PICKS OF THE WEEK
Israel; Scandar Copti/Yaron Shani, 2009
Israel's nominee for the 2009 foreign-language film Oscar is an engrossing realistic thriller with convincing characters and a real background: the mixed Jewish, Arab-Muslim and Arab-Christian communities of Ajami, a neighborhood of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. The story is told out of sequence, continually doubling back, as if we were detectives piecing together the facts behind several deaths and murders, a series of crises which keep escalating into bloodier conflicts, worse misunderstandings.
The writer-directors are an Arab/Jewish team, and co-director Copti is also one of the actors, playing Arab Binj, one of the victims. One character, Dando, who's an often brutal Jewish cop (and himself a victim of violence), is played, extremely well, by an actual Jewish ex-cop, Eran Naim. The whole film is shot in that pseudo-documentary style (like the one Kathryn Bigelow uses in The Hurt Locker), where the actors are offhand or explosive and the camera keeps moving and jiggling.
I sometimes think that the Middle East's problems might start to be solved if the area's filmmakers were running their countries instead of the politicians. Israel produces some of the most humanistic and moving films around, and so does Iran. And this movie, even while its story tells of discord and tragedy, shows what people from different communities can do together, if they rise above hatred and division, and make an artistic community of their own. (In Arab and Israeli, with English subtitles.)
Black Orpheus (A-)
France: Marcel Camus, 1959, Criterion Collection
This update of the hellbound-lovers legend of Orpheus and Eurydice was one of the biggest Arthouse hits of the '50s, winner of both the foreign-language film Oscar and the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or. It remains one of the great, entrancing foreign-language musical films, even if Pauline Kael did memorably ridicule its pop classicism. ("I'm Orpheus." "I'm Eurydice." "Then we must be in love.")
That classic status holds not so much because of the crowd-pleasing charm of the dazzlingly attractive leads -- the bossa nova strumming Breno Mello as streetcar conductor/Casanova Orfeu, and the heartbreakingly lovely Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice, but from the constant surging samba beat and the wildly infectious melodies that inspire the entire cast to strut and wiggle and hip-shake from the first beat to the last cry.
Rio de Janiero has rarely looked as inviting, as beguilingly low-down or sweetly romantic, as full of nonstop high spirits and delight. The engaging, high-spirited cast includes Lourdes de Oliveira as the vixen and love-rival Mira, Lea Garcia as Eurydice's bubbly friend and matchmaker Serafina, and the skeletal, masked, black-clad and sinister Adhemar Ferreira da Silva as Death. Jacques Viot's script is constructed with lyrical inevitability, like a song you hear once and can't forget. Marcel Camus, who never topped this high point, directs this film with an energy and romanticism that never flag.
There are two other members of the "Orfeu Negro" company who are probably auteurs as much as Camus or Viot: the movie's incredible Brazilian composers Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim, two giants just being introduced to a rapturous world. (Extras: interviews with Camus, Dawn, scholars Robert Stam, jazz critic Gary Giddins and author Ruy Castro; Looking for Black Orpheus dockumentary; trailer; booklet with Michael Atkinson essay.)
U.K.-U.S.: Kenneth Branagh, 1996, Warner
Kenneth Branagh may have been too obsessed with trumping the great Shakespearean movie man Laurence Olivier, when -- as director-star-scenarist -- he made this version of Hamlet in 1996 after his lauded film of Henry V in 1989. (Olivier, of course, had done the same thing as star/director of his classic film versions of Henry V and Hamlet in 1945 and 1948.)
But it's still an exhilarating attempt, and I'm glad we have it. Here Branagh not only takes on the double challenge of matching or surpassing Oliver's triumphs, but tries to give us a Hamlet of unprecedented faithfulness and rare scope. He sets it in a Scandinavian castle, with Bergmanesque atmosphere. He plays the gloomy Dane himself and turns Hamlet into a hugely ambitious production, a rare movie performance of the complete four-hour-plus play -- which is almost always trimmed on stage or in the movies.
