The Arty Semite

Naomi Foner on 'Very Good Girls' and Her Famous Children

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film

Screenwriter Naomi Foner was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her original screenplay for “Running on Empty.” She also wrote other high-profile projects such as “Losing Isaiah” and “Bee Season.” So you’d think the Hollywood establishment would rush to sign on for “Very Good Girls,” her latest script.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

“I wrote this a long time ago, and it’s been in my drawer for many years,” she told the Forward in a telephone interview.

In some ways, it’s not surprising. The film is about two best friends, Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), who pledge to lose their virginity before they leave for college. Problems arise when they fall for the same guy and he prefers one over the other.

Though it sounds on the surface a lot like typical summer fare, it is an intelligent, affecting movie about friendship, honesty and family. Foner spoke to the Forward about getting the film made, how her grandfather used to write to the Forverts for advice on fishing and how proud she is of her children, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Curt Schleier: I was really disappointed the other day. I went to McDonald’s and asked them for Lily and Gerry action figures. They didn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t understand. Did you actually make a summer movie without major tie-ins?

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Paul Mazursky Showed the Surface, and Went Deeper

By Eitan Kensky

Getty Images

Summer is the cruelest cultural season. With that in mind, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is a new occasional series highlighting movies, TV shows, books, comics and everything else we might have missed in the past few months that we can catch up on in the next few.

“It’s all Ralphie’s fault.” That was my macabre thought when I heard the news that Paul Mazursky passed away — or “disappeared” as our Yiddish ancestors would have said. Then my mind flashed to Mazursky lurched over the card table, his powder blue shirt stained by patches of make-believe red, the residue of the ketchup canon that off-ed his character.

Mazursky’s character was named Sunshine. He dealt poker on “The Sopranos.” He was an associate of Uncle Junior’s, though I don’t think that we ever saw the two together. Sunshine was only on two episodes: one to establish that he existed; a second to un-exist him. He spoke lines, but his main job was to look like Paul Mazursky. He was there for that big, beautiful ethnic face — a face equally at home in card rooms and strip clubs, around highballs and cigarettes, in the backroom of a pork store eating bulging Italian sandwiches with thick men, in a back booth at Fine & Schapiro and nursing a Cel-Ray under a framed, oversized portrait of a deli platter. Sunshine was a silent movie part in a spoken world, but Mazursky read the lines well.

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When Music Is the Best Medicine

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy of BOND/360

Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”

She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.

The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.

Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.

Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.

Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?

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Filming the One-State Solution

By Mira Sucharov

With the two-state solution increasingly invoked as either tragically out of reach or altogether unjust, a new film seeks to examine another possibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the one-state solution.

More in the tradition of didactic documentary films than storytelling ones, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s “A People Without a Land,” which recently premiered at the Manhattan Film Festival, winning a “Film Heals” award, features the most prominent voices of the one-state movement. There’s Ali Abunimah, founder of The Electronic Intifada, Omar Barghouti, an organizer of the BDS movement, and anti-Zionist activist Jeff Halper. There’s also Neta Golan, a trilingual Israeli-Jewish Ramallah-based activist for Palestinian solidarity, and Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that seeks to raise awareness of the Nakba. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a U.S.-based Orthodox rabbi, provides a slightly different twist on the one-state idea, and Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi make brief appearances.

Perhaps most importantly, the film admits modesty in its aims, something that is both its strength and its weakness. Through the words of the interviewees, the film stresses the desirability — rather than practicability — of the one-state option. “First tell me whether it’s a good idea,” one of the interviewees suggests, “then we’ll talk about what is possible.” A more ambitious project might have attempted to tackle the equally pressing question of whether and how the one-state option could be brought to fruition given the historical propensity for the two-state option on each side. And despite recent polling revealing that the two-state solution is losing adherents, the one-state solution is even less appealing (with only 10% of Palestinians favoring it).

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When Having It All Is Too Much

By Curt Schleier

Director Kevin Asch’s film, “Affluenza,” is about a “disease” that seems to strike people with too much money and too much time but not enough of a moral compass to guide them. Its symptoms are a sense of entitlement and self-indulgence.

