On the Popcorn Aisle — 9 February Offerings 

Fool’s Gold –starring the effervescent charmer, daughter of Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson and the hunk-a-hunka Matt McConnaughey, tried too hard, was a meld of recent Nicholas Cage and Harrison Ford adventures, but somehow failed to ignite–despite charming central characters and mumbly-peg villains who were no more scary than a Saturday-morning kiddie show–any discernible tension or suspense. It was nice looking at the chemistry between Hudson and White Teeth-and-Pecs–but the whole event failed to ignite, despite derring-do on seaplanes, graveyards, grotto caverns, sunken treasure salvaging and a raft of sunny shots of the Caribbean.

Donald Sutherland, estimable in dozens of films, never convinced with his British accent, his spoiled daughter’s ditziness wore thin as soon as she alit from her chopper on Sutherland’s yacht, and the plot holes–how did the trio of brigands find the two salvagers on the island in the pitch of night, without making a sound as they stole up somehow on them? How could Matt escape death umpteen times with merely a chaste scrape over his eyebrow, when others would have severe and debilitating brain damage from head trauma?–left many observers cynical throughout. (I turned and watched their expressions.) Nice scenery, though.

A favorite of mine, though at first I was reluctant to even attend –fearing the documentary would be… icky– Praying with Lior has won world plaudits for its longitudinal film-history of Lior Liebling, a Down Syndrome child of Rabbi Debra (Devorah) Bartnoff. Rabbi Bartnoff died of breast cancer when Lior was still quite young, 6, but director/producer Ilana Trachtman continued the filmography of this charming child in his somewhat unconventional—but lovingly Jewish– family setting. Lior’s father, Mordecai Liebling, a nationally known rabbi and former director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, remarries, a sensitive Lynne Iser, his three siblings struggle to varying effect against the constraints of having a ‘special’ child in the family, and Lior persists with courage, wit, humor and goodwill. Mostly, the elder two manage very well. This viewer was haunted by the youngest daughter, who plaintively tells the camera that she never gets attention, because her brother has always merited the spotlight, in his trajectory to having a bar mitzvah despite his learning disabilities. Bluegrass and klezmer, the ancient Hebrew liturgies and daily prayers, make this a melodic outing perfectly suited to the thrust of Lior’s life: Bar Mitzvah speech and Haftarah. Perhaps most important, Praying with Lior has been hailed for encouraging greater involvement in faith practices for persons with disabilities. Lior shows it can be done—beautifully. Held over an extra week in NYC.

Caramel is a more charming, more surprising, “Steel Magnolias,” set in a Beirut that is pretty much like Boca Raton, from the look of it. It frames the film in cameos of women frequenting, loving, living and working in a beauty salon. The beauteous salon owner, Layale (Nadine Labaki) is in an unhappy affair with a married paramour. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), engaged to a Muslim, agonizes over what will happen when he learns she is not a virgin. There are doctors for that, as the girlfriends bring her for a slight ‘repair,’ just as the practice of plastic surgery runs through the film, the way it might in Rio. Jamale (Gisele Aouad), an aging actress, still gorgeous, competes desperately with younger women for TV commercials, and seamstress Aunt Rose (Siham Haddad), cares for her demented elder sister, Lili (Aziza Semaan). Rose poignantly sacrifices a potential marriage to a distinguished gentleman because of her obligation to Lili. The film winds through the lives of these women, in Arabic—though they are all Christian—and French (English subtitles) in a way that is entirely involving. Most startling to this viewer, of course, is the normalcy of their lives and concerns, without a whiff of the jihadism or chaos we have come to associate, unfortunately, with today’s Lebanon. Excellent being transported back to the lovely looking one-time Beirut, “the Paris of the Mid-East.”

The most heart-warming, and quirkiest, film of the past month is the Israeli film, The Band’s Visit, which takes as it departure point the befuddlement of a musical troupe from Egypt in a forgotten Israeli town. How the eight men in powder-blue oompa-pa uniforms conduct themselves among the little-town inhabitants of Beit Hatikvah is never less than enthralling, instructive, gently amusing and enjoyable. No politics intrude. Just the courtly graces and manners of these lost musicians as they try to get their bearings, find their way through the night, and make plans for getting to the correct city for their inaugural cultural center performance. It pleased from the moment the men arrived on a lonely bus in the broad, deserted spaces of nowhere, and continued through gentle love affairs, near-misses, instructional aids to having a romance for the painfully geeky and shy. Utterly charming.

The Counterfeiters goes Speilberg’s Schindler’s List one better. The true story of a crack printers team which, under the demands of their concentration camp commandos, precisely replicated first the pound sterling, and then, after much deliberate delay, the dollar, to finance the failing nazi armed forces in the waning days of WWII. It is never less than grittily engrossing, brutal, plain—but elevating, as it copes with the moral dilemma of living better than the other camp internees while helping to bring down the economies of the UK and the US.

Ira Sachs’ Married Life stars the ever-beguiling Pierce Brosnan and Patricia Clarkson, the beauteous Rachel McAdams in a restrained performance against the tight-lipped yearning of Chris Cooper. It is a meditation on the grass always being greener in someone else’s bed. As a hothouse study of how married couples make their peace with the barely acceptable versus the unattainable, it is a compelling exercise. The title is a-drip with irony, of course.

For the distaff side, I admit I was not offended by the latest Rambo, starring McCain’s main man, Sly Stallone, with a throng of slim, mean, muck-enrobed “Vietnamese” and sundry US hard-bodies from various TV shows. It features that unusual coda: The Americans get their men (and woman) and we are the undisputed good guys, limned against the nastiness and cruelties of the Viet Cong captors and whatnot. It doesn’t really matter what the plot is, but lots of heads pop off, blood spurts from bisected ‘enemies,’ leaping and special effects are well integrated with the endless monsoon rains, and no one is mud-free for a second in the whole 90-plus minutes. The movie is what it is, so don’t imagine you’ll get a meditation on the nature of moral depravity.

, a film that sneaks up on you, treats two subjects rarely handled in film today, amusingly mixes horror and fascination with v.  d.  and, um, castration in modern small-town America. Although it has moments few men would celebrate, it also pays back incestuous brothers, inamoratas and bad prom dates. It’s hard to recommend it to men, but women might find it diverting—no one loves and leaves this babe without serious, really serious, complications.

The Hottie and the Nottie, featuring Paris Hilton, Christine Laken and “the” Greg Wilson (that’s how he bills himself), is one of the worst films of 2008, and we’re just two months in. It is disgustingly misogynistic, worse even than the Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn vehicle, Death Becomes Her (1992). It’s the yuckiest of ugly ducklings (Christine Laken) made fun of for half the film for every conceivable ‘sin,’ like comedones, bad hair, poor skin, horrific teeth, moles, you-name-it, until the transformative swan is achieved, via Hilton’s ministrations and ‘help,’ to rope in a half-way attractive swain by twisting oneself inside out for the obvious consumerist view of “acceptable.” Laken remade is actually more attractive than Paris Hilton. No one in the screening I saw waited for the screen credits, and left the second it wrapped. Dreadful. My partner would have left in the first 5 minutes. Marion DS Dreyfus 20©08





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