September 16, 2019

Life’s last chapter, biopics and Jewish terrorists

Our film-going readers can look forward to an embarrassment of cinematic riches this summer, with an eclectic mix of movies promising something for almost everyone.

A few of the films will tear at your heartstrings.  Among these is “Lullaby,” which follows the journey of Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund), a 23-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter, estranged from his family, self-centered and rootless.  We meet him as he flies from California to New York to join his mother (Anne Archer) and sister (Jessica Brown Findlay) at the hospital bedside of his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), who has been battling cancer for more than a decade.  Upon arriving, Jonathan learns that his father has decided to have his life support disconnected.

“I was particularly interested in right-to-die,” filmmaker Andrew Levitas said, “right to die with dignity, and just curious about, or investigating, the ways that people talk or don’t talk, in our culture, about death.”

Levitas said Jonathan has been stunted in many ways ever since he was 13, when his father was told he had six months to live. “He sort of became frozen in time, in sort of an emotional suspended animation. And we actually see the moment in flashback when that happens.”

But the intense experience that occurs over less than two days with his father forces Jonathan, who also befriends a terminally ill 17-year-old girl at the hospital, to undergo a delayed coming-of-age, as the walls he has built around himself come crumbling down.

Robert also prompts Jonathan to reconnect with his Jewish roots, as the dying man insists on holding a seder, even though Passover is a week away. Levitas said he used the Passover celebration to represent multiple religions. “It wasn’t so much about it being Jewish, although that was incredibly important to me as an individual; it was meant to be more of a universal stand-in for religion.  And that’s why they’re doing a seder, but they’re doing it in a chapel, doing it basically in a church, and they’re doing it below a stained-glass window of ‘The Last Supper.’ It was really playing off that thing because, ultimately, we’re all the same.  We’re all going to the same place.”  

As “a Jew from New York City,” Levitas said, certain values were instilled in him and are expressed in his film, including a reverence for life, as well as an understanding and appreciation of progeny, of generations.

“Jonathan’s character, at first, doesn’t necessarily appreciate his place in the line of life, of generations,” he said. “I think that, culturally, there is something in this community, and Robert absolutely subscribes to this, and it is that he will live on through his son, and his son will live on through his son, and so on and so forth. There is a continuation of the same life that is expressed in different ways. And one of the reasons Robert is not scared of death is that he knows that he’s not really going anywhere. Many cultures certainly do this, but I think in Judaism there’s a particular understanding, because of the history, of this continuation of life.”

“Lullaby” opens June 13. 

A different take on the last chapter of life is expressed in the documentary “Next Year Jerusalem,” which follows eight residents of the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Connecticut — all in their 80s and 90s and most with some form of disability — as they go on a pilgrimage to Israel. We see them on the plane and traveling by bus throughout the country, visiting key sites, such as the Western Wall, and even floating in the Dead Sea.  

Helen Downs, age 91, floats in the Dead Sea, in “Next Year Jerusalem.” Photo courtesy of First Run Features

Filmmaker David Gaynes said his father, who was the ophthalmologist for the home, encouraged him to volunteer at the facility.

In 2002, Gaynes made a short film about five of the residents and their thoughts on mortality. That led to his being commissioned to make “Jerusalem.”

Gaynes said he is particularly interested in exploring the choice that we have at any point to live our lives deeply and richly. “I think that exploring the lives of people who are elderly provides an incredible opportunity for that kind of reflection, because you’re working with people who are at the end of their lives.  And I loved interviewing people who are in their senior years, because there’s so little pretense to their point of view, and they really spell things out bluntly at that age.  So, to make a film that was a metaphor for choosing life at the end of life, I felt that this was a great subject to dive into and explore.” 

Gaynes, who is Jewish, said he also wanted to explore Israel, to make aliyah, in a sense, but realized when he got home that he had spent most of his time filming others and really hadn’t had much time to connect with his Judaism on the trip.  Soon, however, his outlook changed, and he felt he had been part of something sacred.

“In fact, it was how I want to live my Judaism in the deepest possible sense, which was that documenting and observing the magic that these people experienced was a holy thing and a sacred responsibility, really. 

“My theology as a Jew is basically one thing, and that’s tikkun olam. And so, if I could present a thesis in this film that was of use to other people, that honored the people who were in the film, and that did justice to what happened in Israel that was truly holy, that was my Jewish experience in Israel. That was my aliyah, and that was my connection.”

“Next Year Jerusalem” opens May 30.

There will also be a slew of biopics this summer.  One of them, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” marks the directorial debut of actor Mike Myers.  The film chronicles the varied career of a Hollywood talent manager. 

Shep Gordon in “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.” Photo courtesy of Radius TWC

After graduating college in New York, Shep Gordon moved to Los Angeles and the famous Hollywood Landmark Hotel, where he hung out with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. At one point, Hendrix asked Gordon if he was Jewish, and when Gordon said he was, Hendrix told him he should be a manager. When asked in a recent interview if he took offense at the ethnic stereotype, Gordon replied, “It didn’t feel like it came out of any negative stereotyping. It was, in fact, really true. At every studio, there was a Jewish guy; every agent was basically Jewish. It was a reality.”  

Gordon followed Hendrix’s advice and soon launched the career of Alice Cooper, who remains one of his closest friends. The fledgling manager established Alive Enterprises and, over the years, has guided such disparate performers as Anne Murray, Ben Vereen, Raquel Welch, Groucho Marx, Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, The Pointer Sisters and numerous others. In the mid-1970s, he took his company into motion picture production. 

Gordon is also known for having created the concept of the celebrity chef. He said that venture started in the mid-1980s, when client Kenny Loggins was appearing at a Nissan convention in Hawaii where Wolfgang Puck did the dinner.

“Kenny Loggins got a lot of money for doing that show,” Gordon recalled.  “Wolfgang Puck got nothing but a couple of airplane tickets. There were 50 people waiting to get an autograph from Kenny — there were 300 waiting to get an autograph from Wolfgang.

“When I was looking for a way to help the chefs, it was obvious to me they were gigantic celebrities, but no one had ever monetized them or called them celebrities.”

Among the chefs Gordon has managed, in addition to Puck, are Roger Vergé, Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, Nobu Matsuhisa and Emeril Lagasse. 

Gordon added that cooking was a large part of his family’s life as he was growing up, and he learned to make Jewish dishes from his grandmother. He feels that his Jewish roots have been a big influence in his life.

“I was brought up in a culturally observant, but not religious home. We did belong to a temple. I was bar mitzvahed, but I learned my bar mitzvah [prayers] phonetically. I still to this day go to the High Holy Days [services].  I’m a member of the congregation in Maui. We all got together and bought a house, and got a rabbi, and got one of the Torahs out of England that were reconstituted, the German ones. We have a wonderful rabbi and a really nice community, and a Hebrew school. It’s really nice.”

He continued, “When I meet a Jew, I feel like I’ve met part of my family. The exhilaration of having Jewish food is remarkable. I took Alice Cooper, who’s a devout Christian, to Kutsher’s in New York for Passover seder. But it also makes me feel so good to make a matzah ball. I sort of channel my grandmother.  

“I have a family in Israel. I feel like I have a place on the planet as a part of a larger community.”

“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” opens June 6.

Music and musicians also figure prominently in the documentary “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step,” about noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who was also a political journalist focused on issues surrounding the U.S. Constitution and civil liberties. 

Nat Hentoff and clarinetist Edmond Hall at the Savoy Club, Boston, November 1948, in “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” Photo by Bob Parent, courtesy of First Run Features

Hentoff wrote for the Village Voice and other alternative papers, as well as The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Playboy and a host of other publications.  He also authored several books of fiction and nonfiction. 

The film is permeated with the sound of such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, to name just a few.  In the movie, Hentoff talks of jazz as the epitome of free expression, and his affinity for the musical genre dovetailed with his interest in the Bill of Rights.  

The jazz world was largely populated by African-American talents, and Hentoff became a staunch civil rights advocate. He caused some controversy in the late 1970s, when, even though he is Jewish, he defended the First Amendment right of Nazis to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, which had a large Jewish population, including numerous Holocaust survivors.

But he began to seriously alienate his progressive friends because of his perceived disinterest in the feminist and gay rights movements. When Hentoff came out against abortion rights, many of his closest cohorts broke with him irrevocably, and some of them explain their feelings in the film. However, Hentoff has not wavered.

“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step” opens July 4.

Another champion of civil liberties, although in a different context, and of civil disobedience, was computer genius Aaron Swartz.  His complex, tragic story is told in the documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” Swartz, who had been a child prodigy, became an activist bent on providing free Internet access to public domain documents, such as court records and scientific journals, for which distributors charged a fee.  

Aaron Swartz in “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.”

While a research fellow at Harvard, Swartz downloaded a huge number of articles from the academic database JSTOR.  When the university and JSTOR tried to block his access, Swartz connected his laptop to the network in a closet that was off limits and continued to download the data. Eventually, the Secret Service arrested Swartz, charging him with breaking and entering for the purpose of committing a felony. His initial indictment specified four felonies: computer fraud, wire fraud, recklessly damaging a computer and theft of information from a computer.

Ultimately, the Department  of Justice took over the case and charged Swartz with 13 counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, which carried a potential penalty of up to 50 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

On Jan. 11, 2013, Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.  He was 26.

Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, who details the Justice Department’s aggressive campaign against Swartz, is quoted in the production notes as saying, “Aaron’s story reached far beyond the Internet communities in which he was a celebrity. It also struck a chord with people who were outraged about government overreach, both technological and in our criminal justice system.”

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” opens June 27.

Burt Shavitz, the face on the label of Burt’s Bees products, a line of natural beauty and health care items, is also an unconventional figure. Shavitz is profiled in “Burt’s Buzz,” by filmmaker Jody Shapiro, and says of himself at the beginning of the documentary, “My life has been evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Things just took one day at a time, and everything worked out.”

Burt Shavitz in “Burt’s Buzz.”

Shavitz, born in Manhattan, went from college into the Army and then became a successful photojournalist and a regular contributor to Life and Time magazines. He photographed street scenes, protest demonstrations, the March on Washington, and such figures as Malcolm X and President John F. Kennedy.  

After meeting a beekeeper in the Hudson River Valley who became his mentor, Shavitz eventually moved to a farm in Maine and took up beekeeping himself.  He lived a spartan life in a wood-frame dwelling with no electricity or hot water and sold honey by the roadside.

Then he began a relationship with Roxanne Quimby, a struggling single mother, and the two started making candles and other products out of beeswax.  The venture succeeded, and they moved the enterprise to North Carolina. Their partnership ended when she pressured him to sell his interest in the company to her. Quimby ultimately sold the company to Clorox for $300 million.

Although Shavitz never saw any profit from the sale, he got a contract with the new company to become the spokesperson for the line, and Shapiro filmed him on a tour in Taiwan being welcomed by reporters and adoring customers.

Now retired, Shavitz still lives simply on his land in Maine.  He harbors no bitterness and insists he enjoys being close to nature and has everything he needs.

“Burt’s Buzz” opens June 6.

Combining a biopic with an exposé, director Joe Berlinger, who is Jewish, tells the story of Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who ran South Boston’s Winter Hill Gang for more than two decades, in the documentary “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.”

Mugshot of James “Whitey” Bulger at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. From the film “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

After 16 years on the run, Bulger was finally arrested in Santa Monica in 2013  and was tried in federal court on charges that included murder, racketeering, extortion and drug dealing.

In addition to interviews with federal prosecutors, law enforcement officials, victims and victims’ families, the director includes footage of former Bulger associates who testify for the prosecution, as well as taped conversations between Bulger and his lawyers.

But the proceedings became mired in controversy when Bulger denied the FBI’s claims that he was an informant whose help was valuable enough to allow him to continue his illegal activities. Any exploration of the opposing positions was excluded from the trial proceedings. 

In the film’s press notes, Berlinger asks why, if Bulger was an informant, he was allowed to kill instead of being prosecuted, and, if he wasn’t, what kind of corruption the FBI was hiding. “The defense maintains that the story of his being an informant is a cover for the true story,” Berlinger says, “that Bulger was protected because of a personal pledge to protect a federal prosecutor from retaliation (and thus he was allowed to kill and extort countless victims); that Bulger paid off numerous corrupt FBI agents in exchange for information that gave him a competitive edge; that the Department of Justice knew about this behavior and quarantined the damage by making FBI Special Agent John Connolly the scapegoat.”

The director explains that the FBI may have made up tips and attributed them to Bulger in order to justify search warrants and wiretaps that helped convict members of the Italian mob in New England. “The Department of Justice does not want to undo those convictions, sully its reputation and admit civil liability to the many families whose loved ones got caught in the crossfire of our government’s decision to let killers operate with impunity in service of its national war on La Cosa Nostra.” 

As the film makes clear, in Bulger’s world it was acceptable to be a murderer, but to be a “rat” was to sink to the lowest possible depths. Berlinger doesn’t take sides on the conflicting allegations, but writes, “They deserve a fuller inquiry, as we must understand the price that society pays when the government gets into bed with murderers — not just by letting criminals kill with impunity but also by giving deals to murderers to walk the streets in exchange for testimony that may or may not be truthful.”

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” opens June 27.

We move from American criminals and their reign of terror to Jewish political terrorists with the highly praised Israeli movie “Policeman.” The film focuses on Yaron (Yiftach Klein), leader of an elite team that belongs to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit. Yaron is a loving, attentive husband and expectant father who treats his team members as brothers and displays deep concern for a member of his unit who is seriously ill.

But he is also a warrior. As his story unfolds, a second storyline depicts a band of self-proclaimed revolutionaries, young Jews who plan a violent action in protest over economic disparities in their country. When the protesters carry out their plan, Yaron and his team are called to the rescue.

Although filmmaker Nadav Lapid doesn’t endorse the terrorist activity in his movie, he said he wanted to depict on screen the class struggle that exists but is masked in modern Israeli society.

“In the ’60s and ’70s,” he said, “when political terrorism rose in Western Europe, Israel was socialist, basically egalitarian. Today, Israel has one of the widest economic gaps in the Western world. An extremely narrow group of wealthy families owns national industries, which were privatized; the unions are weak and pale; [there is] a harsh capitalism, masked under the fake myth of Israeli solidarity and brotherhood.

 “This concept of the struggle from within, of class conflict, is repressed by the deeper Israeli taboo — the fundamental Jewish cohesion against the external enemy forever determined to destroy us,” Lapid said. “This idea that we are all Jews, members of one big family, always in [a] situation of alertness due to the permanent existential menace, defines us as a state and defines our values.  Under this myth, fake but very efficient, [a] few Jews exploited the majority of Jews and non-Jews over the years, preventing them from the basic human right, to hate [and to struggle against] the person who oppresses you, because we are all Jews, all brothers.”

“Policeman” opens June 13.


“Venus in Fur,” Roman Polanski’s latest effort, is about a writer-director who finds that an unlikely actress turns out to be perfect for the part of a dominatrix.  But, as he auditions her, his power wanes, while her power grows. Opens July 4.

“Magic in the Moonlight,” Woody Allen’s upcoming film. Little is known about this movie except that it takes place on the Riviera during the 1920s. Opens July 25.

“Korengal,” the follow-up to “Restrepo,” which depicted what battle is like for servicemen deployed at a dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. After the death of  filmmaker Tim Hetherington, his colleague, Sebastian Junger, used the same soldiers and crew to complete their vision, explaining in the press notes, “This film tries to help soldiers understand their own experience in combat, rather than communicate that experience to a civilian population.”  Opens June 13.

“The Kill Team,” another war documentary concerned with Afghanistan and a soldier’s dilemma over reporting atrocities committed by his comrades and risking their revenge or remaining silent and staying safe, but taking the chance of being implicated in their crimes. Opens Aug. 8.

“The Last Sentence,” a Swedish film about the real-life editor of a leading Swedish newspaper, who openly excoriated the Nazis and his own country’s tolerance toward Hitler. Opens June 20.

“Obvious Child,” a comedy about a young comedian who takes a life-changing step on Valentine’s Day after being dumped by her boyfriend and finding a new man who gets her pregnant. Opens June 6.

“Wish I Was Here,” directed by and starring Zach Braff, as a struggling actor who home-schools his two children and learns important lessons about himself in the process. Opens July 18. l