Jewish film fest marks two decades with thoughtful, quality entries

Any film festival, no matter the theme or sponsor, is an opportunity for celebration, entertainment, reflection and the chance to spill into the lobby and talk about what you've just seen. Match that, Netflix.

Pittsburgh's JFilm festival will mark its 20th year tonight with the French romantic comedy "Paris-Manhattan," the first of 18 movies scheduled to play through April 21.

The festival, previously known as the Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival, will use the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill as its main venue with one event each at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside, Hollywood Theater in Dormont, Carnegie Mellon University and Seton Hill University in Greensburg.

A sampling of reviews from the first week of JFilm festival:

' Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir'

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

Andrew Braunsberg is no objective bystander when it comes to Roman Polanski. He was in London with the director in August 1969 when Mr. Braunsberg picked up the phone and heard the chilling words: "They're dead. They're all dead."

He passed the handset to Mr. Polanski, who innocently thought the stricken look was because their movie had been canceled. Then the filmmaker imagined a landslide had swallowed his rented California home, but it was because Sharon Tate, Mr. Polanski's wife, who was eight months pregnant, had been repeatedly stabbed and murdered there, as were four others.

Mr. Braunsberg, a friend and colleague since 1964, leads Mr. Polanski through a gentle retelling of his life in "Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir," starting with his childhood in the Krakow ghetto and concluding with his house arrest in Switzerland in 2009 tied to a sex crime three decades earlier.

Not surprisingly, this is a sympathetic portrait of a man whose life has been shaped and mangled by triumph and tragedy. Mr. Braunsberg allows Mr. Polanski to acknowledge, "Of course it was wrong," to have had sex with a 13-year-old girl but also to make a strong case for fleeing the States in 1978.

Oddly missing is a question about how Mr. Polanski felt the night he won the Oscar for directing 2002's "The Pianist" but could not accept or even step into the country, for fear he would be arrested. Not asked by Mr. Braunsberg or not included by director Laurent Bouzereau?

If you don't tell your own story, others will (and they have), but it's fascinating to hear the 69-year-old recount it his way, complete with photos, news or film clips and anecdotes of sorrow, survival and the joy of late-in-life fatherhood.

-- Barbara Vancheri, PG movie editor

' A.K.A. Doc Pomus'

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

A crippled white boy hooked on the blues, Jerome Felder -- "A.K.A. Doc Pomus" -- is wonderfully rediscovered in this terrific new singer-songwriter documentary.

You may not know his name, but if you're a rhythm & blues or early rock fan of a certain age, you know his songs and who sang them: "This Magic Moment" (Ben E. King), "A Teenager in Love" (Dion & the Belmonts), "Young Blood" (the Coasters), "Sweets for My Sweet" (the Drifters), "Lonely Avenue" (Ray Charles), "There Must Be a Better World" (B.B. King), "Can't Get Used to Losing You" (Andy Williams).

Oh, yeah, plus a few dozen tunes -- including "A Mess of Blues," the "Girl Happy" and "Viva Las Vegas" songs, and the deliciously evil "Little Sister" -- for Elvis Presley.

Brooklyn-born Pomus (1925-1991), an anomalous icon, was paralyzed with polio at age 6. As a teen, he was inspired by a Big Joe Turner blues song to brazen his way into Greenwich Village clubs -- an overweight Jewish R&B singer on crutches, often the only white person there. He would write and cut some 50 singles before concentrating on songwriting and teaming up with Mort Shuman -- later, with Phil Spector -- for a long string of hits.

Doc's lively doc, beautifully assembled and edited by Peter Miller and Will Hechter, is chock-full of great music, '50s-'60s archival footage, and insights from his actress-wife Willi Burke, best buds Dr. John and Lou Reed (the latter reads excerpts from Pomus' diaries), and many others -- my favorite being the eternally youthful Dion.

All attest, in different ways, to the man's enormously generous spirit and role of guardian angel for all the down-and-out -- and up-and-coming -- musicians who came to his Westover Hotel apartment on W. 72nd Street in search of help and mentoring. His underdog kinship with "people stumbling around in the night out there, uncertain of where they fit in and where they were headed" -- especially black bluesmen -- was legendary.

So, unfortunately, was his appetite (the 24-hour "Dial-a-Steak" number was always at hand) and his four-packs-of-Chesterfields a day cigarette habit. But the legendary quantity and quality of his songs outweigh even Doc himself.

