Literary Birthday: Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret (born today in 1967) made his name publishing stories of modern Israeli life that were riddled with black humor and painful absurdities.

In the title story of Keret’s collection Fly Already, a father is on his way to play ball with his son in the park when he spots a man who looks like he’s about to jump off a building. The father shouts at the man not to jump. Meanwhile his son asks whether the man can fly and begs for ice cream. Communication is mangled as the man turns out to be half-deaf. The father turns out to have suicidal thoughts of his own—guilt over the car accident that killed his wife years before. “I want to tell him … it’ll pass,” the father thinks. “I know what I’m talking about, because no one on this blue planet was as miserable as I was.”

Screening Room: ‘The Oslo Diaries’

The Oslo Diaries, a new Israeli documentary about the secret peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO that started in Norway in 1992 while the intifada raged back home, will be premiering on HBO September 13. It is getting a limited theatrical release as well.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The story of the Oslo Accords remains one of the great tales of modern diplomacy and statesmanship. Starting in 1992, Yossi Beilin, Shimon Peres’ deputy minister of foreign affairs, opened up an incredibly risky, unsanctioned secret back channel of negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). To maximize deniability, Beilin sent no diplomats but a pair of professors to meet with three Palestinians from Tunis at a remote villa in the forests outside Oslo…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘7 Days in Entebbe’

The latest movie from Brazilian director Jose Padilha (Elite Squad, Narcos) is a thriller based on the famous 1976 airliner hijacking that ended up with a standoff in Uganda.

7 Days in Entebbe opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The headline story feels tailor-made for Padilha’s brand of documentary-based world-crisis cinema. In 1976, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv was hijacked. The quartet of kidnappers were two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a pair of German radical allies. Wilfried (Daniel Brühl, stolid and underwhelming as ever) is a publisher of “revolutionary texts” and terror neophyte. He is happy to shove a gun in the faces of the crew he forces to fly to Uganda but gets moral jitters once the reality sinks in. His partner Brigitte (Rosamund Pike, similarly unremarkable) is a more eager tool of the cause, furious over the recent prison suicide of Ulrike Meinhof, of Baader-Meinhof infamy…

Screening Room: ‘Foxtrot’

The new Israeli movie Foxtrot is a masterfully surrealist black comedy that is as confounding as it is fascinating. Calling it a Catch-22 for the era of eternal warfare isn’t far off the mark.

Foxtrot is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

There’s no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: January 23, 2015

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New in Theaters: ‘Zero Motivation’

Nelly Tagar tries to be all she can be in 'Zero Motivation' (Zeitgeist Films)
Nelly Tagar tries to be all she can be in ‘Zero Motivation’ (Zeitgeist Films)

The new Israeli film Zero Motivation—which played the film festival circuit earlier in the year—is a smart, dour comedy set in a military office where little gets done. The military satire is punched up with the occasional flash of surrealism; it’s a fantastic mix.

Zero Motivation is opening this week in limited release. I reviewed it at the Tribeca Film Festival for PopMatters:

On a base that feels as removed from any actual war as Sgt. Bilko, the human resources office is a den of sloth and ineptitude. Commanding officer Rama (Shani Klein) is frazzled trying to get any of the women in her command to care even remotely about their assignments. Her best friends Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy) can’t be bothered to do much besides complain and play Minesweeper, as they all survive in a casually sexist division, where the men are assigned all the combat roles and so ascend to higher ranks, and female soldiers fetch coffee and bicker…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘The Green Prince’

The art of espionage in 'The Green Prince' (Music Box Films)
The art of espionage in ‘The Green Prince’ (Music Box Films)

Wars aren’t fought just by armies and weapons. They also need intelligence, which requires spies, who often need to betray everyone around them. It’s a tricky business.

The Green Prince, about a Palestinian who risked his life to spy for Israel, opens tomorrow in limited release.

