Friday, November 14, 2014

The Israel Film Festival: Hunting Elephants

The 28th Israel Film Fest has begun! And you know what that means!

Or maybe you don't, so let me learn you something: Five years ago, The Boy and I went to see the New Zealand crime thriller Out of the Blue starring Karl Urban, only to discover that it was in fact not from New Zealand, not a crime thriller, and had nobody in it we'd ever heard of. Instead it was Out of the Blue, an Israeli film about the amusing antics of some resourceful junk men.

Since then, we've grown to really look forward to the IFF, seeing more of the films each year in the (short) time allotted.

One of the chief characteristics of the IFF films is that they tend to develop strong, interesting characters, and this year is no different, though from what we've seen so far, there's also been an uptick in the technical quality, and we've even seen a few recognizable actors.

This year got off to a rip-roaring start with Hunting Elephants. If there are "coming of age" tales, there are also "going of age" tales. Slices of life stories involving old people out for one last hurrah before going gentle into that good night, like the '70s Art Carney, George Burns (who lived for another 20+ years, heh) and Lee Strasberg flick Going In Style. Or last year's Stand Up Guys.

In Hunting Elephants, we see young Yonatan left at the bank with his night watchman/security chief father, when a mishap ends the father's life in a sort of darkly comic fashion. Well, this doesn't help his mother out at all, obviously, and with nowhere else to turn, she dumps Yoni off at the old folks home her estranged father-in-law lives in.

And he's not a pleasant old fellow, oh, no. The details of his backstory come out over the course of the movie, and they're really not particularly flattering. (This is a particularly interesting feature of Israeli films: Whereas in American films, characters are often redeemed through "it was all a misunderstanding", in the IFF films, the characters are redeemed through action, and often not only don't apologize but practically cling to their old sins.)

Grandpa was a special forces guy during the Liberation, and as little use as he had for his son, he doesn't have much more interest in his grandson. But, of course, he doesn't kick the kid out either, or we wouldn't have a picture.

Grandpa's pal Nick was in the same service, a doddering, blind old dude, with an interest in the ladies suited to a much younger man, who generally serves as the driver on the gang's capers.

The third senior in the gang is a fading English actor, brother-in-law to Grandpa, who wants conservatorship over Grandma (his sister, who's in a coma) but Grandpa refuses to let her leave his side. Which, while romantic, turns out to have many not-so-romantic layers.

Well, for whatever reason, everybody needs money so a bank must be robbed. In particular, the bank where Yoni's father was head of security, since Yoni still knows a few tricks. And it doesn't hurt that the creepy bank manager is putting the moves (successfully) on Yoni's mother—who, also rather creepily, is kind of into it.

So, no groundbreaking setups here, but it's all done with such a great touch: Almost non-stop laughs, even in the face of tragedy (how Jewish is that?), great acting, fine directing and camerawork with a few inspired shots, good music—just a fun film with lots and lots of character oozing out of every plot point.

Also, the one weakness these "going of age" movies tend to have is that they peter out at the end, when (customarily) the characters start dying, but this movie actually picks up speed and throws a few more twists at you.

Originally, the fading English actor was to be played by John Cleese, which would've been amazing, but the role was taken over by Patrick Stewart, who is absolutely flawless. He mixes just the right level of comedy and pathos, enough for us to laugh with him (and occasionally at him, but empathetically). I think this is my favorite role of his.

But all the acting is solid: Sasson Gabai (who stood out in The Band's Visit) is Grandpa Eli, Moshe Ivgy (Out of the Blue) is creepy bank manager, Moni Moshonev as Nick, newcomer Gil Blank is Yoni, Yael Abecassis (Live and Become) is mom, and, oh yeah, Patrick freakin' Stewart!

Fun and recommended. And half-in-English for the subtitle-curious.

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