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Sunday, June 23, 2013

FILL THE VOID 6/23/13


FILL THE VOID written and directed by Rama Burshtein, a native New Yorker who joined the world of the Hassidic community in Tel Aviv, gives us an intimate glimpse into this Ultra-Orthodox sub-culture in Israel – replete with beautifully composed close up images of their rituals, and codified religious laws, and the workings of the councils whose power over the lives of the community, particularly women is despairingly restrictive.

Girls from a young age are encouraged to get married and stay at home to procreate and raise children, as well as organizing and maintaining their households. The Rabbinical decisions in the “arrangement” of marriages, the “charitable” doling out of money, the resolutions of domestic and business conflicts, as well as the necessity of women to wear head coverings, etc. are similar to other Middle Eastern Fundamentalist cultures. The Hassidic men celebrate pivotal occasions, drinking wine and singing together– haunting mournful chants along with lively, uplifting melodies - while the women are sitting in a group, segregated, serving the food and cleaning up after them. Despite the realization that many women do have a commanding voice in the confines of their homes, I could barely contain my rage.

FILL THE VOID deals with the youthful anticipation of romantic love vs. a young woman’s feelings of (what can only be termed) “biblical” duty. We are privy to the negotiations that are employed in “arranged marriages”. Elders meet with the respective parents and determine financial dispositions, and the couples in question face each other to assess their compatibility for minutes, or (if they are lucky) up to a few hours– each one has a veto power; both can reject the choices that have been made for them, but that too has consequences.

The film’s opening shot zooms in on a lovely18 year-old girl/woman, Shira (Hada Yaron) racing to embrace her exquisite 28 year old, very pregnant sister Esther (Renana Raz) who arrives with her husband for the Purim Holiday festivities.  Unexpectedly this celebration turns into a tragic event, when Esther gives birth to a baby boy and dies in childbirth. Shortly after Esther’s death, her grieving husband a handsome Yochay Goldberg (Yiftach Klein) is encouraged by the powers-that–be to remarry in order to have a wife assist in raising the newborn child. When it is decided that he will be betrothed to a Belgium woman and leave Israel, the infant’s grandmother Rivka (Irith Sheleg,) Esther and Shira’s mother, is heartbroken and feels the best solution to keeping her grandchild in Israel, would be to devise a union between her tender-hearted, sensitive daughter Shira and the older widower.


The film focuses on Shira’s emotionally complicated response to marrying her ex-brother-in-law, and the feeling of responsibility to the newborn child and her parents wishes. I felt that those around this innocent young woman were selfishly heedless to the fact that Shira was in deep mourning for the anguished loss of her adored sister - an event that created an unspeakable “void” in her life. The ensuing depth of her bereavement is one that cannot be filled – the interchangeability of relationships is a complex question. I am not sure of the answer.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

BEFORE MIDNIGHT 6/16/13


Despite the quick-witted repartee and theatrical dialogue, I am a great fan of Richard Linklater, the director of the Before Series - spaced almost 10 years apart: Before Sunrise (1995,) Before Sunset (2004,) and the most recent Before Midnight (2013.)  I also have been smitten with the wildly extreme individualized depictions in the film Bernie (2012,) and Linklater’s “digitally animated” Waking Life (2001.) Every movie Linklater directs is beautifully written and all are a rare breed in the filmic world – idiosyncratic characterizations overlaid with visual beauty and trenchantly intelligent talkfests.

Before Midnight begins with a disheveled Ethan Hawke playing Jesse, a successful American writer living in Paris with Celine (the beautiful Julie Delpy) he met 18 years ago on a train to Vienna – and the 24 hour impetuous period they spent falling-in-love only to end when Jesse returned to his life and wife in the USA; that is the essence of the first film in this trilogy - Before Sunrise.

They meet again by accident 10 years later in Before Sunset where Jesse is on a book tour in Paris promoting the book he wrote about their brief encounter. The spark is reunited. The same actors are in all the films making Before Midnight, the most recent incarnation, even more poignant, as life’s imprints are evident in their now older faces and bodies.

In Before Midnight we meet the 41 years old Jesse, a successful writer, at an Airport in Greece awkwardly saying goodbye to his self-contained, bit of a stranger, 14 year old son who is returning to Chicago (where he lives with Jesse’s ex-wife,) after vacationing with his father and Celine in the Southern Peloponnese. The dialogue is very natural and so familiar that I felt emotionally pierced by the ramifications of divorce’s radiating consequences, not only on the father and son but affecting the whole family dynamic. Goodbyes are always complicated and this particular one hits Jesse hard – realizing that his son is growing up without him a continent away, since he is presently living with Celine and his lovely twin daughters in Paris.