The movie is set in Great Gatsby country, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, where an aspiring photographer, Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield), from upstate New York, moves in with his aunt and uncle while he applies to college in Manhattan. It is his first exposure to a world seemingly without limits on both wealth and behavior — until the financial crisis hits.

“Affluenza” is an extremely personal film for Asch, 38, who grew up in that milieu. For him, the movie is as much an exercise in therapy as in filmmaking. He spoke to the Forward about the trials of his own Long Island upbringing, how film helped him through his alienation, and why he can now move on.

Curt Schleier: The production notes say growing up you were “grappling with personal questions about my family shattering and how growing up in an affluent community led to such great expectations and such pressures.” Can you give us some more details?

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First Look at Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’

By Anthony Weiss

(JTA) — The first trailer for Ridley Scott’s upcoming take on Exodus is out, and JTA is here to obsessively parse its 97 seconds so you don’t have to.

With “Exodus: Gods and Kings” following closely on the heels of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” we appear to be experiencing at least a mild renaissance of biblical epics — and by epics, do we ever mean epics. Unless the trailer for “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is wildly misleading, Scott seems to have gone hard in the swords-and-sandals direction, with a major emphasis on spectacle.

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A Survivor Remembers Her Japanese Savior

By Dorri Olds

September 1 will mark 75 years since World War II began. Most likely you don’t know the story of one brave man who saved 6,000 lives. When Polish Jews fled persecution, many arrived in independent Lithuania. But as the German army pushed across Europe in the summer of 1940, foreign embassies were ordered to close. While other diplomats turned their backs on the Jewish refugees, one honorable diplomat requested a month-long extension so that he could issue visas that would allow Jews to travel across European Russia and Siberia to Japan. The man was Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara.

“The Rescuers,” by award-winning filmmaker Michael King, focuses on Sugihara and 12 additional unsung Holocaust heroes who risked their lives to help tens of thousands of Jews flee to safety. By doing what he thought was right, Sugihara was dismissed from the foreign office for going against the orders of the Japanese government. He lost his pension and had to work menial jobs the rest of his life.

King’s “The Rescuers” stars renowned Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert; Stephanie Nyombayire, an anti-genocide activist who lost 100 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, and a handful of survivors. One survivor in the film is Sylvia Smoller Austerer, who agreed to an exclusive interview for the Forward. She is alive today, thanks to Sugihara making it possible for her to escape Poland at age 7.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Austerer and spoke to her about the experience.

Dorri Olds: You’ve said, “What on earth made Sugihara do it?” Can you expand on that?

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Why Jon Favreau's 'Chef' Is Evil

By Eitan Kensky

Summer is the cruelest cultural season. With that in mind, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is a new occasional series highlighting movies, TV shows, books, comics and everything else we might have missed in the past few months that we can catch up on in the next few.

Jon Favreau’s “Chef” is diverting — funny at times, warm at others — entertaining, and also vaguely evil. Its emotional arcs are satisfying. Its kid stays on the right side of movie cute. He holds back, even withholds; a clear credit to Favreau’s direction. Scarlett Johansson wears full-throated, “Buy me some Sodastream, stranger” vampiness. You really will leave the theater hungry and happy, jealous of the saffron-scented meals and backyard orchards of southern California. It’s a good movie for humid nights and also vaguely evil.

We’ve seen this story before, though that’s part of “Chef”’s charm. Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is malaised. He supposedly has final say over the menu at his top-shelf restaurant, but the owner (Dustin Hoffman) keeps talking him out of trying new spices and dishes. He’s divorced (from Sofia Vergara) and ignores his son. An all-powerful critic (Oliver Platt) rips apart his boring food and a social media flame war ignites.

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Joe Berlinger On 'Whitey' Bulger and the FBI

By Dorri Olds

“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” is a revelatory documentary by Academy Award-nominated and seven-time Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger. With unprecedented access, Berlinger shot his documentary from the beginning of “Whitey” Bulger’s 2013 trial and uncovers disturbing questions about the extent of FBI and Boston Police Department corruption. Berlinger’s film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2014 as an Official Selection.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was number two on America’s Most Wanted fugitives list, preceded only by Osama Bin Laden. Bulger acted as boss of the Winter Hill Irish mob family that terrorized Boston for years. In 2011, he was arrested in California at age 81 for 19 murders. Catherine Grieg, his girlfriend, was also arrested. They’d been hiding in plain sight in a Santa Monica apartment complex. Which begs the question: How hard could the FBI have been trying to find them?

