Jewish Film Festival

The highlights in Portland movie theaters right now range from a touching portrait of a beloved TV icon to a soul-searing portrait of family dealing with grief, insanity and terror. How’s that for range?

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: It’s safe to say that Fred Rogers would not be pleased with the state of the world today. It’s also safe to say that anyone who spent any time at all as a child watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and who feels anything but sadness at our society’s current dearth of decency and empathy simply wasn’t paying attention.

These sorts of poignant observations come easily to mind watching this straightforward, inevitably affecting portrait of the Pennsylvanian Presbyterian who became a cardigan-clad paragon of calm kindness for American kids of at least a couple generations. The fact that Morgan Neville’s movie is opening in Portland the same week that the federal government defends a program that cruelly separates immigrant children from their parents is just icing on the irony cake.

Any review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will inevitably result in a nostalgic appreciation of Rogers himself, but, to Spurlock’s credit, the movie doesn’t wallow in gooey platitudes. It doesn’t need to. Taking a clear-eyed perspective toward Rogers’ off-camera self reveals that he was anything but an idealist or an escapist. He saw that there was a glaring lack on the television landscape of programming that could improve the minds and lives of young viewers, and then he fought like Hell to correct the situation.

I’m not sure how compelling the movie would be for someone going in cold, unfamiliar with Mister Rogers, untriggered by the sight of Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Aberlin, untouched by his legacy. But I do know that for anyone who misses the humanity and moral clarity he embodied, this is probably the most bittersweet cinematic experience of the year.

(“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is currently playing at Cinema 21.)

Jewish Film Festival: The Northwest Film Center’s annual program highlighting films that explore the Jewish experience moves into its second week. For film history buffs, the most fascinating item on the docket is “The Ancient Law,” a 1923 German silent film about a rabbi’s son who leaves his shtetl to explore the world and become an actor. He winds up in Vienna, starring in “Hamlet” and catching the eye of the Archduchess. Eventually, though, he’s forced to decide between tradition and assimilation.

Long thought lost, the movie was partially restored in the 1980s. Then a German censor’s card containing a detailed outline of the film was discovered, allowing for this full, stunningly accomplished version to exist. (One of the few benefits of censorship is that censors have to write down everything they object to.) As a portrait of Jewish life in 19th-century Europe, reflected through a Weimar lens, “The Ancient Law” is a fascinating piece of cinematic and cultural history—and its archetypal narrative still packs a punch, too.

Other notable screenings include “An Act of Defiance,” a historical drama about the Afrikaner lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela at his 1963 trial in apartheid-era South Africa; “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a documentary portrait of the Rat Pack member whose incongruous qualities included converting to Judaism and speaking out in favor of Richard Nixon; and “Scaffolding,” in which a young man is torn between taking his place in his father’s construction business and pursuing his appreciation of literature. Some stories never get old.

(“The Ancient Law” screens on Saturday, June 16, at the Northwest Film Center. The 26th Portland Jewish Film Festival runs through June 26. For a full schedule, visit www.nwfilm.org.)

“Hereditary”: I finally caught up with the latest iteration in the quasi-artsy, indie-fueled horror film trend of recent years (see, previously, “It Follows,” “The Witch,” etc.). As with most decently scary movies, it’s best experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible. Toni Collette plays Ellen, an artist who creates elaborate miniature dioramas. She lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Charlie and her older pothead brother Arnie, in a suitably grand and isolated house in a forest. Ellen’s character’s mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, has just died. Creepy stuff starts happening, most of it centered on Charlie, a morbid, odd-looking girl with a masklike face and deep, dead eyes. (She’s played by Molly Shapiro, making her film debut after winning a Tony for playing “Matilda” on Broadway. Molly doesn’t look nearly as disturbing in real life, you’ll be relieved to know.) So far, so good—dysfunctional family grief meets supernaturally-tinged scares. But first-time writer-director Ari Aster ratchets things up in both intensity and surreality, leading to a final half-hour that’s being justly acclaimed as one of the most riveting—if divisive—third acts in recent memory. If that vague promise whets your whistle, be sure to check this one out.

(“Hereditary” is currently playing at the Hollywood Theatre and the Regal Fox Tower.)

FilmWatch Weekly: Jews, Geniuses, Raiders, and Devils

The 24th Portland Jewish Film Festival goes into high gear, a documentary examines the greatest fan film in history, and more!

24th Portland Jewish Film Festival: The Northwest Film Center once again provides cinematic proof of the diversity of Jewish culture, with films ranging from raunchy comedy to sober documentary to unsettling drama. (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

“Genius”: This star-studded drama tells the story of editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and his collaboration with novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney co-star, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) pop in as well. (Regal Fox Tower) READ MORE

“Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”: In 1982, three 11-year-old boys in Mississippi started making a shot-by-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They didn’t finish it for over thirty years. This is their story. (Hollywood Theater) READ MORE

Chantal Akerman: An ongoing series, schedule to run sporadically for the next year, pays tribute to the groundbreaking Belgian filmmaker who died in 2015. The first program in the series, a documentary about Akerman, plays this Friday. (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

“Ma Ma”: Penelope Cruz brings all of her star power to bear on this Spanish melodrama about a single mom, diagnosed with breast cancer, who meets a man in the midst of his own struggle with tragic fate. (Living Room Theaters) READ MORE

Continues…

Jewish Film Fest runs the gamut from hearty yuks to scary dybbuks

From wacky circumcision comedy to insightful documentary to terrifying horror, the 24th annual festival again proves the diversity of Jewish-themed filmmaking.

