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Inside RJFF 2014

Rochester Jewish Film Festival 2014 

Inside RJFF 2014

We've nearly reached the midpoint of the summer season, meaning it's once again time for the Rochester Jewish Film Festival, the JCC's annual presentation of some of the world's best in contemporary film focusing on the Jewish cultural experience. Now in its 14th year, the festival continues to expand, screening a record 27 films (including 19 narrative features, 8 documentary features, and 5 shorts) from 10 countries across the globe. Venues showing films include The Little Theatre (240 East Avenue), The George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre (900 East Avenue), and the JCC Hart Theatre (1200 Edgewood Avenue in Brighton).

Read on for a preview of some selections from this year's lineup of films, then visit rjff.org for the full schedule and ticket information. Tickets can also be purchased over the phone by calling 461-2000.

The RJFF's opening night selection is "Bethlehem," a wrenching, suspenseful thriller from Israeli director Yuval Adler, focusing on the relationship between an Israeli secret service officer and his teenage Palestinian informant. For two years, Razi (Tsahi Halevi) has been using 17-year-old Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i) as a source to gather information on the boy's brother, a top-ranking leader in the Palestinian militia. Over that time a bond has developed between the two; Razi has come to feel more like a father figure than anything else. He cares for the boy, and those personal feelings have started to cloud his decisions, creating rippling consequences for the two men and the never-ending cycle of violence that they're caught in. Screens Sunday, July 13, 7:30 p.m. at the Dryden Theatre.

Israeli politico Yehuda Avner's best-selling memoir provides the basis for Oscar-winning director Richard Trank's glossy historical documentary "The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers," the first of a two-part series providing an overview of Israel's complicated political history. Avner himself narrates and serves as the film's sole interview subject. Working for over 25 years as an adviser to the country's most notable prime ministers, Avner is knowledgeable, but the film would have benefitted from an additional point-of-view. As it is, Trank is forced to embellish Avner's words with celebrity appearances (Sandra Bullock, Michael Douglas, Leonard Nimoy, and Christoph Waltz provide voiceovers for each of the prime ministers) and an overbearing musical score, making for an exhaustive, but frustratingly surface-level history lesson. Screens Tuesday, July 15, 6 p.m., at the Little Theatre.

The entertaining documentary, "Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story" offers a breezy trip through the career of the titular influential stand-up comedian, best known for his hilariously satirical biblical sermons. Director Barry Avrich focuses almost exclusively on the professional side of Steinberg's life, crafting a straightforward, chronological summary of Steinberg's career, covering his entry into comedy, his frequent guest appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" (second only to Bob Hope), and finally as a director on episodes of some of the most popular sitcoms in recent memory, including "Seinfeld," "Mad About You," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The frequent clips from the Steinberg's routines are the real highlight here, and that's as it should be. Screens Thursday, July 17, 11 a.m., at JCC Hart Theatre.

The RJFF partners with the ImageOut Film Festival for its presentation of the joyous comedy, "Cupcakes," a candy-colored confection about a friendly group of neighbors in an Tel Aviv apartment complex who come together when they decide to compete in a Eurovision-like pop songwriting contest. Skillfully directed by Eytan Fox (typically known for heart-wrenching dramas like "The Bubble" and "Yossi and Jagger"), the film is a delightful change of pace for the filmmaker. As its name suggests, his latest is just deliciously sweet fun. Screens Thursday, July 17, 9 p.m. and Saturday, July 19, 4 p.m. at the Little Theatre.

In the tense, politically-charged thriller "The Attack," Ali Suliman ("Paradise Now") plays Dr. Amin Jaafari, a respected Arab surgeon living in Tel Aviv, whose existence is shattered after he learns that a deadly suicide bombing attack on the city may have been carried out by his wife. Before he can even begin to process the double blow of losing the love of his life and facing the possibility that she may have been hiding such a terrible secret, he finds himself interrogated by Israeli authorities, who now suspect him of being terrorist himself. As his life is stripped away, he grasps how tenuous his acceptance into Israeli society really was. With nothing to lose, he risks everything in a dangerous quest for answers. Anchored by Suliman's fantastic performance, the film offers a heartbreaking look at culture, identity, and the unfathomable mystery of human nature. Screens Sunday, July 20, 8 p.m. at Dryden Theatre.

The RJFF closes out its year with the farcical heist comedy "Hunting Elephants," in which a socially awkward teen teams up with his estranged grandfather to rob the bank that refuses to pay his father's pension following his fatal heart attack. Silly, but uneven in tone (with an unfortunate misogynistic streak), the film's biggest selling point is an agreeably daft performance from Sir Patrick Stewart. Screens Monday, July 21, 7 p.m., at Dryden Theatre.

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