Will this finally be the year for an Israeli Oscar?


Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” Israel’s entry in the Oscar sweepstakes for best foreign-language film, has jumped the first major hurdle by making the shortlist of nine semi-finalists.

“Footnote” is Cedar’s fourth feature film in an 11-year career, and each one has been selected by the Israeli film industry to represent the country at the Academy Awards.

In 2007, his war picture “Beaufort” was one of the five Oscar finalists, but neither this nor any other Israeli entry has ever walked off with the golden statuette. Cedar and his countrymen fervently hope that the fourth time will be the charm. More about this film later.

This year 63 countries, from Albania to Vietnam, vied in the foreign-language film competition, considered one of the most unpredictable of the Oscar categories.

Last year was the first in memory that no domestic or foreign film dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi era was entered in any Academy Award category. On that basis, this reporter predicted that the “Schindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds” era had passed and that from now on this historical genre would deal with more recent conflicts and genocides.

It took only one year to prove the prophecy wrong with Poland’s entry “In Darkness,” which has also qualified for the shortlist. The movie’s settings and emotions are as lightless as the underground sewers of Lvov, where a dozen Jewish men, women and children actually hid for 14 months during the German occupation of Poland.

Their unlikely protector was a rough-hewn Polish sewage worker and part-time thief, who knew all the hiding places in the underground system because that’s where he worked and stashed his loot.

At the helm of “In Darkness” is the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”), whose forte is to delineate the shades of the human character. In this as in her other works, victims, heroes, villains and bystanders each have their strengths and weaknesses, varying with time and circumstance.

“I have always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes in human nature,” she said in a phone interview. “I wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some conditions, and how brave and compassionate at other times.”

The Netherlands’ entry, “Sonny Boy,” which did not make the cut, tells the actual story of two unlikely rescuers, a middle-aged Dutch housewife, who runs off with and marries a black Surinamese student more than 20 years her junior.

Under the German occupation, they hide several Jews in their home. Similar to Anne Frank’s fate, the couple was betrayed, arrested, and died in captivity.

One trend among foreign film producers, first noted last year, is the growing emphasis on such themes as internal conflicts, problems of immigrants, and life under the former Soviet occupation of East European countries.

Examples are films from Bosnia and Ireland (ethnic cleansing), Colombia (guerrillas vs. military), Czech Republic (expulsion of ethnic Germans after World War II), Estonia (Soviet army deserter returns), Kazakhstan (Soviets invade Afghanistan), Italy and Romania (illegal immigrants) and Lebanon (Christian-Muslim conflict).

New York-born Joseph Cedar, 43, is that rarity among Tel Aviv filmmakers, an Orthodox Jew, and he explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis in his first two films, “In Time of Favor” and “Campfire.”

His next picture was “Beaufort,” a war, or better said, anti-war, film. In sharp contrast, his current movie, “Footnote,” centers on the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars, who are also father and son.

“OMG, what could be more boring,” I can hear the second and third generations of my family moan, but in Cedar’s hands the movie has more tension per frame than a gun-toting action picture or apocalyptic sci-fi epic.

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, father and son, are both shining lights in the Department of Talmudic Studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where rivalries are fierce.

As former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger allegedly observed, academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

Maybe so, but to the two Shkolnik philologists, the stakes in their lifelong studies of the authenticity and meaning of each word in different Talmudic versions and editions are far higher than the struggles of warring countries or the rise and fall of national economies.

The director, himself the son of renowned Hebrew University biochemist Howard Cedar, firmly rejects the assumption that the protagonists in the film resemble in any way the persons or relationships in his own family.

“The film’s Talmudists in no way represent my father and myself,” the younger Cedar said. “Actually, their relationship is my nightmare, not my reality.”

Yet “Footnote” explores the balance between uncompromising honesty and family relationships. Says Cedar, “what if my son becomes a more successful director than I am, but makes movies that I hate? Will I tell him how I really feel or preserve family harmony?”

On a national scale, the insistence on one’s absolute truth contributes to civic violence in Israel, Cedar believes. “We now have a generation that considers ‘compromise’ a bad word and social harmony has been taken hostage by people who claim to know the absolute truth.”

Although “Footnote” will not be released in American theaters until March, it has received favorable reviews. At the Cannes Film Festival, Cedar was awarded the top prize for best screenplay, and in the United States, the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.

But the competition for the ultimate winner will be rough. In both the United States and Europe, the critical favorite at this point is the Iranian entry “A Separation,” which has won a string of awards at international film festivals.

The film by Asghar Farhadi masterfully combines an easily recognizable situation – an impending divorce in an upper middle class family – with the strange atmosphere, pieties and judicial proceedings of an unfamiliar society.

Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 24 and the Oscars presented on Feb. 26.

Teen Tikkun Olam nominations due Jan. 6


The sixth annual Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards is seeking nominations for California Jewish teenagers engaged in social action projects. The deadline is Jan. 6.

Sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation in association with the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, the awards honor up to five teens who have demonstrated leadership and commitment to making the world a better place. Winners receive $36,000 each, to be used to further the teen’s education, expand charitable projects or explore new possibilities.

Last year’s L.A. winner, Daniel Sobajian, was recognized for initiating supply drives for schools, libraries and churches throughout Los Angeles. Past winners also have organized walks to protest genocide, cultivated gardens in derelict urban areas and spread awareness about education in the Third World.

Established by Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards seek to encourage the next generation of Jewish leaders pursuing social change.

Candidates must be California residents, 13 to 19 at the time of the nomination, who self-identify as Jewish, but their projects can benefit anyone. Teachers, community leaders, rabbis and others, except family, can nominate. Teens can also nominate themselves.

For more information, visit jewishfed.org/diller/teenawards.

— Sam Blum, Contributing Writer

83rd Academy Awards Nominations Announced


Actor in a Leading Role

  * Javier Bardem in “Biutiful”
  * Jeff Bridges in “True Grit”
  * Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network”
  * Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”
  * James Franco in “127 Hours”

Actor in a Supporting Role

  * Christian Bale in “The Fighter”
  * John Hawkes in “Winter’s Bone”
  * Jeremy Renner in “The Town”
  * Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right”
  * Geoffrey Rush in “The King’s Speech”

Actress in a Leading Role

  * Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”
  * Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”
  * Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone”
  * Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”
  * Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”

Actress in a Supporting Role

  * Amy Adams in “The Fighter”
  * Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech”
  * Melissa Leo in “The Fighter”
  * Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”
  * Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom”

Animated Feature Film

  * “How to Train Your Dragon” Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
  * “The Illusionist” Sylvain Chomet
  * “Toy Story 3” Lee Unkrich

Art Direction

  * “Alice in Wonderland”
    Production Design: Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara
  * “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1”
    Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan
  * “Inception”
    Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas; Set Decoration: Larry Dias and Doug Mowat
  * “The King’s Speech”
    Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Judy Farr
  * “True Grit”
    Production Design: Jess Gonchor; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh

Cinematography

  * “Black Swan” Matthew Libatique
  * “Inception” Wally Pfister
  * “The King’s Speech” Danny Cohen
  * “The Social Network” Jeff Cronenweth
  * “True Grit” Roger Deakins

Costume Design

  * “Alice in Wonderland” Colleen Atwood
  * “I Am Love” Antonella Cannarozzi
  * “The King’s Speech” Jenny Beavan
  * “The Tempest” Sandy Powell
  * “True Grit” Mary Zophres

Directing

  * “Black Swan” Darren Aronofsky
  * “The Fighter” David O. Russell
  * “The King’s Speech” Tom Hooper
  * “The Social Network” David Fincher
  * “True Grit” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Documentary (Feature)

  * “Exit through the Gift Shop” Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz
  * “Gasland” Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic
  * “Inside Job” Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
  * “Restrepo” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
  * “Waste Land” Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

Documentary (Short Subject)

  * “Killing in the Name” Nominees to be determined
  * “Poster Girl” Nominees to be determined
  * “Strangers No More” Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon
  * “Sun Come Up” Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger
  * “The Warriors of Qiugang” Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon

Film Editing

  * “Black Swan” Andrew Weisblum
  * “The Fighter” Pamela Martin
  * “The King’s Speech” Tariq Anwar
  * “127 Hours” Jon Harris
  * “The Social Network” Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

Foreign Language Film

  * “Biutiful” Mexico
  * “Dogtooth” Greece
  * “In a Better World” Denmark
  * “Incendies” Canada
  * “Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)” Algeria

Makeup

  * “Barney’s Version” Adrien Morot
  * “The Way Back” Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
  * “The Wolfman” Rick Baker and Dave Elsey

Music (Original Score)

  * “How to Train Your Dragon” John Powell
  * “Inception” Hans Zimmer
  * “The King’s Speech” Alexandre Desplat
  * “127 Hours” A.R. Rahman
  * “The Social Network” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Music (Original Song)

  * “Coming Home” from “Country Strong” Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
  * “I See the Light” from “Tangled” Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
  * “If I Rise” from “127 Hours” Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
  * “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3” Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Best Picture

  * “Black Swan” Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin, Producers
  * “The Fighter” David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Mark Wahlberg, Producers
  * “Inception” Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan, Producers
  * “The Kids Are All Right” Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Celine Rattray, Producers
  * “The King’s Speech” Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin, Producers
  * “127 Hours” Christian Colson, Danny Boyle and John Smithson, Producers
  * “The Social Network” Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Ceán Chaffin, Producers
  * “Toy Story 3” Darla K. Anderson, Producer
  * “True Grit” Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
  * “Winter’s Bone” Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Producers