The cast, both splendid and wildly idiosyncratic, includes Kate Winslet as Hamlet's fair nymph Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as his stepfather, the murderous usurper King Claudius, Julie Christie as Hamlet's too-susceptible mother Gertrude, Brian Blessed as his father the Ghost, Michael Maloney as hothead Laertes and Richard Briers as a shaggy Polonius. Backing them up is a remarkable all-star Hollywood cameo cast including Charlton Heston as the magisterial Player King, Rosemary Harris, Judi Dench and John Gielgud in his company, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger, Robin Williams as the foppish Osric, and Timothy Spall and Reece Dinsdale as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Crazy as some of this seems, this is still a magnificent cast, and its still an often brilliant film of one of the world's greatest plays.
Branagh's Hamlet has only one big flaw, and it may have been avoidable: It's Branagh as Hamlet. Branagh breathes heroism and exudes brash confidence and self-certainty, even when he's trying his best to be, as Olivier put it, "a man who could not make up his mind." He looks like someone who could have wiped out Claudius on first sight.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Mexican Melodrama (A-)
Mexico; various directors, 1933-1950, Cinematica/Facets
The two incredible melodramas in this set are landmarks of '30s and '50s Mexican film history that most of us Luis Buñuel-centric Anglos have probably missed. Both beautifully shot in highly evocative, noir-tinged black-and-white by the great ex-Hollywood cinematographer Alex Phillips (Gabriel Figueroa's only rival in the Mexican industry and the father of the Alex Phillips Jr., who shot Yanco), both co-starring the Garboesque Mexican film siren Andrea Palma and both going way past the usual bounds of melodrama to achieve orgasmic gangster musical delight (Aventurera) and a downbeat lyrical naturalism that recalls not just film noir but French poetic realism (Woman of the Port), these are wildly entertaining or wildly sad movies that will amaze and tantalize any buff.
The Woman of the Port (A)
Mexico; Arcady Boytler, 1933
The mood mixes Josef Von Sternberg and Julien Duvivier. A pure-hearted young girl, Rosario (Palma) loses her virginity (in images that suggest the Russian genius Dovzhenko's pastoral lyricism), her good name and her father's life to her faithless, lying cad of a boyfriend. Drifting to prostitution on the docks, Rosario plummets toward a genuinely shocking resolution. Voted one of the 10 best Mexican films of all time; you'll know why after you've seen it.
Mexico; Alberto Gout, 1950
Cross Carmen Miranda with Charo and Betty Hutton in your mind, and you may get some idea of the sheer musical/sexual voltage of star Ninon Sevilla, a snapping-eyed, hip-shaking, seductively wiggling musical temptress, who, as adventuress Elena, falls from middle-class respectability to show business and becomes the pawn of a queen of the cabaret underworld played by Andrea Palma (see above). This movie has everything, including a heist, a shoot-out, drunken antics at a society party, secret family scandals erupting everywhere, head-bashing night club brawls and an honest-to-goodness Chiquita Banana number, with Elena barely covered by the bananas.
The music (by Alberto Dominguez, Antonio Diaz Condi and Agustin Lara) is fantastic. The wickedly entertaining script (by Alvaro Custodia and Carlos Sampelayo) is a knockout, packed with jaw-droppers and show-stoppers. Alberto Gout directs it all with panache and unbuttoned verve, as if he were doing the Busby Berkeley versions of Gilda and Love Me or Leave Me. You may think you've seen something like Aventurera, but you're wrong. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Back-up Plan (D-)
U.S.; Alan Poul, 2010, Sony
If you don't have a back-up plan when you wander into The Back-up Plan, the new Jennifer Lopez picture, you may regret it -- because you'll be condemned to watch this silly-ass movie, with no relief in sight. Unless you're dippy about Jen Lopez, you'll suffer for it, trapped in yet another glossy, dopey, preachy, cliché-strangled Hollywood wannabe romantic comedy, in which a spectacularly gorgeous couple -- Lopez as stunner yuppie Zoe and Australian leading man Alex O'Loughlin as studly farmer/cheesemaker Stan -- behave like ninnies for a couple of hours, before happiness finally blooms.
