The Arty Semite

8 Biblical Movies To Watch Instead of 'Exodus'

By Curt Schleier

It isn’t as though the Lord said, “Go out and make motion pictures of my stories.” And yet, that seems to be what’s happening.

Both the Old and New Testaments have provided source material for dozens upon dozens of films, some better — and some more controversial — than others. Here are 8 of the best, from “The Bible” to “The Bible.”

1. The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966, John Huston)

A retelling of the first 22 chapters of Genesis, from creation to Abraham and Isaac, “The Bible” was supposed to be the first in a series of biblical films, but despite the numerous awards it received and its financial success, there were no sequels.

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Never Too Old to Dance

By Curt Schleier

The banging you hear in the background? That’s the drumbeat for an Oscar nomination for Gena Rowlands. Rowlands stars in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” a movie about the impact an elderly south Florida widow and a much younger gay dance instructor have on each other’s lives.

Rowlands plays Lilly Harrison, the former wife of a conservative Southern Baptist minister. Cheyenne Jackson is Michael Minetti, a former Broadway hoofer reduced to teaching old ladies to dance.

The film is based on a play by Richard Alfieri and is directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, who also directed the original stage productions in New York and Los Angeles.

Seidelman, who is also an Emmy-wining television director, spoke to the Forward about how he switches from one medium to another, his famous Yiddish uncle, and being held captive in a Lebanese refugee camp.

Curt Schleier: You are a multi-hyphenate director, working in TV, theater and film. Is it easy to switch between various media?

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9 Palestinian Films Everyone Should See

By Anne Joseph

What constitutes a Palestinian film is a matter of huge debate. Some argue it is determined by the identity of the filmmaker, or by the film’s narrative. Others suggest it is production-led, and therefore depends on the financial institutions or individuals that back it.

Palestinian national cinema is a relatively young cinema, and it is unique in that it exists in the absence of statehood. This issue has led to controversy, as the Academy Award nominated film, “Divine Intervention” (see below) demonstrates. Here are 9 Palestinian films that can help you get up to speed on the best of the still-young tradition.

1. Wedding in Galilee (Michel Khleifi, 1987)

This was the first major Palestinian feature film made by an “insider,” and helped demonstrate the possibility of a Palestinian national cinema.

Despite being under curfew, a Palestinian mayor wants to celebrate his son’s wedding with a traditional ceremony. The Israeli military governor who rules the Palestinian village initially refuses, as he fears a political demonstration. Eventually he permits the celebration on condition he be allowed to attend.

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Can a Palestinian Movie Take Israeli Money?

By Anne Joseph

“The war against Gaza finished and the war against me finished,” said Suha Arraf, referring to the controversy that had taken place during the summer over her directorial debut film, “Villa Touma.”

At the Venice Film Festival, the Haifa-based Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker and screenwriter had categorized her film as Palestinian — not an issue per se — but the fact that a significant portion of the film’s production budget had come from Israeli public funds made it a matter for debate.

Arraf’s decision provoked considerable dispute among members of the Israeli film industry as well as from Limor Livnat, Israel’s Minister of Culture.

Although Arraf had put in her own money and additional investment had come from Germany, other Israeli state institutions, including Mifal HaPayis (Israel’s national lottery) and the Ministry of Economy, had also provided funds.

In November, an Israeli Economy Ministry committee ruled that she would have to return the funding she had received from the ministry.

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8 Best (and Worst) Mel Brooks Movies

By Michael Kaminer

Melvin James Kaminsky is finally getting the tribute he deserves.

A monthlong retrospective at the Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival, is honoring the director better known as Mel Brooks.

“It’s Good to Be the King” salutes the 88-year-old’s “triumphant bad taste and transcendently-awful-cum-pricelessly-hilarious jokery,” according to program notes.

Though Brooks hasn’t directed a film since 1995’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” he’s hardly been taking it easy; this year alone, he’s voiced characters in animated hits like “Dora the Explorer” and “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.”
But for many fans, Brooks’s 1960s and ‘70s will always represent the heyday of his work.

