Roundup: Movies not to miss

Go behind "A Chorus Line" with a riveting backstage doc; the amazing Hiam Abbass in "Lemon Tree"; and the greatest documentarian you've never heard of.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 15, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

From left, Sony Pictures Classics, Eitan Riklis, Icarus Films

Scenes from (from left) "Every Little Step," "Lemon Tree," and "Oblivion."

It's spring, which means such an unstoppable torrent of indie releases no one can keep track of them, and that includes me. For about the 587th time in the short history of this column: The reasons for this onslaught are all bad ones, and it does no favors to the artists, the audience, the critics or the beleaguered owners of independent cinemas. Here are three double-plus recommendations from the 13 or 14 films reaching theaters this week -- I do not exaggerate! -- and I'll struggle back to the surface in a few days with some more.

"Every Little Step"  I consider myself pretty much immune, if not allergic, to the allure of the Broadway musical, and I've never much cared for the spectacle of showbiz self-absorption that is "A Chorus Line." But that legendary 1970s backstage musical, hatched by choreographer Michael Bennett and a host of collaborators (more about that later), is indisputably a brilliant conception. It's hard to think of another dramatic work that so closely aligns its characters with its audience, or one that so thoroughly demystifies the process of its own creation while retaining its conventional entertainment value.

Like show-business culture itself, "A Chorus Line" traffics in both cloying sentimentality and Darwinian ruthlessness, qualities that James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo's highly addictive behind-the-scenes documentary "Every Little Step" captures in abundance. Given that "Chorus Line" is almost the paradigmatic backstage story, I guess "Every Little Step" is a meta-backstage story, capturing the "American Idol"-scale audition process that winnowed out thousands of bits of human chaff on the way to casting the show's 2006 revival production.

All the hard-luck yarns and fables of sudden success found in "A Chorus Line" are found here, on an even bigger scale. We see the unknown dancer from the New Jersey suburbs, who shows up hoping for an understudy role and winds up grabbing a leading part. (That's Jessica Lee Goldyn, who played Val in the '06 cast.) We see the 30ish Broadway pro, a little hard-boiled and weathered, who desperately wants the part of Sheila and seems to have it nailed -- only to choke on the final-call audition. We see the naturals, like Chryssie Whitehead, who grabs the part of Kristine the second she walks on the stage, or Jason Tam, whose devastating audition as Paul, "Chorus Line's" openly gay character, reduces director Bob Avian to tears.

I'm not sure Stern and Del Deo are conscious that their film also offers a commentary on the distance between Michael Bennett's time and ours, between the dying New York of 1974, when Bennett spent one long night recording the life stories of a bunch of dancers he knew, and our own more antiseptic era. Paradoxically or not, that dirty and decrepit city was also a hotbed of theatrical and artistic activity, in a way that seems almost unimaginable today. But then, it's hard to tell how much Bennett and his collaborators -- not just composer Marvin Hamlisch, who appears in this film, but also writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and lyricist Edward Kleban, who are virtually never mentioned -- understood about the existential darkness that lies at the heart of "Chorus Line."

On the one hand, like any story about young showbiz hopefuls, "Every Little Step" brims with life force and joyful energy. We watch as veritable torrents of beautiful girls and boys crash through the audition process, most of them talented and appealing, even when afflicted with a nearly psychotic level of self-confidence. (One young man, dismissed after the final call, tells the camera that it's all right, he sees himself on a soap opera, with a recording contract and mounting the steps to receive an award. "Why not?" he sums it up. "There are so many people in show business. There's room for more!")

On the other hand lies the baffling fact that every single one of those young people was the best actor-singer-dancer ever to emerge from Mr. Hooble's class at Whereverville High, and all their good looks, enthusiasm and can-do spirit is crashing into a brick wall of perpetual No. Roughly 3,000 people auditioned for nine leading roles in "A Chorus Line," which is after all a show about a group of dancers willing to settle for background parts. One of the interesting tidbits unearthed in "Every Little Step" is the fact that Bennett originally intended Cassie, the faded star hoping for a second bite of the apple (played by Donna McKechnie in the original production), to be rejected by the show's unseen director. Hamlisch remembers that actress Marsha Mason, after seeing the show in a workshop production, told Bennett he had to change the ending. Redemption trumped realism, and an enormous hit followed.

Perhaps that's the spirit in which to understand the reports that Stern and Del Deo restaged some of the vérité-style scenes in "Every Little Step," such as the phone calls in which Goldyn and Charlotte D'Amboise (who plays the new production's Cassie) get the good news. Indeed, one has to wonder about the film's first scenes with Goldyn, when she's at home in Parsippany, N.J., or boarding the Manhattan-bound bus. What are the odds that the filmmakers picked a random performer to follow -- and she actually got the part? But this is precisely the irresistible lure of showbiz, captured so well in this film (whether ethically or not). It tells us that dreams can come true if we believe in ourselves, and assures us of the possibility of human transcendence through art, and at the same time tells us the whole thing -- the audition process, the show, life itself -- is a crap shoot and a lie. (Opens April 17 in New York and Los Angeles, with national release to follow.)

"Lemon Tree"  Something like a cross between a torn-from-the-headlines docudrama, a Middle East conflict rendered in miniature and Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," this latest film from the terrific Israeli director Eran Riklis revolves around the amazing lead performance of Palestinian-French actress Hiam Abbass. Playing a dignified, lonely Palestinian widow who carries a land dispute with her neighbor -- who happens to be the Israeli defense minister -- all the way to the Israeli supreme court, Abbass conveys an entire world of emotion in few words, using her carriage, her eyes and the remarkable way her face can go from haggard to beautiful within the same shot.

