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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Glory (1989) starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, & Andre Braugher

I re-watched this Civil War drama on TCM recently; it’s one of my fave (and most-watched) films! The music is used very well; each scene is enhanced by it, incl. the battles. It was originally released in the Summer of 1989; Fathom Events will be having its 30th anniversary screening later this year in select cities/theaters. Kevin Jarre (a white man) was inspired to write the screenplay when he saw monument to Shaw on Boston Common (shown in the closing credits). Jarre’s inspiration came from two books: (1) One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment (1989) by Peter Burchard, a novel that itself was based on letters written by Shaw and (2) Lay This Laurel (1973), a photographic tribute to the Civil War sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens with text by American writer/arts patron Lincoln Kirstein. Jarre has a brief (yet notable) cameo as the white Union soldier who shouts “Give ’em hell, 54!”

Edward Zwick was initially apprehensive about how his African-American cast would feel about this telling of a crucial part of their history by a young Jewish director. To his delight and relief, he found his cast to be very affable and good-humored towards him, some of them even grateful that he was brave enough to tackle such an important subject. Zwick and Denzel Washington (here in his breakout role) would continue to work together on other (successful) movies. The director later commented (during a promo tour for Courage Under Fire) that “Denzel is always doing something interesting. I don’t want to take the camera off him.”

Several of the extracts from Shaw’s supposed letters to his mother (in voice-over narration) were taken from Army Life in a Black Regiment, an 1870 book by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who commanded the 1st South Carolina Regiment). The historical figures in this movie are: 1) Francis George Shaw, Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, and Ellen Shaw (direct relatives of Robert Gould Shaw), 2) John Albion Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, 3) Charles Garrison Harker and George Crockett Strong, Union generals, 4) Charlotte Forten Grimké, an antislavery activist, 5) James Montgomery, Union colonel, and (6) Frederick Douglas, former slave turned abolitionist, speaker/activist.

Any negro taken in arms against the Confederacy will immediately be returned to a state of slavery. Any negro taken in Federal uniform will be summarily put to death. Any white officer taken in command of negro troops shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection and shall likewise be put to death.” Full discharges will be granted in the morning to all those who apply. Dismissed. -Shaw reads a proclamation sent from the Confederate Congress

Zwick explained that, for the flogging scene of Trip (Washington in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning role), the actor was lashed at full contact, with a special whip, that would not cut his back, but still stung. For the final take, Zwick hesitated calling “Cut!” to signal the flogging to stop, and the result was Washington’s spontaneous tear down his cheek. The deep scars on Trip’s back were Washington’s idea; they showed how Trip was already a survivor of many lashings (being a runaway slave w/ a willful nature).

That Col. Shaw- he a hard man! -Jupiter Sharts comments, tired after a tough day of drills

He’s a boy. A scared white boy. -Trip quickly retorts with disgust

At first, the regiment is only given manual labor; this was a fact w/ the “colored” soldiers. They were also given less pay; in real life, Shaw was the one who protested this matter. As my A.P. American Government teacher commented, Shaw used his class privilege (incl. his sense of entitlement and rank) to get what is needed for his men (shoes, uniforms, and rifles); we see this in the scene in the Quartermaster’s office. Shaw is surprised at how quickly his men learn (even under their tough, racist Irish drill sergeant). Broderick’s small, youthful face and micro-expressions (when Shaw was uncertain, nervous, or looked in over his head) were played so well. Andre Braugher (currently on the comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has perhaps the most interesting role; Thomas is an educated, free man who has never before had to fight for his survival. Trip takes an instant disliking to Thomas; they come from such different backgrounds, though both are young black men yearning to prove their worth. Thomas was partly based on a successful freedman who owned a shop in Boston.

I ain’t fightin’ this war for you, sir. -Trip quietly explains to Shaw (after being praised for his skill in battle)

Unfortunately, most of Elwes’ scenes were cut from the film. He and Broderick did not get along, according to Zwick; I think they also had differing acting styles and personalities. Many scenes/subplots were cut from both the theatrical version and DVD; these include Shaw and Forbes attending school together and fencing one another. Nearly all of the scenes of veteran actress Jane Alexander (Shaw’s mother) were cut. Freeman (who brings gravitas to this film, being older and more experienced than his co-stars) did his own stunts, as Zwick asked of all his actors. He used his own experience (Air Force) to inform how relationships would be formed in the unit.

At the end of the film, Shaw is thrown into the mass grave with the black soldiers. Normally, officers were given formal burials, but the Confederacy had such contempt for the black regiment, that the officers were thrown in with the regular soldiers (w/ no honors). After the war, Shaw’s parents visited the site where their son had died. When asked if they wished to have his body exhumed, so they could take it home to Boston for burial, they declined. “We would not have his body removed from where it lies, surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers,” explained his father, Francis George Shaw. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. What a bodyguard he has!”

