N for No-Nonsense Natalie


Natalie Portman has probably populated more fanboy fantasies than anyone this side of Jessica Alba.

Besides presiding over the recent “Star Wars” films as Queen Amidala, she plays a bald, beautiful and badass revolutionary in “V For Vendetta,” opening March 17, the latest film from “Matrix” masterminds Andy and Larry Wachowski. As the missing link between the universes of George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers, Portman holds a unique place in geek-movie history

“Yes, they’re all somehow linked now,” she says. “It’s sort of hard to put a genre label on ‘V For Vendetta,’ but it fits in the action category with ‘Star Wars,’ even though it’s a little bit more provocative. But I will leave it to all the people who love to write essays about this kind of stuff to make ‘Matrix’ and ‘V’ connections and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘V’ connections. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.”

Portman professes much love for Lucas and the “Star Wars” experience, but she also insinuates that the trilogy provided her with a handy way of staying in movies while she was off attending Harvard University.

“I was in school during the year, and then on summer break I would do a

‘Star Wars,'” says the Jerusalem-born actress. “But I’m done with school, done with ‘Star Wars.’ I’ve graduated.”

“V For Vendetta” is a whopper of a graduation present. Adapted by the Wachowskis from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the movie is set in a future world squirming under the thumb of a totalitarian chancellor (John Hurt). Homosexuality is illegal; freedom of speech is a memory; and hope is in short supply.

One day, a mysterious figure appears, wearing a mask designed to look like Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Catholic revolutionary who tried to blow up British Parliament in 1605. Calling himself V (Hugo Weaving), the cape-wearing anti-hero is planning a series of terrorist attacks against the repressive British government. Portman plays Evey Hammond, a waif who becomes V’s protégé.

Making a $50 million movie with a terrorist as a hero is a bold movie in post-Sept. 11 America. Portman knew the film would spark controversy but found herself instantly drawn to its provocative, envelope-pushing subject matter.

“Being from Israel was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this movie, because terrorism and violence have been such a daily part of my thought process and conversation ever since I was young,” she says. “One of the books that I read to help me with this role was Menachim Begin’s book about his experiences in a Siberian prison. Eventually he came to lead Israel in the British occupation of Palestine. He was called a terrorist by many people. Israelis have been called terrorists all through history.”

“The movie asks important questions, like, ‘When, if ever, is violence justified?’ And ‘What is the threshold for how pressing a situation can be before we have to revolt?’ One of the great things about the movie is that it leaves those questions open for discussion,” she says.

Portman has always tried to pursue thought-provoking material. She played the title role in a Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1997, embodied an American stripper living in London for “Closer” (earning a best supporting actress nomination in the process) and starred in the Israeli film “Free Zone,” which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Fest.

The actress accepted the vanity-destroying role of Evey knowing that one of the requirements was an on-camera trip to the barber.

“It wasn’t traumatic because I was trying to focus on what my character was going through,” says Portman about getting a buzzcut. “We only had one shot to do it. I don’t really have any personal memories of the experience.”

Since shooting the film, Portman’s hair has grown out a few inches. For today’s interview, she’s wearing it spiky and punked-up. Dressed in jeans, an open sweater and the world’s tiniest ballet slippers, Portman looks a good deal younger than her 24 years.

As a former child star who made her film debut in the bullet ballet “The Professional,” Portman is used to suffering for her art, but she drew the line when it came to doing her own stunts. Claiming to be “not in great shape,” she allowed her “Vendetta” double to do all of the tough stuff.

“I would do the end of the stunt,” she says. “Someone else would fall out of the window, and then I would end up there on the ground. That’s movie magic.”

Not everything about “V” has been so easy. In fact, the film has been surrounded by controversy since production got underway last year. Real-life terrorism, the firing of a leading man and the airing of a famous filmmaker’s dirty laundry all figured into the long, arduous process of bringing the graphic novel to the screen.