As the story goes, Bulger served as an informant for the FBI since 1975. He was protected from punishment for his illegal activities in exchange for information about the Italian Patriarca crime family. In 1994, after a member of the FBI tipped him off to a pending indictment, Bulger and Catherine fled. In June 2013 Bulger went on trial for 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, weapons charges and 19 murders. He was found guilty on 31 counts and complicit in 11 murders. In November 2013 Judge Denise Caspar sentenced Bulger to two life terms plus five years.

The New England media exposed criminal actions by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials that tied them to Bulger. Berlinger’s film asks the tough questions about the misconduct that took place.

Dorri Olds: What inspired this film?

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Lessons of Aaron Swartz, the 'Internet's Own Boy'

By Curt Schleier

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is likely to accomplish something no politician has been able to do: unite the Tea Party and liberal Democrats.

The documentary, which goes into limited release and video on demand June 27, tells the story of the government’s overzealous prosecution of a bright young man whose only crime was to push for open access on the Internet.

Don’t be embarrassed if you are unfamiliar with Swartz. I didn’t recognize the name, either. Nor did a dozen or so people I asked. Aaron Hillel Swartz (1986-2013) was a genius, a Beethoven of the Internet.

At age 14, he helped develop RSS (Rich Site Summary), which provides updates from selected websites. He worked on the project communally with members of an organization known as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) all of whom assumed he was an adult. They discovered the truth when they invited him to a conference and he replied he wasn’t sure his mother would let him go.

Swartz subsequently became involved in a number of computer initiatives, creating Infogami, which merged with Reddit, which was purchased by Conde Nast and made him extremely wealthy.

He continued to tinker, creating the architecture for openlibrary.org, a website that hopes to devote a web page to every book ever published and already offers free e-access to many of them.

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David Wain Is Back Again

By Curt Schleier

David Wain is a co-founder of two sketch comedy troupes, The State and Stella. He is executive producer and occasional star of the Emmy-winning Adult Swim series, “Children’s Hospital.” He also has his own online show, “Wainy Days,” about his (mis)adventures with women.

But certainly his greatest claim to fame is his 2001 cult classic, “Wet Hot American Summer.” That is, until now.

Wain’s latest, “They Came Together,” will soon claim top billing. It’s a hilarious spoof on the romantic comedy genre that opens in New York, Los Angeles and other markets June 27.

The film stars Paul Rudd as Joel, the typical romantic comedy lead — i.e. “handsome, but in a non-threatening way; vaguely but not overtly Jewish.”

Amy Poehler is Molly the klutzy but cute potential girlfriend. They meet in a bookstore where they discover that they both like — wait for it — “fiction books.” But problems ensue when she discovers he works for Candy Systems and Research, the company hoping to put her little store, Upper Sweet Side, out of business.

Still, they fall in love. They fall out of love. There are complications, but — spoiler alert — there is a happy ending, with shout-outs to everything from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Crossing Delancey.”

“They Came Together” is so funny you don’t need an entire funny bone to find laughs here. A few funny cells are more than enough to see the humor.

Wain spoke to the Forward about his complete lack of preparation for this interview, the low brow-ness of his jokes and how he’s not Pagliacci.

Curt Schleier: Have you prepared enough one-liners to make me look creative and funny to the readers of The Forward?

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Fighting Aaron Swartz's War

By Dorri Olds

It’s been said that the Internet both defined and was defined by Aaron Swartz. He co-founded Reddit and co-invented RSS, but it was his fight for free speech and open access to information that was both his legacy and his downfall.

Swartz used Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers to hack into JSTOR, the academic database. He copied 4.8 million articles and uploaded them for public access to protest the commercialization of information on the Internet. He was arrested for wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, after a two-year legal battle and facing up to 35 years in prison, Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26.

Brian Knappenberger’s film “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a personal view into who Swartz was, how much he accomplished, and what led to his choice to end his life. The film also shows how society will suffer if we ignore the relationship between our technological landscape and our civil liberties.

