This is the second of three articles on this year’s N.Y. Jewish Film Festival.
Ari Folman’s 2008 animated film “Waltz With Bashir” was a breakthrough effort on many levels, one of a series of Israeli films to be nominated for the best foreign-language Academy Award, and a tough-minded work that helped forge a new subgenre of animated documentaries; it was a film that confirmed what some of us knew for a long time — that a “cartoon” could be serious and demanding. Anyone with an interest in film was eagerly awaiting Folman’s next project.
As the New York Jewish Film Festival wheels into its second week, Folman’s new film, “The Congress,” takes center stage. After five years, it would be nice to say that the long wait was worthwhile. Regrettably, this science-fiction farrago, based on Stanislaw Lem’s “The Futurological Congress,” bears no resemblance to its immediate predecessor — not in its intent, its execution or its ideas, such as they are.
It’s set in the near future, and failed actress Robin Wright (played by Robin Wright) is living at the edge of an airport with her kooky-loveable kids: Sarah (Sami Gayle), a punky, spunky teen rebel, and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a dreamy boy with a rare medical condition that results in gradual blindness and deafness. The fictional Wright is notorious in the film industry for her recalcitrant independence; even her lovesick agent (Harvey Keitel) has been unable to keep her working. When the cost of Aaron’s treatment escalates, she very reluctantly gives in to an offer from evil studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston at his most oleaginous) and becomes the pilot for a new program in which her image is duplicated and purchased by the studio for permanent use; all she has to do is give up acting and, essentially, vanish.
Jump ahead several decades into the future and an animated world in which image is everything and everyone can be happy living their dream projections of their wishes. The real fictional Wright has been essentially superseded by her video-enhanced self, but the live-action fictional Wright — bear with me on this — is invited to a Congress in which major changes will be announced. She has to attend, however, as an animated version of herself, allowing Folman to switch into the rotoscoped cartoon world that worked so well in “Waltz.” Unfortunately, the comparable universe of “The Congress” looks like a bad Peter Max cartoon (if that’s not redundant) or an even more dopey version of “Yellow Submarine.” When a violent terrorist group, whose members include the older, animated version of Sarah, attacks the Congress, things go south in a hurry.
Folman relies entirely too much on the heavy breathing by Wright and Jon Hamm (as the voice of Dylan Truliner), and his own too-colorful animation to bother making the cohere into much more than a hippy-dipstick message of being true to one’s own self. The result isn’t even coherent enough to be called anodyne. A massive disappointment.
Ilan Duran Cohen is responsible for several utterly forgettable French films. His most recent work, “The Joy of Singing,” was a fatuous comedy about inept private detectives investigating a singing school and becoming romantically entangled with its students. Cohen has a weakness for “cute” eccentrics of the sort that inhabited lesser screwball comedies of the 1930s. So when he took on the controversial and complex character of Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish-born Frenchman who converted to Catholicism and rose to the rank of cardinal in the Roman Catholic church, becoming a confidant to Pope John Paul II and his liaison to the Jewish world, one feared the worst. The film that results, “The Jewish Cardinal,” lives up to those fears.
It’s the kind of movie in which we know instantly that Lustiger is a loveable guy because he’s always late for appointments and travels by moped. There is a lot of ostensibly charming bantering with parishioners and Jewish community leaders and some deep-thinking arguments with his father, who has never forgiven his apostasy. When the controversy about the establishment of a convent at Auschwitz breaks out, we are reminded of Lustiger’s mother who was murdered in the death camp, and told repeatedly that Lustiger considers himself both a Jew and a Catholic. The result is a film that is as philosophically dense as Rodney King’s plaintive “Can’t we all just get along,” and as cinematically astute as a TV commercial for a new automobile (a genre to which the film bears a marked resemblance).
By contrast, “For a Woman,” the new film by Diane Kurys, looks positively austere. Kurys, whose affection for period family melodrama and thinly disguised autobiography have long been at the heart of her work, revisits old conflicts from previous films with a flashback-laden tale of her Communist parents, survivors of the camps, struggling with the realities of post-WWII Lyons. The sudden reappearance of her father’s brother, thought to have died in Auschwitz, complicates things, particularly when it becomes clear that he has a secret agenda of considerable darkness. Although Sylvie Testud, as Anne, Kurys’ alter ego, struggles to breath some life into the material in which she investigates her family’s past as the possible subject of a screenplay, “For a Woman” is as evanescent and insubstantial as the perfume that Anne’s father gives his wife, and which gives the film its title.
‘Cupcakes,” the latest film from Eytan Fox, is rather slender, too, but it has an exuberance and energy that lifts it above the slightness of its material. Fox seems to alternate his dark films (“Yossi and Jagger” and “Yossi” most notably) and with his music-driven comedies, and “Cupcakes” is one of the latter. It’s a frequently amusing anecdote about a group of Israeli friends who decide to enter a thinly fictionalized version of the Eurovision song contest. They are manhandled by a bunch of industry lifers but finally assert their own vision and land in Paris, where they are finalists. You could say that Fox is peddling the same brand of kool-aid as Folman, but he does so with a lot more charm and a level of self-conscious playfulness.
‘Mamele,” the 1938 chestnut from Joseph Green (and co-director Konrad Tom), is one of the festival’s retrospectives, a vehicle for the effervescent Molly Picon who is in peak form as the title character, the long-suffering sister/daughter/surrogate mother of a bunch of whining and unappreciative family members. Molly sings, dances, plays her character’s grandmother in a musical number and does the Cinderella bit to a fare-thee-well. She carries the film admirably and the end product is creditable.
The same could be said, in a somewhat more somber tone, of the BBC documentary “Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle.” An hour-long documentary from the TV series “Arena,” this briskly intelligent film focuses on a single gig for the late singer-songwriter, a minimalist set in the western Irish town of Dingle. Winehouse was in particularly fine form and spirits that night, and interspersed with the several excellent musical numbers are interview segments in which she lovingly pays tribute to her influences — Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughn, Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles. She speaks with appealing candor about her relationship to her music, telling interviewer John Kelly, “I’m not religious but there’s nothing more pure than the relationship you have with your faith, nothing stronger than that except your love of music.”
The 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through Jan. 23. Most of the films will be screened at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.), with other events taking place at the Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 W. 65th St.). For complete information, go to www.NYJFF.org.