Originally published in 1981, “V For Vendetta” was written as an indictment of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative politics. A few years later, the rights were scooped up by producer Joel Silver (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Matrix”) who approached the Wachowskis about penning an adaptation. When “The Matrix” trilogy started winding down, the brothers finally decided to revisit the risky material.

Instead of directing the film themselves, the brothers and Silver hired “The Matrix” second unit director James McTiegue to call “action” and “cut.”

The Wachowskis were apparently on the set nearly every single day, which inspired rumors that McTiegue was a mere figurehead and that the brothers were calling the shots themselves.

McTiegue insists that gossip was unfounded.

“The Wachowskis were the producers and they wrote the script,” he notes. “They were a great sounding board but they were the first to tell me that I could take or leave their suggestions.”

The production encountered another problem when the graphic novel’s writer Alan Moore requested that his name be taken off the final film. Stung by the poor adaptation of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” Moore apparently made his decision without ever seeing a frame of “V For Vendetta.”

“I did call Alan and ask him not to have his name removed,” notes David Lloyd, who illustrated the graphic novel. “I wish he hadn’t done it. But he isn’t happy until the movie is a perfect reproduction. Alan has a clear viewpoint of what he represents as a person and an artist. My viewpoint is completely different. I think they’ve done a great job with the film.”

Yet another potentially disastrous turn of events unfolded when the original actor cast as V — “Rome’s” James Purefoy — was fired midway through the film and replaced by “The Matrix’s” Hugo Weaving. Purefoy apparently wasn’t a dynamic enough presence for the filmmakers. Even though Silver confirms that some of Purefoy’s scenes remain in the film, Weaving receives the sole screen credit and also provides V’s voice.

Portman was surprised when the change was made. She enjoyed working with both actors but saves most of her praise for Weaving.

“With an actor like Hugo, your job is so much easier because he has this incredible, very specific character that he creates just through his vocal and physical expressiveness,” she says. “Even though he was wearing a mask, I felt he was there with me all of the time.”

Originally scheduled to be released in November 2005 — to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day — the film was delayed after a July 2005 bombing in a British subway claimed the lives of 52 civilians. Portman believes the intermingling of reel and real events is indicative of just how much “V For Vendetta” has its finger on the pulse of the times.

“Obviously, when you see any act of violence anywhere with casualties, you’re always horrified,” she says of the London tragedy. “I’m optimistic to hope that this movie doesn’t present an exact vision of our future, but obviously there are many elements that resonate with historical events and current events.”

With its depiction of a repressive government without checks and balances, “V For Vendetta” can be read as a commentary on Bush’s America. Does Portman see any parallels?

“I think that there are many people who will take it that way,” she says. “But there are other people I know who are pro-Bush and they’ve seen this as an anti-fascism movie.”

A few weeks before the release of “V For Vendetta,” Rolling Stone magazine published an unflattering story about Larry Wachowski’s increasingly unusual behavior. Apparently, Wachowski left his wife, took up with a dominatrix named Mistress Strix and began cross-dressing. Wachowski, who never consents to interviews, has yet to respond to the claims.

McTiegue also refuses to comment on the chit-chat surrounding the brothers.

“I pay about as much attention to those stories as they deserve, which isn’t much,” McTiegue says. “I don’t comment on people’s personal lives.”

To hear Portman tell it, “V For Vendetta” dovetails nicely with her burgeoning interest in world affairs. Recently, the actress helped promote the efforts of FINCA, an organization devoted to helping establish banks for women in developing nations.

Visiting Uganda, Ecuador and Guatemala with the group has opened Portman’s eyes to the amount of work that needs to be down to help end global poverty.

“I definitely think that maybe someday I’ll be doing other things besides acting,” she says. “But until I do them, I’ve learned not to talk about it. I’ve been interviewed since I was 12 years old and I feel as if I’ve left a trail of unfulfilled dreams behind me.”

After finishing “V For Vendetta,” Portman “took a breather” by contributing supporting performances to Milos Forman’s costume drama “Goya’s Ghost” with Javier Bardem and the kiddie flick “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” with Dustin Hoffman.

