This Week’s Movies–Jewish and Goyish

I’m separating the Jewish Film Festival listings from everything else on this week’s list. So first:

Jewish Film Festival:

My Mexican Shivah, Castro, Monday, 6:45. Death brings families together”“even families that should probably remain apart. In Alejandro Springall’s mildly comic drama (Do we call these things a dramedy or a coma?), the death of the family patriarch brings out the worst, and a little of the best, in everyone. Hardly surprising; the departed apparently loved life”“and women”“a little too much, leaving his survivors bitter, divided, and confused. But according to Jewish law, they must spend a week in each others’ company, where old attractions and animosities inevitably come to the surface. Particularly wonderful is Emilio Savinni as the Chassidic grandson who’s wistfully nostalgic for his wilder days. A touching, truthful, and occasionally funny look at Jewish observance and human behavior.

9 Star Hotel, Castro, Tuesday, 9:30. Illegal immigrants suffer and endure in Israel as well as America. Actually, their plight is probably worse, since the Israeli/Palestinian relationship is considerably more strained than the Yankee/Mexican one. In the best cinema verite tradition, Ido Haar avoids commentary and simply follows a group of undocumented, Palestinian construction workers. We watch as they sneak across the border, work, camp out in the hills (the title reflects a joking reference to the cardboard boxes they sleep in), avoid police, and talk about the things that young men talk about all over the world. The result is a window into a difficult way of life most of us know little about.

The Chosen Ones, Castro, Monday, 9:15. What does modern Jewish music mean to you? German musician/filmmaker Wendla Nölle came to New York to answer that question and found a lot of answers. Her film profiles several young, hip, and mostly orthodox performers who put their Jewish culture and faith into rock, blues, and hip-hop. My favorite? Y-Love, an African-American convert to Chasidism who raps about Law and Scripture. Other standouts include singer/songwriter/rabbi Rav Shmuel (imagine Tom Lehrer with payes), and the rock group Blue Fringe. As with so many music documentaries, there’s not enough music (I don’t think it shows a single song performed in its entirety), and Nölle’s total ignorance of Judiasm hinders the film almost as often as it helps (it’s pretty clear she shot part of the movie during Purim, but never seems to mention this). But the positives”“engaging people, good music, and a sense of cultures coming together in unexpected ways”“more than make up for this documentary’s shortcomings.

Between Two Notes, Castro, Saturday, 12:00 noon. Finally, a music documentary that’s got its priorities right”“it’s about the music. Arabic classical music, to be precise, as played in Damascus, Lebanon, and mostly in Israel, by both Arabs and Jews. Some of the talk about music bringing people together and leading to world peace sounded forced and unreasonably idealistic (to say nothing of repetitive), but the discussions of musical and religious styles coming together and influencing each other proved worth listening to. And best of all, there’s the music”“haunting, exciting, and digging into the depth of your soul. The musicians are captured, for the most part, not in concerts or recording studios, but playing together in living rooms, and director Florence Strauss keeps the camera tied on their faces, capturing their infectious exuberance.

My Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, Castro, Tuesday, 6:45. Dani (Go For Zucker) Levy’s strange little film about Hitler’s Jewish acting coach walks a thin line between absurdist comedy and Holocaust tragedy. It’s a delicate balance, and while Levy stumbles a bit, he quickly recovers and dazzles the audience. The setup: 1944 is drawing to a close, Germany is losing the war, and Hitler’s suffering from depression, So his handlers pull his Jewish former acting coach out of a concentration camp to prepare him for a major speech. The coach (The Lives of Others’ Ulrich Mühe) takes the job and begins to bond with his student while wrestling with his opportunity to change the course of history. My Fuehrer owes an obvious debt to other Holocaust-inspired comedies”“notably The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful--but has a feeling all its own.

Body and Soul, Castro, Monday, 1:30. John Garfield commands this boxing noir as a kid from the slums who fights his way up to the top, then must face the mob. Entertaining and occasionally realistic, Body and Soul stands out as an example of left-leaning Hollywood commercial filmmaking just before the blacklist clamped down on certain values (and ruined Garfield’s career).

Making Trouble, Castro, Thursday, 8:30. A documentary about Jewish women comedians, should, first and foremost, be funny. After that it can delve into issues of why female comics see things differently than males, the unique attributes of Jewish humor, and so forth. But before it tells you about these women’s lives and struggles, it must let you appreciate what makes these individuals special. It’s not that Rachel Talbot’s Making Trouble isn’t funny”“of course, it is”“but the clips it presents of Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein don’t last long enough to give us a real appreciation of their work. Perhaps Talbot should have stuck to three or four subjects instead of six. If you already appreciate these artists’ work, the film entertains and educates by giving you a brief window into their lives, but it feels like a television special”“hardly worthy of the big screen.