The difficulties in dealing with the banality of everyday family obligations,  the changing nature of love and sexual desire, replete with the contradictions and conflicts that time and responsibilities inflict on relationships are at the heart of the movies's lengthy, sometimes juvenile, often both boring and provocative conversations. Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are able antagonists – with lots of biting jabs and generalizations (some annoyingly tasteless) about the differences between male/female predilections. I often tended to side with the Ethan Hawke character feeling that Julie Delpy’s arguments were fulfilling her need for reassurance over reasonableness, with disappointingly oft-used “feminist” clich├ęs thrown into the mix, but then wham! she would come through with a penetrating verbal jab which hit the mark - so the arguments ended up in the all-too-familiar male/female "deadlock/draw." 

And yet Before Midnight asks many questions about issues that many of us avoid discussing, doing so in a refreshingly comedic yet deadly serious way. Like life, we confront the unknown all the time. What the future will bring to this couple might be seen perhaps in 10 years time…or not. I am curious.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

THE ICEMAN 6/1/13


How does one balance “family values” and the criminal mind? THE ICEMAN, directed by Ariel Vromen explores that schism, based on the true- life story of Richard Kuklinski, a mob enforcer for various Mafia families, aka “The Polack” who was indicted for killing 100 plus victims between @1954-1986 when he was taken down by an undercover officer in a drug deal on a quiet suburban street in Dumont, New Jersey. We get to see a lot of New Jersey – from Jersey City to the suburbs of Bergen County starting with Hoboken where the story begins in 1964. The clothes, cars, facial hair, and hair styles change with time, from his beautifully tailored suits to loud, brassy, too tight silk shirts becoming an indicator of the state of Kuklinski’s social/ monetary and mental status.

THE ICEMAN could be dismissed as another classic “film noir” movie, photographed not in black and white, but shot in subdued and shadowy colors; though at the onset of the movie, I kept thinking - okay this genre is too familiar - I have seen it played out many times before. BUT what makes this film so powerful and poignant is revealed in our initial encounter with a large lumbering, beefy, inarticulate guy – a beautiful in-your-face (accompanied by seeing–the-pores) close-up portrayal of Richard Kuklinski by the brilliant actor, Michael Shannon mooning over a slight, delicate, fragile, Jersey girl named Deborah (Winona Ryder finally given the opportunity to show her “chops” in a solid nuanced role) who becomes his wife. The visual body-type contradictions seen in this early frame echoes the plot's strange anomalies.

Nicknamed The Iceman – for freezing his corpses in an Industrial freezer so that the time of death could not be determined, Michael Shannon gives a powerful performance as a character whose only solace, loyalty and emotional ties are with the family that he has created with Deborah. Otherwise he is “cold” and hermetic sealed off from any other connections. The split between the innocence and “normality” of his upper middle-class family - his two lovely daughters go to Catholic school living an existence that is the opposite of  Kuklinski’s brutal childhood. The gap between his “day” and often “middle-of-the-night” jobs, and his “domestic” life is a difficult balancing act. The family is oblivious to the source of their comfortable circumstances and the children adore their adoring father – irony rules.

Ray Liotta plays the vicious Roy Demeo, Kuklinski’s immediate “boss” (in the Mafia chain of command), equally brutish displaying a ruthlessness needed to oversee merciless underlings. The relationship between the shark-like maneuverings in the under-world is contrasted to the steady hum of Kuklinski’s “conventional” reality, but that thin line is hard to keep separate, and is eventually punctured physically and psychologically as his complex world slowly disentangles.


A person who can murder with such ease and dispassion usually does not garner our sympathy, but Michael Shannon’s expressiveness is very seductive, and despite being termed “the iceman”, we penetrate his enigmatic veneer and catch a glimpse of how a childhood of administered pain can mold one into the hardness of stone…but rarely into a killer. In this case we have an individual who became a contract murderer, and he was really good at it. Richard Kuklinski died in a Trenton NJ prison in 2006 supposedly of “natural causes,” but that is debatable since he was scheduled to be a witness against the Gambino family in an upcoming trial.