“I’m just trying to do different things because I feel like if I can keep myself interested then there’s the hope of keeping an audience interested, too.” l

Amy Longsdorf is a freelance writer who can be reached at movieamy@aol.com.

Italian Entry Locked Out of Oscar Race


Even the annual Oscar competition can’t stay clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This year, the brouhaha is about “Private,” a film centering on a Palestinian West Bank family whose home is temporarily taken over by a squad of Israeli soldiers.

“Private,” the work of Italian director Saverio Costanzo, was shot by an Italian crew and was selected as Italy’s official entry in the foreign language film Oscar category.

It was promptly rejected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which accepted entries from 57 other countries, including Israel and the not-yet nation of Palestine.

The rejection, a news release from the Italian producers hints darkly, was due to the favorable treatment of the film’s Palestinian family.

Not so, Academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian said. The problem lies in the fact that the languages spoken in “Private” are Arabic, Hebrew and English, but there isn’t a word of Italian.

“Our rules state clearly that an entry must be predominantly in the language of the country submitting the film” Melidonian said.

Italy quickly substituted another film, titled “La Bestia Nel Cuore” (“Don’t Tell” in English), but the controversy shouldn’t overshadow this intriguing movie, which includes some persuasive acting by a mixed Arab and Israeli cast.

Mohammad, his wife, Samia, and their five children live in an isolated two-story house, halfway between a Palestinian village and an Israeli settlement.

Suddenly one night (the film was shot in late 2003 with the intifada in full force), a squad of Israeli soldiers burst into the house to secure it as a lookout post facing Palestinian snipers.

At first, the family is ordered to evacuate the house, but Mohammad stands fast and refuses to leave.

The Israelis agree to a compromise, unthinkable in any other war, of allowing the family to stay in the downstairs living room and kitchen, while the soldiers take over the upstairs bedrooms.

Ofer, the leader of the squad, lays down one condition. On pain of severe punishment, none of the family members can go upstairs, and at night the door to the living room is locked from the outside.

Under the jampacked living conditions, the family’s nerves and tempers quickly fray. The wife wants to leave for the children’s safety. The older teenagers, fed steady TV images of heroic Palestinian martyrs, urge direct resistance.

But Mohammad, a teacher and Shakespeare fan, remains adamant that the most effective path is nonviolent resistance, expressed in the family insistence on staying put.

Mariam, the older daughter, plays a daring game by sneaking upstairs and observing the soldiers secretly through a crack in a closet door.

To her surprise, the young, clean-cut soldiers are quite human. One plays the flute, another does artwork; they miss home, and they complain about their officers.

The exception is Ofer, a disciplinarian and bit of a bully, who keeps the men in line and at one point threatens to shoot Mohammad, but even he eventually complains about constantly moving from one Arab house to another.

Despite the extreme stress, the Arab family is almost too good to be true, regardless of ethnicity. Mohammad is a deeply caring father and tender husband, the wife is scared but loyal, and the youngest kids are Hollywood cute.

The father is portrayed by Mohammad Bakri, a veteran Israeli Arab character actor, whose mixture of fortitude and sensitivity gives the film much of its strength. The wife’s role is skillfully acted by Areen Omari.

In shooting the film, director Costanzo favored hand-held cameras and barely visible interior settings, not always to the film’s or viewer’s advantage.

It is obvious that he intends to steer the audience’s sympathy toward the family. Nevertheless, as in earlier films by both Palestinian and Israeli directors (“Divine Intervention,” “Rana’s Wedding” and “The Syrian Bride”), with foreign audiences in mind, the Israelis are portrayed not as ruthless conquerors but as recognizable human characters.

“Private,” with English subtitles, opens Dec. 2 at the Laemmle Fairfax 3 in Los Angeles, One Colorado in Pasadena and University Town Center in Irvine. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com or www.typecastfilms.com for details.

 

Lessons From a Film Festival


Three Jews, four opinions — right? Of course right. Now mix in something as subjective as one’s taste in movies. Now imagine the folly of putting together a committee to organize a short Jewish film festival. Crazy. No?