With that in mind, and to celebrate “It’s Good to Be the King,” here is our ranking of Mel Brooks movies, going from worst to best.

8. Spaceballs (1987)

“May the Schwartz be with you”? Not funny. A diminutive sage called “Yogurt”? Less funny. John Candy as “Barf”? Sad, actually. This drove home the feeling Brooks the director had run out of gas.

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'Zero Motivation' and 7 IDF Movies You Should See

By Curt Schleier

“Zero Motivation,” which won the best narrative feature award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is an IDF version of “M* A* S* H.” Apparently, not everyone in the Israeli military is a gung-ho paratrooper. They also serve who push pencils around in boring circles.

In this film, two women stationed at a military base are in danger of dying — of boredom. They work in the personnel office and spend their days playing computer games and occasionally teaching a newcomer how to shred papers.

The movie, which opens in New York December 3, is hilarious and also a bit worrisome. It is also just one in a long line of films centered on the IDF. Here are 7 more all Israeli film buffs will want to see.

1. Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, 2007)

This critically acclaimed film is about an IDF unit stationed at Beaufort, a Crusader fort in southern Lebanon around the time of the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. A coming-of-age story, the movie shows the absurdities of war through the eyes of the young men fighting it.

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The Yiddish Path to Acting Fame and Fortune

By Jordan Kutzik

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

Like all actors attempting to break into the notoriously difficult profession, Michael Levi Harris is seeking to stand out. Luckily, Harris has a talent that is almost unique: he has an exceptional knack for languages. Not only can Harris speak many tongues but he also has a rare aptitude for accents and can, with a little practice, perfectly mimic the sounds of languages that he doesn’t know.

Harris’s linguistic skills are highlighted in the new short film “The Hyperglot,” a romantic comedy in which the main character, Jake, a talented polyglot played by Harris, tries to locate a woman with whom he has instantly fallen in love after seeing her on the subway.

Because she left behind a book in Maltese, Jake begins to learn the rare language in case he ever meets her again. While Jake looks for the pretty Maltese woman, he stumbles into a series of comical incidents in which he has the opportunity to speak many languages. By the end of the film Harris’s character speaks Arabic, Icelandic, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Norwegian, both American and British sign-language and finally, Yiddish. Watching Jake, the audience soon learns that although the hyperglot can speak at least 11 languages, he can’t properly flirt with girls in any of them.

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Why David Broza Still Has Hope for Peace

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy David Broza

David Broza is likely Israel’s most famous singer-songwriter. With a throaty Leonard Cohen sound and earthy Bruce Springsteen lyrics, Broza has recorded platinum albums and toured the world to great acclaim.

He is also among the nation’s most recognized peace advocates, a fact that fueled his most recent activities — an album, “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” (S-Curve Records), and an accompanying documentary of the same name.

The film recently aired at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, and at the ABC Foundation Conference in Miami. It is essentially a making-of-the-album film, but also focuses on Broza’s efforts to use music to bridge the gap between Israelis and Arabs.

The concept was simple. Broza rented time at the Sabreen studio in East Jerusalem, a center of the Palestinian music scene. He gave himself eight days and eight nights to record 13 tracks heavy on a peace motif. On each he is complemented by a number of Israeli and Palestinian musicians and singers, including Mira Awad. To add a bit of American flavor he brought in Steve Greenberg and Steve Earle to produce.

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6 Movies About Ex-Orthodox Jews Everyone Should See

By Anne Joseph

In contemporary cinema the representation of Jews is not so unusual. However, ex-Orthodox Jewish characters are portrayed far less often. Nonetheless, their role is significant and in some cases, iconic. (See my recent piece about Anna Wexler and Nadja Oertelt’s documentary ‘Unorthodox’ for one of the most recent examples.) Here are six of the best.

