The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret )

"My fish was much bigger than your fish."

“My fish was much bigger than your fish.”

(2007) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Uri Gavriel, Shlomi Avraham, Imad Jabarin, Ahuva Keren, Francois Khell, Hisham Khoury, Tarak Kopty, Rinat Matatov, Rubi Moskovitz, Hilla Sarjon. Directed by Eran Kolirin

From time to time, plans go awry and we’re forced to improvise. Sometimes those moments of having to wing it reveal a lot about ourselves and have lasting repercussions on the rest of our lives.

The police band of Alexandria, Egypt is invited to Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. The bandleader, Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai), is a ramrod-straight by-the-book sort of man, wrestling with the budget difficulties that are threatening the very existence of the band and the growing disposable nature of music in an increasingly apathetic world. He is told in no uncertain terms to represent Egypt properly while in Israel.

Once they arrive, things fall apart. The bus that’s sent to take them from the airport to the cultural center never arrives. Colonel Zacharya, ever the one for self-reliance, sends the womanizing Khaled (Bakri) to inquire about commercial bus service to the town they need to get to, but even this goes awry. The bus dumps them in a small town in the middle of the desert with only a clean and pretty superhighway showing any signs of civilization whatsoever.

Nonetheless, the small line of eight awkward Egyptian men in sky-blue band uniforms complete with gold braid and epaulets trudge to the center of town where the only sign of life shows; a tiny café where two slackers lounge in the sidewalk chairs. They summon the proprietor, a darkly beautiful woman named Dina (Elkabetz). When Zacharya asks in halting English (the universal language of the Middle East, apparently) where the Arab Cultural Center may be found, she says wryly “No Arab Cultural Center. Here there is no Arab culture. Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all.”

It turns out they are in the wrong town, one that has a similar name to the one they were meant to go to. Worse yet, bus service has discontinued for the day and there is no hotel. After feeding the tired, hungry band, Dina arranges for the band members to be put up in the homes of the previously mentioned slackers, while taking Colonel Zacharya and Khaled to her own apartment. As the evening wears on, the uncomfortable Egyptians interact with the equally uncomfortable Israelis. In their uncomfortable silences, the realization grows that they are not as unalike as they might have thought.

The two leads are marvelous. Gabai’s craggy, weathered face (with a nose that would make the ghost of Jimmy Durante smile in satisfaction) hints at a soul battered by the world, but his carefully maintained composure, using polite gentility as a wall to protect him from the loneliness and pain surrounding him, speaks volumes. Dina is a woman who has seen life pass her by as she enters middle age. Still beautiful and able to find lovers, she has as yet been unable to find love. Her loneliness is palpable as she reaches out to the Colonel, obviously attracted to him, but unable to breach his walls. Elkabetz portrays that lonely core expressively through her eyes and body language; it really is a breathtaking performance. The fact that there is no way anything could possibly come of this in that place and time makes it all the more bittersweet.

Writer/Director Kolirin whose resume is mostly Israeli television programs proves a deft hand with a feature. His pacing is unhurried, matching the pace of life in the Israeli village, which suited me just fine. However, the pace may be a bit too languid for American audiences, who tend to prefer their comedies rapid-fire. Cinematographer Shai Goldman captures the desolation of the village, with the juxtaposition of the blue-clad band members making the ridiculous reasonable. When the band finally plays at the movie’s conclusion, the music is lovely and exotic.

The relationship between Dina and Colonel Zacharya is a wonderful glimpse into two souls who are basically good, but have been wounded by bad choices, bad luck and tragedies that may or may not have been out of their control. The comedy here is not broad and rapid-fire in the way of a Judd Apatow comedy, but more subtle, yet I still laughed out loud – and quite loudly too – on several occasions. The movie is gentle and endearing in a way that isn’t forced, something that you rarely see in American movies.

This is a gentle film that discusses the universal trait of loneliness, something that goes beyond culture, nation or religion. The pace is slow enough to nearly lull you to sleep, but I found it a means to easily enter into the charm of the movie. I suspect that this will appeal to a very limited audience; it simply doesn’t seem to resonate with general American audiences. Still, there are some fine performances and a look into a pair of cultures we know only in the broadest of terms. I liked it a lot more than the rating I gave it, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it for everybody. It takes patience and a willingness to be transported on a lazy river of charm. Those who like to see movies other than (or more than) the major Hollywood releases will find this rewarding; others who prefer their comedies broad and fast-paced will be bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Gentle charm. Elkabetz and Gabai give lovely performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too slow-paced for some.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sexual innuendo, and a curse word here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Band’s Visit was originally submitted as Israel’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2008 Oscars but the Academy rejected the nomination as the film’s dialogue is more than 50% in English.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a photo gallery to go with most of the usual extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
NEXT: Rebound

Hyde Park on Hudson

Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

(2012) Historical Drama (Focus) Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams, Martin McDougall, Andrew Havill, Nancy Baldwin, Samantha Dakin, Jonathan Brewer, Kumiko Konishi. Directed by Roger Michell

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating project, Lincoln finally came to fruition. It was a superb film that really humanized the iconic President and made him, if anything, even more worthy of admiration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is another President who is much loved (well in Liberal circles anyway) and a similar treatment of him would surely have been welcome.