From the plumber to the U.S. Court of Appeals justice, everyone’s a movie pundit ready, willing and able to debate the acting style of Sean Penn vs. those Hilton girls with Ebert and Roper.

Nevertheless, and forsaking all rational argument, we decide that what our small Ventura County Temple Beth Torah — 400 plus families — really needs is it’s very own Jewish Film Festival.

Maybe it was all the ballyhoo over “The Passion,” maybe it was that we spend our life writing about movies that are very often antithetical to Jewish values. Or maybe we just ate something that didn’t agree with us.

But saying you want a festival and actually pulling it off is a whole different kettle of gefilte fish. When word gets out — as word is wont to do in our still comparatively small community — the congregation’s movie fans start calling. Everyone has their favorites, and everybody knows exactly what constitutes a Jewish movie, which is more than we do. And everybody wants to put in his or her two cents worth.

We decide we don’t want to stage our festival in the local movie palace. We want a state-of-the-art big screen and projector in our very own Meister Hall. The bar and bat mitzvahs, the lady’s luncheons and the brotherhood brunch will have to wait as for one glorious weekend only, our social hall becomes The Bijou or The Majestic.

Everyone responds and donations for the new system are swiftly rounded up. Ventura folks support their temple and the Jewish Federation — bless ’em — kicks in a small grant.

And then a small problem.

Jews know all about movies, but when it comes to technology — electronic or otherwise — we somehow missed those classes in high school.

So when the new projector needs to be lowered, the focus checked and the screen creases removed, who you gonna call? Somehow, with a little help from our friends, we, too, get by.

Now comes the hardest part: Picking the flicks.

This brings up a philosophical question comparable in weight to the nature of matter and the strength of the double helix: Namely, what constitutes a Jewish movie.

Herewith some selected opinions:

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• Anything that has at least one Nazi in or out of uniform.

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• Anything where somebody wears a kippah or sings “Havah Nagilah.”

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• Anything set in Israel.

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• Anything with an old bubbe — it could be a zayde but bubbes are better, particularly if they have a smattering of Yiddish.

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• Anything that shows us how well we lived in Europe before the Holocaust. (In these films all the Jews lived in grand estates and had concert violinists in the family — could be a pianist but violins are better — or learned professors, preferably in the medical field and several extremely competent servants who’ve been with the family for several generations.)

So everybody lobbies hard, resulting in this dialogue from the film committee archives:

“Haven’t we seen enough Holocaust movies already?”

“The Federation gave us money so we’d better show some Israeli films.”

“A documentary on the Rosenbergs! Who wants to dig up all that painful stuff again?”

“I loved ‘Gloomy Sunday’ but the actress is naked and having relationships with two men at the same time. How can we show that in a house of worship?” (Well, strictly speaking the house of worship is across the hall. This is our social hall and people do all sorts of things socially that they wouldn’t — let us hope — do in front of the Aron Kodesh.)

“I can’t sit on those hard seats for two hours.” (Of course we sit on them all day every Yom Kippur, but you’re supposed to suffer then.)

“What food are we going to serve?”

“For opening night how about a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ sing-along?”

Instead, we’re opening on Saturday, March 27 with “Fiddler” director Norman Jewison’s new thriller, “The Statement,” starring Oscar-winner Michael Caine (definitely not Jewish ) — based on the late Brian Moore’s superb short novel (He was also not Jewish but he was practically local since he lived just down the road in Malibu). The subject, however, couldn’t be timelier. Caine plays Pierre Brossard, loosely based on the real live Vichy collaborator Paul Touvier, who was responsible for killing French Jews and sending scores to the gas chambers. Before his final capture, decades after his foul deeds, he was hidden in abbeys all over France by ultraconservative elements in the Catholic Church. (See what we mean by timely?)

