Category Archives: Archived Movies

ITZHAK

Producer: Alison Chernick
Director: Alison Chernick
Writer: 
Stars: Itzhak Perlman, Toby Perlman, Alan Alda, Amnon Weinstein Styefan Valcuha, Billy Joel, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zuckerman, Evgeny Kissin, Mischa Maisky, Martha Argerich, Barack Obama, and Benjamin Netanyahu
Studio: Greenwich Entertainment

B

On the evidence of Alison Chernick’s able but unexceptional documentary, Itzhak Perlman is not only a marvelous musician but a lovely human being who has overcome enormous obstacles to build a career most other violists would envy while devoting himself to philanthropy and teaching as well as concertizing. Watching “Itzhak,” which is getting some theatrical exposure before migrating to television (it will be broadcast as part of the PBS American Masters series), one cannot but be charmed as well as amazed by Perlman’s virtuosity, energy and sheer humanity.

A major part of the film is, of course, simply biographical. We learn of his birth in Tel Aviv to parents who had emigrated from Poland to Israel and soon perceived his musical talent. His progress was hampered, however, by the fact that he’d been stricken with polio at age four and wore braces that prevented him from standing while he played. Potential teachers often perceived him more as a curiosity than a true prodigy. Still he persevered, and by his teen years was studying at Juilliard—one of his teachers there expresses her amazement at his talent, while looking back he admits that he found her open mode of instruction irritating then but uses it now with his students—and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, playing part of the Mendelssohn concerto.

His ascent from there to iconic status among violinists gets only cursory coverage, but much time is devoted to his marriage to the vibrant Toby, who gets fairly thorough biographical treatment as well and is shown discussing the contributions she has made—and continues to make—to his career. In many ways this is a joint biography, with Toby emerging as an equal partner (though not, of course, in the musical sense), and her outspokenness is no less engaging than his gregariousness.

Interspersed with the purely biographical material are scenes of Perlman playing in concert with Zubin Mehta, or practicing Bach sonatas with Martha Argerich and a Schubert trio with pianist Evgeny Kissin and cellist Mischa Maisky and sharing jokes with them as they later enjoy some Chinese take-out. Food is also featured in a session with guest Alan Alda. Perlman cooks for him (“garbage soup” he calls the dish), and Alda tells him about his own bout with polio as they share memories of the different treatments—most of them painful—that they endured.

Then there are sequences of Perlman as teacher, encouraging his young charges and then using the Socratic method he once found unhelpful. But these are juxtaposed with plenty of glimpses into Perlman’s life—waiting for a sleeping homeless man to be escorted from a recording studio restroom so he can use it; navigating his electric cart through a snow-covered New York sidewalk; playing the national anthem at a Mets game, or what he says is the most requested item in his repertoire, John Williams’ theme from “Schindler’s List”; visiting a violin store, where the owner shows him an instrument with a swastika and the year “1936” written inside the case, and a repairman who looks over his own beloved Stradivarius; meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu before receiving an award; being awarded a medal by President Obama (while Steven Spielberg, the director of “Schindler’s List” and also a recipient, looks on alongside Barbra Streisand; performing genially in a concert rehearsal with Billy Joel.

“Itzhak” mixes together these various elements, and more, to tell Perlman’s inspiring story, shifting from one to another in a rather random fashion that leaves the movie feeling, to be a honest, a mite shapeless. That’s an adjective, the film demonstrates, that could never be applied to Perlman’s playing; he molds phrases with absolute precision, while filling them with the emotion you can see on his blissful face as he plays. Those moments alone are worth the price of admission—or, if you prefer to wait a bit, turning on your television to your local PBS channel.

BACKSTABBING FOR BEGINNERS

Producer: Lars Knudsen, Nikolaje Vibe Michelsen, Daniel Bekerman and Malene Blenkov
Director: Per Fly
Writer: Per Fly and Daniel Pyne
Stars: Theo James, Ben Kingsley, Belcim Bilgin, Jacqueline Bisset, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson and Brian Markinson
Studio: A24 Films and DirecTV

C

An actual financial scandal at the United Nations becomes a rather tame cinematic thriller in Per Fly’s adaptation of Michael Soussan’s memoir. “Backstabbing for Beginners” adds elements of romance and danger to Soussan’s more staid account of how he was instrumental in revealing the transformation of the UN Oil for Food program, established to provide Iraqis with the basic necessities of life during the time the country was living under heavy sanctions after the First Gulf War, into a mechanism of graft and corruption that benefited Saddam Hussein as well as scores of private companies and some UN officials.

The narrative liberties taken by Fly and Daniel Pyne are undoubtedly the reason why in this telling Soussan has become Michael Sullivan (a bland Theo James), the principled but naïve son of a martyred American diplomat who wants to do good in the world. He is hired as the assistant to the undersecretary in charge of the Oil for Food program (Ben Kingsley), a Cypriot referred to only by the nickname Pasha (which was, in fact, the nickname of Benon Sevan, the real-life undersecretary), who had once crossed paths with Michael’s father and admired him.

Sullivan is immediately thrown into the thick of things, advised by Pasha not to be too vocal about monies that are being siphoned off from the program and whisked off to Baghdad with his boss for a meeting with Iraq-based program director Christine du Pre (Jacqueline Bisset), who believes that the whole operation is infected with fraud and mismanagement and needs to be shut down after a recent reassessment. Pasha strongly disagrees, admitting that there are flaws but insisting that without the program, ordinary Iraqis wouldn’t get the aid they desperately need.

During this bureaucratic contretemps, Sullivan is approached by his beautiful translator Nashim (Belçim Bilgin), who has an agenda of her own. She wants to reveal to the world Saddam’s manipulation of the aid program to keep supplies from his bitterest rivals, the Kurds, telling Michael that it was an investigation of the matter that led to the murder of his predecessor as Pasha’s assistant. Sullivan’s involvement with her—which soon takes a romantic turn—puts both of them in the crosshairs of the country’s most ruthless enforcer, a fellow named Rasnetsov (Brian Markinson). (It should be noted that many of the entities that profited from all the shenanigans were Russian.) Things prove dangerous even when the couple make their way back to the States, leading to an ending that recalls the one from Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor.”

That 1975 movie was pure fiction, but it was far more exciting than “Backstabbing for Beginners.” That’s not merely the result of the fact that everyone knows how things turned out, but because as scripted by Fly and Pyne, directed by Fly and edited by Susan Shipton, Morton Giese and Janus Billeskov Jansen, the story is told in plodding style, mostly through long dialogue sequences that lack tension—especially since James proves such a dull protagonist, and Bilgrin a beautiful but opaque love interest for him.

There is, however, some compensation in the cunningly extravagant turn delivered by Kingsley. He’s no less histrionic than he was in the recent “An Ordinary Man,” but in that instance his highly theatrical approach merely accentuated the film’s crudely didactic purposes. Here he seems simply to be having fun, tossing out knowing bits of bureaucratic chicanery for the benefit of his supposed disciple with impish glee and spewing colorful invective in an accent that might not be identifiable but is nevertheless amusing. He’s hamming it up, but it’s a tasty meal.

On the visual side the picture is fine, with Brendan Steacy’s camerawork achieving a degree of elegance in both the U.S. and Middle Eastern sequences (shot, of course, in Morocco, standing in for Iraq). Given that North African locale, however, it’s more than a bit ironic that, at one point in his reams of narration, Sullivan notes that Baghdad was like his Casablanca. Winking obliquely in the directio0n of a classic movie it tries to emulate but doesn’t come close to matching is only one of the mistakes made by this highly embellished but pallid account of a real-life scandal.