Normally it takes eight to ten films to find the three or four needed to pad a film festival overview, but this year’s San Diego Jewish Film Festival hit me with four winners right out of the gate!
The festival runs February 4–14 at five different venues: Reading Cinema’s Town Square, Arclight La Jolla, Carlsbad Village Theatres, Regal San Marcos, and the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the JCC. For a list of times and theaters, visit sdcjc.org/sdjff.
February 14, 10:30 a.m., Town Square
Leave it to Atom Egoyan, one of the few working directors seemingly incapable of making a bad movie, to press two prevailing (and least-loved) hot button issues — aging on film and the Holocaust — into a thriller for seniors of all ages that’s bound to make 2016’s ten-best list.
How’s this for a story: a man in the early stages of dementia (a never-better Christopher Plummer) contracts with a fellow concentration camp survivor and nursing home acquaintance (Martin Landau) to take out the Nazi responsible for killing their families. Instead of Death Wish for Jews (or Groundhog Day meets The Boys From Brazil), Egoyan and screenwriter Benjamin August fashion a sly, edge-of-your-seat manhunt that takes on, among other ancillary subjects, the highly charged topic of gun control. Watch as a gun dealer sells a Glock to a man incapable or remembering how to fire it, and marvel at how easy it is — particularly if you come across as old and feeble — to smuggle a firearm across the border.
Remember is slated for a theatrical release later this month, so I’ll withhold further comment for a full-dressed review. It’s easily the best of the festival films made available, so why not support the SDJFF by being the first on your block to see it?
February 6, 9 p.m., Town Square
The old joke goes, if you show a pair of exposed female breasts, it’s rated X; but if you take a chainsaw and cut them off, it’s rated R and children under 17 will be admitted at their parents’ discretion. Military recruitment films like Lone Survivor or 13 Hours are released on thousands of screens, but sex is dirty and only given access to mainstream multiplexes if it arrives on the heels of a bestselling novel aimed at spelling out aberrant bedroom behavior to pent-up gawkers too frightened to give porn a try.
A film like Natasha — the story of Mark (Alex Ozerov), a 16-year-old Canadian pot dealer living under mommy and daddy’s roof and falling for his “born intense” 14-year-old cousin by marriage Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon) — would never get funded in the States.
Mark is pampered to the point where he’d rather slit his wrists than pursue a career in telemarketing as his family suggests. Unaware of his lucrative side job (and much to Dad’s dismay), Mark’s mother commissions her son to act as tour guide and English teacher to the outwardly hushed girl. Mark, who has no qualms about taking a fellow minor on his drops, is quick to caution leering clients that his cousin is jailbait. He should have followed his own advice, as Natasha’s blasé approach to underage sex, incest, and other amoral pursuits opens the door to a dangerous liaison.
In adapting his novel, writer-director David Bezmozgis at times tries too hard to follow the lead of his imbecilic American counterparts. Fortunately, the cheesy pop tunes meant to italicize moments of the couple’s illicit relationship (and sell a soundtrack) and some equally ersatz exchanges between Mark and his dealer are the only elements that would feel right at home in an American multiplex.
Projections of America
February 10, 4:30 p.m. at Town Square; and February 11, 5 p.m., Regal San Marcos
If the name Robert Riskin has a familiar sound to it, you’ve probably spent some quality hours watching the many Academy Award–nominated screenplays that bear his name, most notably his collaborations with Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, etc.). His fictional films operate under the assumption that movies can somehow shape the world. The idealized portraits they paint of “an America that could be” laid the groundwork for a series of propaganda shorts produced by Riskin during his two-and-a-half-year year stint with the Office of War Information (OWI).
FDR’s idea of agitprop was far removed from that of his enemy, Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. While the Nazis hoped to bring about peace through intimidation, the OWI’s goal was to produce films that supported our military by putting a positive spin on the American way of life for enemies and allies alike.
Riskin assembled a first-rate crew of filmmakers — screenwriters Philip Dunne and Ben Hecht, directors John Cromwell, Slavko Vorkapich, and Josef Von Sternberg, and actress Ingrid Bergman (who acts as host and narrator of Swedes in America), to name but a few. Originally intended for an overseas market, with the exception of Von Sternberg’s The Town, I don’t think any of them are available on home video. Here’s hoping the Blu-ray release will correct the oversight.
Dealing With the Devil
February 3, 7 p.m., Town Square
From the sublime (the relentlessly harrowing documentary The Rape of Europa) to the ridiculous (George Clooney’s Hogan’s Heroes-esque telling), there have been several films released in the past few years that dealt with the ransacking of precious works of art at the hands of the Nazis. Make room for another first-rate account.
Hildebrand Gurlitt was a Jewish art dealer to the Reich, a man who essentially made his living off the backs of Hitler’s victims. When times got tough and Hitler was forced to sell off “The Munich Nazi Treasures” to help fund the bund, Gurlitt was his go-to art merchant.
Gurlitt did an ace job of hiding both the collection and himself. Five years ago, over 1400 works of art were discovered in the Munich apartment of Gurlitt’s 80-year-old son, Cornelius Gurlitt. How a Jew sank so low as to act as Hitler’s go between, and how he managed to survive the Holocaust with riches intact, forms the basis for Stephane Bentura’s compelling documentary.