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An esteemed neurologist, 72-year-old Harvard University professor Dr. Howard Weiner has devoted his life to the treatment of serious diseases like Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis (MS) — his primary area of expertise — both at the University and at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he directs the department of immunology. Given the life and death nature of his profession, the doctor was able to approach his next career move — that of filmmaker—with an attitude of nonchalance.  His award-winning documentary “What is Life?” premiered in 2011.

Perhaps contemplating his own future scenario as one of the ranks of the elderly, Weiner began working on a literary treatment of what could be best designated as a “bromance,” the touching and funny story of the offbeat camaraderie that develops between two very different men who meet in a nursing home. Finally brought to fruition as a film script, the project and its potential for success were linked to two important elements, the portrayal of the yin and yang that drives the friendship, and the ability to convey an authentic experience of life in a nursing home, in its sometimes mundane, and often fearful, aspects. The location, inside and out, had to be a real one. 

“If you look at old people from above, you make them children; if you look at them from below, you put them on a pedestal. These are real people. I mean, teenage boys talk like [the characters in the movie.] There’s nothing wrong with older people talking like that. Tolstoy said when he was 80, ‘I’m 80, but inside I feel 20,’” Weiner said when interviewed about the film, which was selected as a 2017 entry at the Tribeca Film Festival.

With a bit of tweaking from Weiner’s son, a successful screenwriter with well-known credits to his name, the script was polished, and in 2016 the filming of “Abe and Phil’s Last Poker Game” commenced, directed by Weiner himself. Among its financial backers were a number of his medical colleagues, who stepped up to the plate even after being warned that they would probably lose their shirts.

Filmed on the premises of an assisted living facility close to Boston, the movie shines a light on the talents of its two seasoned co-stars, the late Martin Landau and Paul Sorvino, both of whom were able work with Weiner to enhance character development, and illuminate the metamorphosis of their onscreen relationship. Landau was cast as the home’s most recent inmate, retired physician Dr. Abe Mandelbaum, who is resigned to going gently into that good night, but whose plans are detoured by the life-affirming personality of his blue collar pal, lusty fellow resident Phil Nicoletti (Sorvino). The friendship they form provides each with a renewed perspective. After a new employee attempts to locate her long lost father at the home, the boys, both eager to indulge in the joys of having a daughter, jockey for the role. As to be expected, the narrative is greased with a pound or two of schmaltz, and is punctuated by a few over the top high jinks, and perhaps too much detail on the specifics of geriatric medical conditions. With Landau’s final performance reviewed by Variety as “a thing of beauty,” “Abe and Phil” can be described as one of a handful of brave and engaging films that compassionately recognize the emotional consequences of the losses inevitable to the aging process. 


Co-sponsored with Manhattan’s Jewish Museum, The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s eagerly anticipated 27th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, which took place from Jan. 10-23, showcased a wide variety of offerings from around the world, many of which were announced as New York, American or international premieres. Catering to a diverse audience, the screenings included “Across the Waters,” a World War II drama about the ferrying of Danish Jews to Sweden, during the time of Nazi persecution, and a newly restored version of the haunting 1937 Yiddish classic “The Dybbuk.” The film festival also included “The Cousin,” an Israeli thriller in Hebrew and Arabic about a Jewish actor who comes to the defense of his Palestinian handyman, after he is accused of a violent crime. Sam Pollard’s “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a 2017 documentary about the life of the multi-talented entertainer who converted to Judaism during the height of his career was also shown.

Jewish film festivals will soon open in Atlanta and San Diego.

Movie Trailer: “Abe and Phil’s Last Poker Game”


Sorvino and Landau, in their elements


Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B’nai B’rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.