On Sunday morning we’re screening “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” a provocative documentary about the last hours of Hitler’s life as observed by Traudl Junge, one of the Fuhrer’s private secretaries. Provocative stuff. And to put it in context we’ve got a “film scholar in residence”: The Journal’s own contributing editor, Tom Tugend, who will be with us for the entire weekend, and a visiting scholar, Michael Meyer, professor of history at California State University, Northridge, an expert on Nazi-era Germany, who will participate in a panel discussion following the Hitler documentary. Midday we have a short program for our Torah school teens with titles like “Today, You Are a Fountain Pen” from L.A. filmmaker Dan Katzir and “Bat Mitzvah Blues” by Shira Sergant.

The festival finishes with an Israeli film, “Yana’s Friends,” which won 10 Israeli awards and is a sad-funny tale of Russian emigrants, gas masks and falling missiles during the first Iraq war.

In the end it was tough, but it was fun.

OK, Mr. De Mille, Ventura is ready for its close-up. Lights, cameras, action — oh yes, and food, of course.

The festival runs from March 27-28. Tickets are $18 for
a festival pass or $10 per film at the door. Call Ventura’s Temple Beth Torah at
(805) 647-4181 or check out the festival on www.templebethtorah.com .

Arab-Israeli Tension, Love Focus of Fest


The 19th annual Israel Film Festival will showcase 33 movie features, television films, documentaries and student shorts from the Jewish State from May 28 through June 8.

CNN talk show host Larry King, Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin (“Spider-Man”) and Israeli director Erez Laufer will be honored during the May 28 gala opening night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.

The featured film of the evening will be “All I’ve Got,” part of the festival’s “Reflections of Women” series.

A dozen Israeli producers, directors and actors will attend the festival and participate in panel discussions and symposia.

Originally scheduled for early April, the festival opening was postponed because of the war in Iraq. The film fest originated in Los Angeles but now also plays in New York, Chicago and Miami.

Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the festival, estimates that some 500,000 Americans have gotten a close-up of Israeli life and culture through the festivals’ 500 theatrical and TV films over the past 19 years.

Of special interest, in light of the hostilities and brutalities engendered by the long-running intifada, are a number of films focusing on relations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs.

Where, in times of terrorism and warfare, Hollywood might produce a series of super-patriotic, John Wayne-like action movies, Israeli filmmakers have opted for sympathetic, even romantic, depictions of relations between two peoples, generally seen as antagonistic in news stories.

In “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” a Russian Jewish immigrant musician and an Arab woman slowly fall in love.

Genders and nationalities are reversed in “2 Minutes From Faradis,” when a rebellious Jewish teenage girl and an Arab boy start romancing each other.

“In the 9th Month,” by Arab director Ali Nassar, tells a darker story of Arab-Jewish suspicions through a folk tale dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.

“Dugit Over Troubled Water” is a documentary on a business partnership between Jewish and Arab fishermen in the Gaza Strip, ultimately split apart by the intifada.

The TV film “Two Minutes From Faradis” is of much fluffier stuff, but shows another little-seen aspect of Israel — the life of the upper class. At the center of the film is Yuli, a 17-year-old girl, who feels it’s her teenage duty to rebel against her parents. The trouble is that her psychologist mother, spouting the clichés of her profession, and her wild-haired, pot-smoking father are so laid back and permissive that nothing she does can shock them.

Then Yuli encounters Amir, the handsome son of the family’s Arab maid, and the girl figures that romancing him will finally shake up her parents. The ploy works, but is Amir actually a terrorist using Yuli to smuggle explosives past a checkpoint? Stay tuned.

“A Trumpet in the Wadi” is one of the most sensitive and accomplished films to come out of Israel in a long time. Updated from the novel by Sami Michael, familiar to every Israeli high school student, the film is directed with a sure touch by Russian-born Lina and Sava Chaplin.

The protagonists are Alex (Alexander Senderovich), a newly arrived Russian trumpet player, and Hooda (Khawiah Hag Debsy), a 30-year-old Arab woman, working in a Jewish-owned travel agency. Both live in the Wadi Nisnas section of Haifa, but despite their wildly disparate backgrounds — and the fact that Alex is short and homely and Hooda is stately and beautiful — the two share an offbeat sense of humor and gradually fall in love.

