AN HONEST LIAR
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Unrated: Suitable for all audiences.
Professional magician, escape artist and 1986 MacArthur “genius grant” winner James Randi misleads people all the time. Luckily he created his hoaxes not for profit but to debunk idiocies, discredit charlatans and encourage critical thinking. He combines an actor’s sense of stagecraft, an encyclopedic knowledge of scientific method and a deep dislike for frauds. For more than half a century he has revealed the dishonesty of faith healers, psychic surgeons and pretenders of paranormal powers.
In Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein’s touching and inspiring documentary, Randi is shown to have seriously avoided the truth personally as well.
Now in his late 80s, barely 5 feet tall, long-bearded and walking with a cane, Randi resembles a Tolkien wizard. The film combines extensive present-day interviews with many of his earliest TV appearances, where he escaped from a straitjacket while serenaded with a lady singer’s love songs. There is affectionate praise from Randi’s magic colleagues Penn Jillette and Jamy Ian Swiss (coincidentally also featured in the fine new documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” which uncovers politically motivated science hokum).
Randi’s detective-like exposé of a prominent scam televangelist reveals wonderful footage. Peter Popoff reached nationwide popularity with claimed God-given powers to know personal information about strangers in his audience and heal the sick. Randi’s ability to disclose Popoff’s religious perjury will make any skeptic stand and applaud. The film’s fixation on frank openness changes its focus as it approaches the end. It becomes a love story drawing Randi to a difficult deception that weighted his heart above all else. That intimate, big-hearted revelation might inspire standing cheers.
Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Not rated; in Hebrew, French and Arabic with English subtitles.
This highly compressed, exquisitely acted tale of two people who do not belong together is the third installment in a saga that, in story terms, runs longer than many marriages. Eleven years ago the sister/brother filmmaking team of Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz introduced a stubborn man and a defiant, divorce-seeking woman in the film “To Take a Wife.” After that came “Seven Days,” revisiting the couple further along their rocky path. Now comes “Gett,” which works as a gripping stand-alone courtroom drama.
A “gett” is a divorce decree obtainable in Israel only through an Orthodox rabbinical court. Viviane is played by Ronit Elkabetz in a performance of shrewdly judged degrees of dignity, panic, anguish and dagger-like glares at the man, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), who refuses to dissolve his brittle, bitter shell of a marriage. As with everyone on screen, his performance comes alive in the silence between the lines, when someone else is doing the talking.
As the film proceeds, we learn more and more about the harsh, one-sided religious law in Israel, and to what degree the rabbis will go to preserve shalom bayit, or domestic harmony. There is no harmony in Vivian’s soul, or in her marriage, which is a beast dominated by control issues more severe than anything in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The film’s pacing is steady without being sluggish, and the Elkabetzes are a bit shameless about prolonging the suspense when someone’s about to sign something momentous. A small matter. This is a film about watching and listening. Each new shot puts us in the position of those trapped in the courtroom, trying to maneuver their way out of it, soul intact.