Natalie Portman fans will get their chance to experience the Oscar-winning actress’ filmmaking chops this weekend with the theatrical launch of A Tale of Love and Darkness, which she also wrote based on a memoir. Portman also stars in the Focus World release, which debuted in Cannes last year. It’s not this weekend’s only new film to focus on Jews in the post-World War II era, though the stories are very different. Cohen Media Group is taking the Lola Award-winning film German film The People vs. Fritz Bauer to New York and Los Angeles today ahead of a platform rollout. A24 is opening Sundance script winner Morris from America in theaters, while Magnolia will bow Werner Herzog’s fellow Sundance premiere Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World in a day-and-date rollout.

A Tale of Love and Darkness
Director-writer: Natalie Portman
Writer: Amos Oz
Cast: Natalie Portman, Shira Haas, Ohad Knoller, Makram Khoury
Distributor: Focus World

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Focus World

A Tale of Love and Darkness is Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman’s debut feature directorial and also marks Focus World’s return to releasing foreign-language films as well as documentaries.

The story is based on the memoirs of Israeli writer-journalist Amos Oz (Amir Terrler), growing up in Jerusalem in the years before Israeli statehood with Arieh (Gilad Kahana), his academic father, and Fania (Portman), his dreamy, imaginative mother. Arieh was cautiously hopeful for the future after moving to then-Palestine, but Fania wanted much more. The terror of the war and running from home had been followed by the tedium of everyday life, which weighed heavily on Fania’s spirit. Unhappy in her marriage and intellectually stifled, she would make up stories of adventures to cheer herself up and entertain her 10-year-old son Amos — stories that later would influence him. When independence didn’t bring the renewed sense of life that Fania had hoped for, she slipped into solitude and sadness. Unable to help her, Amos was forced to say an untimely goodbye, and as he witnessed the birth of Israel, he had to come to terms with his own new beginning.

Focus World became involved with the title at the beginning of the year as part of its “strategic decision” to include docs and foreign work on its slate again. A Tale of Love and Darkness is in Hebrew. “It’s a novel dear to her heart, and we’re excited to be a part of it,” a Focus World rep said. “It’s attractive to have her as a first-timer behind the camera.” Portman, who also wrote the screenplay, spent a decade on the project. “The subject matter appealed to us in addition to the fact she’s writing, directing and starring.”

The company is eyeing the counterprogramming angle, hoping to tap fatigued audiences that have been fed a heavy dose of tentpoles now that it’s hitting late summer. A Tale of Love and Darkness’ release today also fits with Portman’s schedule ahead of her obligations at next month’s Toronto International Film Festival, where she has two films in addition to wrapping up filming on another, according to the distributor. This week, she has appeared on GMA, Charlie Rose and NPR’s All Things Considered. She’ll also do Q&As on Friday in New York and Saturday in Los Angeles.

Focus World is focusing on the older Jewish audience particularly, as well as the broader art house-goer. The company said that its foreign-language and documentary releases will be traditional roll outs and that about half of its half-dozen or so yearly releases will be of the two genres. Day and date releases will continue for their English-language narratives.

A Tale of Love and Darkness opens today at the Sunshine in New York and the Landmark in West L.A. before heading to about 18 locations in 10 markets next week.

Morris from America
Director-writer: Chad Hartigan
Cast: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Patrick Güldenberg, Levin Henning, Leon Badenhop
Distributor: A24

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A24

Writer-director Chad Hartigan began Morris from America by collecting a few anecdotes from his own adolescence, with the aim to develop a coming-of-age story. In January 2012 he began writing a script and eventually finished the first draft in April, 2013. “That’s about an average amount of time for me,” said Hartigan. “There were weeks when I didn’t touch it at all, but when I have a first draft, I’m usually pretty stoked with it and ready to show friends.”

Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner had won an Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. He wrote several German producers asking for a meeting, mentioning he had a new project following his festival win. After meeting with producer Martin Heisler of Lichtblick Media at the Munich Film Festival, the project was ready to head to the next phase.

The coming-of-age comedy centers on Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas), a 13-year-old who has just relocated with his single father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), to Heidelberg, Germany. Morris, who fancies himself the next Notorious B.I.G., is a complete fish out of water — a budding hip-hop star in an EDM world. To complicate matters further, Morris quickly falls hard for his cool, rebellious, 15-year-old classmate Katrin (Lina Keller). Morris sets out against all odds to take the hip-hop world by storm and win the girl of his dreams.

“Luckily [Heisler] was already connected with the German financing system, so we started applying for regional and national funds,” said Hartigan. “It was a slow process, but in the meantime, we also got Beachwood Pictures [in the U.S.] involved with some equity. We also got [American producers] Sara Murphy and Adele Romanski on board.”

The filmmaking team also began looking for the adolescent actor to play young Morris. Initially, a casting director in Los Angeles held auditions, but the perfect fit proved elusive. “Nobody blew my skirt up,” said Hartigan. “So we did open auditions, but hardly anyone showed up. I started to get worried, but then some friends of mine had seen a YouTube video with Markees Christmas who [seemed perfect].” Hartigan contacted YouTube, which put the two in contact in early fall 2014.