It is 1939 and the world is on the brink of war. King George VI (West), the recently crowned and woefully unprepared monarch of England (after the abdication of his brother) is coming to the United States – the first reigning King of England to ever do so – not just to make political hay in his own country but also for a desperately important task; to gauge whether the Americans would assist them when war inevitably broke out (as it would do a scant three months after their visit).

Springwood, the President’s estate in Hyde Park, New York in the Hudson Valley is in an uproar. To be hosting the King and Queen (Colman) of England is important enough but the whole affair has turned into a battle of wills between the President’s mother (Wilson) and wife Eleanor (Williams). Mommy, ever mindful of FDR’s political image, wants nothing done to tarnish his image as a world leader while Eleanor seems hell-bent on tweaking the monarchs somewhat.

Franklin (Murray) needs some respite from the bickering and stress. After a number of relatives are called without success, a distant cousin named Daisy (Linney) at last answers the call and is driven to Springwood to help “take the President’s mind off of things.” It’s awkward at first; while related, they barely know each other and Daisy isn’t really sure what she’s doing there. Franklin pulls out his stamps. They seem to hit it off however once that initial discomfort wears off. Soon they are going for rides in the countryside in a specially fitted car that the President, stricken by polio and nearly unable to use his legs, can drive only with his hands. Soon those drives are leading to stops and at those stops there is some intimacy.

Meanwhile the war continues with FDR’s secretary Missy LaHand (Marvel) trying to mediate but there are absolutes going on – Eleanor wants the Royals to attend a picnic in which hot dogs are served which is mortifying enough but that she wants to serve cocktails ­– that’s more than the teetotaling mother of the President can bear. Daisy tries to hover near the edges so that none can figure out the nature of the relationship she’s building with Franklin, but even she doesn’t quite understand what’s really going on.

The relationship between Daisy and FDR would remain a secret until shortly after she died just shy of her 100th birthday. Some letters and diaries were found in which she discussed her intimacies with the former President. I’m not sure how much the writers relied on those writings for the story – whether they were faithful to Daisy’s words or if they used them as a rough outline – but it could have been a nice jumping off point.

My problem with it is that Daisy really isn’t all that interesting a character. She’s a middle aged woman (she was 48 when these events took place) who hasn’t had a lot of experience with men and develops almost a high school crush on FDR. She is in her own way as lonely as the man at the top, her life mainly revolving around her aunt (Bron) whom she acts as a caretaker to.

She seems like a nice enough albeit naive woman but I’m not sure that she’s got the personality to base an entire movie around – and that isn’t a knock against Linney. She fares much better than Murray however, who doesn’t resemble FDR in the slightest and whose attempt to mimic the distinctive style of speech and accent of the President is simply ghastly. A very big issue – and this isn’t Murray’s fault in the slightest – is that we never get much of a three dimensional portrait of FDR. We see him as a letch and as somewhat disingenuous but we never get a hint of the political savvy or of his inner strength in pulling the country out of a depression and overcoming polio. Instead he sems mostly to hold to the parody image of Bill Clinton as an insatiable womanizer.

The surrounding cast is pretty good, particularly West and Colman as the somewhat befuddled royals who are on the one hand afraid and self-conscious but on the other hand not really sure what to do. We met West’s Bertie in The King’s Speech played with a little more charisma by Colin Firth but West carries the weak chin and frustration of a lifelong stutterer very well. Colman gets the haughty attitude of a Royal who is quite unsure if she’s being made sport of.

Williams also captures the forthright shoot-from-the-hip attitude I always imagined Eleanor Roosevelt to have, although like Murray her accent is distracting. The movie has a bit of a sense of whimsy in the humor (the looks on the faces of the Royals as King George VI is served a hot dog is priceless) but where it lacks is in heart. I was left unmoved for the most part and would have wished that the legacy of President Roosevelt didn’t get trashed by making him out to be the sort of man who thought first with his genitals. I believe him to be a much more complex character than that and that’s precisely what we didn’t get and despite delivering a beautifully shot, meticulously detailed film, we don’t get a movie that is anything more than an ABC Family movie for the middle aged.

REASONS TO GO: Captures some of the cult of personality around FDR and of the era he lived in. Reduces a crucial point in history into a soap opera.

REASONS TO STAY: We really don’t get a sense of FDR the man other than as a complete jerkwad and Murray seems content to caricature him rather than explore him.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality and some fairly adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daisy’s real name was Margaret Suckley and she was one of four women at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia when Roosevelt passed away.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative.


UPSTATE NEW YORK LOVERS: I’m not 100% sure if they filmed the exteriors in the Hudson Valley near where these events actually took place but it does look as if they did and those exteriors are just breathtaking.


NEXT: Jack Reacher