Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mondells present poignant, must-see 'Monster'


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

The AFI Dallas International Film Festival continued its victory march Monday with the triumphant showing of "The Monster Among Us," a profound, poignant, cautionary and enlightening documentary about the rise of anti-Semitism.

The film mostly inspects European countries but warns that the trend is creeping westward.

The documentary also reminds us how lucky Dallas is to have filmmakers Allen and Cynthia Salzman Mondell in its midst. The Mondells, either jointly or separately, have been responsible for such diverse films as the probing "West of Hester Street," the raucous "The Ladies Room" and, among many others, the whimsical "Make Me a Match."

"The Monster Among Us" ranks with their major accomplishments. The Mondells, aided by daughter Fonya Naomi Mondell, interviewed Jews in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, England and the Ukraine.

"In Europe, Jews and non-Jews live under the shadow of World War II," Cynthia said Monday evening at AMC NorthPark.

Some of the film's most touching comments come from Holocaust survivors.

"If Auschwitz didn't cure the world of anti-Semitism, what will?" a survivor mournfully asks.

Both Allen and Cynthia were surprised at the extent of anti-Semitism. "The scope really surprised us," Allen said. "We weren't aware of what was happening until we started talking to people."

The filmmakers found several explanations for the rise of anti-Semitism on European campuses and in cities. Israeli-Palestinian battles definitely raised the ire of anti-Semites. Some feel that guilt over the Holocaust had rendered Jews "untouchable," and now enough time has passed to allow an "open season" for Jew-haters. Others feel that Europeans have never fully owned up to the Holocaust and try to divert guilt by promoting anti-Semitism.

"The Monster Among Us" is a must-see. It will be shown again Wednesday, 4:30 p.m., at the Angelika.

SO HOW'S MEL?: Sorry, folks, I know it's old news, but any forum on anti-Semitism brings Mel Gibson to mind. He's publicly apologized for his July 2006 drunken anti-Semitic tirade. But the words still sting enough to generate a few after-thoughts.

Many anti-Semites like to characterize Jews as rich, stingy and obnoxious. Because Gibson's anti-Semitic remarks were so widely publicized, other statements made that night have been underplayed. He reportedly yelled at the arresting officers, "Don't you know who I am? I own Malibu!"

How's that for "rich and obnoxious"?

On several occasions, Variety editor Peter Bart has taken Gibson to task for not giving bonuses to those who toiled on the difficult, sometimes painful filming of "The Passion of the Christ," often for smaller paychecks than they usually receive. Bart pointed out that when "Star Wars" hit so big, George Lucas gave extra dividends to many of the film's participants.

"Stingy," anyone?

I first became suspicious of Gibson's inner bigot when reading his Playboy interview over a decade ago. He said that Steven Spielberg had offered him the lead in "Schindler's List," but he declined because he felt "the Holocaust had been done to death." A rather cavalier way to dismiss the 20th century's most horrific tragedy.

Later, I asked Spielberg if he had offered "Schindler" to Gibson. The usually discreet director emphatically stated, "No! Never!" I had the distinct impression that Spielberg was restraining himself from saying more.

I've interviewed Gibson often through the years and found him charming and chatty during group interviews but defensive and edgy during one-on-one sessions. His most revealing interview came in 1993 for "The Man Without a Face," which he directed and starred in two years prior to "Braveheart."

In it, he played a disfigured burn victim with the soul of a poet. During group interviews, he seemed sincere when saying that he hoped his film would make people more tolerant and not judge people so harshly.

But I had heard of a Spanish publication that printed a Gibson interview containing anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks. (I hate to admit it, but I heard about it on Joan Rivers' old late-night show.) I brought it up during our one-on-one interview.

At that time, he denied being anti-Semitic, saying that he had been quoted out of context. But he admitted believing that gays would "burn in hell" because their way of life went against God's plan for procreation.

I left the interview thinking that "The Man Without a Face" should be re-named "The Man With Two Faces."

STRONG "LULLABY": Film festivals are ideal showcases for fresh talent, and first-time feature director Jeffrey Goodman has a winner with "The Last Lullaby."

The film has a classic noir plot. Tough guy Tom Sizemore shows his soft side as a hitman hired to murder a young woman who may present damaging testimony at an upcoming trial. As you might expect, Sizemore falls in love with his prey, but the unraveling of the surrounding mystery provides solid entertainment.

Shot in a remarkable 22 days, "The Last Lullaby" has taut dialog and dynamic action scenes. It also has stronger human interaction than many films of this type.

Director Goodman lists "The French Connection," "Straight Time," "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "Heat" among his inspirations. But the unveiling of family secrets may remind many of "Chinatown."

The AFI Dallas film fest will repeat "The Last Lullaby" Friday, 4:15 p.m. at the Magnolia.

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