What is striking at a time when Israeli Arabs are usually pictured as hassled second-class citizens is that Hooda’s extended family lives a quite normal, middle-class life.

Hooda’s mother kvetches constantly about the pickiness of her two unmarried daughters, brings in unsuitable suitors and cooks up a storm — in other words, like the stereotypical Jewish mother.

Not all is sweet harmony — Hooda’s family explodes in anger against the Jews when a cousin is killed during a demonstration, and there’s a bitter scene between the lovers when Alex reports for reserve duty — but one leaves the theater with a slightly more hopeful outlook.

“Wadi” opened the recently concluded Chicago leg of the festival circuit. Despite earlier concerns that the Israeli-Arab romance theme might upset some American Jewish viewers, Fenigstein said that the film was received enthusiastically.

Fenigstein has no answer why, precisely at this time, Israeli filmmakers are creating works that center on the common humanity, rather than the antagonisms, of the two people.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s an augur of better times to come, he ventures hopefully.

One tip for history buffs: The documentary “Moledet” (Homeland) resurrects footage of Jewish and Arab life in Palestine, shot between 1927 and 1934 by the country’s first movie company, happily named Moledet. The film becomes a bit repetitive, but it’s a cheerful antidote to those who picture the early yishuv (the Jewish community of the time) consisting solely of sweating pioneers constantly tilling the soil or draining swamps.

From the documentary’s evidence, the Jewish population rarely missed a chance to stage a lively parade, Purim or otherwise. Interspersed are commercials of the era shown in movie theaters, and hard as it is to fathom, they were even more terrible then than now.

After the opening night, all screenings will be at theLaemmle Fairfax Theatres, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (corner of BeverlyBoulevard and Fairfax Avenue), and at the Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 VenturaBlvd., Encino. For information and ticket reservations for all events, call(877) 966-5566, or visit www.israelfilmfestival.com .

Women Directors ‘Reflect’ on Israeli Life


After Keren Margalit’s boyfriend died in an army-related accident a decade ago, she envisioned the drama that would become "All I’ve Got," the opening-night film of the 2003 Israel Film Festival. The story revolves around a young woman who loses her boyfriend in a grisly car wreck; 50 years later, she must choose between accompanying her first love or her husband into the afterlife.

"In the first years after you lose someone, you’re just struggling to feel better," Margalit, 32, said of the film’s genesis. "Then you continue your life, you marry and have children, but at one point you wonder, ‘What if some day the one I loved knocked on my door?’ Actually it’s a common experience in Israel because everyone knows someone who went to the army and died young."

Margalit’s intense but intimate work is typical of the eight movies by female directors that make up a quarter of the festival’s films, according to program director Paul Fagen. They include Dina Zvi-Riklis’ Cyrano-like "The Postwoman" and Hadar Friedlich’s "Slaves of the Lord," about an Orthodox girl’s descent into madness.

The films indicate the progress women have made — spurred by the establishment of a second Israeli TV channel — in a field long dominated by male directors such as Amos Gitai.

In fact, Channel Two’s pioneering "Reflections of Women" program — a series of four made-for-TV movies, all of which will screen during the festival — gave Margalit the chance to direct her debut feature, "All I’ve Got." "Reflections" provided a similar break for esteemed documentarian Dalia Mevorach of "1,000 Calories."

Speaking by phone from Tel Aviv, the jovial Mevorach said she was drawn to Nava Semel’s comic script about three best friends at a health spa because, "My life is a continued diet, a big struggle. Israeli women are nervous about the political situation, so we are going to the refrigerator."

The 47-year-old director said she made the severely overweight character, Avigail (Esthie Zakheim), the heroine to combat lingering Israeli myths about female body image. Apparently the strategy worked.

"Esthie was in the mall recently and women kept coming up to her and saying, ‘You are like a queen,’" Mevorach added. "They see the message as, ‘I’m fat and I’m still beautiful.’"