A first round of funding reaped €600K, but it was decided to go for more. Hartigan also wanted to shoot in the summer consistent with the script. “We decided to push and we did get more money,” said Hartigan. “We shot in the summer of 2015 over 27 days. I always have a good time on set, and because Markees has a warm infectious energy, it was impossible to get too stressed out.”

The title shot with an all German-crew minus the DP, Sean McElwee, who Hartigan went to film school with. Hartigan said the by-product of working with children meant that shoot days could only last from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., so he had the chance to hang out with friends in the evenings. Post also took place in Germany.

Morris from America debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. It went on to screen at various fests including SXSW and Sundance London. A24 opens the title today at the Angelika in New York and Arclight in L.A.ahead of additional markets in the coming weeks.Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Director: Werner Herzog
Subjects: Lawrence Krauss, Kevin Mitnick, Elon Musk, Lucianne Walkowicz
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

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Magnolia Pictures

Magnolia picked up Werner Herzog’s latest docu, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World following its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The feature chronicles the virtual world from its origins to the outermost reaches, exploring the digital landscape. In the film, Herzog leads viewers on a journey through a series of provocative conversations that reveal the way in which the online world has transformed how virtually everything in the real world works from business to education, space travel to healthcare, and the very heart of how most people conduct their personal relationships.

“We are longtime admirers of Werner, and we were very excited to collaborate with him on the release of this film, which we think is incredibly topical and entertaining,” said Magnolia’s SVP Marketing and Publicity Matt Cowal. “There is an established core, art house film-going audience for Herzog documentaries, which we of course we are targeting with release. That said, the subject matter of this film lends itself to a younger, tech-savvy audience as well, and we’ve done publicity and word of mouth screening outreach in that community.”

Cowal added that Herzog has also become a mainstay on the internet, so the company has been “carefully taking advantage” of that. Several publicity hits for the film have received “huge viral pickup,” according to Cowal, leading into the film’s rollout this weekend. “His takes on Pokémon Go and Kanye West’s “Famous” video [have been popular,” added Cowal. “The scope of the publicity campaign has been phenomenal, and we’re really excited about the level of awareness.”

Among Herzog’s documentaries, his 2011 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (IFC Films) grossed more than $5.3 million and his 2005 feature Grizzly Man cumed $3.17 million back in 2005. Music Box released his most recent doc, Happy Together: A Year in the Taiga, in January 2013 in one theater, grossing $10,481 in its opening weekend, going on to cume nearly $339K theatrically.

“We felt that there was a good window to take advantage of on this date,,” Cowal said, “and that’s been borne out by the success of our publicity campaign and the strong theatrical footprint that we’ve booked for the film, which is opening day and date this Friday in most major markets.”

Theatrically, Magnolia will open Lo and Behold in more than three dozen locations in major markets around the U.S., including the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York and the Nuart in Los Angeles. The title will continue to open additional markets through the rest of summer and into the fall.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer
Director-writer: Lars Kraume
Writer: Olivier Guez
Cast: Burghart Klaussner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Lilith Stangenberg, Jörg Schüttauf, Sebastian Blomberg, Michael Schenk, Rüdiger Klink, Laura Tonke, Götz Schubert, Paulus Manker, Cornelia Gröschel, Tilo Werner, Dani Levy, Robert Atzorn
Distributor: Cohen Media Group

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Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group was eyeing Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer in the script stage but picked up the title for North America at last year’s AFM.

Set in 1957 Germany, the feature centers on Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), who receives crucial evidence on the whereabouts of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk). The lieutenant colonel responsible for the mass deportation of the Jews allegedly is hiding in Buenos Aires. Bauer, himself Jewish, has been trying to take crimes from the Third Reich to court ever since his return from Danish exile, but he has had no success so far due to fierce German determination to repress its sinister past. Because of his distrust in the German justice system, Bauer contacts the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and, by doing so, commits treason. Rather than seeking revenge for the Holocaust, Bauer is concerned with Germany’s future.

“It’s well made, and we’ve been very enthusiastic about it,” said Cohen Media Group chief Charles Cohen. “It’s a story most people are not aware of. The film did very well in Germany with 2 [million] to 3 million admissions.” Cohen said that along with Jewish audiences, the distributor is working with publicists on both the East and West coasts to target “forward thinking audiences” in addition to working with a “grassroots publicist” to target various Jewish communities.

“We have high expectations,” he added. “Audiences are responding to it. Its production values are significant for its budget.” The People vs. Fritz Bauer won four German Film Awards this year, including Outstanding Feature Film and Best Lead Actor for Klaussner.

New York-based Cohen Media Group is releasing 10 films this year. It next will open the reissue of Howards End on August 26. “This was a big year for us,” added Cohen. “We released a film pretty much every month, sometimes two. Perhaps too many.”

The company opens The People vs. Fritz Bauer at Lincoln Plaza and a downtown location in New York and at the Royal in Los Angeles today. It will add several other cities and locations in the coming weeks with a platform release that will follow box office.