"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel" (originally published in 1996) is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Want to see some of the best films of recent years? Just scroll down to "best films" to find listings of my recommendations.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Disappointing Film

There are lots of good Israeli films playing in the movie theaters in Jerusalem right now.  I highly recommend Foxtrot, Scaffolding, Longing and Maktub – all of which have been reviewed previously on this blog. 

There is one more playing right now – The Burglar (הפורצת) by Hagar Ben-Asher -- about a teenage girl, living in Arad, who discovers that her mother has suddenly left her. The girl begins to break into apartments to obtain money in order to pay the rent and to buy a motor scooter.  Things become weird when she uses the money to pay for a hotel room by the Dead Sea in order to attract a visiting German geologist.  It is too bad that the film suffers from a lack of depth and little character development, and therefore I would not put this on my list of recommended films.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sentimental Comedy

From the trailer, you might think that Maktub, directed by Oded Raz, is a low-brow comedy about crime and violence.  But surprisingly, it is a sentimental story about good deeds and helping make people’s wishes come true!

Our two main characters are thugs who make a living collecting protection money from Jerusalem restaurants.  After surviving a life-transforming event, they decide to change their lives and do good deeds, helping grant people their wishes.  They set out to read the notes that people put into the Kotel (Western Wall), and then to figure out how to help them.  They put on a fancy bar mitzvah party for a single Russian Mom who can’t otherwise afford it.  They help a fellow put sparks back into his marriage.  And they help a woman who is having trouble getting pregnant. 

The film draws attention to so many issues in our contemporary world, including immigrants, cross-dressers, underworld criminals, chef restaurants, parental responsibility and lingering superstition. 

Our two main characters are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they are loyal friends, sentimental, and good-hearted.  As Sephardi stereotypes, they sprinkle their vocabulary with a lot of Arabic slang.  The title of the film, “maktub”, means "fate".  We can interpret it to mean that it was fate or destiny that the people who put prayers into the Kotel would be helped by these two guys!!

Maktub is entertaining, and the violence is over-the-top, making it mostly not realistic (which is certainly preferable!). I certainly enjoyed this film!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sitcom about Ethiopian Jews

Nebsu is a TV sitcom series which will soon begin its second season in Israel.  The series was aired on Reshet and produced with monies from the collaborative effort of the Gesher Film Fund and the Avi Chai Foundation—two organizations committed to promoting pluralism and tolerance within Israeli society. 

Nebsu is a low-brow series, filled with lots of bathroom and mother-in-law jokes, playing to a low common denominator of the Israeli public.  Having said that, I must also add that it’s well-paced, filled with sharp criticism of social customs in Israeli society, and it made me laugh at many of the foibles of our culture.

The story line centers around the son of immigrants from Ethiopia and the daughter of an Ashkenazi family who fall in love and want to marry each other.  The characters are compelling and the humor is quite witty, although not terribly sophisticated.  More important than anything else, the program has brought a typical and wonderful Ethiopian family into the living room of hundreds of thousands of Israeli homes.   This is a crucial step in bringing mainstream Ethiopian Jews into the Israeli consciousness and helping to promote racial tolerance within Israeli society. 

In addition, the big news is that I read in today’s Haaretz newspaper that American Fox TV is going to create a pilot for a comedy series based on the same idea of an inter-racial young couple.  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Family Drama

Antenna by Arik Rothstein is a compelling family drama which mixes comedy, family relations, and tragedy.  All mixed in one. 

Combining issues dealing with Holocaust memory, divorce, family loyalty, relations with the neighbors, illness, and intermarriage, the film tells the story of one typical Jewish Israeli family -- elderly parents and their three grown sons. 

The parents live in a two-family house, and the father discovers that his neighbor has rented out his part of the roof to a cellphone company for the installation of an antenna.  Believing that the radiation from the antenna is the cause of all of his aches and pains, the father develops an obsession with the antenna and begins to wage a war against his neighbor. 

His three sons and their partners – all portrayed in a complex manner and all very different from each other -- become involved in the struggle against the antenna -- Itzik, a career army officer, is married with three kids; Leon, divorced, teaches Holocaust literature at the university; and Effi, involved with a non-Jewish woman from Germany, is dealing and smoking grass.

The subject of the antenna might make you think that this film borders on the absurd.  Rather, it is a serious and authentic story about a family and the cellular antenna represents more than just a neighbor’s greed – the father is a Holocaust survivor and we begin to see that his paranoia is due to shadows from his past.

Contact Transfax Films for distribution information.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Foxtrot by Samuel Maoz

Israel’s Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, has been trying desperately to censor Israeli films and filmmakers.  Her latest attempt included heavy criticism of Samuel Maoz’s new award-winning film, Foxtrot, which she admits she hasn’t seen!  Due to the controversy over the film, I decided to go see it right away, in order to show support for it and also to see it before it is removed from Israeli screens. 

Foxtrot is a serious, strangely compelling and fascinating film, well-worth seeing!   And just today we heard the news that the film is the winner of the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival!

The film is about bereavement, military service, the humiliation imposed on Palestinians at the checkpoints, the boredom and tension that the young soldiers who man the checkpoints have to deal with, and how the occupation is eating away at our soul.  Foxtrot portrays a family tragedy in a society in which tragedy is so randomly distributed among the population, as we see in the opening sequence. 

