Tonight's opening film of the 20th Israel Film Festival, "Nina's Tragedies," made history earlier this year as the first Israeli entry to be accepted at Sundance. It's the story of a young widow's overwhelming grief as told from the perspective of her nephew, a shy, introspective teenage boy with a penchant for voyeurism.
Writer-director Savi Gabizon's quirky characters stumble through life and death aided and abetted by doppelgangers, coincidence and fate, along with a broad sense of humor that is smote by sadness. Their desire for happiness is tethered to reality by the sometimes harsh intrusions of providence.
Young Nadav's (Aviv Elkabets) parents have split, his dad is living at a yeshiva and his mom has a steady procession of men visiting her bed. Nadav and a slightly creepy but ultimately harmless man named Menachem (Dov Navon) spend their evenings peering into the windows of unsuspecting neighbors. Nadav's favorite window belongs to his beautiful Aunt Nina (Ayelet July Zurer), on whom he has a passionate crush and upon whose sorrow the film turns.
Gabizon nicely blends the strange with the familiar, and the amiable, melancholic film finds warmth and hope in a typically dysfunctional family's experience.
A disjointed family is also at the heart of Shemi Zarhin's good-natured comedy "Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi." Shlomi is a sensitive 16-year-old struggling through school while holding together his eccentric household. He cooks and cleans, as well as caring for his elderly French-speaking grandfather, whose salutations give the film its title.
Shlomi (Oshri Cohen) is not unhappy; he's too busy keeping peace at home, but he's also too busy to have any friends other than a girl at school with whom he'd like to "upgrade" the relationship. She, however, has put him in the deep freeze, romantically speaking.
All this changes when a tall, dark beauty (Aya Koren) moves next door, and a new principal discovers some previously hidden talents in Shlomi. The girl's name is Rona, and she is to gardening what Shlomi is to baking: an artist. She and the principal help unleash a Shlomi that has been buried for years.
Though Zarhin's humor sometimes veers toward that of the situation comedy (even in Hebrew this can happen; who knew?), spirited performances and a charming, upbeat story make it impossible to dislike Shlomi and his family.
The Visual Communications Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival (VC Filmfest 2004) also celebrates its 20th anniversary this week with a diverse slate of films from both sides of the ocean.
Opening the fest is Wayne Wang's 1982 film, "Chan Is Missing," a landmark in U.S. independent cinema and part of a retrospective of Wang's work that also includes "The Joy Luck Club" and "Smoke."
Among the festival's other highlights is Victor Vu's straightforward drama "First Morning." Tuan (Tri "Johnny" Nguyen), a prodigal Vietnamese son, returns to his family's Orange County home to discover that many things have changed. His troubled younger sister (Kathleen Luong) has disappeared, and his mother (Catherine Ai) has suffered a stroke. Tuan's subsequent unraveling of his sister's mystery leads to the family's confrontation of a dark secret.
The film's acting is variable and it plods a bit in places, but Vu has an eye for nuance and weaves a compelling story about the harsh realities of immigration, the difficulties of adjustment and the long process toward acceptance of a new homeland.
Royston Tan's cynical and garish "Fifteen" focuses on a group of teenage boys in Singapore whose days are a blur of sex, drugs and karaoke. Tan's visual and aural style replicates the experience of being trapped inside a video game with some fairly unpleasant company. There is a frightening verisimilitude, however, lurking beneath the highly stylized facade.
Outfest at the Egyptian
Outfest and the American Cinematheque are collaborating to bring the Outfest Wednesdays screening series to the Egyptian. The annual compilation Queer Shorts will mark the series' debut at its new venue, highlighted by the award-winning Norwegian film "Precious Moments."
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Israel Film Festival selections
* "Nina's Tragedies," 7:30 p.m. today, Academy; 7:30 p.m. May 8, Encino; 7:30 p.m. May 9, Fairfax; 7:30 p.m. May 13, Encino.
* "Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi," 7 p.m. Sunday, WGA; May 8, 9:45 and 11:45 p.m., Fairfax; May 9, 5:30 p.m., Encino
Where: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino; Writers Guild of America Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills.
Info: (877) 966-5566 or www.israelfilmfestival.com
VC Filmfest 2004 selections
* "Chan Is Missing," 7:30 p.m. today, DGA.
* "First Morning," 7 p.m. Saturday, DGA.
* "Fifteen," 10 p.m. Friday, ArcLight.
Where: Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.
Info: (213) 680-4462, Ext. 68, or www.vconline.org
Outfest Wednesday/American Cinematheque
* Queer Shorts, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
Info: (323) 466-FILM. www.americancinematheque.com
Screening Room columnist Kevin Thomas is on leave. Kevin Crust can be reached at email@example.com.