There are as many different definitions of what it means to be Jewish as there are Jews in the world. Or at least nearly so. It can be a religious identity, a cultural identity, a historical identity, a political identity. And it’s inevitably some combination of those.

That said, most of the films being screened during the Northwest Film Center’s 24th annual Portland Jewish Film Festival, which opened on Wednesday, June 15, with the Moroccan drama “The Midnight Orchestra,” fall into one of three broad categories.

Rabbi Rebecca (Catherine de Léan) draws the interest of young Simon (Maximilian Ehrenreich) in the circumcision comedy "Time to Say Goodbye"

Rabbi Rebecca (Catherine de Léan) draws the interest of young Simon (Maximilian Ehrenreich) in the circumcision comedy “Time to Say Goodbye”

Continues…

News & Notes: Maya Lin, Jewish Film Festival, Dad’s Day, more

A weekend gathering of cultural items, with a little Picasso and a caterpillar named Neener thrown into the mix

Along the Columbia River, the Confluence Project continues to grow and deepen. A vast artistic sweep into the history, culture, and natural environment of the Pacific Northwest, it stretches 438 miles from the mouth of the Columbia to Hells Canyon on the Idaho border, following stopping points on the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition as it explored the western reaches of the continent. That journey led to far-reaching transformations in the land itself, and in the lives of the people who lived along the river, as well as those who were to come.

Maya Lin's walkway at Celilo Falls, as it will look. Confluence Project rendering.

Maya Lin’s walkway at Celilo Falls, as it will look. Confluence Project rendering.

The artist Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Memorial in the nation’s capital, has been a key figure in the Confluence Project, and her elegant, quietly gorgeous pedestrian bridgeway at Celilo, designed to suggest the memory of the native fishing platforms that jutted over the river before Celilo Falls disappeared in 1957 beneath the waters of The Dalles Dam, is bound to be one of the project’s key elements. The Dalles Chronicle has this illuminating update on the project, which is due to be completed in Fall 2016.

Confluence sites at Cape Disappointment (Ilwaco, Wash.), Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.), the Sandy River Delta (Troutdale), and Sacagawea State Park (Pasco, Wash.) are completed. Only the Celilo Falls site and one at Chief Timothy Park (Clarkston, Wash.) remain to be finished.

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Jewish Film Festival. Here it is mid-June already, and the Northwest Film Center’s 22nd annual Portland Jewish Film Festival is here. Co-presented with the Institute for Judaic Studies, the 17-film festival opens Sunday with Friends from France, the tale of two cousins who travel behind the Iron Curtain in 1979 to meet with persecuted Jews in Odessa, and ends June 29 with The Last of the Unjust, Claude Lanzmann’s long and deep historical film centering on the story of Benjamin Murmelstein, who in 1975 was the only surviving “Jewish Elder” appointed by the Nazis to run the “model ghetto” camp in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. The story is complex. Lanzmann had interviewed Murmelstein for his landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah, but didn’t use it in that film. Many years later, he presents it as its own story. Festival passes are available from the film center.

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Sunday is Father’s Day, and the Portland band Nu Shooz Orchestra has a terrific little dad’s day tale. John Smith, who leads the band with his wife Valerie Day, has always been a doodler, a compulsive drawer.

Momo and Neener. Drawing: Malcolm Smith

Momo and Neener. Drawing: Malcolm Smith

He passed his talent on to their son, Malcolm Smith. When Malcolm was young, they spent hours drawing side-by-side, and in the process John created a pair of storybook characters – Momo and his giant caterpillar pal, Neener – that father and son drew over and over again. The years went on, and Malcolm moved on to other art projects, eventually learning animation as well. And then, in 2010, Nu Shooz put out a new record called Pandora’s Box, which included John’s song Right Before My Eyes, about watching Malcolm grow up. And then John asked Malcolm if he’d make a video to go with the song, and eventually – eventually! – Malcolm did.

It’s a sweet tale, told well here. Read the story, then click on the music video at the end. To fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters, too.

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Curtain down, curtain up. In case you’ve been following the curious story of what the New York Times calls “L’Affaire Tricorne,” Charles V. Bagli has this update in the Times. The tale involves a famous restaurant, a famous art collector, a more famous artist, and a theatrical curtain, Le Tricorne, created for a 1919 performance for impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The restaurant is Manhattan’s Four Seasons. The collector is Aby J. Rosen, who owns the Seagram Building, where the Four Seasons has held culinary court since 1959. The painter is Pablo Picasso, and his theatrical curtain has hung in the Four Seasons since the day it opened. But Rosen wanted the curtain gone so the restaurant could be modernized. The New York Landmarks Conservancy, which actually owns the curtain, said “no.” And now, finally, a compromise has been struck: the 19-by-20-foot painted curtain will move (after cleaning and restoration, which Rosen will pay for) to the New-York Historical Society, where it will be the centerpiece of the second-floor gallery. And no matter what you think of the whole kerfuffle, one thing’s true: far, far more people will be able to see it at the Historical Society than at the exclusive restaurant. Let’s hear it, one more time, for museums, those great democratizers of culture.

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