Michael Feldman is an architect (played by Lior Ashkenazi) married to a wonderful wife, with two great kids, a beautiful apartment, and a bit of a chip on his shoulder.  His son, Yonatan, is serving in a small unit (whose call name on the military radio is “foxtrot”) somewhere on the moonscape of the West Bank where they are manning a lonely and somewhat surrealistic checkpoint. 

The film is filled with metaphors and symbols.  For example, the unit’s pre-fab hut is crookedly falling into the mire of the lunar terrain, something that one of the soldiers is measuring every night, desperately worried that one day they will all disappear into the muck.  For a long time, a camel has symbolized the majestic yet lumbering and lazy Middle Eastern Arab – here it ultimately brings about our undoing. And the enormous bulldozer, which everyone associates with one of the major tools of the occupation since it is used to destroy Palestinian homes, is the instrument of a major military cover-up of tragic events at a checkpoint.  The film also offers a Holocaust allegory which highlights the terrible feelings of survivor's guilt in the second generation (the generation of the soldier's father). And the foxtrot itself -- you dance around and around but always return to the same spot.
This is not an easy film to watch.  It is hard-hitting and stylized, using a lot of shots from above, a perspective which makes the viewer stand back and take note.  But it is also brilliant in many ways, using the cinematic medium to portray and criticize, something that the filmmaker should be credited for and not censored! In a democratic society, this type of film which looks critically at our contemporary reality is important for raising public awareness and potentially bringing about political change.  

Foxtrot is the story of a society that is exhausted from bereavement -- smoking marijuana or simply engaging in denial are some of the major ways of coping, according to this filmmaker.  It is a brilliant and provocative film which offers a shocking and effective cinematic criticism of the military establishment.

Samuel Maoz previously directed the prize-winning film, Lebanon, about a tank unit during the early days of the War in Lebanon in 1982 and is based on Maoz's own combat experiences during that war (previously reviewed on this blog).  

Foxtrot is available from The Match Factory.

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Tender Story -- The Cakemaker

The Cakemaker (העופה מברלין), directed by Ofir Raul Grazier, tells a compelling and surprisingly tender romantic story about a German man named Thomas who runs a coffee shop in Berlin.  

He has an affair with Oren, an Israeli man, married with a six-year-old boy, who travels to Berlin monthly for his work.  When Oren dies in a car accident back in Jerusalem, Thomas is left bereft.  He travels to Jerusalem, searching for evidence of his love.  He is a simple man – he states early in the film that he has so much in his life – his coffeeshop, his apartment, and his love for Oren.  Thomas searches out Oren’s wife and obtains a job working for her in her Jerusalem coffee shop.  He starts out washing dishes in the kitchen, but eventually his work expands as his talents for baking become apparent.

This is a human story, a story about loneliness and finding love and losing it.  The gay baker from Berlin and the grieving widow work together in the same coffee shop.  He is very conscious of their love for the same man, but she is unaware of their peculiar relationship.  It is a bit slow-moving, and the dialogue is minimalist.  But so much is told visually.  For example, we often watch Thomas’ hands kneading the dough, working hard, in a therapeutic and sensual way.

Jerusalem and Berlin are also main characters in the film, making the film all the more authentic illustrating how it brought together two men, across a huge divide.  And what seems to link us together across this divide?  Two things – love for the same man, and Thomas’ wonderfully successful cakes and beautifully decorated cookies.  

There is also narrative tension built through the religious theme – what does it mean to hire a non-Jewish worker in a kosher establishment?  And Shabbat becomes a major player – the Shabbat siren, Shabbat Kiddush blessings, Shabbat food, invitations to Shabbat dinner, the town crier yelling “shabbes” to signify the beginning of the day.

The Cakemaker is a beautifully made romantic film, well-worth seeing, a feature debut for filmmaker, Ofir Raul Grazier. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A New Romantic Comedy -- And Then She Arrived

And Then She Arrived (ואז היא הגיע) directed by Roee Florentin, is a romantic comedy, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Dan is a 30-year-old good-looking lawyer from an Ashkenazi family, who loves music and the Haifa Hapoel soccer team. He is engaged to marry his high school sweetheart. Then he meets Meirav.

Different in every way from his fiancée, Meirav is filled with life, dreams and is so much more compelling than his strait-laced girlfriend.  But falling in love is not so simple and there are clear obstacles along the way. It’s as if they live in separate worlds – Haifa and Jerusalem, educated and uneducated, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, spicey food and tasteless food, and more.

The Mizrachi-Ashkenazi divide is portrayed here up front and center.  Meirav is from a Kurdish background and lives in an old building which houses Jews from a wide variety of exotic places.  She’s uneducated – but she has flair and designs fantastic clothes.  Her mother is an overly-expressive and wonderful ethnic character, currently involved in a court case with an equally expressive upstairs neighbor! 

Both Dan and Meirav are already emotionally committed to other people.  Meirav’s boyfriend is Argentinian – he says being a Latin lover is just like being Mizrachi – it’s the same thing!  Dan’s fiancée notices that something is awry and puts things on hold, freeing him to pursue Meirav. 

This is a feel-good, low-brow film, filled with good music, and a fair amount of superstition and charm.  Gidi Gov, in a cameo appearance, plays the judge in one of Dan’s court cases, who helps Dan figure out how to know if this girl is the “one”. 

And Then She Arrived is available from Israelifilms