1. The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927)

Famous for being the first film with synchronized dialogue, this classic talkie stars Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor who defies the traditions of his Orthodox parents because of his desire to pursue a career as a jazz singer. Following punishment by his father, Jakie runs away from home, but many years later his professional success comes into direct conflict with his religious and family responsibilities.

The film was remade twice — in 1952 (directed by Michael Curtiz) and again in 1980 (directed by Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie), the latter starring Neil Diamond and Lawrence Olivier.

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Orthodox in Israel, Secular in Kathmandu

By Anne Joseph


Courtesy Anna Wexler

At 8 years old, Anna Wexler wanted to be a great Torah scholar. At 12 she started to question her faith, and by 16 she was an atheist. It was at this point that Wexler decided to break away from her Modern Orthodox, New Jersey upbringing, to live a life with no rules and no limits.

Gravitating towards others like her, she says they went “pretty wild.’” But during their gap year, a significant change occurred. While she was travelling in Kathmandu, her rebellious friends had “flipped out” in Israel. Having gone to yeshiva, they had become religious, and exchanged their former lifestyle for one of modest dress and Torah study. It led Wexler to question why, and forms the subject of her debut documentary, “Unorthodox.”

The film has had several successful U.S. film festival screenings, including at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and DOC NYC. It will receive its U.K. premiere later this month during the U.K. Jewish Film Festival.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal's Top 8 Roles

By Curt Schleier

It’s no surprise that the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” boasts Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role of Anna. She is a strong, intelligent activist and actor, a key player in this drama about marital love and infidelity. It’s the type of character Gyllenhaal regularly and successfully inhabits.

For the young actress, who recently discovered her birth name is Margalit (Hebrew for Pearl), it adds another star performance in her ever-expanding galaxy. Here are some others:

1. The Honourable Woman

Gyllenhaal played British business executive Ness Stein in this eight-part mini-series that aired originally on the BBC and last summer on the Sundance Channel. Stein, who is Jewish, works hard to build bridges of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but as soon becomes clear in this spy thriller, it is a complex and difficult task. But the series and Gullenhaal’s performance won raves, with The New York Times saying she played “a principled but conflicted woman whose quicksilver personality alters from hour to hour and flashback to flash-forward.”

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Filming the Wives of Bali

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Elemental Productions

Filmmaker Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” is a documentary about polygamy and violence towards women in Bali, Indonesia. Lemelson filmed three families — three husbands, 17 wives and 20 children — over a seven-year period. Many were tricked into being co-wives and are psychologically manipulated and physically abused by their unfaithful and often cruel husbands once they are married. Feeling trapped for economic and cultural reasons, they remain with their husbands despite their grim conditions. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch them open up to Lemelson about their ongoing plight: their fear and sadness.

Lemelson, 53, has been making documentary films in Indonesia for two decades. The New Jersey native is also a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Califaronia, Los Angeles.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with him in New York City, at the Clinton Global Initiative, with which he has been involved for the last 5 years.

Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey end up in Indonesia?

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When Investigative Reporting Turns Deadly

By Dorri Olds

Writer Peter Landesman seems the only good choice to have written “Kill the Messenger.” The movie is about Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) who broke the story that the CIA, during the Reagan administration, was part of a conspiracy that looked away while gobs of cocaine was smuggled into the U.S. and the money from drug sales funded weapons for the rebel forces in Nicaragua. The influx of coke was also at the root of the 1980s crack epidemic.

In an almost parallel universe, Landesman wrote an expose for The New York Times magazine in 2004 called “The Girls Next Door” about the horrors of America’s sex trade. Like Webb, Landesman was accused of inaccurate reporting and wild exaggerations and had to fight for his reputation.

Gary Webb died in 2004. His life had been destroyed. He’d suffered depression, substance abuse, lost his marriage, his career, his credibility and then his life. His death was ruled a suicide. But how do you shoot yourself in the head twice?

The Forward caught up with Landesman to talk about the movie and the dangers inherent in uncovering “stories that are too true to tell.”