Abbass came to film acting relatively late, and as unlikely as it may seem has become a world-cinema sensation in her late 40s, playing both leading roles and mother-sister-aunt supporting parts. (You may have seen her in "The Visitor," "Paradise Now," "Munich" or "Satin Rouge.") She seems to have an unusual rapport with Riklis, who used her in "The Syrian Bride" as a representative of the possibilities open to Israel's Druze community, and uses her here in a part that could easily have become purely symbolic. Salma Zidane, her character, is a widowed landowner whose lemon orchard stands just across the security fence from the deluxe new house built for defense minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) and his wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael).

When the Navons' security detail decides that the lemon trees provide too much potential cover for a terrorist attack, and must be uprooted, Israel shrugs it off as impersonal government business -- Salma will be offered financial compensation -- while Mira is clearly troubled. But "Lemon Tree" is more subtle than simplistic; Salma and Mira come almost to the point of forging an independent relationship several times, but never quite manage to have a conversation. As the latter observes, there's more between them than some lemon trees and a fence.

The two women may live in different worlds, a few hundred meters apart, but their lives are parallel in ways they don't consciously recognize. Mira must put up with Israel's increasingly obvious womanizing, thanks to her culture's oppressive sexual codes, and Salma is not free to fall in love with her lawyer (Ali Suliman), an attractive younger man named Ziad, because she's a widow and he's on track to marry the daughter of a Palestinian Authority minister (and get the cushy job that comes with her). The scene where Ziad makes it clear that he loves her too is a masterwork of implicit erotic energy, all of it expressed while they're drinking tea at Salma's kitchen table.

As in "The Syrian Bride," which was set in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Riklis forges into areas other Israeli filmmakers won't venture, shooting in West Bank refugee camps as well as in Jerusalem and its ritzy suburbs. (There are also scenes set in Washington, although certainly not shot there.) He depicts all versions of Middle Eastern authority with a cheerful, agnostic cynicism. The Israeli soldier whose watchtower overlooks Salma's orchard spends all his time sleeping or cramming for his grad-school admissions test. The Palestinian government is corrupt and obsessed with status and protocol; the Israeli government, while perhaps not corrupt, is hypocritical and mindlessly bureaucratic. Israel Navon goes on TV to apologize for the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees even as he's ordering his neighbors' trees uprooted. (Any number of biblical proverbs might apply here.)

Riklis' "Syrian Bride" remains his best work, possessing a Beckett-esque degree of hilarity and absurdity not found in this more straightforward story, based as it is on an actual Israeli court case. Still, if you want signs of hope in the impenetrable impasse of the contemporary Middle East, I offer the tremendous ongoing collaboration between Riklis and Abbass, and the fact that the latter, an Israeli-born Arab, won an Israeli Academy Award for this role. (Opens April 17 in New York, with national release to follow. Also available on-demand via IFC In Theaters, on many cable-TV systems.)

"Oblivion"  One by one, I hope to convert the filmgoers of the world to the gospel of Heddy Honigmann, the Peruvian-born, Netherlands-based director who is among the rarest treasures of the documentary-film world. If I live to the age of Methusaleh, and Honigmann does too, maybe we'll reach that promised land together. Simply put, she makes films about people most of the rest of us would never bother to look at, most often by befriending them and asking the simplest kinds of questions: Talk about your parents or your children, your dreams and your memories, the work you do, the happiest moments in your lives.

Even by Honigmann's standards, "Oblivion" pursues obscure people in an obscure place, that being her birthplace of Lima, Peru, and the bartenders, waiters and street performers she finds there. Arguably the connective tissue here is weaker than in "Forever," her gorgeous and surprisingly uplifting survey of the folks who hang around in Paris' famous Père Lachaise cemetery, a literal meeting ground between the living and the dead. But as Honigmann herself puts it, the point of "Oblivion" is to rescue some sense of the beauty and individuality of people who live in a place most of us only hear about when it suffers an earthquake or a military coup.

Honigmann's star here is probably the eloquent hotel barman who mixes her a Pisco Sour (the delicious-sounding Peruvian national cocktail) while discoursing with admirable cynicism on the amazingly shoddy history of Peruvian democracy and its failed experiment with neoliberal economics. There's also the craftsman who has made sashes for all Peru's recent presidents -- whether they were elected to power or just seized it -- along with a heartbreaking tale of survival told by a leather worker from behind his sewing machine, a working-class couple's 50th-anniversary party, and a family who lives by begging in the street yet who seem unbelievably content.

Even though "Oblivion" turns chilling when Honigmann finds a 14-year-old shoeshine boy who seems like a complete tabula rasa -- he says he has no dreams, no hopes, no good memories or bad ones -- her interviews have the magical effect of delivering nuggets of received religious or philosophical wisdom, freed of all the troubling dogma. Of course one could argue that "Oblivion" is a film with an urgent political or social critique at its heart, and that Honigmann is giving a voice to the dispossessed in the face of an especially cruel history. But that's only a partial view. We can only hear such people's voices if we understand, as she does, that beneath all the tragedy and horror and bullshit of human society, human life remains an unsurpassed miracle, and that each life everywhere on the planet contains the possibility of joy. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York. Plays April 30-May 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and May 8-10 at the Northwest Film Forum in Portland, Ore., with other engagements to follow.)


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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