Sunday, March 31, 2013


Writer/Director Harmony Korine’s new film, Spring Breakers is a complex, strange, frightening, funny, and bizarre take (off?) on the annual come-to-Florida bacchanal when college and university students participate in the ritual “spring break” blast. This is spring break in overdrive – almost to the point where it gets boring seeing the repeated images of beach scenes and partying filled with intertwining bodies, guzzling booze, drugs in all forms,  but no matter  – this is “freedom” from the ennui of school and classes. This is the place that young kids can “find themselves.” The cinematography with its over-saturated color reflects the heightened craziness and excitement in the air and inside these kids’ heads.

Korine focuses on four young women who are left adrift in their school during the spring break – bored and without any money – they desperately want to join the frenzy in St. Petersburg Florida so decide to go “outlaw” and rob a diner - “Act like its a movie….” they easily convince themselves. We see how these co-eds relish their tough and rough behavior resulting in a successful haul of cash. It is intoxicating.  The film becomes much more interesting when the young women are bailed out of jail - after having been arrested partying one-too-many times  - by a self-proclaimed “bad boy,” a terrific James Franco who calls himself “Alien.” We first meet him at a beach event singing – a second-rate white rapper, complete with tattoos, cornrows, and silver tooth caps. I must say that every time Franco is on the screen he was mesmerizing – with his -gangsta-rap behavior – claiming to have been brought up in a black neighborhood and becoming best friends with the leader of the local gang who turns out later to be his nemesis and the impetus for a climactic denouement.

Franco with an innocence that is almost touching, feels a kinship with the 4 young women and takes them under his “wing”, bragging about his guns, bricks of dope, and his wardrobe…. bouncing around on a bed- arms held high - brandishing his weapons stash. Yes he is one crazy dude! Many of the scenes are set against the beautiful sunsets and light of the Florida landscape evincing a surreal quality which permeates the film; a repetitive use of language and vocals, flashbacks that are digitized and repeated over and over again to a rhythmic beat. Sounds are also violently sharp unnerving the audience with crackling outbursts.

I am still thinking about this movie – is it about the freedom to behave wildly, unmindful of consequences? Is it a satire on hedonistic youth heedlessly seeking adventure?  Or is it about the love of money wrested from others without cost by jaded sociopaths? And lastly do we discover our "inner selves" through extreme acts of risk and violence?

Friday, March 29, 2013


I never danced the Hora at Bar/ Bat Mitzvahs or at weddings!  I am one of those rare people of Jewish heritage who does not know the words to Hava Nagila – the tune that this movie is based on, so I was somewhat enlightened learning that this ubiquitous song originated in the Ukraine where Jews lived in desperate conditions, and where today there are hardly any Jewish people remaining, though the former “grandiose” synagogue – a symbol of the past vitality of the culture survives - but only as a shell and through recorded memories and photographs.

 The premise of the film directed and written by Roberta Grossman, proposes that if we follow the derivation of this one “nigun” (Hebrew word for song or melody) we can better understand the history of a people for the past 150 years. This ambitious hypothesis includes footage from the first glimmerings of this song – an ode to joy – from the shtetls located in The Pale of Settlement – according to Wikipedia - an area in Imperial Russia where Jews were permitted permanent residency and beyond which Jews were prohibited. This comprised about 20% of the territory of European Russian including present-day Lithuania Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. 

In a very light-hearted, complete with “cute” graphics approach, we are presented with talking heads – scholars – musicologists, researchers, rabbis, who have studied and analyzed the influence of this song over the years.  Even more enjoyably we are treated to well known artists who have sung Hava Nagila such as Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, The Klezmatics and Regina Spektor. Scenes from Ed Sullivan pop up, so do Woody Allen and the wonderful Allan Sherman whose lyrics will always make me laugh out loud.

The documentary explores the path and importance this song is/was to the “Jewish spirit”; vintage footage demonstrates the priority that music played as an “outlet” in the struggle to endure under dire circumstances. We are witness to the parallel morphing of Hava Nagila – the song itself - with the assimilation of Jews into American society up to the innovations made by our contemporary YouTube generation.

Friday, March 15, 2013


A history of the State of Israel and its relationships with its enemies externally and internally - as seen through the eyes of 6 of the country’s “Gatekeepers” – the SHIN BET – Israel’s Secret Service. Its motto is “Defender that shall not be seen” or "The Unseen Shield." Their job was to monitor activities in The West Bank and Gaza and to fight terrorism. The Director of this documentary, Dror Moreh interviewed the various Heads of Shin Bet  and according to Wikipedia in order to get access to them - Moreh contacted one of the “Gatekeepers”, Ami Ayalon, who not only agreed to participate, he also helped Moreh contact the other surviving former heads of the Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, and Avi Dichter. The sixth participant in the film, Yuval Diskin, was still serving as head of the Shin Bet around 201l, but resigned shortly thereafter.