Dorri Olds: Did writing the screenplay for “Kill the Messenger” hit close to your own experiences?

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Trying To Find the Real Heinrich Himmler

By Curt Schleier

A sense of irony is helpful, perhaps even necessary, to truly appreciate “The Decent One,” the new documentary about Heinrich Himmler. The paradox begins with the title character.

He was the architect of the Final Solution, commander of the SS, and a man who in civilian clothes looked like a Jewish accountant.

What Vanessa Lapa, the Belgian-born, Israeli filmmaker, has attempted to do is juxtapose the man who considers himself the height of German morality, a man who loved his wife and his mistress equally (see what I mean about irony?) with the human being responsible for millions upon millions of deaths.

The idea originated with the recent discovery of a treasure trove of Himmler papers including diaries, documents and photos. These were originally uncovered at the end of the war in Himmler’s residence by American soldiers who, hoping to cash in on the cache, kept what they found instead of turning it in.

A portion of the find wound up at Stanford University and the remainder disappeared, hidden in the home of an Israeli. How he came to own it is unclear, but he sold the material to Lapa’s father. Fascinated, she used it as the basis for her film.

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Conversations With Ed Koch

By Curt Schleier

That Neil Barsky selected Ed Koch as the subject of his first film was far from an accident. Barsky spent his formative years in New York during Koch’s mayoralty (1978-1989), both as a high school student and later as a journalist.

The city was in the midst of desperate times. Crime was rampant and the Big Apple was running out of cash and time. Koch ran as a “liberal with sanity” on a law and order platform shortly after the 1977 blackout and ensuing riots; he easily defeated a passel of more liberal Democrats (Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, among them) for his party’s nomination and then won the election handily.

Koch was brash and combative in a New York City kind of way — at least in the way New Yorkers like to think of themselves. Barsky is a former journalist — he wrote for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News — and he comes to filmmaking by a circuitous route. He ran a hedge fund, Alson Partners, named for his children, Alexandra and Davidson, but “retired from the hedge fund world” in 2009 when the market collapsed. After a brief stint teaching college-level economics, he self financed “Koch,” his first foray into the world of documentaries. The movie opened to near unanimous praise last year and will be broadcast September as part of POV’s 27th season on PBS.

Barsky spoke to the Forward about his life journey, why there was a time when Koch refused to speak to him and the Yiddishkeit in his life.

Curt Schleier: How did you go from hedge fund entrepreneur to filmmaker?

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Forging Art for Fun and Philanthropy

By Dorri Olds

Art forger Mark Landis is the subject of the documentary “Art and Craft,” directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. The film focuses on Landis’s history of art forgeries and the process he went through to create and donate them. The film also features Matthew Leininger, a museum registrar from Cincinnati who discovered the fakes and made it his mission to track down and stop Landis.

At the age of 17, Landis took the death of his father very hard. He was sent to a mental hospital for treatment and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Later he took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked on repairing damaged paintings. He bought an art gallery but it went bust. At 30, he went back to live with his mother.

In an attempt to honor his father and please his mother, Landis donated a Maynard Dixon painting he’d copied to a California museum. After that went well, he continued to paint dupes and donated them to 60 museums over a 20-year period. Most times he approached the museums impersonating a priest.

Landis said, “I liked being a priest and being kind to people. I remember once I was at a bus station and saw a family who had everything they owned tied up in boxes so I watched all their things for them when they wanted to go off and do something. Then, when they came back I gave them a blessing and sent them on their way. I’ve also comforted people at airports, with marital problems.”

In 2007, Landis offered a few paintings to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The museum’s registrar, Matthew Leininger, investigated the pieces and discovered that one of the paintings had already been donated to the SCAD Museum of Art. Leininger dug deeper and found out that Landis had tricked more than 60 museums in 20 different states. It became Leininger’s mission to stop Landis from deceiving museums. Landis did not sell any of the paintings, so he has never faced legal charges for the fakes.

