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Jests in Time 

Corporate pranksters skewering the suits are among the standouts of SF Jewish Film Festival


The good thing about the very obedient is that they are very credulous. The Yes Men Fix the World plays as part of the traveling series of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, screening Aug. 8&–10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center. The film is the follow-up to The Yes Men, the Dan Ollman&–Sarah Price documentary of 2003. Regardless of the serious prank-power of Sacha Baron Cohen, the antics of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (who directed) are even funnier: the arrow of the humor is pointed at corporate cads instead of a pack of Arkies out for a night of cheap beer and wrestling.

The Yes Men's long-running prank is to insinuate themselves into think tanks, press conferences and trade shows, pretending to be representatives of name-brand corporations. Using "cheap suits and fake websites" (and some weird PowerPoint demonstrations), the Yes Men drop Dow Chemical's stock by three points. Posing as representative "Jude Finisterra" ("end of the world"), one member ginned up an interview on the BBC, claiming that Dow was going to at long last reimburse the victims of Bhopal "just because it's the right thing to do."

Later, Bichlbaum and Bonanno travel to that still-blighted city of 1 million; there, they demonstrate that there wasn't much substance to the BBC's face-saving claim that the mean prank had caused Indians to weep bitter tears.

Happily, petrochemical engineers are slightly cannier. Take the Yes Men's unveiling of "vivoleum," a human-corpse-based fuel, at the Go Expo in Calgary, which even the "childlike exuberance of a great industry" can't quite swallow.

Later, they pose as unusually benign government officials at a New Orleans presser, sharing the stage with the city's mayor and the governor of Louisiana. When exposed, one Yes Man claims that his partner, the bogus HUD official, is odd because "he just got here from France." This could be called the Conehead Defense. The Yes Men Fix the World screens Aug. 9.

Some other standouts at the festival include Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (Aug. 8), which resurrects some episodes from a mostly forgotten multimedia phenomenon. The Goldbergs, a long-running situation comedy about Jewish life, leapt from radio (1929&–'46) to television (1949&–'56). Gertrude Berg's Molly Goldberg, the ultimate Jewish mama, entertained millions and even mentioned the Holocaust.

The episodes revived here aren't exactly the TV version of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, but they're a certainly a revelation about the seriousness and power of early television. Berg, in character as Mrs. Goldberg, sells Sanka in one-minute wraparounds to the main show. This is all the better to avoid interruptions for the main comedy-drama, which is laugh-track and zinger-free.

Filmed on a small set, the action takes place in a crowded apartment, with dumbwaiter and airshaft opening up the space to neighbors who shout new information. The episode "Matchmaker" has Gertrude trying to stretch a boiled chicken dinner to all the eligible men crowding in to court Gertrude's niece. Surprisingly old-country faces and voices show up in this episode. The window The Goldbergs provides into postwar Jewish urban life is more than just a TV show's painted backdrop.

The erstwhile crowdpleaser Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger (Aug. 8) gives you fair warning in the title. Thirteen-year-old Esther (Danielle Cantanzariti) of Adelaide, Australia, jumps the fence of her cruel private school and encounters a public-school rebel, a surly half-Maori girl called, perhaps ironically, Sunny (Keisha Castle-Hughes from Whale Rider). At first, Castle-Hughes shows Malcolm McDowell&–like levels of cockiness, but she gets monotonously mannered, looking as morosely diffident as Richard Burton when his heart wasn't in a film.

More intriguing, if ultimately disenchanting, is Israel's Seven Minutes in Heaven (Aug. 9). Galia (Reymonde Amsellem) is in an aura state following a trauma; she was clinically dead for seven minutes after a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem. Far more interesting than director Omri Givon's M. Night Shyamalanesque touches is all the stuff the director took from life before he shaped it for metaphysics. This is what seems real, and must be happening every day: Galia's thorny feelings, the itching of her scar tissue and the dialogue with record keepers who deal with the bombings. Their interchange goes thus: "Were you in the one at the mall?" "No, the one on the bus." "French Hill?" "No, at the city center." "Ah, God, that was horrible."

The 29th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screens 13 films Saturday&–Monday, Aug. 8&–10, at the Smith Rafael Film Center. 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. Times vary. 415.454.1222.

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