What was most astonishing was the candor of these men – their hardness and ruthlessness were often evident, as well as ethical reservations as to the value of their methods. Some were more philosophical – others were more prosaic. BUT today - they all agreed that muscle and brute power enforcing “order” by an occupying power was not a feasible solution to the Israeli crisis and could not continue. What was needed were talks to come to a two-state solution. Yuval Diskin the last head of Shin Bet, and an ultimate insider, talking to the the director Moreh  stated: “When I look at Netanyahu, I don’t see a shred of personal example as a leader in him,” Mr. Diskin said in the interview, which ran more than 5,000 words in the weekend edition of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s leading newspaper. “There is a leadership crisis. It’s a crisis of value, it is total disregard for the public. People may think that I see this in an overly extreme manner. I am telling you that from up close, things look even worse.”  More of that interview can be read in The NY Times at this link:

This documentary also injects photos and newsreels of strategic events that changed the tide of history in the Middle East. One of those events led to the resignation of Carmi Gillion one of the  Gatekeepers after the assassination of Yitzak Rabin by a right wing Israeli “radical. The six commentators all speak about how their actions – some of which they found immoral, are wrenching personally but tactically necessary, though not the solution for long term strategy. Each individual was very different – all were quite articulate and intelligent – you see how being the Directors of Shin Bet involved the need to oversee the security of your country, but tragically can backfire through the methods used. If you see the film you will be stunned at what is said and unsaid and then with time re-evaluated and said again with hindsight. "You knock on doors in the middle of the night, these moments end up etched deep inside you," says Yaakov Peri. "When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist."

Ami Ayalon stated it best: “We win every battle but lose the war.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

KOCH 3/13/13

Being a born and bred New Yorker, I have been familiar with Mayor Ed Koch before and during his three-term reign of office in NYC, as well as after his defeat by David Dinkins in 1989. He can be summed up as the epitome of a person with ”Attitude.” I remember him as a thinner, much more youthful “left-leaning” idealist who marched in the south for Civil Rights and opposed the Vietnam War and was elected to the House of Representatives in the early 1970’s. I also remember an older, thicker Koch as a man who still had power and used that power to endorse and campaign for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and George W. Bush…so what does that mean?  I believe it shows us the crux of what this informative documentary, directed by Neil Barsky, makes clear – above all Ed Koch was an “opportunist.” Politics were in the forefront of Ed Koch’s decision making – strategizing about positioning himself in the “art” of making and trading alliances and breaking them without regrets. He could be stubborn, amusing, annoying and always self-centered- like most politicians, but more pronounced and obvious.

This film is revelatory and nostalgic in many ways – it shows grainy footage of NYC during those tumultuous years of the Transit Strike, AIDS crisis, “blackout” of 1977, graffiti covered subways, Son of Sam’s hold on the city’s psyche, as well as so many other screaming headline events in a “city that never sleeps.” And always we hear the now Octogenarian Mayor commenting on events, reminiscing and still thin-skinned, taking umbrage on former political “enemies.”

 There is a focus on Mayor Koch’s stance on many issues where he was unyielding – particularly the shutting down of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem that Ed Koch closed down despite intense community protest and campaign promises which resulted in accusations of racism. This is the one regret that the 87 year old reflects on during the film, but not because of human concerns, but because it was a bad political move that previous Mayors had the good sense not to tamper with. The growing AIDS epidemic was ignored by this Mayor whose own personal life is touched on – discussions as to whether he himself was a closeted gay man. I remember to counter those rumors, Koch had Bess Myerson  - a beautiful former Miss America and Commissioner of Consumer Affairs under former Mayor John Lindsey, always by his side acting as his “companion” to the point of holding hands during one of his victorious election campaigns.

The film also showed how Koch contributed to the turn-around of the housing crisis and deterioration in the Bronx through many housing initiatives that many of us to this day were not familiar with. His own personality often overshadowed his accomplishments. The grating, nasal voice asking the public how he was doing? belied a  steely inner core. There are scenes with his sister’s family at a holiday dinner showing how colorful, egotistical and engaged in politics Koch was – the personal and the political were always intertwined. He died at age 88, a week before the film was released.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


I saw an extraordinary film co-directed by a Palestinian (Emad Burnat,) and an Israeli (Guy Davidi) that was an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Film entitled 5 BROKEN CAMERAS. What made this documentary so remarkable was the immediacy of the actual filming – we literally experience –through the looking glass of the lens - the political struggle of a people against an Occupation as if in “real time”, via the eyes and voice of an “amateur” film-maker - a Palestinian farmer, Emad Burnat who gets his first camera in 2005 in order to record his newly born son’s “witness” to the world he has been thrust into. Soon Emad is engaged in recording the struggles and protests of the people of the West Bank village of Bilin in their desperate attempts to preserve their olive groves and lands from the increasing encroachment of newly built Israeli settlements. The melding of the personal and the historical makes the movie even more powerfully disturbing. The visuals of bull-dozers raping the ancestral lands to put up these massive housing complexes, and the creation of barriers erected to separate the farmers from the Jewish settlers, made what for me was once an abstraction a tangible reality.

The film is structured around footage taken by each of the five cameras – like five chapters –each with a lifespan of its own; all the cameras are destroyed in different ways. Political activism and deep ties to the earth are inseparable. The animosity of one group of people against another – one with power and the other dispossessed, over time leads to generational scarring that makes peace an ever more remote possibility.

There are no easy answers to this conflict and the violent confrontations between both sides are often irrevocable as well as intensely tragic. In 5 BROKEN CAMERAS the one positive step leading to some redress is taken by the Israeli Courts which rules in favor of the Palestinian brief against the separation barriers….but that too takes years for the ruling to be enforced, and does not compensate the farmers for their lost  properties.

Most importantly we are privy to the enduring spirit and persistence of the demonstrators and their passion and cry for justice in this microcosm of resistance - a small village in the West Bank. YES the film might be considered biased in favor of the Palestinians, but therein lies its strength. We get the view from the other side. In order to “see” what some consider one’s “enemies”, we must be able to feel and behold the humanity in others. The divide then lessens and perhaps a semblance of justice and unity is possible.