Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Movies that take us off the beaten track

If you haven't seen the Israeli film Ajami, you should move to correct that situation as soon as possible. Co-directed by Scandar Copti (an Israeli Arab) and Yaron Shani (an Israeli Jew), the film has the kind of toughness and heart not encountered in most Israeli films. Set in Ajami, a neighborhood in the port city of Jaffa, the movie seasons its interlocking stories of Arabs and Israelis with genuine Mean Streets flavor. If you're like me, you're probably sick of gritty, interrelated stories in the Crash mode. But Ajami doesn't bog down in strained efforts to make big statements, and its tapestry of stories can be moving, probably because it jettisons all preaching about the need for Arab/Israeli rapprochement – or anything else for that matter. Employing a non-professional cast, the directors – Copti also appears in the movie – create an authentic-feeling portrait of an Arab community that's rife with tension, beginning with a killing in a cafe that ignites an intra-Arab feud and continuing through the wobbly relationship between a Muslim Arab young man and a young woman from a Christian Arab family. The byplay among the young Arab men seems entirely real, offering more proof that American urban culture has had a nearly ubiquitous influence. The Israeli side of the story centers on Dando, a cop who's seen bullying Arabs, looking for his missing brother or being a good father to his young children. Ajami was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, but didn't win. No matter, it's one of the most interesting, relevant and gripping movies to come out of Israel in a very long time.


I've been to City Island, an outpost in Long Island Sound off the Bronx mainland. People live on City Island, where the waters are dotted with small boats, but most New Yorkers visit the place to frequent the local restaurants. Director Raymond de Felitta has a different reason for traveling to the island: For him, it's a place to try his hand at ethnic comedy and outright farce. Andy Garcia portrays Vinnie Rizzo, a prison guard who aspires to be an actor, but is afraid to tell his wife (Julianna Margulies) about his artistic ambitions. Vinnie receives encouragement from a woman (Emily Mortimer) in his acting class, which is taught by an amusing – if too briefly seen – Alan Arkin. Additional plot twists involving Vinnie's family and their secrets aren't entirely inspired. Vinnie's daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has dropped out of college without telling her parents and his wiseacre son (Ezra Miller) has an unusual obsession. The incident that drives the plot isn't entirely compelling either: For reasons better left undiscovered here, Vinnie opens his home to a soon-to-be-paroled convict (Steven Strait). De Felitta, who previously directed a small independent movie called Two Family House, isn't the sharpest of farceurs, but the movie is pleasant enough and has a great scene in which Vinnie auditions for a Scorsese movie. Garcia, who seems thick in both girth and accent, doesn't oversell Vinnie's working-class charms; Marguilies never falters as Vinnie's shrewish wife; and the whole business provides a few laughs without pretending to be much more than an evening's entertainment.

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