I can’t believe that I missed George Romero’s Survival of the Dead (Magnolia), both in the theaters and on DVD, but that’s my life as a DVD columnist now: Kathleen Murphy wrote a fine review on MSN, so I spent my limited time catching up on films that weren’t already reviewed on MSN. I skipped The Back-up Plan (Sony) for entirely more selfish reasons: I had better things to do. Like a family weekend to celebrate my father’s 70th. He survived the festivities, thankfully, but I returned with a tight deadline. I did squeeze in a few before I left, however, like the great box set Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion), with a trio of magnificent productions from the golden age of Hollywood’s silent era (reviewed on my blog here), and Ajami (Kino), the Oscar-nominated drama from Israel that is far more worthy of the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film than The Secret in Their Eyes, a thoroughly conventional mystery from Argentina.
Set in the volatile Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, where Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians live in a wary détente surrounded by crime, mistrust and retribution, Ajami follows five separate stories of the families caught up in the web of violence, each finally entwining with the others until every life—and every act of violence—reverberates through the reluctant community. This searing drama film begins as with a ferocious act of violence (the drive-by shooting of an innocent bystander mistaken by Bedouin gangsters for their real target) that, effective as it is, unwinds as a familiar story of the criminal world’s violence hurting everyone in its blast radius. The difference—at first anyway—is the setting and culture that informs the characters and the story.
But as each chapter winds us back to the starting point to follow a different character—Omar, a teenager targeted for death unless a small fortune to the Bedouin gangsters; Malek, a Muslim illegal working in the restaurant of an Arab Christian; Dando, an Israeli cop whose student brother has gone missing; and Binj (co-director Scandar Copti), an affluent Palestinian dragged into the mess when his brother goes on the run for murder—we see events (notably confrontations between men from different cultural or religious communities that escalate into violence) that repeat themselves in different forms. We also are invited into the lives and perspectives of characters whose lives and experiences couldn’t more different.
Ajami is acutely insightful about the social divisions within Israel, but it examines them without scolding or sentimentality. The filmmaking team—Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, and Israeli Jew—bring us into each character with equal compassion and desire to understand. And while we see that so much of the violence arises from miscommunication (or no communication whatsoever), more of it arises from distrust, prejudice, anger and retribution. No matter that in most cases it’s aimed at the ethnic identity rather than the person. But it’s also a way to bring us into the different communities and individual plights. The journeys are brief but each of them present lives far different from any of the other characters, and certainly from our own, and it sees not individual villains (apart from a few gangsters) but a culture that fans the flames of divisiveness every day. I was gripped, I was moved, and by the final chapter, as we see all the threads finally woven into the big picture, I was knotted up in anxiety as I watched bad choices rack up and the story spiral into one more unnecessary violent collision and the conflict chalk up more victims. The DVD features the half-hour documentary “Ajami: The Story of the Actors” and deleted scenes. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (Docurama) – Gertrude Berg is the most important and influential television pioneer you’ve never heard of: the creator, writer and star of the groundbreaking sitcom The Goldbergs (originally a radio show that ran from 1929-1946, and then moved to TV for a run that lasted from 1949 to 1956) and the first recipient of the Emmy for Best Actress and the original first lady of television. In an era of growing anti-Semitism, this proud and politically liberal Jewish woman was one of the most popular and influential women in America (behind only Eleanor Roosevelt, according to surveys) her stories of a fictional Jewish family in Brooklyn became a defining portrait of the American experience of family and community on radio and TV.
Aviva Kempner’s documentary is a real eye-opener on an influential woman whose once central place in American popular has been mostly forgotten. She introduced Jewish culture to mainstream American audiences and took pride in her identity, but ethnic culture aside, it was her portrait of urban life, the culture of neighbors and the Americanization of immigrant communities that captured its fans. And as an artist and a producer, she took on the blacklist when her co-star, union promoter and Actor’s Equity activist Philip Loeb, was labeled a communist. Her show was of the air for more than a year while she fought the good fight (she lost and was forced to replace him, but the fight was more than anyone else dared, and Loeb’s story was one of the inspirations for Zero Mostel’s character in The Front). The two-disc set includes commentary by Kempner, three episodes of The Goldbergs, Gertrude Berg’s appearances with Edward R. Murrow and Ed Sullivan, bonus scenes and interviews and a Gertrude Berg recipe among the supplements.
The Square (Sony), a sunbaked modern noir from director Nash Edgerton and screenwriter/actor Joel Edgerton, plays out like an Australian Blood Simple, tracking the complications in a marital affair when the criminal schemes they unleash to finance their getaway unravel with fatal consequences. The script neatly works out the unpredictable threads of stray characters and unforeseen circumstances, but there’s no heat in the affair and no emotional dimension to the characters, which leaves it an excellent plan for a bloodless film. More satisfying is the accompanying award-winning short film, Spider, a savagely, grimly funny portrait of a childish boyfriend whose thoughtless practical jokes has violent consequences. Also includes the 30-minute “Inside the Square,” plus two more brief featurettes, deleted scenes and a music video.
I also review Machine Gun McCain (Blue Underground), an Italian gangster film with a unique sensibility thanks to the casting of John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands, elsewhere on this blog.
It was a big week and I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to explore some of the other releases, like The Age Of Stupid (Docurama) or City Island (Anchor Bay) with Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies. Also new this week: Abandoned (Anchor Bay), the last screen appearance by Brittany Murphy, $5 A Day (Image) with Christopher Walken and Sharon Stone, Addicted to Her Love (aka Love Is the Drug) (E1) with Lizzy Caplan, Dorian Gray (E1/NEM) with Colin Firth, The Bad Mother’s Handbook (Lionsgate) with Robert Pattinson and The Least Among You (Lionsgate).
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.