Short Film (Animated)

  * “Day & Night” Teddy Newton
  * “The Gruffalo” Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
  * “Let’s Pollute” Geefwee Boedoe
  * “The Lost Thing” Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
  * “Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)” Bastien Dubois

Short Film (Live Action)

  * “The Confession” Tanel Toom
  * “The Crush” Michael Creagh
  * “God of Love” Luke Matheny
  * “Na Wewe” Ivan Goldschmidt
  * “Wish 143” Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite

Sound Editing

  * “Inception” Richard King
  * “Toy Story 3” Tom Myers and Michael Silvers
  * “Tron: Legacy” Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague
  * “True Grit” Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey
  * “Unstoppable” Mark P. Stoeckinger

Sound Mixing

  * “Inception” Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick
  * “The King’s Speech” Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley
  * “Salt” Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin
  * “The Social Network” Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten
  * “True Grit” Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

Visual Effects

  * “Alice in Wonderland” Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips
  * “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi
  * “Hereafter” Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski and Joe Farrell
  * “Inception” Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
  * “Iron Man 2” Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

  * “127 Hours” Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
  * “The Social Network” Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
  * “Toy Story 3” Screenplay by Michael Arndt; Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
  * “True Grit” Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
  * “Winter’s Bone” Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

Writing (Original Screenplay)

  * “Another Year” Written by Mike Leigh
  * “The Fighter” Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson;
    Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
  * “Inception” Written by Christopher Nolan
  * “The Kids Are All Right” Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
  * “The King’s Speech” Screenplay by David Seidler

Coens’ ‘Grit’ at top of Oscar list, with a king and a social networker


[UPDATE 1/27/11 – 1:20pm] Not accustomed to getting up at an early hour to report on the Jewish Oscar nominees, this reporter omitted a number of deserving filmmakers and actors in the original story. Following is the (hopefully) complete list:

With “The King’s Speech” garnering 12 nods, royalty led the Oscar nomination parade, but Jewish contenders were well represented among the nobility.

Three of the best picture nominations were produced by Jewish honchos, “The Social Network” by Scott Rudin, “True Grit” by Ethan and Joel Coen with Rudin, and “The Black Swan” by Mike Medavoy.

Jesse Eisenberg got a best actor nomination, portraying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “Social Network,” which received eight nods. James Franco, whose mother is Jewish, made the cut for his starring role in “127 Hours.”

Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman, born in Israel, was a best actress pick for he role as a tortured ballerina in “Black Swan.”

With a bit of a stretch, we can include among best supporting actresses Hailee Steinfeld (Jewish father) as the 14-year old heroine of “True Grit” (which received 10 noms) and Helena Bonham Carter (Jewish grandmother and half-Jewish grandfather on the maternal side) as George VI’s strong-willed wife in “King’s Speech.”

The best director category included the Coen brothers for “True Grit,” Darren Aronofsky for “Black Swan” and David O. Russell (Jewish father) for “The Fighter.”

Among foreign-language films, Israel’s entry,  “The Human Resources Manager,” was eliminated early on, but Susanne Bier, the outspokenly Jewish director, won a nod for Denmark’s “In a Better World.”

Israel’s pride received some balm with the nomination of the short documentary “Strangers No More,” which is set in Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School, and was made by American filmmakers Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman.

As usual, Jewish writers took center stage.

Aaron Sorkin for “Social Network,”  the Coen brothers for “True Grit” and Debra Granik for “Winter’s Bone” were named for their adapted screenplays.

For original screenplays, nods went to David Seidler for “King’s Speech,”  Lisa Cholodenko with Stuart Blumberg for “The Kids Are Alright,”  Scott Silver for “Fighter” and Britain’s Mike Leigh for “Another Year.”

Oscar winners will be crowned Feb. 27 at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.

Alan Arkin — not just another kid From Brooklyn


“I can say what I want. I still got Nazi bullets in my ass!”

Such acerbic rants by Grandpa Hoover pretty much sum up the foul-mouthed, drug-sniffing, sex-crazed curmudgeon Alan Arkin plays in the Oscar-nominated film, “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Jews get short shrift at Oscar nominations


If, as they say, a “Jewish cabal” runs Hollywood, it sure did a lousy job in promoting its own Jewish-themed films during Tuesday’s Academy Award nominations.

Whereas in past years one could at least count on Steven Spielberg or a Holocaust documentary to provide a snappy lead for a story in the Jewish media, this year the pickings were slim, indeed.

Alan (middle name Wolf) Arkin got an Oscar nomination for his role as Grandpa, the heroin-snorting, womanizing family patriarch in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The 72-year-old actor, director, author and musician holds the distinction of having been nominated for an Oscar in his very first screen appearance in 1966 in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”

Two years later he was nominated again for his role in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”

In a past interview, Arkin observed, “Well, I’ve always been a character actor, I’ve never been a leading man. It gave me an opportunity not to have to take my clothes off all the time.”

Jewish filmmakers dominated the feature-length documentary category, with fare that often tackled controversial social and political issues. The five docs nominated include Davis Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” about global warming, produced by activist Laurie David (wife of Larry); Amy Berg’s “Deliver Us From Evil” about pedophilia charges against the Catholic Church; and “Jesus Camp,” co-directed by Rachel Grady.

Despite a flood of shrewd publicity, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” won only one nomination for the faux journalist’s creator Sacha Baron Cohen.

The British comedian was named in the Adapted Screenplay category (who knew there even was a screenplay?), along with his co-writers Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer. The largely improvised film had previously qualified as an adapted screenplay for the Writer’s Guild Awards since it was based on the character Cohen featured on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” Variety reported.

And finally, there’s the real dark horse nomination of “West Bank Story” in the Short Film-Live Action category.

Director Ari Sandel tags his work as “A little singing, a little dancing, a lot of hummus.”

A review in The Journal two years ago lauded “the very funny film featuring an all-singing, all-dancing cast. In it, the Israeli boy and the Palestinian girl join hands and hearts to settle a bitter rivalry between their families’ competing West Bank falafel stands.”

The 79th annual Academy Awards airs Feb. 25 on ABC.

Films: The ‘Little Miss’ that could maybe hopefully


When Peter Saraf signed on to co-produce the film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” he says he did so without hesitation. The script, about a dysfunctional family’s road trip, spoke to him immediately, and he was proud to bring his great-aunt and great-uncle to see it.

As the film began rolling, however, Saraf began to have some reservations. The family comedy features Alan Arkin as a grandfather who snorts heroin and yells obscenities. How would Saraf’s great-uncle, an 80-year-old concentration camp survivor, react?

“I kept looking over at him when Alan would go into one of his expletive tirades,” Saraf said. “He was just laughing!”

Audiences of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds warmed to “Sunshine,” much like Saraf’s relatives, after its July 26 opening.

The film first gained momentum with a standing ovation at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which led to a bidding war for distribution rights. Box office success followed, with a domestic gross of more than $59 million as of Jan. 4, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The numbers are expected to keep growing, with “Sunshine” still being screened in some theaters, even as it was released on DVD Dec. 19. Not bad for a film with an $8 million budget.

The Fox Searchlight release has also been a critical favorite, garnering film festival awards, Top Ten of 2006 honors from the National Board of Review and American Film Institute, as well as multiple nominations for Gotham, Satellite, Independent Spirit, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. In light of this, “Sunshine” is poised to be an Oscar contender, as well.

The movie begins with the shabby Arizona home of the misfit, middle-class Hoover family. Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, is the motivational speaker dad who can’t get his book published; his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is depleted from years of running and supporting the family; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), is a gay Proust scholar, who recently attempted suicide after being jilted by his lover; hedonist Grandpa has been kicked out of the nursing home for his heroin vice; son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is an angry teen who’s taken a vow of silence; and then there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), the heart of the film, a pudgy, bespectacled 7-year-old innocent whose dream is to win the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.

When Olive learns she’s won a last-minute spot to compete in the pageant, she has two days to make it to the competition in Redondo Beach. The family piles into their broken-down yellow Volkswagen minibus and heads west.

The minibus that chugs along despite falling apart through the film is a metaphor for the troubled Hoovers. And “Little Miss Sunshine’s” promoters have enjoyed drawing a parallel between the family’s hard-won personal triumph and the success of this “little indie flick that could.” While an Oscar win might seem like a long shot, dismissing “Sunshine” would be a mistake.

The Golden Globes singled out directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for a best musical or comedy nod, as well as Collette for best actress in a comedy or musical. And tradition has it that the Globes, to be held this year on Jan. 15, are fairly good predictors of Academy Award nominations.

Another Oscar bellwether is the Producers Guild of America, which included “Sunshine” as one of five feature films nominated for the Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award. The Producers Guild Awards will be held Jan. 20.

The film’s universal appeal seems to tap the same spirit that propelled audiences of every background to see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” another indie feature that toyed with universal themes of family dysfunction. Saraf credits “Sunshine” screenwriter Michael Arndt for writing family relationships that ring true for all audiences.

“There is an honesty in the dynamic in that family,” Saraf said. “The script has a wonderful sense of humor as well as a real emotional underpinning, and I think that’s what people are really responding to.”

Co-producer David Friendly also sees the appeal of “Sunshine” in this light. The son of legendary CBS News president Fred Friendly, David personally identified with the script’s complicated father-son relationships.

“I did have a powerful father figure,” he said, describing his dad as a “larger-than-life character.”

One scene that felt particularly reminiscent for Friendly occurs toward the end of the film, as the family is nearing the freeway offramp for the pageant. Richard, who is driving, can’t figure out the exit, and thus keeps circling, while a cacophony of direction-yelling ensues around him.

Friendly fondly recalled being lost in Portland, Ore., with his father behind the wheel.

“Dad was sort of commander in chief insisting he knew his way around…. Doing loops around the airport,” he said.

The ability to channel such real human moments is what audiences of all demographics have embraced in “Sunshine,” and both Friendly and Saraf say that is enough, regardless of any awards buzz.

Friendly says that’s part of the moral of “Little Miss Sunshine” — to enjoy the experience, rather than being focused on winning — and it’s also something he absorbed from his Jewish upbringing.

“You learn from all the seders around the table. You get a good sense of what’s right and wrong, and the ethics of a good life,” he said.

“I think that also fundamental to the theme of the movie, we all want to succeed, but at what price? If you get too focused on the wrong things, it begins to corrupt other things.”

Israel’s ‘Sweet’ entry in Oscar race a bit sour


Israel’s “Sweet Mud,” a largely somber story of a youngster growing up in a kibbutz, and Holland’s “Black Book,” a thriller about a Jewish woman battling the Nazis as a resistance fighter, are among movies from 61 countries vying for best foreign-language film honors in this year’s Oscar race.

The nominations will be announced Jan. 23; the Academy Awards ceremony will take place Feb. 25.

Director Dror Shaul based “Sweet Mud” on his own experiences as a young boy in the 1970s, living on a left-wing kibbutz in the northern Negev.

For those of us raised with images of the kibbutz as a utopian ideal, representing the very best of Israel and the embodiment of the “new Jew,” this film, for all its artistic virtues, is a downer.

Twelve-year-old Dvir, heart-wrenchingly portrayed by Tomer Steinhof, spends his nights in communal dormitory and the evening hours with his beautiful young mother Miri (Ronit Yudkevitz).

His father died under mysterious circumstances, his older brother is leaving for the army and Dvir is left as the only real companion for his mother, who balances precariously on the edge of insanity.

Between caring for his mother and trying to find her a husband, preparing for his own bar mitzvah and wrestling with adolescence and the first pangs of love, Dvir carries a heavy load.

There are some relieving flashes of humor — none funnier than when a young, flustered woman teacher tries to explain the anatomy of sex to the just-awakening kibbutz boys and girls.

But the underlying tragedy of Dvir’s young years is that for all of its professed idealism, the kibbutz’s indifference or insensitivity to the mother’s plight leaves her to wrestle alone with her demons.

“Sweet Mud” (the Hebrew title is Adama Meshugaat, literally “Crazy Earth”) has considerable acting and visual merits, but it continues the unfortunate tradition by the Israel Academy of Films of selecting the most self-critical and downbeat portrayals of its society to compete in the Oscar races.

Last year it was the self-lacerating “What a Wonderful Place,” which featured a sordid lineup of Israelis who pimp and rape imported Russian prostitutes, brutalize their foreign workers, cheat on their spouses, humiliate their children, and commit suicide.

The quality of Israeli films has improved markedly in the past decade — “Walk on Water” and “Yossi & Jagger” are notable examples — and the willingness of Israeli filmmakers to take on their society’s shortcomings put Hollywood to shame.

But someone needs to tell the Israeli academy that a large proportion of Oscar judges are American Jews who may not all be ardent Zionists but who resent heavy-handed portrayals of most Israeli Jews as all-around lowlives at worst, or uncaring human beings as best.

So it’s little wonder then that no Israeli film has ever won an Oscar, and the last time the country placed among the five final nominees was in 1984.

The Journal put this point to 36-year-old director Shaul during a phone interview.

“We can’t be expected to make films in order to please others,” he said.

From an artist’s point of view he may be right, but now that Israel has garnered its first Olympic gold medal, it would be very nice to see an Israeli producer clutch one of the golden statuettes on Academy Awards night.

“Black Book” marks the return of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (“Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct”) to his native land, and he has chosen to depict his countrymen under Nazi occupation during the last year of World War II.

The central figure is a beautiful Jewish Dutch cabaret singer, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) who joins a resistance cell after seeing her parents gunned down by Wehrmacht soldiers.

She is assigned the task of seducing the chief of SS intelligence in Amsterdam, but then falls under suspicion of having betrayed her resistance comrades.

It would be unfair to reveal more of the plot of this gripping, realistic thriller, but what makes “Black Book” truly notable is Verhoeven’s unblinkered view of his countrymen during the Nazi occupation.

Contrary to post-war legends, not all resistance fighters were unblemished heroes. Even strong men and women could break, old political quarrels continued, and some would betray their comrades for money or safety.

Even more surprisingly, the film pulls no punches in showing the widespread anti-Semitism in the land of Anne Frank, even among those who resisted the Germans.

When a farm family hides Stein, she is told: “If you Jews had listened to Jesus, you wouldn’t be in this situation.”

At another point, when resistance cell members discuss whether Stein betrayed them, one opines: “You can never trust a Jew.”

This year’s foreign-language film competition is made even tougher by entries from an unlisted 62nd country, the United States.

One is Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” whose dialogue is in Yucatec, a primary Mayan language. The other is Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which is entirely in Japanese.

“Sweet Mud” (www.cinephil.co.il) has been selected by the Sundance Film Festival as one of 16 films in international competition, and will be shown Jan. 24 and on subsequent dates. “Black Book” (www.sonypicturesclassics.com) will open in Los Angeles March 9 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.

Weisz Gets Gold; ‘Munich’ Out in the Cold


“Munich” and “Paradise Now,” two films subjected to considerable controversy in the American Jewish community and Israel, came up empty-handed at Sunday evening’s Academy Awards ceremonies.

Not at all controversial was the selection of Rachel Weisz as best supporting actress in “The Constant Gardner,” in which she plays a passionate activist fighting an international pharmaceutical company.

Weisz was born in London, after her father and mother came to England as Jewish refugees in the 1930s from Hungary and Austria, respectively. She is seven months pregnant, but in a backstage interview, declined a suggestion that she and her fiancee, director Darren Aronofsky, name the baby Oscar.

Host Jon Stewart left no doubt about his ethnic heritage in his opening monologue. After pointing to Steven Spielberg sitting in the audience, Stewart mentioned the director’s films, “Schindler’s List” and “Munich” and then cracked, “I speak for all Jews when I say I can’t wait for what happens to us next.”

“Munich,” Spielberg’s take on the Israeli hunt for the Palestinian killers of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, struck out on all of its five nominations, including best picture and best director.

The film has been criticized, particularly in Israel, for allegedly drawing a “moral equivalence” between the terrorists and the pursuing Mossad agents, as well as for historical inaccuracy.

“Paradise Now,” the Palestinian entry in the foreign language film category, has drawn even more heat from a small but vocal Jewish community segment, which charged that the film “humanized” two suicide bombers on a mission to blow up a Tel Aviv bus.

The Israel Project organization denounced “Paradise Now” at a March 3 press conference and presented a petition with 36,000 signatures protesting the nomination to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Critics of the film had the added satisfaction of hearing “Paradise Now” introduced as coming from “The Palestinian Territories,” rather than “Palestine,” as initially listed. The change, which had been sought by Jewish and Israeli spokespersons, came as somewhat of a surprise. Two years ago, the film, “Divine Intervention,” was listed by the academy as originating in “Palestine,” despite the fact that it was not a recognized country.

At the time, the Academy explained that its definitions were “as inclusive as possible,” citing other accepted entries from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Puerto Rico.

“Paradise Now” had been considered the front-runner, but it, as well as the German entry, “Sophie Scholl,” about an anti-Hitler resistance fighter, lost out to the South African entry, “Tsotsi.”

Violinist Itzhak Perlman made a surprise appearance, performing music from five movies nominated for their original scores. Pitting Perlman against the Three 6 Mafia rap group, which won for best original song, Stewart suggested that they engage in a “dreidel-off.”

Stewart, apparently trying to beat previous Oscar host Billy Crystal in theJewish gag category, also took note of presenter Ben Stiller, who appearedonstage in a green head-to-toe unitard to present the award for visualeffects.

“It’s nice to have proof he’s really Jewish,” Stewart observed.

In the documentary short-subject category, the Oscar went to “A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin,” celebrating the radio dramas of the 95-year-old Jewish writer, noted for his inspiring radio dramas.

 

Oy! It’s Oscar Time


Two films that have encountered fierce controversy in the Jewish community and Israel are in the running for Oscar honors as nominations for the Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning.

“Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s take on the Israeli hunt for the killers of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, did better than some critics expected with five nominations.

These include best picture, best director (Spielberg), adapted screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, film editing and original musical score.

Picked among the top five foreign language film entries is the Palestinian “Paradise Now” by director-writer Hany Abu-Assad, which follows two suicide bombers from Nablus on a mission to blow up a Tel Aviv bus.

Nominated in the same category is Germany’s Sophia Scholl: The Final Days,” about an anti-Nazi resistance cell in Munich during World War II.

The actor nominations have a Jewish flavor, as well. Joaquin Phoenix, whose mother was born into an Orthodox New York family, received the nod in the lead-actor category for his portrayal of country music legend Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.”

Jake Gyllenhaal, another son of a Jewish mother (screenwriter Noami Foner Gyllenhaal) was nominated for best supporting actor in the gay cowboy saga “Brokeback Mountain.”

Fully Jewish Rachel Weisz is in contention for best actress in a supporting role for her performance in “The Constant Gardner.” The London-born actress’ father and mother fled Hungary and Austria respectively in the 1930s in the face of the rising Nazi menace.

Woody Allen was named for “Match Point” in the original screenplay category, as was Noah Baumbach for “The Squid and the Whale.”

“Capote” scored an adapted screenplay nomination for Dan Futterman.

Two Jewish personalities will also have key roles on March 5. Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” fame will serve as Oscar host for the first time, while veteran producer Gil Cates will captain the 78th Oscar telecast for the 13th time.

 

Jewish Groups Lose on Three Judges


The Senate didn’t go nuclear this week, which was good news for those worried that a proposed rule changing barring filibusters on judicial nominations could produce congressional chaos. But the news wasn’t as good for the handful of Jewish groups that have been fighting against some of President George W. Bush’s conservative judicial nominees.

On May 23, 14 moderate Democrats and Republicans signed an agreement to invoke cloture, thereby ending filibusters, on three controversial Bush nominees: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor and Priscilla Owen.

In return, the 14 swing voters — seven from each party — agreed that “nominees should only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances, and each signatory must use his or her own discretion and judgment in determining whether such circumstances exist.”

And in light of that commitment, the group pledged to “oppose the rules changes in the 109th Congress” threatened by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

What that means is that a handful of controversial nominees are likely to be approved quickly, but also that the so-called “nuclear option” of changing the Senate rules on the filibuster is being abandoned, at least for now, because there won’t be enough Republicans to support it.

Democrats and liberal Jewish groups hope this also means President Bush will start making more moderate appointments; groups on the religious right were incensed, charging Frist with a cave-in.

“Compromises are by their nature ugly creatures,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), which has opposed several nominees because of their records on civil rights, women’s rights and abortion rights. “But there’s one very big positive: It means the nuclear option is off the table. That is very important.”

But he conceded this means several nominees the RAC has opposed are likely to be confirmed.

“I don’t know how I could look at anything that paves the way for Owen, Brown and Pryor to get lifetime appointments as a victory,” he said.

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which led the fight against anti-abortion rights judges, expressed similarly mixed feelings.

“Clearly we are extremely disappointed that this compromise could pave the way for the confirmation of three particularly egregious nominees,” NCJW President Phyllis Snyder said in a statement. “However, we are gratified by the successful effort made by our grass roots who, united with like-minded Americans across the country, spoke out to preserve our system of checks and balances.”

NCJW Washington Director Sammie Moshenberg said that while the Democrats have abandoned the filibuster option regarding some specific judges, the agreement may have changed the politics of the debate over future judicial nominations.

“Before, there were maybe two Republicans moderate enough to go after on judicial nominations,” she said. “Now we have seven Republicans who have agreed to work in a bipartisan fashion. So we have at least the potential for approaching these lawmakers and working with them.”

 

Why Not Joe?


To find out why many Jews have a problem with the presidential candidacy of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), I spoke to Joe Lieberman.

We met in a Century City office. Friends-of-Joe had pressed him to hold a private interview with The Jewish Journal to address head-on the qualms various Jewish voting blocs have about America’s first serious Jewish candidate for president.

How bad are those qualms?

“It’s so damn frustrating,” one major Lieberman donor in Los Angeles told me as I waited in the lobby for my 15 minutes of face time. “The only people who have a problem with Joe being a Jew are other Jews.”

Actually, there are three Jewish groups that have a Lieberman problem.

The Jewish left resents his public attacks on Hollywood entertainment products, his support for the war in Iraq and his vanguard criticism of President Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair. Music mogul and liberal activist Danny Goldberg has called Lieberman “poison for the party.”

The Jewish right opposes him because, although Lieberman is a traditional Jew, strong on defense and fiscally conservative, he’d be running against President George W. Bush.

But beyond the left and right, Lieberman faces a kind of amorphous antipathy from the Jewish middle, which is discomfited by the very idea of his candidacy.

“With all the anti-Semitism around, it’s just not a good time for a Jew to be running,” a Westside Democrat whose own politics couldn’t be closer to Lieberman’s told me. “The only things Jews should be running for are the exits.”

In person, Lieberman doesn’t seem so worried, nor does he look it. On television, his furrowed brow and slightly nasal voice give him a judgmental aura, like he’s just about to tell you to go put on a warmer sweater. Up close, he is funny, direct, even loose. He asked an aide to bring him a Power Bar (it never materialized) and to put a call in to his wife, Hadassah. He wanted her to know he’d call her from the car on the way to the airport.

So, senator, why do so many Jews have a problem with you?

“That’s a situation where you can see the glass as half empty or half full,” he said, “and, given my nature, I see it as half full.”

Lieberman said he is heartened by the amount of Jewish support he’s received, and he hopes those who are resistant will come around.

“I understand there’s a certain amount of anxiety that comes from Jewish history,” he said. “But what I want to tell people who are worried is to have faith in America. I’m not running to be the Jewish president, I want to be the president who happens to be Jewish.”

The proof, he said, is in the past. When the senator was Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 election, Lieberman said the response to his Jewishness from non-Jews was almost 100 percent positive.

“Just after I announced, there was a little flurry of anti-Semitic comments, mostly over the Internet, but that was it,” he said.

Instead of him or his faith being a hindrance, Lieberman credits his nomination with helping Gore take a leap up in the polls and with enabling the party to garner more votes in a national election than any other ticket since Reagan/Bush.

“Let me put it this way,” he said. “I expect to win, but if I don’t, I am absolutely certain it will have nothing to do with my religion.”

Lieberman said some of his greatest support has come from blacks and Latinos who see a Jewish candidate as opening the way for all minorities to run for the White House.

As for the Jewish left, Lieberman stood by his criticisms of entertainment industry products, but said he would never support censorship.

“I was exercising my First Amendment right to ask people in the entertainment industry to exercise judgment on the products that get to their children.” The video game industry has been receptive, he said, the recording industry less so.

I asked Lieberman how he reconciles his traditional Jewish practice with liberal stands on social issues, given the fact that many Orthodox Jews have migrated to the Republican Party.

“Look,” he said, “some folks are plain more conservative than I am. I’m a strong supporter of Israel, and I take a series of positions on social issues — choice, childcare, education — that I believe are much more consistent with Jewish values.”

“We’re not going to get every vote,” he continued. “If you don’t agree with me, don’t vote for me. But not voting for me because I’m Jewish would be anti-Semitic.”

Lieberman then smiled.

“We have to remember,” he said, with a big grin on his face, “the Jewish community is 2 percent of the population. There’s another 98 percent we’re doing very well with.”

He was joking of course — Lieberman’s Jewish support here is strong, but there is that abiding resistance. He wanted to take one last whack at it as his aides pulled him away for a trip to the airport — and a call to Hadassah.

“People need to hear that they should not be afraid,” he said. “I just want people to know what I stand for. I’m not new to this, I’ve got a record that is 30 years old. I’m pro-job growth and pro-balanced budget, and Bush is fiscally irresponsible. That’s what this election is about.”

The senator’s parting shot might have been his finest: if he launches a strong, clear and bold attack against the president, Jewish Democrats might just flock to him after all — even though he’s Jewish.

The Sound Of Oscar


And the award goes to –The Holocaust! No, the Academy Awardshave not been given out yet, but the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts andSciences nominated “The Pianist,” a searing film of one Jew’s survival duringthe doomed uprisings of the ghetto and city of Warsaw during the Nazioccupation, for seven Oscars, including best picture.

Roman Polanski, the movie’s director, and Adrien Brody inthe title role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, were nominated in the directing andleading actor categories respectively.

There had been considerable speculation whether Polanski,who escaped from the Krakow ghetto as a boy of 7, would be nominated. He isofficially a fugitive from the United States for having had unlawful sexualrelations with a minor and currently lives in Paris.

Polanski was previously nominated for his films “Tess”(1979), “Chinatown” (1974)  and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

“Frida” whose title character was half-Jewish, received sixnominations at the Feb. 11 ceremony in Hollywood.

The German entry, “Nowhere in Africa,” was nominated forbest foreign language film. It described the struggles of a German Jewishrefugee family in the 1930s to adapt to life in Kenya. Israel’s entry, “BrokenWings,” was not nominated.

Nominated in the documentary feature category was “Prisonerof Paradise.” Its central character is Kurt Gerron, a popular Jewishentertainer in pre-Hitler Berlin, who directed a Nazi propaganda film about the”model ghetto” of Theresienstadt and was killed in Auschwitz.

Miramax, headed by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, garnered themost nominations for any studio. (Their hit musical, “Chicago,” topped the listof all films with 13 nominations.)

The 75th Annual Academy Awards will air Sunday, March 23 at 5:30 p.m. on ABC