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Playing With a Stacked Deck: Rebekah Johnson and Ben Foster forge a friendship that defies period constraints in Barry Levinson's 'Liberty Heights.'

Alternative Vision

'Liberty Heights' and 'Man Is Woman' lead off the Jewish Film Festival

By Richard von Busack

IN ITS CONSISTENTLY warm and upbeat look at anti-Semitism and racism, Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights seems like a pilot for a high-quality TV program. As a movie, however, Liberty Heights is episodic and bland. The film follows the Kurtzman family through a year in the early '50s in Liberty Heights, an affluent Jewish suburb of Baltimore. As a cover for his numbers racket, the head of the family, Nate (Joe Mantegna), runs a decaying burlesque house in Baltimore's famous red-light district, The Block. Son Ben (Ben Foster) initiates a sincere romance with an African American girl named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson) who has integrated his class. Ben's older brother Van (Adrien Brody) is also involved with someone who--in the logic of Maryland in the 1950s--is outside his race: namely, a WASP princess named Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy).

Brody's contrast of strong facial features and smooth, underplayed manners makes him one of the most interesting young actors today. And there are pleasurable moments in this film: a shot of a car pulling up in front of the Fells Point Diner, scene of Levinson's early film Diner, and a PG burlesque routine scored to tunes by Tom Waits.

Occasionally, raw patches show through the film's golden, nostalgic surface. A sign outside a country club reading "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds" reminds of how shameless bigotry was only a short 40-plus years ago. But the operative idea here is of a softer, innocent era, and even that hateful sign is dismissed with a joke. Liberty Heights exemplifies why some people become impatient with nostalgia: it's because of that troubling suspicion that someone is leaving out key bits of a story to spare himself or his listeners.

Liberty Heights is one of more than a dozen films in the Alternative Jewish Film Festival, which runs Feb. 23-27. The festival gets under way Wednesday with Man Is Woman. In Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's comedy, Antoine des Caunes plays Simon, a French Jewish gay man who works as a bar pianist--a job, as fans of Shoot the Piano Player know, that breeds cynicism. But when he starts playing the clarinet that his father bequeathed him, a change comes over Simon, and he becomes interested in klezmer music. Bewitched by his playing at a wedding, Rosalie (Elsa Zylberstein) proposes to Simon, who accepts in order to make his pestering family lay off. Simon heads for America with Rosalie and finds his in-laws to be a robustly Orthodox family, including a surly father-in-law, a knife-wielding mom and pair of humorless bearded brothers.

Other entries in this year's festival include Florentene (Part II), five new episodes of a popular TV drama from Israel; and a daylong screening of documentaries, including the highly acclaimed The Life and Time of Hank Greenberg.


The Alternative Jewish Film Festival runs Feb. 23-27. The Final Resolution and Man Is Woman play Feb. 23 at 7pm at the Capitola Theater. Liberty Heights plays Feb. 24 at 7pm (and continues a regular run) at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz. Florentene (Part II) plays Feb. 26 at 7pm at Stevenson 150, UCSC. Documentary Sunday plays Feb. 27, starting at noon at UCSC Media Theater (with The Life and Time of Hank Greenberg at 5:30pm). Full-disclosure Department: Metro Santa Cruz is one of the media sponsors of the festival.

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From the February 23-March 1, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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