Knappenberger has created many documentaries, commercials and feature films, and is executive producer of the 23-part Bloomberg series “Bloomberg Game Changers” which chronicles figures like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the Twitter and Google co-founders. His films have explored the changing politics and tensions in the post-9/11 era.

The Forward caught up with Knappenberger to talk about “hacktivism,” Edward Snowden and Net Neutrality.

Dorri Olds: What scenes did you really like but had to cut from the film?

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David Ives Tells Truths About Roman Polanski

By Dorri Olds

Playwright David Ives got a telephone message from Roman Polanski: “I love your play and want to turn it into a movie.” The two didn’t know each other. Imagine getting a voicemail like that.

It would be an oversimplification to say Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is about sadomasochism, but technically it is. It’s about sex and power and humiliation, yet there’s nothing really sexy about it. It’s more a study of the nature of human relationships — to dominate or be dominated. It’s seen through the prism of two lonely people on the edge, played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, an actor who looks eerily like a younger Polanski.

When you throw Polanski’s name into this story — that of a man who’s successfully avoided prosecution for raping a minor — the project takes on a new significance. But, as with Woody Allen, Polanski’s supreme artistry can overshadow what we don’t know and don’t want to know.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with Ives, who spoke about his collaboration with Polanski for their “Venus in Fur” screenplay and to elaborate on his time spent with a genius on the lam.

Dorri Olds: Where did you meet Polanski?

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Israeli Actress Moran Atias Talks 'Third Person' and 'Tyrant'

By Dorri Olds

“Third Person,” written and directed by Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”), tells three love stories about passion, trust and betrayal. “In any relationship,” Haggis said, “there is always a third person present in some form.”

Israeli actress Moran Atias, who starred in the TV series “Crash,” pitched the idea of a multi-plotline film about love and relationships to Haggis. “Third Person” is the result, and Atias plays Roman beauty Monika in the movie. Atias stars opposite Adrien Brody as one of the three fraught couples. The all-star cast includes Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Maria Bello and Kim Bassinger.

Atias had worked directly with Haggis and Neeson when she starred in Haggis’s 2010 crime drama, “The Next Three Days.” Born and raised in Haifa, Atias later moved to Italy where she starred in several Italian films including the thriller “Gas.” Additionally, she worked for modeling campaigns for Dolce & Cabana, Roberto Cavalli and Versace. After much success in Italy she returned to Israel. Currently Atias lives in Los Angeles and stars in the FX series, “Tyrant,” an American show that takes place in the Middle East.

The Forward caught up with Moran Atias for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: What inspired your idea for “Third Person?”

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Hero in Print, Villain at Home

By Allen Ellenzweig

Few of us ever face a moral decision with life or death consequences, or that threatens to influence, however feebly, the course of history. This may be one reason why the moral calculations of men and women who lived during the rise of the Third Reich and the Second World War prove so durable as the subject of literature and film.

“The Last Sentence,” director Jan Troell’s account of a renowned Swedish newspaper editor, Torgny Segerstedt, who wrote early and forcefully against Hitler in his editorials, presents us with one such man. Yet instead of portraying this valorous figure as totally heroic, Troell does something more complicated — he presents a man whose personal life contains a strong dose of moral failure.

From Troell’s earliest frames, shot in the classic black and white of the period in question, we are in the hands of a master film craftsman. (Troell is best known in America for his award winning “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”) Simple but compelling images of leaves floating on the surface of a clear shallow stream strike a poetic but also a philosophical note: Is the image a reminder of the way in which most of us “float” on the surface of life led by imperceptible currents?

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Terrorist Father, Ultra-Orthodox Mother

By Anne Joseph

The extraordinary documentary film, “Life Sentences,” was many years in the planning, says co-director Yaron Shani. Winner of the best documentary film at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, it will receive its UK premiere in London later this month during SERET, the Israeli Film and Television Festival.

“Life Sentences” tells the story of Nimer Ahmed, the son of Fauzi al Nimer, an Arab from Acre and an Israeli Jewish woman from Nahariya who married in the early 1960s after a whirlwind romance, much to the wrath of both their families. They had two children, Nimer, and a daughter. But without his family knowing, Fauzi Nimer was a notorious Palestinian terrorist who was eventually convicted of carrying out 22 terror attacks in Israel.