My review is at Film Racket:

Restrained, clinical, and yet full-hearted, The Green Prince is one of the year’s, and maybe ultimately the decade’s, great spy stories. A two-hander about betrayal, shame, honor, and murky motivations, it includes nothing more than two men — one an Israeli intelligence operative and the other his Palestinian source — telling their part of a sprawling and many years’ long operation to undermine Hamas. Director Nadav Schirman stitches together their crisp, well-honed interview segments with a textured mosaic of surveillance footage and the fortunately occasional live-action reenactment into a nearly seamless whole. The result both outdoes the invented drama of many a spy thriller and raises more ethical quandaries than can be easily dispensed with…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: June 13, 2014

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Tribeca Film Festival, Awards Dispatch: ‘Zero Motivation’ and ‘Gueros’

(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)
(Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

Two of the award-winning narrative films at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival didn’t quite fit the fest’s usual mold. Neither Zero Motivation (which won for best narrative feature) or Gueros (best cinematography) were the usual small, tightly-focused chamber-piece dramas. Both had large ambitions that might have outstripped their abilities, but were thrilling nonetheless.

My review for PopMatters is here.

Zero Motivation is a deft Israeli comedy set in a military post’s administrative office that’s most easily described as a mash-up of M*A*S*H* and Office Space, with a little surrealism thrown into the mix:

Sullen whiner Daffi is so resistant to doing anything of value that she’s been designated “Paper Shredding NCO;” a position at which she fails miserably. All she cares about is transferring to cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which holds an exalted a position in her mind. The kibbutz-raised Zohar doesn’t understand Daffi’s desire, and finds her own distractions, channeling her energy into desperately trying to lose her virginity. They kill more time with an epic staple-gunfight and general slackness. In other words, these are barely soldiers you would trust to carry live ammunition, much less defend a nation’s borders…

The Mexican film Gueros is a sprawling, black-and-white, French New Wave-inspired ramble through Mexico City:

Even with its striking compositions and embrace of visual disorder, Güeros gets hung up on its own cleverness. The longer it ambles on, the more it takes on the feel of a string of short films mashed together. A midpoint breaching of the fourth wall (we see a clapper, and one actor talks out of character regarding his opinions on the screenplay so far) doesn’t serve much purpose. Neither does Sombra’s declamation on the state of Mexican film: “They grab a bunch of beggars and shoot in black and white and think they’re making art movies.” Enough moments like that, and the film begins to take on an unfortunate tone of self-satisfaction. There’s beauty here, though, that portends greater things in Ruizpalacios’s future…

Hopefully these wins will lead to both films getting at least a limited American release and enlivening what’s been a fairly limited slate of foreign films that made it to these shores so far this year.

New in Theaters: ‘Bethlehem’

Tsahi Halevy and Shadi Mar'i in 'Bethlehem'
Tsahi Halevy and Shadi Mar’i in ‘Bethlehem’

betlehem_poster_finalIn Yuval Adler’s West Bank thriller, a Palestinian teenager whose older brother is a high-ranking terrorist finds his loyalties divided between family and the Israeli intelligence agent who he’s feeding information to.

Bethlehem is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Nothing in Yuval Adler’s tangled-up thriller Bethlehem is far removed from anything else. It’s a crowded film, with agendas, rivalries and frustrations crashing into one another like dancers in an over-capacity club. The Israeli agents and Palestinian terrorists and civilians populating this world of hot extremes are always in close proximity (there’s a fog of gossip and innuendo that makes a mockery of keeping any secret for long) while remaining diametrically opposed in their politics, orders and goals. This might be a war, but the stakes are personal. For both sides, the fields of battle are their homes…

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Omar’

Training to kill in 'Omar'
‘Omar’: Terrorists or freedom fighters?

Omar-posterIn the Oscar-nominated thriller Omar, a young Palestinian man in the West Bank is faced with two challenges: First, how to convince his friend that he’d be a good bet to marry the friend’s little sister? Second, and more importantly, how does he escape the law after helping to murder an Israeli soldier?

Omar opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:

For such a razor-sharp thriller, the West Bank-set Omar smuggles a dense packet of ambiguity into its compact running time. This shouldn’t be a rarity, given how many stories there are about the conflict between occupiers and occupied, the dueling taxonomy of “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” But too often these clashes are related in absolutes, where one narrative is bought into more than another. Hany Abu-Assad’s skillful story wrestles with those grey moralities without spoon-feeding one or the other to the audience. It’s a story about people, not ideologies, but it knows how inextricably the former intertwine with the latter…

Between a rock and a hard place.
Between a rock and a hard place.

Here is the trailer: