Friday, May 08, 2020

Rewind: Yana's Friends

This is my July 2002 review of Yana’s Friends, a movie that might  strike you as pertinent and appropriate for our anxious age of shelter-in-place.

Here’s the pitch: Russian émigrés endure romantic and financial upheavals after arriving in Israel just before the start of the 1991 Gulf War. Sounds like a scenario for heavy drama, right? Guess again.

Writer-director Arik Kaplun plays the cultural and emotional clashes mostly for laughs in Yana's Friends, an engaging romantic comedy that earned nearly all of the glittering prizes at the 1999 Israeli Academy Awards.

It has taken more than two years for this free-spirited and life-affirming film to gain wide exposure on the U.S. art-house circuit, which says a lot -- none of it good -- about the bottom-line mentality that prevails even among supposedly “independent” distributors. In one key respect, however, the timing of the delayed release is fortuitous: After 9/11, perhaps American moviegoers will be all the more receptive to this intelligently heartfelt celebration of love and resilience in the shadow of war and catastrophe.

Lovely young Yana -- winningly played by Evelyne Kaplun, the director’s real-life wife – arrives in Tel Aviv to start a new life with Fima (Israel Damidov), her wheeler-dealer husband. Unfortunately, Fima soon decides to wheel and deal his way back to Russia. Yana is left to fend for herself, penniless and pregnant, while continuing to share an apartment with Eli (Nir Levi), a womanizing would-be filmmaker who supports himself as a wedding videographer.

Predictably, one thing leads to another, and the roommates fall in love. Unpredictably, the lovers and their neighbors manage to survive and thrive while only slightly inconvenienced by the demands of life during a state of war. Air-raid sirens wail, designated rooms are meticulously sealed – to provide safe havens from poison-gas attacks – and everyone wonders if the next sound they hear will be a Scud missile fired from Iraq. Even so, life goes on.

Another Russian émigré, a hotheaded hustler named Alik (Vladimir Friedman), stumbles into a profitable scam that requires the exploitation of his seemingly senile father-in-law (Moscu Alcalay). An accordion-playing street musician (Shmil Ben-Ari) tries to maintain his prime location on a well-traveled thoroughfare. And Rosa (Dalia Friedland), the cranky landlady of the apartment building where most of the main characters live, enjoys a sentimental reunion that proves it's never too late for happily-ever-aftering.

Yana's Friends isn't a black comedy, strictly speaking. But it somehow manages to find a surprising amount of humor in deadly serious and even potentially tragic situations. Typical of the movie's cheeky impudence is a scene in which Yana and Eli, brought together in a sealed room during an air raid, impulsively make love while still wearing their gas masks.
Hey, it's like I said: Life goes on. So does love.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Thirty Years On with Variety

During an especially affecting moment in Spring Forward, one of my favorite films, Ned Beatty – playing a parks and recreation worker on the verge of retirement – marvels to a younger colleague played by Liv Schrieber that, somehow, when he wasn’t looking, several years slipped away: “Time goes by, and it seems like a little time. You turn around, and it was a big time.” How true.

Thirty years is a big time by anybody’s measure. But I’ve had a mostly grand time during my past three decades as a free-lance film critic (and, periodically, essayist and listicle compiler) for Variety, the venerable trade paper that I still think of as The Show Business Bible. That it actually has been three decades is a little disconcerting – has it really been that long? – but never mind. This weekend, it’s also a cause for celebration.

To be precise: My first three free-lance reviews – all of them for films shown at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival -- appeared in the weekly edition of Variety dated May 2, 1990. One of the movies just happened to be Red Surf, a melodrama about drug-dealing surfers starring a very young George Clooney. (For the record: the other two were Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter and something called A Girl’s Guide to Sex.) One week later, Variety ran my review of another WorldFest/Houston offering, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, a spoofy sci-fi B-movie that showcased a very young Billy Bob Thornton in a supporting role. And two weeks after that, I reviewed yet another WorldFest feature: Across the Tracks, a dysfunctional family drama co-starring a very, very young Brad Pitt.

So you see: Right from the start, I’ve specialized in spotting fresh talent for The Show Business Bible. Well, OK: I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to spot fresh talent. Thanks to Variety.

I already was gainfully employed as a film critic for the late, great Houston Post when I was approached – by no less a luminary than Peter Bart himself -- to serve as a Variety stringer. But in my mind, writing for Variety – even back when I started, at a time when film critics didn’t receive a full byline – was not just a step up but a leap forward. To put it simply and hubristically, it was, to my way of thinking, a sign that I had arrived. I had made the grade, passed the test, completed my apprenticeship – and somehow gained entry inside a very select circle. I felt I had become part of a grand tradition. And you know what? I still feel that way.

Blame it on my misspent youth. Back in the mid-to-late '60s, when I was a high school student in New Orleans, I fortuitously discovered The Show Business Bible in a library and was instantly smitten. In fact, I'm not ashamed to say that, while I was growing up, there was something truly magical to me about Variety, my own private gateway to Hollywood and beyond.

On Fridays -- after school or, quite often, very early in the morning, before classes -- I would take the bus downtown to buy Variety at a newsstand. (It took two days for the weekly edition, then published on Wednesdays, to reach N.O.) I would devour all the reviews of movies and plays and TV shows, all the news about movies in production and box-office hits and misses, and gradually master the Variety-ese slanguage so I could fully understand what to the uninitiated must have seemed like indecipherable code. And, of course, I would marvel at the colossal special-edition issues dedicated to film festivals and year-end wrap-ups, all them filled with dozens of full-page ads for forthcoming movies.

I continued to be awestruck by The Show Business Bible well into my twenties and beyond. I still have a photo somewhere that my wife took of me during our first trip together to New York in the mid '70s, long after I had begun my professional writing career. It's a picture of me standing in front of the old Variety office near Times Square -- the one with the big Variety logo emblazoned on a huge ground floor window.  I am smiling a great big goofy kid's smile in the picture, like a True Believer enraptured by his proximity to some hallowed shrine.

So, of course, when Peter Bart called more than 15 years later…

I know, I know: Some of you will be quick to dismiss all of this a sentimental blathering, or shameless self-aggrandizing, or both. And that’s your prerogative. For others, it may seem odd, if not downright incomprehensible, for anyone to still feel so emotionally bound to anything so seemingly antiquated as a newspaper. But, hey, that’s my prerogative. Besides: I’ve also been writing web-only reviews for for several years now, so it’s not like I’m exclusively an ink-stained wretch. But I remain, deep down, an analogue guy in a digital world, as my heart continues to beat to the rhythm of a printing press. That may change – well, actually, that must change, eventually – but not too soon, I hope.

This is probably where I should write something about all the notable filmmakers whose first films I reviewed for Variety at various and sundry film festivals. And after that, I guess I should toss out ten or twenty titles of films that I got to review before anybody else thanks to my Variety affiliation. But that really would be self-aggrandizing, and I would deserve every brickbat tossed in my general direction. So I’ll leave it at this: I am deeply grateful that I’ve been a part of the Variety team for the past three decades. And I look forward to my next 30 years with the organization. (Assuming, of course, that they'll have me.) Because even though I know that the day may come when print media as we now know it will go the way of 8-track tapes and VHS movies, I’m sure that Variety, in some form, will survive and thrive. And I hope to remain part of its ongoing tradition.