Related Links

Article by historian (a consultant on the film):

Fathom Events: Glory

 

If Beale Street Could Talk (NOW PLAYING)

NOTE: This review contains MINOR spoilers for the film.

Every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all. -James Baldwin on his novel- If Beale Street Could Talk

This is really happening: Families really are being torn apart by this. Love is really under attack by these injustices and these issues. –KiKi Layne, actor

I think the biggest message is love and hope. You never know the power of that, and how that can get you through the most tumultuous times.  -Stephan James, actor

[1] It’s a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. 

[2] The acting was great, especially Regina King. She deserves every award she is nominated for in this pic. 

[3] I did want more of the film, but that’s not to say it felt unfinished. I just wanted more of every character.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I went to see this film last FRI w/ 2 of my gal pals at one of our local indie theaters- Landmark Bethesda. Our screening was packed mainly w/ middle-aged and elderly couples (black and white). It was adapted (from a novel by James Baldwin) and directed by Barry Jenkins (NOT yet 40 y.o.) In 2016, Jenkins’ film Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar; I saw that film on Netflix (late to the game). I thought that film was pretty good; it had an unique style and BOTH Mahershala Ali and Andre Holland are actors I admire. I think Beale Street could be more relateable; it’s partly a love story and also a look at justice system in the U.S.

Tish (KiKi Layne- in her first film role), a 19 y.o. dept. store clerk, and Fonnie (Stephan James), a 22 y.o. artist are deeply in love. They grew up together (in very different families) and being a romantic pair just came naturally. Fonnie gets arrested for a (serious) crime that he didn’t commit; Tish learns that she is pregnant w/ his child. Tish’s older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris from Chi-Raq) find a (young/white) lawyer for Fonnie, Hayward (Finn Whitrock). Both families hustle to raise funds for the defense, incl. conducting investigations outside the country. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), is VERY supportive and goes to great lengths for the love of her child. I think King could be in the running for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar!

This film is NOT about action, it’s more about character development; we see life through black people living in Harlem in the ’70s. There are some tender moments, BUT also difficult ones (which feel timeless, sad to say). Fonnie and Tish have a VERY tough time finding a place of their own to live. His best friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry from Atlanta), runs into Fonnie on the street; he was gone for several yrs from the area (we discover why). Some critics commented how rare it is to just see two young black men talking about their lives and feelings.

There is a LOT of chemistry between the leads; they can convey vulnerability and strength (as situations arise). The supporting actors are quite good; the cast includes Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Beach, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, and Ed Skrein. There are MANY close-ups, long takes (reminiscent of classic films), and the music is used quite effectively. These kind of films are VERY important- they put us in the shoes of people who are rarely depicted onscreen, or NOT depicted in a realistic manner. I recommend to indie film fans (of all ages and backgrounds); perhaps some of you will take a friend/family member who prefers more mainstream fare.

A trailer for the film- “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) starring Rami Malek

Bohemian Rhapsody is a foot-stomping celebration of Queen, their music and their extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury. Freddie defied stereotypes and shattered convention to become one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet. The film traces the meteoric rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career. Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. While bravely facing a recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. Queen cements a legacy that continues to inspire outsiders, dreamers and music lovers to this day. -Summary from Twentieth Century Fox

NOTE: This review contains MAJOR spoilers.

This is one of the MUST-SEE movies of 2018 (even if you know VERY little re: this band)! Of course, you’ve heard some of their songs, even if you didn’t grow up listening to (classic) rock. My good friend and I went to see it this past WED at our local (Regal) theater; our audience had folks ranging in age from 20s to 70s. This film succeeds b/c it takes you on a journey w/ the members of the British rock band, Queen, lead by Freddie (Rami Malek- in a star-making role). Before this, I ONLY knew Malek, who is Egyptian-American, from The Pacific (a WWII HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg). There is an energy that propels this film forward, mainly thanks to Malek and the (iconic) music!

The still baby-faced American actor, Joseph Mazzello (now 35), who plays bass guitarist John Deacon, is best known as the kid from Jurassic Park; he co-starred w/ Malek in The Pacific and they became friends. British actor Gwilym Lee is lead guitarist Brian May. Ben Hardy, an up-and-coming Brit, plays drummer Robert Taylor. Lucy Boynton, also a young Brit, plays Freddie’s girlfriend of 6 yrs turned close friend- Mary Austin. Game of Thrones fans will be pleased to see Aiden Gillen; he plays manager John Reid. Mike Myers (of SNL fame) has a small, yet pivotal, role as the music producer who let Queen get away- Ray Foster. Tom Hollander, a veteran Brit who has worked in both comedy and drama, plays lawyer Jim Beach.

The real-life May and Taylor served as executive producers; they had approval over the script, director, casting, etc. Thank goodness they got rid of Sasha Baron Cohen! There was an extensive search for the lead; MANY critics thought that Malek was wrong for the role. If you compare photos, Malek doesn’t resemble Freddie much, aside from the strong/square jawline and similar skin tone. However, as we’ve seen in other movies, it’s NOT merely re: looks; it’s about who can inhabit the real-life character. Freddie’s younger sister (who consulted on this film) was even impressed! After seeing the actual Live Aid performance (thanks to YouTube), I can say that Malek has transformed himself (voice, posture, body movements, etc.) The singing in the film is that of Freddie, a Canadian male singer, and Malek’s voice all mixed together.