We talked to directors Cullman and Grausman about meeting Mark Landis, authenticity in art, and what will be in the DVD extras.

Dorri Olds: How did this project begin?

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Israel Horovitz on Paris and the Movies

By Curt Schleier

Israel Horovitz is the author of over 70 produced plays, most famously “Lebensraum,” his “Fountain Pen” trilogy, and “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” But, as he explains, “I was turning 75 and I thought that would scare the hell out of me.”

The “that” that he refers to is directing the film version of “My Old Lady.” One of his plays, “North Shore Fish,” was filmed in 1997. He’s written original screenplays. And he’s directed a documentary that ran on Bravo. But this is first time he’s taken on all the forms at once.

“My Old Lady” is set in France, where Horovitz spends much time. He is kind of a literary Jerry Lewis, whose work is appreciated and much honored there, including the recent award of a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Here, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his luck New Yorker, inherits a lavish Paris apartment from his estranged father. He intends to sell it, but discovers he has tenants, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who can block the sale under a complicated French real estate law known as viager.

With nowhere else to go, Mathias moves in as well, and uncovers secrets about his family and theirs. The film is funny, intense, romantic, and the principal actors are exceptionally well cast.

Horovitz spoke to the Forward about how the film came about, the anti-Semitism he faced growing up and why some of his children were raised secular and some Jewish.

Curt Schleier: When you write, do you think of your plays cinematically?

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Leonard Maltin's Last Movie Guide

By Curt Schleier

The word is out. Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guide has fallen into what, in Hollywood speak, would be called “developmental hell.” First published in 1969 and annually since 1986, the new 2015 edition is its last. Like newspapers and other print media, it has fallen victim to the Internet, where much of the information is readily available, easily accessible and free.

The story behind the series is probably more interesting than the average “Transformers” film, however. Maltin was a high school student who published a fanzine. An English teacher impressed with his work put him in touch with a publisher, who was similarly awed.

The first edition of was to become “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” was called simply “TV Movies.” It “is a terrible title,” Maltin said in a telephone interview. “A competitor used up a better title, “Movies on TV.” It was actually Maltin’s suggestions for improving that book that convinced the publisher to sign the high school senior.

“I suggested adding a more extensive cast list, the director’s name, and indicating if it was in color or black and white, which was more important then.”

Maltin spoke to the Forward about being a high school nerd, his favorite (and least favorite) films, and davening with Theodore Bikel.

Curt Schleier: Were you a nerd in high school?

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Down the Mystical Rabbit Hole

By Curt Schleier

“Kabbalah Me” is a fascinating and inspiring story about a man’s spiritual journey into the complex world of Jewish mysticism. But on another level, it is also a sad and revelatory documentary about how faith and religious observance are marginalized in our society.

Steven Bram is a successful filmmaker and chief operating officer of a New York City-based company that produces sports films. His brother was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and, though he doesn’t say it, presumably died, leaving behind a wife and children.

This is what started Bram’s soul-searching pilgrimage, his hunger for what he calls “a deeper kind of spirituality.” Both Steven and his wife, Miriam, were raised in secular households. His father came from — and rejected — what Steven calls an Orthodox background, but is apparently Hasidic.

As part of his quest, Bram travels to Brooklyn to meet his Hasidic cousins for the first time. He spends Sukkot with them. Initially, he feels like a visitor from another planet. Soon, however, he feels another emotion: “Part of me is a little jealous that they have this intense spirituality,” he says.

Bram begins regular meetings with a rabbi about Kabbalah and begins, Madonna-like, to immerse himself in it — at least superficially. Because of the pop star’s interest, Kabbalah has become something of a rage, attracting far more dilettantes than serious students.

Bram seems to fall somewhere in between. He seeks guidance from numerous rabbis, attends large religious gatherings in Madison Square Garden and Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and even travels to Safed, Israel, in his odyssey.

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Looking for Kabbalah at a Rangers Game

By Elyssa Goodman

“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”

One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.

Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?

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