This is an upbeat celebration of an amazingly eventful life lived on crutches. Art (especially R&B) comes from pain. Hard to believe a huge, sedentary man confined to a wheelchair could write "Save the Last Dance for Me."

-- Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris

' Jerusalem on a Plate'

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

In the 2012 documentary, "Jerusalem on a Plate," chef Yotam Ottolenghi asks an Arab hummus vendor in East Jerusalem about the differences between the Arab and Jewish versions of "the Israeli national dish."

"Do you have a sense with the Jewish people who come here, that they take Arab food and turn it into their own?" he says.

"That's a funny question," he responds, deflecting a response to Mr. Ottolenghi, who grew up in Jerusalem and is Jewish. "They took the whole land, and now you're talking about dishes? Come on."

Mr. Ottolenghi is a London-based chef-owner of Nopi, a Middle Eastern brasserie, as well as flagship Ottolenghi, a deli he helms with Noam Bar and Sami Tamimi, also from Jerusalem.

His book, "Jerusalem: A Cookbook" won cookbook of the year and best international cookbook for the 2013 International Association of Culinary Professionals awards.

In the film, lush landscapes of street vendors, spices and regional cuisine seduce the viewer, as Mr. Ottolenghi seeks to understand what he calls Jerusalem's food revolution.

He hits spots in the Arab section he visited as a teenager, where he'd drink a milk and rosewater concoction with cinnamon, ginger, walnuts and coconut.

He visits the bowels of a Palestinian bakery in the Old City, where the proprietor caters to the traditions of Christians, Jews and Muslims. He comments on the revival of Azura, a 60-year-old restaurant in West Jerusalem that serves classic Sephardic dishes. He visits Arcadia, the restaurant from chef Ezra Kedem, who Mr. Ottolenghi credits as a pioneer of Jerusalem's food revolution.

Mr. Ottolenghi also explains what has inspired his cooking, even from something as elemental as za'har, the herb he compares to oregano and thyme. "It is the smell of Jerusalem."

The film shows how the foodways of this melting pot reinforce culture.

"Even something as traditional as hummus can easily become political," Mr. Ottolenghi observes. And yet, "food can bring people together in a way that nothing else could."

-- Melissa McCart, dining critic

' Paris-Manhattan'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

At first, it appears as if Woody Allen has ruined Alice (Alice Taglioni) for any other man. The Parisian saw her first Woody Allen film at age 15, and it was love and laughter at first sight.

As a pharmacist, she has an enormous poster of the New Yorker in her apartment, is aghast when a party guest suggests "Manhattan" hasn't aged well and prescribes his movies to customers or even a would-be robber, sent on his way with "Take the Money and Run," "Manhattan Murder Mystery" and "Bullets Over Broadway."

As in classic Allen movies, characters leisurely stroll through the streets, play sleuths, drink too much in the case of an aged parent or, with sisters, squabble until one suggests, "We'll make up in the end, so let's do it now." The music is spot-on, too, with signature songs such as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "I'm in Love Again" floating through the film.

The ultimate love match is somewhat hard to swallow, but it gets the stamp of approval from an authority, adding to the comedic charm and surprise of this crowd-pleaser opening the festival tonight and repeating at 5:45 p.m. April 18 at the Manor.

-- Barbara Vancheri

' The Ballad of Weeping Spring'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

A young man's desire to fulfill his father's dying wish sends him on a mission that will bring music, overdue reunions, the possibility of romance, an old-fashioned drinking contest, a comeuppance, the brokering of the freedom of a runaway bridegroom and, finally, peace.

Part spaghetti Western, part "Seven Samurai," it assembles a team of musicians with the same sense of purpose, style, serendipity and fate as in any story pulling together a posse of gunslingers or gang plotting a casino heist.

The unlikely ringleader is Yosef (Uri Gavriel, a blind prisoner in "The Dark Knight Rises"), a recluse who hasn't picked up a lute in 20 years but feels obligated to honor a pact struck with a long-ago friend.

The ailing man's son doesn't understand the need to find eight musicians to perform "The Ballad of the Weeping Spring" when he could imitate the instruments with a synthesizer. But it's not about the flute or violin or oud, it's about the flesh-and-blood players, their synergy and sense of duty, and attempt to buffer the approaching "darkness of winter" and deliver a harmonious good-bye.

-- Barbara Vancheri

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First Published April 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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