Nimer’s mother took her young children to Montreal where they embedded themselves among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, never discussing their father or the life they had left. Now married to his Muslim cousin living in Acre, Nimer has two children of his own, and although his story could be construed as yet another casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the film manages to delve deeply into the complexities of a life that beggars belief.

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When an Economic Crisis Hits Home

By Anne Joseph

There are times when Tom Shoval’s debut film, “Youth,” is deeply uncomfortable to watch. Set in an unnamed central Israeli suburb the film shows two teenage brothers who kidnap a wealthy girl in order to solve their family’s growing financial crisis. Tense, foreboding and menacing from the opening frame, the film, which won best feature at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, will receive its UK premiere later this month as part of SERET, the London Israeli Film and Television Festival.

“Youth” reflects Shoval’s close relationship with his brother, who is four years his junior and with whom he shares an almost telepathic relationship. ‘We have a very strong connection. He knows what I’m thinking even before I speak or the other way ‘round. We also look very similar and sometimes people confuse us,” he told the Forward. He describes being curious about the nature of their bond and decided “to try and translate this connection into cinema.”

The experience of economic hardship that befalls the family in the film also has autobiographical overtones. When Shoval’s father lost his job — a victim of the struggling middle class in Israel — he lapsed into depression and Shoval describes the ensuing tension in the family home. “My parents were trying to protect us, they didn’t really tell us what was happening. We were told that everything was going to be okay but my brother and I felt that something deeper and more frightening was going on.” It was a shock to see his father, his role model, suddenly becoming a shadow of himself, he says.

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Doug Liman on Action Movies and Shabbat With Dad

By Curt Schleier

Doug Liman made his reputation directing “Swingers,” a film that helped establish the viability of independent film, not to mention the careers of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. His personal favorite is “Go,” a movie he knows “no one saw.”

But certainly Liman is best known as an action director: “Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and now, “Edge of Tomorrow.”

The movie stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and is already the best reviewed of Liman’s films; it will restore luster to Cruise’s career, tarnished recently by “Oblivion,” “Rock of Ages” and “Knight and Day.”

Liman grew up in Manhattan, the son of Arthur Liman, who led the Iran Contra investigation. Liman spoke to the Forward about the art of making action movies, what Cruise is really like, and how Shabbat dinners with his dad prepared him for Hollywood.

Curt Schleier: Is there a secret to making action films?

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How Shep Gordon Became a Real 'Supermensch'

By Curt Schleier

Comedian Mike Myers found the perfect vehicle to make his directorial debut: “Supermensch The Legend of Shep Gordon.”

The title makes it sound like another Myers comedy, a Jewish “Wayne’s World” or “Austin Powers.” In fact, it is an extremely well-executed documentary about one of the most captivating figures in the history of rock and roll.

Shep Gordon is not someone you’ve likely heard of. He managed Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, and Pink Floyd (inexplicably for just nine days), among others. He created the celebrity chef category. And he lived a remarkable life — something between a frat boy’s fantasy and a rabbi’s delight.

Even better, from Myers’s point of view, Gordon is a brilliant raconteur with a vivid memory that apparently survived the prestigious amount of drugs he consumed. Part of Myers’s success here is simply based on his ability to point a camera and press record.

Gordon grew up in a Jewish family in Oceanside, New York, and accidentally found a career in show business after he was slugged in the face by Janis Joplin. A word of explanation:

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David Bezmozgis Turning 'Natasha' Into Film

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: David Franco

A decade after its publication, Canadian author David Bezmozgis is turning his debut short story collection, “Natasha and Other Stories,” into a film. As with “Victoria Day,” his first cinematic endeavor in 2009, Bezmozgis, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, is both writing and directing the project.

The stories in the breakout “Natasha” chronicling the saga of the Bermans, a Russian-Jewish immigrant family to Toronto, were hailed by critics as “dazzling,” “scary good,” and “stunning.” The book was translated into 15 languages and won several prizes. Virtually unknown prior to the collection’s publication, the Riga-born Bezmozgis’s literary star rose with “Natasha.” His celebrated first novel, “The Free World,” was published in 2011, and will be followed this coming September by a second novel, “The Betrayers.”

The film version of “Natasha” will focus on the title story, which comes in the middle of the collection.

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