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)

Game of Thrones: Season 8, Episode 1 (“Winterfell”)

WARNING: This post is dark and full of spoilers!

1.Winterfell is yours, Your Grace. -Sansa says to Daenerys

Sansa is cold (& unimpressed) by Dany and her crew, incl. the 2 dragons. As the Lady of Winterfell, she’s worried about the management of her household (incl. these new allies). Of course, we know that the Starks and Targayens have a difficult history- Aerys (The Mad King) killed Brandon (Ned’s older brother) and their father more than 20 yrs ago. Did you notice the little moment between Grey Worm and Missendei? They shared a look as the common people of the North stared coldly at them; these are probably the first POC they’ve ever seen. Been there, honey!

2. We don’t have time for this! -Bran to all (re: niceties) 

This moment was funny, yet also very real! As the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran knows what’s up (as well as what has been). Even when Jon kissed Bran’s forehead upon arrival to Winterfell (call-back to S1 again), Bran showed no emotion. He ain’t got time for that!

3. I’m standing up for our family. -Arya to Jon (when he’s surprised by her standing up for Sansa)

This was a fine (& touching) moment; Arya and Jon hugged and compared swords. They last saw each other in S1 (when he gave her Needle, her little sword). Jon and Arya both felt like outsiders in the Stark family; they were very close as kids. Arya and Sansa now have a mutual respect for each other (unlike in S1); recall the moment in S7 E7 when they talk re: supporting each other (as Ned taught them growing up).

4. You want a whore, buy one. You want a queen, earn her. -Cersei declares to Euron (when he asks for some affection)

I know this will probably be the most popular line of the ep! However, Cersei (now queen) does get together w/ Euron in the next scene; I was expecting her to keep him at a distance. Now that Jaime is gone (to fight w/ the Northerners), perhaps she is a bit lonely. Or this is her way of thanking him for bringing The Golden Company to Kings Landing.

5. Respect is how the young keep us at a distance, so we don’t remind them of the truth. Nothing lasts. -Varys explains to Tyrion & Davos

This was a nice little scene where the three men talk matchmaking (rather unexpected, but I liked it). They all think that Jon and Dany would make “a handsome couple” and also “just” and “honorable” rulers. Awww, why cant I find anyone to fix me up?

6. You’ve completely ruined horses for me! -Jon to Dany (after riding the dragon)

I liked this (funny) line after the (cool) dragon riding scene. These actors have “playful chemistry” (as Joanna Robinson commented on A Cast of Kings podcast). The dialogue was rather cheesy though- yikes! It reminded some viewers of A Whole New World (Aladdin); others were missing Ygritte (Jon’s first love).

7. As you wish, m’lady. -Gendry says to Arya (when she tells him not to call her Lady Stark).

Arya and Gendry are older now, so they’re a bit awkward around each other, yet still cute. These two actors have great chemistry- hope there is more to their story! Arya presents him w/ a drawing of a weapon she has designed; Gendry can forge it from dragonglass. Joanna Robinson really liked this part of their “courtship.”

8. I’m waiting for an old friend. -Bran tells Sam (the night before Jaime arrives at Winterfell)

In the last scene, we realize that the “old friend” is Jaime (who pushed Bran out of the tower in S1 E1)! This time, Jamie is dressed in dark, simple clothes, and under his black hood has short/dark hair. When he was last in Winterfell, he was wearing the ornate gold armor of the Kingsguard w/ blonde hair.

9. You’ve never been a bastard. You’re the true heir to the Iron Throne. -Sam explains to Jon 

Finally, Jon learns the truth of his parentage (thanks to the book Sam read, as well as Bran’s knowledge)! Jon didn’t believe it at first, b/c Ned was the kind of man who never lied. He has more of a claim to the throne than Dany (who is his aunt). Sam is no fan of Dany (after learning about what she did to his father and younger brother, Dickon); he thinks Jon will be a better ruler. Who hasn’t has a pal who didn’t like their significant other?

10. I’ve always had blue eyes! -Tormund yells at Ed & Rangers (running into them in the dark).

This is a funny moment before the creepy scene (w/ the young Lord Umber at the Last Hearth). Recall (also creepy little girl) in S1 E1; she scared the Night’s Watch guys who ran into her in the woods. One of these men escaped alive, but was executed by Ned.