AJFF What to Watch in September 2021

09/18/2021

An AJFF alum and star-studded addition to the canon of cinematic dance flicks land in theaters this month. Then some classics, and under-the-radar classics are arriving on various streaming platforms. It's a perfect blend of the old and the new, plus one very honorable mention for what's not Jewish about it.

In Theaters

Tango Shalom

Any film with Lanie Kazan in it is immediately on our must-watch list, and Tango Shalom does not disappoint our high expectations. The pedigree is all there: the director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding pairs with Kazan and Oscar-nominated Renee Taylor. Plus there's dancing! Specifically, tango dancing (obviously), wherein a female dancer asks a Chasidic rabbi to enter a televised dance competition. But wait! As an Orthodox Jew, he can't touch her; how's this supposed to work? Hilarity and heartwarming scenes ensue. As the Jewish Journal wrote, the film "is populated by bearded Chassidim—not as caricatures or exotics, but as three-dimensional characters facing life’s dilemmas and joys."


Adventures of a Mathematician

If you missed it at the 2021 AJFF, now is your chance to catch this dramatic historical biopic about the brilliant Polish-Jewish scientist Stan Ulam. Well, specifically October 1 is your chance, but we wanted to make sure you had your plans ready. If you don't know, Ulam was part of the Manhattan Project that brought us atomic weapons and the end of World War II. There's plenty of moral dillema wrapped up in that top-secret initiative, all of which the film carefully susses out from Ulam's eponymous autobiography, from which the screenplay was adapted.


Video on Demand

Freedom Writers (coming to Netflix)

They don't make movies like this anymore, or at least not for the big screen. It's a formula you've seen before, perhaps most memorably in the mid-'90s film Dangerous Minds, but Freedom Writers manages to be both reasonably faithful to its true story roots and compelling all at once. Newly minted high school English teacher Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank) struggles to connect with her at-risk students in gang-torn and racially divided Los Angeles.

But when she exposes the kids to the stories of the Holocaust, including inviting survivors into the classroom, things turn around. If this sounds just a little too good to be true, well, it is a true story. So you might as well enjoy the solid performances from Swank, McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey), and Imelda Staunton (doing a lower key Dolores Umbridge).


The Social Network (coming to Amazon Prime)

Just how Jewish is this movie, written by one of Hollywood's greatest (Jewish) screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin, centered on real-life Mark Zuckerberg (Jewish), and adapted from the probably-not-entirely-accurate book by (Jewish) Ben Mezrich? At least a little.

Early on, we see Zuckerberg partying at the Jewish fraternity on campus, his character being a middle-class Jewish aspirant who wants to break out of his ethnic niche into the life-changing, fun world of Harvard's elite. That he could probably afford to buy Harvard at this point apparently means his character succeeded. Critics largely loved the film, though plenty have pointed out that its conceit of Harvard and Zuckerberg are more than a bit reductive. Either way, it's one of the best films of the century so far.


The Interview (coming to Hulu)

The film itself isn't overwhelmingly Jewish, but as a Seth Rogen joint, it's hard to disentangle his Jewishness from the characters and comedic stylings onscreen. That's true of pretty much all Rogen films, of course, though The Interview does have a scene with James Franco warning North Korea's supreme leader not to touch his friend (Rogen). "Why?" "Because [he's] a Jew..." says Franco. It's funnier in context. Either way, the film is a major part of film history; it led to the infamous hack of Sony Pictures.


Honorable Mention

Love, Simon (coming to Hulu)

Rarely do we include a film for the Jewish bits that are not in it, but there's a first time for everything. In this case, Love, Simon is based on a novel—the much more cleverly titled Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—written by an Atlanta-based psychologist and set in suburban Atlanta—Sandy Springs, to be specific.

Beyond the obvious local tie-in, what piqued our interest was that the book has plenty of Jew-y references, Simon's best friend's bar mitzvah party foremost among them. So we were a little bummed when the movie finally came out, largely stripped of its most Jewish components. Still, some remain: Simon's anonymous gay pen pal "Blue" is clearly Jewish, lighting a hanukkiah. Well... there's always the follow-up novel, all about a bacon-loving Jewish teen from Washington, D.C.