The Arty Semite

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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The Murder Trial Will Be Televised

By Dorri Olds

“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.

Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.

Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?

Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.

Do you mean she had stage fright?

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Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland's 'Third Most Famous Jew'

By Curt Schleier

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson concedes that his latest film, “Frank,” is eccentric. The movie is inspired by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who adapted the stage persona of Frank Sidebottom and toured Britain with a band.

Not well known outside the U.K., Sievey was similar to — but never quite as successful as — artists like Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman and Tiny Tim, who also adopted stage guises.

“Frank” stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, Maggie Gyllenhaal as band member Clara and rising star Domhnall Gleeson as a keyboard player and wannabe composer. The band of oddballs composes esoteric music, but finds unexpected popularity via You Tube — popularity that inevitably dooms the group.

It’s not likely to be this summer’s blockbuster, though a laughing Abrahamson says, “That would be nice. Let’s not give up on it.” He quickly added, “It’s more strange when you see it on paper than when you see it in the theater.”

Abrahamson spoke to the Forward about this new film, his first film, and about being the third most famous Irish Jew ever.

Curt Schleier: “Frank” is kind of, well, a weird film. What drew you to it?

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How Nina Paley Made 'This Land Is Mine' Viral

By Roz Warren

Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up, “This Land Is Mine,“ Nina Paley’s brilliant, succinct and devastating three minute animated history of the conflict, played out to Andy William’s performance of “The Exodus Song,” goes viral.

Given recent events, Paley’s film has gotten plenty of views since she first posted it online in October 2012 — 10 million, so far, with more viewers every day.

The “Exodus song,“ explains Paley on her website, “was the sound track of American Zionism in the 1960s and ‘70s,” and “expressed Jewish entitlement to Israel.”

“God gave this land to me,“ proclaim the lyrics, penned by, of all people, Pat Boone. The problem? A succession of peoples have felt that God gave this land to them. “By putting the song in the mouth of every warring party,” Paley observes, “I’m critiquing the original song.”

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Growing Up Orthodox With Robin Williams

By Tova Ross

School was out on that wintry day around Thanksgiving of 1993, and my mother was charged with taking care of me, my siblings, and my best friend of that particular week. It was too cold to play outdoors, so my mother, car-less for the day, schlepped all of us on the B44 city bus to the Sheepshead Bay movie theatre to see some animated film. Only when we got to the theatre, it was sold out. The only other appropriate movie for the range of children my mother had assembled was something called “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

“PG-13?” my mother said doubtfully, and then sighed. “Oh well, we’re here already.”

You can guess what happened next. For those two hours I sat riveted with my eyes glued to the screen as a crazy, hysterical and frenetic man-child — Robin Williams — took nary a pause in a string of Victor-Victoria antics that left the entire audience in breathless laughter. Even when I wasn’t in on the joke — and I frequently wasn’t, at only 7.5 years old — I knew this actor was hilarious as sure as I knew the sky was blue. He also sounded vaguely familiar. “He sounds like the Genie from ‘Aladdin,’” my brother whispered suspiciously to me.

Whoever he was, I fell instantly in love with him. A budding young cinephile who had to use subterfuge to get my fix in a household where television and movies were strictly regulated, I had never seen someone onscreen come so vibrantly, wonderfully alive, or display such hyper-kinetic and fast-paced energy. That the film also offered me my first taste of more salacious jokes and themes that were absent in my diet of Disney and black-and-white classic films was an added bonus.

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Toronto Deli Sponsors Palestinian Film Fest

By Michael Kaminer

It seemed like a great publicity stunt: Just as the conflict in the Middle East started boiling over, Caplansky’s Deli announced its sponsorship of September’s Toronto Palestinian Film Festival.

Except Zane Caplansky, the deli’s owner, inked the deal months ago. And while he expected some backlash, the war’s escalation has cast an outsized spotlight on his support of the tiny film fest in Canada’s largest city.

“This was not some grand political statement,” Caplansky told the Forward from Toronto. “I’m not taking sides. I have no agenda other than community building, cross-cultural understanding, and a nice gesture for this film festival.”

Caplansky said he reached out to festival organizers In January. “I was doing some work with an organization called Action Against Hunger. One of their staffers mentioned TPFF. I had no idea it even existed,” he said.

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When the Occupied Film the Occupiers

By Mira Sucharov

At its best, art is about connection. A new Israeli-Palestinian documentary short film exploits the natural three-way relationship between artist, audience and subject to reveal an unexpected source of real-life intimacy: that between occupier and occupied.

Produced by B’Tselem and directed by Ehab Tarabieh, Yoav Gross, and the al-Haddad family, “Smile, and the World Will Smile Back,” which screened July 16 at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is a study in understatement. As the opening sequence explains, under the terms of occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to arbitrary IDF searches without a warrant, though the IDF legal advisor has ruled that residents may film such operations.

Over twenty minutes, with a hand-held camera passed from one family member to another, the viewer experiences the nighttime search of a Palestinian family’s home in Hebron by IDF soldiers. The result is a little gem of a film that tells a much larger story about power, adolescence, masculinity and nationhood.

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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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