In The Backup Plan, Jennifer Lopez's Zoe starts out as fed up with men and dating, and so desperate for motherhood, that she decides -- for reasons that certainly baffled me -- to be artificially inseminated. In the first of many dubious plot twists, the newly preggers Zoe immediately meets the man of her dreams, cheesemaker Stan.
Smitten, Zoe hides her pregnancy, for a while at least, and the two woo each other to a fare-thee-well, donning chic or sexy wardrobes, uttering earthy but chic thoughts, leaping into bed and embracing huge pillows, roaming around chi-chi Manhattan nibbling chic goodies (and cheese), setting moonlit restaurant tables amusingly on fire, trading quips with wisecracking buddies, and learning all the valuable life lessons any Manhattan yuppie worth her sea salt or any Aussie leading man needs to know.
The Square (B)
Australia; Nash Edgerton, 2008, Apparition
This Australian neo-noir, which takes the Double Indemnity-Blood Simple guilty-lovers plot to another murderous extreme, keeps us on the hook with a series of bloody jolts, tense set-pieces and gruesome twists -- all handled by a very capable cast that includes David Roberts as the probable "square" of the title, Raymond Yale, an increasingly nervous building contractor who sometimes bends the rules and here breaks them entirely when his adulterous lover Carla (Claire van der Boom) pulls him into a vortex of crime.
Her scheme, which begins going wrong almost immediately, also involves her crooked husband Smithy (Anthony Hayes), his skuzzy mates, a bad-tempered arsonist named Billy (played by co-writer Joel Edgerton, Nash's brother) and Billy's unreliable girlfriend (Lisa Bailey). Sternly looking down on them all is Raymond's boss Gil, a good Edward G. Robinson equivalent, played by that very fine Australian actor Bill Hunter.
There are lots of shocks here, and the whole movie has a dark hue and extremely hard edges -- and a sheer toughness befitting Edgerton's decades-long background as a stunt man and stunt expert. He's the first of his profession perhaps to break through as a director since Burt Reynolds' buddy Hal Needham. (Edgerton uses better scripts.) Accompanying the feature is Nash Edgerton's excellent prize-winning short "Spider," in which Nash also stars, and which has a deadlier shock than anything in The Square.
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (B)
U.S.; Aviva Kempner, 2009, New Video Group
Aviva Kempner's treasurable documentary on Molly Goldberg herself, the great Gertrude Berg -- and on her golden decades on radio (where the Goldbergs originated) and on TV, with the smash-hit Jewish family comedy show about Molly and her brood in the Bronx -- is both a splendid reminiscence of a superb, too often neglected actress and show, and a stinging portrait of a black list tragedy.
That's, of course, the sad tale of the destruction of the career of Berg's costar Philip Loeb, who played Molly's hubby (perfectly) on the air, but who ended up losing his gig when the morons from Red Channels and the like called him a Commie. (Berg herself tried hard to help Loeb stay on the show, and later to start it up again and bring him back.) Finally, the one-time actors' union activist Loeb lost heart and killed himself, inspiring the onscreen black list suicide scene played by Loeb's friend (and host), Zero Mostel, in The Front.
This is a terrific little movie, not least because Kempner so obviously adores her subject: the zaftig, beaming, endlessly resourceful and funny Berg, who understood families, especially Jewish families, like few other show-biz greats, and whose work as actress and writer inspired a flood of classic family TV sitcoms after her, from I Love Lucy to All in the Family and Roseanne.
Molly and the Goldbergs were sometimes damned as stereotypes. But the movie, I think, proves that her humor defused rather than fed any prejudices. Unfortunately, there are few Molly Goldberg videos or DVDs available today. But perhaps this fine, infinitely lovable little movie will inspire some kinescope-unearthing efforts for a future DVD.
Anyway, it's good to see Molly again. And to remember how warmly and well she drew us into her window and into her world, with a simple "Yoo hoo."