Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"Ushpizin," "Steins" coming to Macon

With "Ushpizin" and "Keeping Up With the Steins" coming to Macon's two arthouse movie havens soon, I suppose you could call it "Jewish Week."

No matter what name you give it, with the current state of our world, maybe its high time we learned a little something about a culture many of us (including me) know little about. Besides, if today's guest reviewers are right, they both sound pretty darn entertaining.


When I first questioned how to pronounce the name of this one, my cubicle mate Renee Martinez piped up with a surprising "oh yeah, that's on my Netflix list" (surprising, perhaps, only because I'm a snob who thinks I've heard of any movie my co-workers have long before they do. Silly me.)

Renee reports that she quite enjoyed this Israeli movie about a poor, childless orthodox couple struggling to celebrate the Jewish holy day of Succoth. However, since she didn't write a review for me of this flick being presented Sunday at the Douglass Theatre by the Macon Film Guild, that honor goes to guest reviewer Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times (though he doesn't know he's been given this distinction.) Here's what he had to say:

When "Ushpizin" opens, Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand) and his wife, Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand), relative newcomers to a Hasidic community, are too synagogue-mouse poor to be able to celebrate the holiday (Sukkoch) at all. But then Moshe remembers what a rabbi once said: "If something is lacking, it was either not prayed for, or not prayed for enough." So Moshe throws himself into ecstatic prayer and soon enough spending money and a sukkah both almost miraculously come his way.

The couple's hope for guests also gets answered, but in a most unexpected way. Showing up at the sukkah are Eliyahu Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi, a Harry Dean Stanton look-alike) and his pal Yossef (Ilan Ganani), a pair of escaped convicts who have a connection to Moshe's shady pre-Orthodox life.

Obviously, these guests are not exactly pillars of Talmudic rectitude, and though the convicts wonder just how sincere Moshe's change of life is, Moshe and Malli treat them as part of God's plan, as a test from the Almighty. A comedic clash between these oil-and-water lifestyles is inevitable, and "Ushpizin" works up some amiably funny moments as the Almighty's intentions for these people are slowly revealed.

A respectful comedy whose interest for most audiences will be part anthropological, "Ushpizin" walks an interesting line. While it only glancingly refers to some of ultra-orthodoxy's more controversial elements — the childless Malli suggests her husband divorce her to marry someone potentially more fertile — the film idealizes the community in an entertaining way.

This sounds fascinating to me, so I'll make it my second Film Guild movie in a row when this one screens at 2, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, at the Douglass Theatre in downtown Macon. Maybe I'll see you there. (It is rated PG-13 for mild thematic elements.)

Keeping Up with the Steins

On the surface, thise one looks to me like something that might have been made by a Jewish Tyler Perry.

In a battle of bar mitzvahs, young Benjamin's father plans to outdo his best friend by throwing Ben a super bash - at Dodger Stadium. Bejamin hatches a plan to sabotage this insanity and well, you can probably see where this is going. It all sounds a little too touchy-feely for me, but we'll see. It's being presented next week at the Capitol Theatre, downtown Macon's home for great beer, even better pizza and, sometimes, yet even better movies.

Since I haven't seen this one either, here's an assessment from our second guest reviewer, Rogert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (get well soon, Roger!)

The family is headed by Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven), a Hollywood agent who is envious when his archrival Arnie Stein (Larry Miller) throws a bar mitzvah for his own 13-year-old that includes an ocean cruise, a giant model of the Titanic and a trained killer whale wearing a yarmulke.

Adam consults with his wife Joanne (Jamie Gertz) about a bar mitzvah to shame the Steins. It may involve booking Dodger Stadium and having his son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara of "Spy Kids") arrive from the sky.

The problem with this grandiose scheme is that young Benjamin has no heart for it. Because he narrates the movie, we learn from his point of view that he feels embarrassed by all the attention, overwhelmed by the scope of the ceremony and terrified by his inability to master Hebrew in time to read it aloud during the religious prelude to the conspicuous consumption. He is also sad that his grandfather Irwin (Garry Marshall) has not been invited; Irwin and Adam have not been on speaking terms for years.

The movie was directed by Scott Marshall, son of Garry, nephew of Penny, and therefore born with comic timing in his genes. His plot is not astonishingly original; it bears some similarity to the competition over holiday decorations in the awful "Christmas With the Kranks" (2004), and cheerfully goes for one-liners and sight gags. But it is always about something, and if a bar mitzvah marks a boy's entry into manhood, Benjamin's shows him becoming his own man.

At one point in the film Adam looks at home movies of his own bar mitzvah, a humble backyard affair. His wife has never seen them before. They are a reminder of the underlying purpose of the ceremony, which is not to out-spend the neighbors but to wish a young man godspeed in his life. Because the movie never really forgets this, "Keeping Up With the Steins" never loses its footing.

This is being shown at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16, and Sunday, Aug. 20, at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Macon. (It is rated PG-13 for some crude language, nudity and brief drug references).

Even better, the DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS are coming to the Capitol Sept. 14 to just rock beyond all reasonable comprehension. I doubt they'll transform the classy Capitol into a glorious den of filth like they do with Athens' 40 Watt, but it should still just be tons of fun. Get your tickets now here.


Unknown said...

I like the guest reviewers idea! As for the movies, they both sound pretty good. I'm actually a little mad at myself for missing "Keeping Up..." because it was on my list but it disappeared before I had a chance to get to it. Darned.

Reel Fanatic said...

By the time we get these movies on the second-run circuit here, Marina, they're almost always about a week from DVD, so look for it soon

Anonymous said...

By the time you read this, you'll probably have seen USHPIZIN, but here is my review of it from last year.

Reel Fanatic said...

Great review, Victor .. thanks for sharing!

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