Reviews From S.F. Jewish Film Festival 2023

by on July 24, 2023

Can a nation with a monopoly on a world-destroying power be wise enough to avoid abusing that power?  If not, what can be done?  For gifted young Manhattan Project physicist Ted Hall, the subject of Steve James’ new riveting documentary “A Compassionate Spy,” these were more than philosophical questions.  James wisely avoids simple answers as he chronicles, through interviews with surviving family members and dramatic recreations of scenes from Hall’s life, the ambiguous consequences of the physicist’s actions.



Could cat pictures accompanying Anne Frank quotes spark Gen Z interest in the Anne Frank House’s work?  That partially light-hearted question is at the core of Mickey Rapkin’s seriocomic short “The Anne Frank Gift Shop.”  The House representatives’ brainstorming meeting with a high-end design firm sparks a discussion ranging from the power of individual story to illuminate the Holocaust to generational communication problems.  However, the short’s weakened by character bits lacking effective payoff (e.g. unanswered calls from a father).



Nancy Buirski’s feature “Desperate Souls, Dark City, and The Legend Of Midnight Cowboy” unquestionably belongs in the “making of” documentary category.  But this film argues that understanding the power of director John Schlesinger’s cinema classic won’t come from scrutinizing the Hollywood industry’s period clockworks. “Midnight Cowboy”’s timelessness comes from its willingness to leave the Dream Factory production bubble and find its truths in the confluence of disruptions both political and cultural that shadowed the time of its creation.



Sue Zarco Kramer’s short film “Swipe NYC” uses the well-worn story setup of “divorcee re-enters the dating pool and has misadventures.”  But well-worn as used here is meant in the positive sense of comfortable familiarity.  For who, except someone who has a stone in place of their heart, cannot empathize with the frustrations of finding out just how wrong a supposedly ideal match turns out to be?


Syd (SFJFF Freedom Of Expression Award Winner Lisa Edelstein) is the name of this seeker of love.  She’s a New York City realtor who’s just been divorced by her husband of 24 years.  Hoping to make her re-entry into the dating pool a little less of a casino trip, Syd’s making use of a dating app.  But as she’s about to discover, a dating app algorithm turns out to be a far from infallible seer regarding personal compatibility.


The empathetic viewer winds up rooting for Syd because they’re aware of the socially uphill battle she faces.  She’s a middle-aged woman in a culture where “women of a certain age” are considered less sexually desirable than their younger counterparts.  Her willingness to be open to new relationships emerges from a history of a marriage characterized by emotional aridness.  Syd’s description of intimate relations with her ex-husband could be characterized as minimal to non-existent.


That curiosity does lead Syd at one point to try a date with a slightly younger woman.  But the way an experimental kiss fails to stir any sort of physical reaction on the divorcee’s part makes clear that she’s neither a lesbian nor bisexual.  If she can’t stand looking at pictures of guys on the dating app, it’s more a sign that she needs to take a break from looking for the right guy.  At least Syd’s woman loving woman date does find a way to let the love-seeking realtor down gently.


The men that Syd encounters through the app, on the other hand, turn out to be far less considerate of her feelings in one way or another.  Whether it’s trying to use her to indulge their personal fetish or freely invading her personal space and not listening to her, they tend to be the sort of men who only deserve the physical contact of an 11-foot as opposed to a 10-foot pole.  At least the male bartender at the bar where Syd meets her dates serves as a confidante as well as someone who runs interference for the divorcee when one particular date turns cringeworthy.


What makes Syd’s dates with men ultimately painful is that before their deal-breaking trait emerges, each of these men had some good qualities such as youth, wealth, and a willingness to encourage boundary-breaking.  The most painful of the dates is the one with a grandfatherly painter played by Richard Schiff.  He’s charming and funny and there’s a real sense of chemistry between him and Syd.


Edelstein, aided by some wonderful dialogue, turns her character’s romantic setbacks into a mix of comedy and horror.  Whether it’s spouting the wonderful malapropism “You catnipped me” or trying to keep a polite facial expression while inwardly cringing, her character’s travails make the viewer wonder if dating apps are nothing more than icebreakers for weirdos.

But the real core of Edelstein’s performance is in its hints that Syd’s romantic travails might actually be a diversion of her attention away from dealing with the discomfort of being both physically and emotionally alone for the first time in a long while.  A clothes folding sequence comes across as a silent expression of Syd’s pain.


The song “Lost” often plays throughout “Swipe NYC” as a musical commentary on Syd’s core feelings.  It has a catchy beat to counterbalance the frustrated state of mind captured in its lyrics.  But the viewer’s having a “yeah, I’ve been there too” reaction to the song’s words doesn’t make it any easier to envision a solution to Syd’s dilemma.


As a non-New York City dweller, this viewer wonders just how many Big Apple life references in the film escaped notice.  Alternate Side Parking Day seems like a ritual where car owners try to play cat and mouse with meter maids.  And it feels as if a sense of timing is a New York City trait that Syd hasn’t quite gotten down.  Yes, she manages to masturbate in her car without anyone noticing.  But it royally sucks for Syd to have run-ins with the meter maid and a less than satisfied former client after already mortifying moments.


Dating apps may present themselves as an efficient way to find a special someone.  But as Kramer’s film shows, what information a person chooses to share on a dating app isn’t necessarily the same thing as knowing the individual details of that person’s life and whether that knowledge is something a potential mate can live with.  There’s an odd comfort in feeling that there are parts of the human heart that can still escape being reduced to the cold abstractions of mathematical formulae.



In Basil Khalil’s award-winning dark comedy “A Gaza Weekend,” a deadly virus outbreak flips the Israel-Palestine script to turn Gaza into a place of refuge. That’s cold comfort to wealthy British journalist Michael and Israeli girlfriend Keren, who just want to escape a locked-down Israel.  But the fugitive duo wind up getting treated to everyday Palestinian hardship thanks to scam artists’ Emud and Waleed’s badly conceived smuggling plan swiftly going awry.  Khalil entertainingly turns grim reality into gallows humor.


(“Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” screens at 6:00 PM on July 25, 2023 at the Vogue Theater (3290 Sacramento Street, SF).  “The Anne Frank Gift Shop” screens at 5:30 PM on July 28, 2023 at the Vogue Theater.  “Swipe NYC” screens at 8:30 PM on July 29, 2023 at the Vogue Theater and 8:00 PM on August 4, 2023 at the Piedmont Theater.  “A Gaza Weekend” screens at 8:15 PM on August 5, 2023 at the Piedmont Theater (4186 Piedmont Avenue #5133, Oakland, CA).


“Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy” will also screen at 6:50 PM on July 28, 2023 at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF).  Interested viewers can catch a new restoration of “Midnight Cowboy” at the Roxie at 9:10 PM on July 28, 2023.  Purchase of a Midnight Cowpoke pass will get the buyer into both films at a discount price for the duration of the Roxie run.


“A Compassionate Spy” will get a Bay Area theatrical release starting August 4, 2023.)

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