Every year since 2000, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has reliably presented the diversity of movies by Jewish artists or otherwise reflecting the Jewish experience. This year, films relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict range from Alan Dershowitzs legalistic documentary The Case for Israel to the family friendly drama The Little Traitor, starring Alfred Molina.
The 2009 festival runs Jan. 14-25 and includes 48 narrative and documentary features and shorts representing 20 nations. This years program particularly conveys the breadth of other art forms involving Jewish themes, as viewed through the prism of cinema. Its like the filmmakers cameras stand on the foundation of Jewish culture.
One of festivals highest-profile screenings is the Atlanta debut of Good (3 stars), an adaptation of a 1981 play by late English playwright C.P. Taylor. Viggo Mortensen plays John Halder, a German novelist and literary professor who understandably worries when his work draws the attention of Hitlers government in the mid-1930s. A smooth-talking member of the Reich (RocknRollas Mark Strong) expresses interest in Halders treatment of euthanasia in a novel and asks the writer to draft a paper on the subject.
Although repelled by the Nazi party, Halder signs on as an honorary member of the SS, putting aside his principles in favor of the perks, including a young Aryan trophy wife (Jodie Whittaker). Halders rationalizations dont wash with his best friend Maurice (Harry Potters Jason Isaacs), a Jewish psychiatrist in increasingly dire straits. Mortensens performance turns Goods predictable narrative arc into a compelling character study. The matinee idol relishes the chance to play a wormy, noncommittal, guilt-ridden intellectual who discovers his inner stormtrooper.
Where Doubt couldnt escape its stage roots, Good blends rich theatrical conversation with the more expansive vision of cinema. Im not sure if the device of Halders auditory hallucinations at turning points in life, strangers seem to lip-sync Mahler songs originated with the play, but it seems like something that would succeed better onstage. Nevertheless, the surreal melodic touches set up the films powerful, feverish finale that combines music and horror on such a visceral level that it leaves you shaken.
Love Comes Lately (2 stars) offers an ambitious but mixed attempt to pay tribute to short story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Filmmaker Jan Schütte is clearly a fan of the Polish-born American Nobel laureate, having previously adapted Singers story Old Love as a short film in 2001. Love Comes Lately incorporates Old Love into its narrative, and youd never guess the different segments were filmed years apart.
Octogenarian actor Otto Tausig plays Max Kohn, an elderly Singer-esque writer at once besotted with and beset by women, including his jealous, longtime girlfriend (Cheers Rhea Perlman). Kohns obsessions inform his work, and Tausig also plays the narrators of two of short stories that appear as episodes within the film. He embarks on a series of Miami misadventures in Alone and strikes up a potential romance with a new neighbor (Tovah Feldshuh) in the less comedic Old Love. Singers story The Briefcase also serves as the framing device.
As a melancholy chamber piece, Old Love remains the strongest portion of Love Comes Lately. Feldshuhs poignant performance veers from feisty joie de vivre to bottomless grief. Elizabeth Peña provides an affecting supporting turn as a troubled motel housekeeper in Alone. Tausig, looking like a wizened uncle to Woody Allen or Henry Kissinger, makes a sympathetic protagonist, even though his passivity inhibits the films dramatic stakes. Apart from Old Love, Love Comes Latelys dream scenes and less subtle academic comedy mesh uneasily with its bittersweet message to treasure life, however confusing or fleeting it may be.
The documentary Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist (3 stars) doesnt have to face the challenges of directly adapting comic books to film. Director Andrew D. Cooke still needs to convince uninitiated audiences that Eisner qualifies as an important American artist and one of the pioneers of the comic medium. Fortunately, Eisners playful character designs and still-impressive innovations practically pop off the screen in Cookes eye-candy tracking shots.
Most famous for his work on The Spirit in the 1940s, Eisner died in 2005. The documentary nevertheless features a wealth of interviews with him, including Eisners own tapes of chats with legendary comics creators such as illustrator Jack Kirby. In following Eisners career, the documentary spans the history of comics across the 20th century. It captures the present-at-the-creation excitement of his early work as well as the culture clashes of the taboo-breaking underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s. Enthusiastic interviewees include novelists Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut as well as the mediums other major artists, who credit Eisner with a host of innovations, including the term and concept of the graphic novel. Frank Miller is visibly moved when he recalls Eisner as a mentor (which adds a tragic dimension to Millers terrible new film version of The Spirit).
Compared to Terry Zwigoffs Crumb, which captured cartoonist R. Crumbs personal foibles in uncomfortable close-up, Will Eisner finds its subject to be eloquent, voluble and relatively normal. Eisner emerges more vividly as a savvy entrepreneur who refused to be exploited by the publishing industry, making him practically an anomaly among his peers. Will Eisner suggests that the most enduring artists may be those who embrace all the different meanings of adaptation.
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Jan. 14-25. Screenings: $10. Times and locations vary. 404-806-9913. www.ajff.org.
(Photo ©2009 Think Film)
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