September 22, 2019

Coming Attractions

If the mark of a fully matured film industry is that directors have logged enough time behind the camera that one can spot personal styles emerging over several films, then this year’s Israel Film Festival proves that the Israelis have definitely reached that plateau. With Eran Riklis (“Cup Final”) represented by two features and a new film by Aner Preminger (“Blind Man’s Bluff”), not to mention the latest work from Israel’s one truly world-class director, Amos Gitai, one can speak comfortably of Israeli auteurs.

Truth be told, the Israelis had reached that particular plateau many years ago, but who wanted to brag about the generally meretricious work of Menachem Golan or the trivialities of Amos Kollek? No, it was Gitai and Eli Cohen (“The Quarrel”) who first drew some positive attention.

With “Cup Final,” Riklis announced himself as the next Israeli filmmaker to watch, and this status is probably confirmed by the fact that his latest film, “Vulcan Junction,” is the opening night offering at this year’s festival, the 16th annual version of the event. Unfortunately, “Vulcan Junction” is of a piece with the previous Riklis film shown in the festival, “Zohar: Mediterranean Blues”; that biopic (of the Mizrachi singer Zohar Argov) looked and felt like an American TV movie, sloppy, mannered and hurried. “Vulcan Junction” is a multi-character melodrama, following the gradual breakup of a ’70s rock band and the circle of friends surrounding it, shot in the same disjunctive TV-and-rock-video style as “Zohar,” but without that film’s compelling central personality. Thematically, Riklis has some interesting pre-occupations — the way in which people use pop culture (soccer, rock music) to hide from their personal problems, the damaging nature of overweening machismo — but he hasn’t yet found forms to express them.

National film industries develop different genre strengths. In the past decade, the Israelis have emerged as purveyors of intriguingly quirky comedies with the tart edgy quality of the classic American screwball works of the ’30s, and bleak family melodramas with more than a suggestion of maverick filmmakers like John Cassavetes and his successors. The best of the theatrical features on view in the festival fall into these two categories.

The festival’s closing night film, “Yana’s Friends,” directed by Arik Kaplun, is a warm and engaging comedy about a young Russian émigré, the very fetching Evelyne Kaplun, who finds herself abandoned by her ne’er-do-well husband in a dazzling and confusing Tel Aviv on the eve of the Gulf War. Kaplun is himself a transplanted Russian (with a background in medicine, of all things), and this sweetly sentimental film has all the earmarks of first-hand experience. Like so many other Israeli films, it is structured around a large ensemble cast, a veritable community constellation from which its protagonists emerge. A first feature of real promise.

Gideon Kolirin produced one of the most execrable Israeli films of the ’90s, an embarrassing adaptation of Amos Oz’s “Black Box,” so nothing could have prepared me for his second feature as a director, “Zur Hadasim.” This is a quirky, punky ensemble comedy about two couples, all of them born losers, living on the edge of booming Tel Aviv society, desperately trying to grab a share of its largesse. Etti is pregnant. Her idiot boyfriend, Shaul, is a minor functionary in the underworld, a self-satisfied schlemiel with the IQ of a fire hydrant. The pair become entangled with Adi and Ilana, a similar, older couple, who have engineered a kidnapping that, through no particular expertise of theirs, should net them a tidy sum. Eventually, all the film’s players end up on the site of a never-to-be-built luxury housing development whose name gives the film its title, where things are worked out amusingly, if a trifle too neatly. An edgy, funny little film about the lure of foolish dreams of prosperity.