Weekends are catnip for movie-lovers. So many new films opening, more than you have time to see, and the reviews are spread out all over the web and scattered throughout the pages of the Calendar/Arts & Leisure/Weekend section of your hometown paper (that is, if you’re sentimental like me, and still crave holding newsprint in your hands.) I don’t read the reviews, mind you! I just like to know they are there. I almost always wait until I see the film before I read the review; I’m too impressionable. (One of my favorite LA Times columns by Jack Smith was the one in which he admitted having gone to hear Itzhak Perlman perform at the Hollywood Bowl one night, then checking the review the next morning to see if he liked the concert.)
But this weekend I’ve got a downright spring in my step. Having been enchanted by a pair of very different films at two separate screenings this past week, I can heartily recommend not one, but two movies to friends craving intelligent, beautifully-crafted entertainment. One opens this weekend, the other next.
Disclaimer: I am not a critic! I don’t even pretend to be one on the internet under an assumed name, like Candy Cinema, or Diana Digitrex. But I have the great good fortune of getting to pick LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan’s brain every week on Arts Alive, and he has taught me a lot.
Some years back, when he wrote that Noah Baumbach’s “Squid and the Whale, ” was “acutely observed and faultlessly acted”, I immediately ran (not walked) out and saw it during a Palm Springs vacation. But for all the wit and humor of the superb screenplay, I found myself physically squirming in the almost empty theater. It was just a bit too raw for me, or maybe just too close to home: Baumbach had fixed his lens on a pair of literate, narcissistic Brooklyn parents going through a divorce, parents who couldn’t see how their sons were suffering as a result of the break-up.
What’s invigorating about Baumbach’s new film, “Frances Ha,” is its inescapable mood of joy. True, it focuses on a character who isn’t exactly conquering the world: an insecure, somewhat hapless young New York woman played by Baumbach’s co-writer and partner in life, Greta Gerwig. Gerwig’s Frances is a dancer who can’t dance; but we know there is plenty of hope for this generous, warm, bright soul if she could just accept who she is and move on. Who doesn’t know people with passionate ambitions they’ll never achieve? Who isn’t such a person, on some level? In “Frances Ha”, Baumbach’s black-and-white realism is never maudlin or cloying; it simply provides a thru-line to the delicious early New Wave films of Truffaut and Godard. Well, my esteemed colleague said it best: Turan’s review in the LA Times begins, “Effortless and effervescent, “Frances Ha” is a small miracle of a movie, honest and funny with an aim that's true.”
More good news ahead, by the way, for Baumwig fans: Baumbach and Gerwig have co-written and are currently shooting a second New York-based film—something they told the New Yorker Magazine, is even “looser and wonkier” than “Frances Ha.” They’re also working together on an animated feature about a melancholy dog.
The second screening I saw was “Fill the Void," the remarkable first co-ed feature by the Israeli filmmaker and mother of four teenagers, Rama Burshtein. Up until now, you see, Burshtein made movies exclusively for Hasidic women like herself, films that featured female actors only and avoided profanity or sex, let alone violence. This movie, which Burshtein wrote and directed, premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and was also shown to critical acclaim at the New York Film Festival.
“Fill the Void” features non-Orthodox actors; that’s the way Burshtein got around a religious law forbidding Orthodox Jewish men and women to perform together. It’s a laser-focused, gorgeously acted, moving story about a family in crisis. But it’s also a beautiful love story---chaste, achingly restrained, yet somehow steamier than the most risqué R-rated drama. Still no sex. Still no violence. Yet what a powerful, visceral experience, with tremendous use of Jewish liturgical music. So deftly and thoroughly does Ms. Burshtein sweep you into the highly ritualized world of ultra-Orthodox Jews that it’s hypnotic.
As it happens, I have many, many Orthodox relatives on both sides of my family, so this isn’t an exotic milieu for me. Yet I found the movie captivating, and hated to see it end (after a remarkably deep and rewarding 90 minutes). Only half-jokingly, I insisted to the Block-Korenbrot publicist I work with, Alexandra Glazer, that the filmmakers start immediately prepping “Fill the Void Two: The Bar Mitzvah.”
I won’t give away the surprisingly suspenseful plot. Kenneth Turan will fill in the blanks with next Saturday morning’s Arts Alive film review. And when you hear his review, I suspect you might be the one to run, not walk, to the nearest theater playing “Fill the Void”. It opens next weekend.