Film Review: Menashe (2017)

CLICK HERE TO READ MY FULL REVIEW AND INTERVIEW NOTES WITH THE DIRECTOR, JOSHUA WEINSTEIN, AND THE LEAD ACTOR, MENASHE LUSTIG, and to SEE THE TRAILER

More to follow!

 

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Film Review: My Hero Brother (2016)

Want to see a light film that you didn’t expect to like but has a subtle and uplifting impact? Read about some incredible sibling relationships, and a lot more!

The film is not in the theaters now, but you’ll be able to find it on Netflix and elsewhere.

Read my published review of the film, My Hero Brother, by Yonaton Nir. Here’s the link, as published in The Newton Tab:

‘My Hero Brother’ shows the treasure we share

And then drop me a comment!

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Film Review: La La Land

la_la_land_filmFrom its opening scene under a big blue sky on a bumper-to-bumper L.A. highway stretching as far as the eye can see, in which drivers exit their vehicles to join in singing and dancing with a precision, energy and choreography that I haven’t seen since the Jets and the Sharks danced their way down the west side highway, the film La La Land, written, directed and produced by Damien Chazelle, transports us into a world of dreams and aspirations, both delightfully magical and often achingly familiar.

Set in a land known for dreams both fulfilled and quashed, this Hollywood setting, awash in primary colors, tells a story of two ordinary and young adults who each have talent and a dream. But this entertaining musical stands out because it defies our expectations of a classic “boy meets girl” story. In modern day real life, love and career often battle it out. La La Land confronts this head on, as the characters dance and sing their way through their lives in a delightful score by Justin Horwitz.

He, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz pianist, reveres the jazz greats and wants to open a club of his own someday, where the greats’ music can be heard and appreciated again.  For now, his talent is squashed at the dinner clubs where he is hired to play the song set requred by the restaurant owner.

She, Mia (Emma Stone), the aspiring actress, captivates because she struggles as any human: She squints in the sunlight, struggles to put on a smile after being rebuked by an employer, doesn’t fix herself up for the audition, and then attempts to justify her humiliation (“That was fun!”) when she hears the words, “Next…” Mia contrasts to the typical prototypes of the aspiring actors she brushes by at the various social events she attends who “worship everything and value nothing.”

The two get off to a wobbly start, which Mia is able to do because she overlooks a number of Sebastian’s more obnoxious character traits and is willing to learn about his passion, jazz. The two inspire and encourage each other in their respective fields. A modern-day couple, they have no expectations of where this relationship will lead. At least that’s what each says or, rather, sings.  But as the story and the romance continues, greased by some wonderful dance scenes, the audiences’ hopes that they’ll make it are raised.

I found their dance numbers charming. No, they are not polished like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but they are Mia and Sebastian. We may find ourselves rooting for them as a couple, and realize their professional dreams as well, but the past does not predict the present nor does the present portend the future, a dimension which Keith (John Legend) adds to this story. Keith, the leader of a jazz fusion band, shows up out of Sebastian’s past at just the right time with an offer for Sebastian to play in his band. This might be just what Sebastian needs to make his dream come true – if he is willing to let go of his reverence for pure jazz in order to tour, and then record, with the group. “You’re holding onto the past but jazz is about the future,” Keith advises.

But it means also having to tour for long periods of time, and leave Mia behind. Mia, we know, wants to further her career. loves acting, how much acting or writing talent does she actually have?

Sebastian encourages her to write her own one-woman play and to then produce it and act in it, which she does, but again we are not shown any part of the performance or even told what her play is about. It was unsatisfying to not see any part of her performance, we don’t even learn how much acting talent she actually has, but she has a dream. And perhaps Chazelle has a different storyline in mind.

At Mia’s next audition, she’s asked not to read lines from a script but to tell a story. She reaches within, to what she knows intimately and loves – and finally breaks free of her inhibitions. Her breakthrough comes as she extemporizes, to song, verses about her aunt, in the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” and where La La Land connects the strongest with the audience.

Leapt, without looking
And tumbled into the Seine
The water was freezing
She spent a month sneezing
But said she would do it again…

This song is, after all, notwithstanding our investment in this romance, the film’s anthem:

And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

Up until this point, Mia and Sebastian have given advice to the other – but what about the decisions each makes for himself?  In the quest for love and a career, which comes first? How do modern day couples negotiate that? Do we read lines, or create our own meaningful script? Can one flame burn out, only to find another that’s brighter? Or is it all about timing?

Movie-goers who want their storybook ending won’t find it here and, unlike the passion in West Side Story which plays itself out throughout the story, the heat produced in La La Land‘s opening-number does not resurface later in the story line. The best music is when Keith’s band performs; and some of the dance music, such as that with the harp and flute, while brilliant, is counter to a unified musical whole, and the most memorable lyric is during Mia’s audition number.

But movie-goers will love the performances of both Gosling and Stone; they’ll also find a truer arc of life and reality where hearts are broken and messes are made but one’s dreams – whether about profession or romance – should and do still come true.

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Bye Bye Business!

balloons
It’s been a great run, really.

But two weeks ago I realized it was time to say goodbye. Goodbye to my business that I’d been running since 1995.

I’ve passed by many storefronts that have closed up, only to be opened again occupied by a different business. Then that one closes. I’ve read in the paper about businesses with hundreds, even thousands, of employees being laid off, let go. What becomes of these people? My favorite jewelry store where I always had my necklaces and earrings repaired is going out of business; tomorrow is their very last day.

This time it was mine and I was the one on the inside, calling the shots. I’d been watching my orders steadily decline for a while, while still feeling responsible to be accountable and available if any new orders came in, no matter where I was physically. Now clearly the business, and my life, went past the balance point. There was nobody to send out pink slips to because I didn’t have any employees. So that pain I didn’t have to endure or inflict. But it was painful for me none the less.

When business dries up, if we have a home-based business we can hang on a little longer when business slows down because we are not paying rent to a landlord or wages, salaries, health insurance to employees, and so on. But still there may be one day when you realize that carrying an infrastructure – telephone, fax line, internet, websites, amount of time cleaning out spam from my email, URLs, having to change my phone message every time I’m away for a day or two – all adds up. It adds up in terms of money, time and the amount of thought that occupies your brain.

In my case, my brain’s space is becoming more and more valuable real estate as I age (and as I deal with my aging-even-more mother).

The computer software business has changed, as the method of delivery changes. School software budgets have mirrored city and state budgets, and with each dot.com bust or Wall Street financial crisis, schools have been less and less willing to purchase software vying, instead, to find online learning materials. We cannot go backward. We cannot go back.

So one day about a month ago I decided to take those first steps. I prepared an email announcement for each customer who had ordered multiple times, saving them all in my “Draft” folder and then when I’d written every email, sent them out, one night, one by one. Within a half an hour, the deed was done.

That evening I gave myself some downtime and watched football.

A few days later I began taking down all my files of customers, scores of binders with scores of customers’ records. One by one I went through and discarded shipping air-bills and other information, putting credit card info in a separate pile to shred, leaving only the names of customers and what they had licensed. This took days. The 3-ring binders went into a bag for recycling. There were hundreds and hundreds of these individual records and each one was like saying goodbye to a baby that I had nurtured. Each one evoked a memory, and represented hundreds of students who had learned English and improved their writing through my software application.

It was so bizarre. I never realized how far and wide my software had an influence. Canada, New Zealand, UK, Singapore, Chile, Algiers, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Japan, Taiwan, Qatar, the UAE, even Malaysia. I wanted to REACH OUT! and say hello, thank you, and goodbye just one more time. No. That would be a bad idea.

Soon the papers alone were tucked into expandable manila folders, just in case I ever need to look at them, and a shelf in my closet was cleared out where I placed these folders, out of sight. No, I didn’t trash them. I’m hanging on just a little longer, I realize. I have a fantasy that these schools are going to call and ask for one last upgrade, one last license. I’m kidding myself.

It’s starting to hurt, but it’s also starting to feel better.

Along with clearing out these files, and others, I’m making room for something else.

But what?

Some writing, perhaps? Another book? More film reviews? Building up my blog?

Next comes the telephone number. I was resisting this one for a while. It would be the final blow. I removed the phone number from my website. I have had such a great little number for my business. Then my husband and I get a great idea. Our home telephone number really sucks. It’s impossible to remember and there’s no really clear pattern. My husband loves the idea of switching the business number to our home landline. Verizon says it’s possible! Thank you Verizon for allowing me to hold on just a little longer.

Still I dawdle.

Yesterday morning I sat at my desk and waited, and waited, for a message.

The message arrived. It was: “You’re hanging on! You’re not letting go! This software business of yours is the past, not the present or the future.”

Quickly I phoned Verizon – bushwacking through their horrendous menu – and made the switch. It occurred so quickly that I was still on the phone with the technician when the business phone switched off; within another 10 minutes the home landline number went dead. I phoned my old business number and our landline rang. Prominently displayed on the caller ID was already, the cute easy-to-remember and easy-to-say new/old number. Glad it happened so quickly or I would have had time to think twice about what I was doing!

I’m in awe of the process of endings and new beginnings. I’m in awe of what it takes to say goodbye to the old and to say hello to something new. I know how many people – hoarders, people in dysfunctional relationships – struggle with this. Or succumb to the fear of the unknown and the new.

Today lots of books about editing and writing (and a few other subject matters) sit on my shelves, where my CD disks, mailers and info about suppliers used to be. The shelf is nice and neat.

And I love our new telephone number.

*****

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Film Review: Hidden Figures

hiddenfigures_2

Please read my review of the film Hidden Figures as published in Boston’s print and online paper, The Jewish Journal.

The Jewish Journal begins….

The film “Hidden Figures,” directed by Theodore Melfi, brings us the true story of America’s zeal to put a man into space juxtaposed against the remarkable but unknown story of three black American women whose mathematical, scientific, computing and engineering genius made it possible – in an era of …  READ MORE

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Film Review – Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe

stefan_zweigWe rarely view a film with five principal languages – German, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. But the film Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, written and directed by Maria Schrader, pays homage to the last seven years of the extraordinary life of the great Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (Josef Hader), whose popularity in the 1920s and 30s made him the most translated author in the world. It also telescopes us into his world where, after his writing was banned in Austria and his citizenship revoked on account of his Jewishness, Zweig fled – in exile – to live in London, New York City, and to settle, finally, in Brazil.

The film is divided into segments, each reflecting a different time and place where Zweig and his second wife Lotte (Aenne Schwarz) travelled – Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, New York City, to name a few. But wherever Zweig is, the realities of the ascendency of fascist Europe form, although off-screen, an inextricable part of the story. Nazi horrors and the decline of moral values are never far from Zweig’s inner and tormented world.

One of the earliest dynamics shows itself in Rio, 1936, where Zweig is being honored by the P.E.N (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) Club for their 14th International Conference. American-Jewish journalist Joseph Brainin (André Szymanski), also of Austrian heritage, confronts and challenges Zweig to use his international literary clout to publicly condemn Nazi aggression. Zweig, however, lives in two worlds and one of those worlds is the intellectual world, where there is no room for polemics.

Balancing against the intellectual world of his writing and his idealistic hope for the long-run future of Europe is his emotional world, in which he has lost the very bedrock of his life: his home, homeland, citizenship, and the world of German, the language in which he thinks and writes.

Wherever Zweig goes, requests to sponsor a fellow Jew in Europe for travel to Brazil pursue him. In a remote village in Brazil, he steals time, as the town’s mayor is honoring him, to make some arrangements before Brazil ceases to issue visas. “He who has no country has no future,” he states. In New York City, he and Lotte are guests of Zweig’s first wife Friderike (Barbara Sukowa), who, with her two daughters from her first marriage, crossed the Pyranees by foot in order to escape France and reach the United States. As the clouds of war, devastation and anti-Jewish legislation begin to mount in Europe, Friderike prevails upon him to sponsor another desperate Jewish acquaintance still in Austria for travel to the U.S. Zweig himself aches to have a sense of belonging and of peace, which he needs to write and make a living in this new world. He cannot sponsor everybody.

To demonstrate the increasing desperation of European Jews, director Shrader’s clever camera work shows not scenes of war, but a shot of piles of bundled mail on Frederike’s table with similar requests awaiting the revered writer.

In Petrópolis, Brazil, he and Lotte choose to settle down where they feel the warmth of acceptance, racial and ethnic diversity, and the beauty of an unspoiled land. In this paradise still his mind is restless. He and friend and fellow writer Ernst Feder (Matthias Brandt), who has also settled there, look upon the splendor from the balcony of his home. “We have no reason to complain.”

“No.” Each man stares into the tropical distance. The silence answers.

“Not us.” Both men attest to the impossibility of blocking out the suffering of their kinsmen and the moral depravity now marking Europe.

Most viewers will not know of Zweig or his international renown and will have to piece together a great deal of background information, the film’s most prominent shortcoming. We will wonder what he wrote, the specifics under which he left Austria, why he and Friderike divorced and how they yet maintained a trusting friendship, and more. The transitions between segments are somewhat bumpy.

But the reward of seeing this strong film overcomes this. Passionate acting dynamics, in particular of Josef Hader and Barbara Sukowa, and dialogue place us in the middle of ethical dilemmas. I’m hoping the film inspires viewers to read Zweig’s stories and novellas and his revealing and magnificent autobiography “The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European,” completed in 1939. Viewers may be surprised that his writing was the inspiration behind the critically-acclaimed film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or that a Jewish writer in the 1920s and 30s could have the international stature that rock stars have today.

One of the film’s lighter moments takes place in a Brazilian village where Zweig is so revered that the mayor hires a marching band to serenade him and Lotte with “The Blue Danube” waltz.

Interestingly, the film’s original title is Stefan Zweig: Before the Dawn, and we might ask what dawn this refers to. Perhaps this is the author’s personal search; perhaps it is the viewer’s search, hoping that Zweig personally, and Europe overall, will reawaken from its Nazi horror and, one morning all will be well.

The final scene in the bountiful unspoiled Petrópolis connects eerily with the film’s opening scene, where he is being honored by the president of Brazil with a lavish and highly orchestrated meal. Flowers  are arranged by attendants with the delicacy of heart surgery. How better to then transition to the contradiction between that, and Zweig’s internal world and the external horrors of a suffering Europe and Jewish population.

Some may judge the way the revered Zweig and his wife’s lives ended, so gingerly depicted in this film, but Maria Schrader’s film boldly depicts the monumental challenges encountered by Zweig – a great writer, refugee, pacifist and idealist in search of pride, self-esteem and a life of meaning – when all of Europe and the world he knew was falling apart.

 

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