Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Sunday, Oct 20

It was a big, full day of Jewish film last Sunday, and it started with an early brunch for the patrons (I'm one, of course) at the Netflix headquarters and screening room in Los Gatos. Topol was there to greet everyone, and since I forgot to put this in my opening night post, let me say this now. His latest venture (in partnership with Paul Newman) is a vacation camp in Israel for children with life-threatening or chronic diseases--Jordan River Village. Looks like a great charity, so please go here and click on "Donate Now."

The brunch also included a movie screening, and remember how in my opening night post I mentioned Topol's early movie SALLAH SHABATI that I just had to see? Well, that was patron movie, so I had to wait less than 24 hours to see it. We open with a plane landing in Israel, and first we see wealthy (presumably American) tourists getting off. Then we see the immigrants. Although I didn't pick up on this, the IMDb description says that Sallah's family in from Yemen and they were brought in on Operation Magic Carpet, which brought a lot of Jews from Arab nations into Israel. What I did get was a comical sense of fish out of water desperation mixed with a bit of "it's all in G-d's hands, may he be praised" attitude. That and a little righteous satire of the government system. Sallah and his family (and an elderly woman who might or might not be part of his family) are moved into a settlement camp near a kibbutz. They're building housing for them, but it's slow going. And while the housing is free, the piece of paper that gets them in costs 1,000 shekels. And he can only make so much from hustling his neighbor at backgammon. He can make more by selling his vote in the local elections--selling it to every party. And he does various jobs on the kibbutz--one of the best and funniest scenes (and the one they showed opening night) is the tree-planting scene. Since all the wealthy American donors want a forest in the honor, they simply bring them in and show them the forest and the sign declaring it's theirs. When they leave, they take down the sign, put up a new one, and bring the next wealthy donor in. Very funny, and actually changed official policy so now all the signs are put in concrete.  (Note: they just did this as what they thought was a funny joke, not because this was a widespread problem with the forest-planting programs.) Anyway, the movie is very funny, and pretty episodic. You can tell it grew out of several short skits. And you can tell why this is so popular still in Israel. And finally, you can see a very young Topol (in his 20s at this point) becoming typecast as playing an older man.

Then back up to the festival proper, back the the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center for the highlight of the day--the sing-along to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Topol was there again to introduce it, tell a few stories about making it, and make another plea for donations to Jordan River Village. He and his family didn't stick around for the movie, though, because they were doing a similar introduction to a sing-along at the Castro Theater later that day, and had to get up there. Honestly, if it wasn't for the fact that I was staying for two more movies and already had my pass, I would've liked to see it at the Castro instead. No offense intended, but the Castro is a magnificent movie palace, and the OFJCC theater not even the best resolution digital. They're still wonderful hosts for the festival (even better now that I work in Palo Alto) but they can't compete with the mighty Castro.

Anyway, the movie is still fantastic, still hilarious in the first half, and still heartbreaking in the second half. And although I'm no singer (I know those who claim anyone could be trained to carry a tune with enough practice--so far I've proven them all wrong) I gamely joined in. Interesting thing, when you sing along the emotions really are heightened. I was literally getting choked up more than a couple of times during the movie. What a brilliant, hilarious, sad story. I.e., pure Sholom Aleichem. And watching it again for the first time in...several years...I don't know when I last saw it. Well...I think I have a greater understanding of the subtleties of tradition and how it's threatened (or rightfully overturned) through forces both internal and external. That's something that anyone with any cultural legacy can appreciate. As Topol said in his introduction--over a billion people have watched Fiddler (either the film or on stage) so they can't all have been Jewish.

Next up was a lighthearted French romantic comedy PARIS-MANHATTAN. Alice saw her first Woody Allen movie as a young girl, and has been obsessed ever since. She keeps a giant Woody Allen poster on her wall, and it speaks to her in lines from his movies. Not surprisingly, she has trouble finding the right guy. Well, our prospective Mr. Right, Victor, has never seen a Woody Allen movie. But he's a nice guy who has his little security business making oddly dangerous alarm systems. Like, alarms that give you a 3000V shock. Or ones that release a spray of chloroform and knock everyone out. Well, it progresses as a light French comedy that would be pleasant but largely forgettable except...there's a wonderful extended cameo by Woody Allen himself at the end. Sorry for the spoiler, and I'm not going to go into detail about it (and the festival program already mentions it) but in my opinion that's the reason to watch this--that's when the movie has real energy.

And finally, I ended the night with BALLAD OF THE WEEPING SPRING. Now I know next to nothing about music, particularly the sort of middle eastern music featured in this movie. But I know a good story, and this movie has it. In particular, it has a great way of setting up mystery and slowly revealing it. A stranger walks into a bar and asks to see Jossef Tawila. Tawila is a bit of a loner and doesn't want to talk to anyone, but when he pulls out a...okay, I don't know my middle eastern musical instruments, but he starts playing a song that Tawila recognizes. Turns out the stranger is Amram, son of Avram Mufradi, former bandmate of Tawila. Their band was the Turquoise Ensemble, and now that Avram is dying of cancer Amram has set out to track down the surviving band members, get them back together, get the best possible replacements for the ones who aren't around anymore, and play a final tribute performance of the titular Ballad of the Weeping Spring--a masterpiece they wrote but never got the chance to perform. Every step of the way, every new band member they meet is a new step in the mystery and opens up more and more of their history. I won't give away the spoilers like the IMDb summary does, but I'll say Tawila was responsible for the band breaking up, and the story is more about revealing and coming to terms with that history than it is about the music. Oh, but what music. If you just watch (and listen) to this as a musical journey, it would be enough. And as a bonus, there's a lot more.

Total Running Time: 474 minutes
My Total Minutes: 339,902

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