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Attending the First-Ever Winter Edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Festivals
by Meredith Brody
February 27, 2014 1:20 PM
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'Bethlehem'

In the San Francisco Bay Area as elsewhere, long-established film festivals intent on expanding their brand are putting on additional events. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, traditionally a summer fest -- and this year moving up a bit, to May 29 through June 1st -- has a several-year history of dazzling special programs, including presenting Abel Gance’s Napoleon, with a 48-member orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis in the American premiere of his score; the nine surviving Hitchcock silents, and this winter’s centennial tribute to Charlie Chaplin. The springtime San Francisco International Film Festival has an ever-expanding Fall Season that comprises half-a-dozen programs devoted to various national cinemas, including Hong Kong, France, and Italy.

And the venerable San Francisco Jewish Film Festival just presented its first-ever Winter Fest, an eclectically-programmed five-film marathon held at the single-screen 1910-vintage Vogue Theater in Pacific Heights. 

'It Happened in Saint Tropez'

The program began at noon with Daniele Thompson’s latest frothy romantic comedy (she’s come a long way from “Queen Margot), “It Happened in St. Tropez,” (a literal translation of the French title, “Des gens qui s’embrassent,” would be “People Who Kiss”). The action takes place in photogenic Paris and New York as well as St. Tropez, as a wealthy and musical Jewish family quarrels and makes up during opulent weddings and yacht cruises. Charm is expended by a large and attractive cast, including Kad Merad, Eric Elmosnino, and the glamourous Monica Bellucci.  Having just coincidentally watched Thompson’s last frothy romantic comedy, “Change of Plans,” on TV, I was amused to see another recipe flash by at the end of the credits. “Change of Plans,” which revolves around a dinner party, featured Roman Polanski’s recipe for bigos, a meat-heavy Polish stew, in its credits. The penultimate scene in “St. Tropez” takes place at a festive dinner chez Maxim, and the recipe for its renowned pommes soufflés

The second film was an equally frothy romantic comedy, "Cupcakes," from Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox ("Yossi and Jagger"), about an accidental musical group comprised of assorted neighbors of all ages and sexual predilections (three straight women, one lesbian, one gay guy) who miraculously become Israel's entry for the kitschy Universong (read: Eurovision) contest.  Highjinks and love affairs ensue. It's brightly-colored and easy to take, and the fact that none of the actresses had undertaken any plastic surgery was something of a pleasant surprise.

The intensity and seriousness of the third offering, "Bethlehem," Israel's official entry for the foreign film Oscar, almost induced whiplash in us. It didn't make the five-film cut, but bears a certain similarity to the Palestine entrant, "Omar," which did.  "Bethlehem," which played at numerous film festivals including Telluride and Toronto, is about the complicated relationship between an Israeli secret service operative and his informant, a Palestinian teenager who is the brother of a well-known terrorist. The shocking and abrupt ending left us shaken.

And wasn't exactly the perfect lead-in for what I found to be the almost-inexplicable fourth film of the day, the American independent (and oddly-titled) "A Short History of Decay," about a 35-year-old novelist-screenwriter/slacker who moves in with his aging parents in Florida when his girlfriend tires of supporting his unpublished ass.  I was perplexed that SFJFF programmer Jay Rosenblatt had introduced it as his favorite film of the day's line-up (especially after "Bethlehem").  Pleasant acting turns by Linda Lavin (as a woman with the mildest-ever case of Alzheimer's on record: she does all the cooking and is more lucid than any of the other characters, save a charming manicurist, played by Kathleen Rose Perkins) and Harris Yulin (who similarly endures the mildest of strokes on record) as the slacker's parents don't make up for the weak script and uneven turns by the comely Bryan Greenberg and considerably less-comely Benjamin King, as the equally-feckless brother who cheats on his wife, loses his job, and shows up in Florida hoping for a $200,000 handout.  Oy!  And, except for the fact that some of the actors happen to be Jewish, it didn't seem like a Jewish film at all. 

Perhaps we would have enjoyed the last film of the day, "S#x Acts," an Israeli movie described as a "frighteningly honest depiction of blossoming teenage sexuality," but we had a date with the season finale of "Downtown Abbey," across town.

But in only two weeks we intend to sample the SF Jewish Film Festival's next special event, "Hummus, Falafel, and Brisket -- Oh My!," on March 9, a series of three culinary documentaries (with food available for purchase).  Like the Sonoma, Napa, and Center for Asian American Media film festivals, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has learned that mixing film with food also brings them in.

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