The chemistry between Malek and Boynton is terrific; they are currently in a relationship off-screen. Freddie and Mary have a strong friendship and deeply love each other, BUT he reveals that he is also attracted to men. We also get to see a few of the men in Freddie’s life, incl. the opportunistic asst. manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech- a long way from Downton Abbey), and down-to-earth waiter, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). I wasn’t sure at first, BUT there is a brief cameo from singer Adam Lambert (one of the winners of American Idol).

We get to learn re: Freddie’s family (Parsis of Zoroastrian faith expelled from Zanzibar, Tanzania), how the band got together in the early ’70s, the evolution of some (VERY famous) songs, Freddie’s love of cats, and more. Each band member has his own hairstyle, fashion sense, personality, and songs he writes for the various albums. They eventually call themselves “family,” BUT no family is w/o its problems. While the other men marry and have children, Freddie continues w/ his hard-partying lifestyle. Mary gets involved w/ another man. In the early ’80s, Freddie goes off to Germany to work on two solo albums. When the call for Live Aid comes, he doesn’t realize (at first) how important it could be to the band. Freddie knows that he may NOT have much time left, as he is experiencing symptoms related to AIDS.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon) starring John Krasinski

So you MAY have heard that this ain’t your dad’s (or grandpa’s) Jack Ryan! There are MANY negative reviews (bordering on Islamaphobic) to be found re: this new Amazon series. FYI: It has been renewed for S2. I saw the 8 eps over a 3-day weekend soon after its release; I thought it was meh (like some critics I follow). The writing is (mostly) predictable; I wanted to see a LOT more depth. You can check it out; it keeps your attention (w/ its editing/pacing, high production value, and a few unique characterizations). The action (if that’s your thing) is well-done; Michael Bay is one of the executive producers. Carlton Cuse (Lost) is one of the creators.

Jack Ryan (John Krasinksi) is a 30-something former soldier w/ a PhD working as an “analyst” (they don’t say “officer”) for the CIA. He rides his bike to work, dresses preppy (BUT has a V fit body underneath), and works in a (nice/modern) cubicle. One of his young co-workers is played by Mena Massoud (who will be star of the new live action Aladdin); he doesn’t have many scenes. Jack’s direct supervisor, James Greer (Wendell Pierce- one of my fave actors), has been aged down and is a Muslim convert divorced from his Arab-American wife. THIS is one of the points that that die-hard Clancy fans objected to in their reviews. There is a scene early in the series where we get to know a BIT re: Greer’s family life, incl. his conflicted relationship w/ Islam. He meets w/ an older immigrant man at a little cafe who says that he is missed at the mosque (masjid); I haven’t seen a scene like this on ANY (network) show!

In the Harrison Ford helmed movies, Jack is older and has two young kids w/ his eye doctor wife. Here, Jack’s future wife- Dr. Cathy Mueller- is an epidemiologist. Cathy (Aussie actress Abby Cornish) tells a work friend that Jack’s NOT like the guys she usually goes out w/; perhaps he’s more brainy, reserved, and unsure of himself (when in comes to romance). Their paths (work-wise) eventually cross; this is a staple in MANY network TV shows and movies. Some Clancy fans didn’t like this coincidence; I wouldn’t have cared IF Krasinski and Cornish had chemistry onscreen. I’m sure there are MANY other actresses who could’ve done better w/ this role.

The villains of this story are NOT cartoonish stereotypes; Suleiman (Ali Suliman), is a former banker who grew up partly in the ghettos of France w/ his artistic younger brother, Ali (Haaz Sleiman from The Visitor). As kids, they survived the bombing of their hometown in Libya. Suleiman has a young/beautiful/clever wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), as well as three children who live in a spacious compound in Syria. Shihabi grew up in Saudi Arabia and (quite naturally) portrays a woman who would do anything to protect her kids. I hope this actress gets more roles! There is great (familial) chemistry between the actors, making them believable as brothers. How did they become terrorists? We get to see the backstory (also unusual in a typical network show). As some viewers noted, these characters are MORE interesting than the Westerns who are on their trail.

Below are excerpts from some IMDB reviews:

The writing is far from great. This could’ve been an amazing series, but instead the writing is very TV. Also, I can’t with the love interest. Her acting is terrible and there is zero chemistry between them.

If you are new to Clancy, or the action spy drama all together, you will probably enjoy this. The acting, action, and production value will carry it a long way.

…it doesn’t break any new ground. But it provided a season of tense, tight entertainment, if this is a genre that you find appealing. There, of course, is lots of violence, some of it graphic… but I thought all of the particulars of good visual storytelling were present.