My Son, The Hero, Castro, Sunday, 9:45. Recent years have turned B picture auteur Edgar Ulmer into a cult favorite, and judging from most of the Ulmer films I’ve seen, he deserves it. But not for My Son, the Hero. This nearly laughless comedy from 1943 blatantly rips off the plot of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day““a struggling con artist tries to fool his visiting son into believing he’s rich and successful”“without any of Capra’s charm or wit. And this time, Ulmer’s usual lack of budget shows, not as an obstacle he can cleverly maneuver around, but as a dead weight dragging the film to the bottom. A couple of moderately likable characters and a mercifully short 66-minute runtime are all that recommend it.

Just an Ordinary Jew, Castro, Tuesday, 4:00. There’s something about someone talking extensively with no one around to listen that feels contrived and theatrical in close-up, even when he’s holding a dictation recorder. To make matters worse, this 90-minute rant by a German Jewish journalist with serious identity issues says little that’s new or enlightening about either German Jews in general or this particular individual. Ben Becker, the star of this nearly one-man show, makes everything worse by sticking to one vocal tone”“barely suppressed anger”“throughout this feature-length monolog. One more thing: According to my wife, who speaks fluent German, the subtitle translations are pretty bad, too.

Everything Else:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Presidio, ongoing. First-rate books seldom make first-rate films”“especially when the book is nearly 900 pages long. Yet screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, new to the franchise, manages just that type of magic by stripping J.K. Rowling’s best and longest novel to the bone. True, he left out many of the book’s best scenes and characters”“there’s no embarrassing first date, McGonagall doesn’t ignore and insult Umbridge while discussing Harry’s career plans, and you could miss Percy if you blink. But Goldenberg and director David Yates (also new to the franchise) keep the story’s essential themes about courage, friendship, adolescent disillusionment, sexual awakening, and how a supposed democracy can turn repressive with the help of a compliant press. They’ve also made one hell of a tight, dark, and scary supernatural thriller.

Ten Canoes, Roxie, opening Friday (but not playing Saturday). Don’t expect a conventional narrative made exotic by a pre-contact, aboriginal Australian setting. Ten Canoes feels more like a piece of native oral tradition recorded on film. While a heavily-accented, English-speaking off-screen narrator explains the people, actions, and motivations, we watch ten men build canoes and use them for an annual goose hunt. As the hunt stretches over days, an old man tells a young one an ancient story of a great hunter and his family. It’s this tale of jealousy, fear of other tribes (often justified), and human nature that drives this sad, poignant, yet often wryly funny movie. Few motion pictures put you into another world (one of cinema’s primary functions as an art) so completely as this one.

His Girl Friday, Stanford, Friday through Tuesday. Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all”“with a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution. On a double bill with Broadway Melody of 1940.

Double Indemnity, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s noir thriller. Not that she has much trouble doing it (this is not how we who grew up on “My Three Sons” remember MacMurray). A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal.

The Night Cry, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Calling a Rin-Tin-Tin movie silly is like calling Fred Astaire a dancer”“well, duh. But a well-made silly movie can still entertain, and this particular Rin-Tin-Tin movie, concerning a sheepdog wrongfully accused of killing sheep, succeeds reasonably well. But having also seen Hollywood’s greatest four-legged actor in Clash of the Wolves, I must report that this is not one of the star’s better efforts. Accompanied by Greg Pane at the piano.

Suspicion, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. On a double bill with A Damsel in Distress. Every filmmaker who worked in Hollywood mid-century had to contend with dreadful and ridiculous censorship. This early American effort by Alfred Hitchcock might have been a decent but unexceptional entry, but a “happy” ending forced onto Hitchcock makes it, quite possibly, his worst.

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Parkway, Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise””which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless. This is a benefit for the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, but I’m sure they’ll be just as happy if you sent them a check.

Hot Fuzz, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Director/co-writer Edgar Wright fills every frame of Hot Fuzz with his love for mindless action movies. More precisely, he fills the splices between the frames, cutting even the scenes of quiet village life in the frantic style of Hollywood violence”“accompanied by overloud sound effects, of course. (And yes, he’s smart enough not to overdo it.) This technique, along with a funny story, clever dialog, and charming performances, help make this genre parody the funniest film in years, with the longest sustained laugh I’ve experienced since I first discovered Buster Keaton. If Hot Fuzz doesn’t make my Top Ten list as the funniest film of the year, 2007 will be the best year for comedies in a very long time.