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Semi-Tough 

Flub and bluster in Made; plus, Amos Gitai

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
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In Made, a new gangster comedy directed by the actor and screenwriter Jon Favreau, Favreau and Vince Vaughn play two bickering Los Angeles construction workers and amateur boxers trying to bluff their way through a perfectly routine drop job in New York, assigned to them by the Los Angeles mobster on whose good will each, for different reasons, depends. The movie‘s premise inverts the geography of Swingers, which Favreau wrote and co-starred in with Vaughn, in which two New Yorkers trying to break into Hollywood flop around the L.A. lounge scene, making idiots of themselves. Here, their odd-couple friction is a continuation by other means of the shtick which, in a neat reversal of their fate in Swingers, brought both actors enough good notices to launch their careers.

And very good shtick it is. Bobby (Favreau) and Ricky (Vaughn) quarrel pretty much the way they box: clumsily, without finesse or focus, like longtime spouses who’ve been ill-matched from the get-go but stick out the marriage because sparring is all they know how to do. Their rambling fights always end in a draw -- the movie‘s running gag is that as they navigate the shark-infested waters of Manhattan gangland, the cuts and bruises that collect on their faces come not from Mafia heavies but from their own pathetic fisticuffs. Each is uniquely ill-equipped to deal with the world he has blundered into (a world dominated by Sean ”Puffy“ Combs, in an excellent simulation of his usual pleasant self): Favreau’s Bobby has the round, sweaty countenance and pleading eyes of a man determined to do right by the world; as he sees it, he‘s only in this game to protect his stripper girlfriend (Famke Janssen) -- who works for the mobster, Max (Peter Falk) -- and her daughter, Chloe (Makenzie Vega). He’s carrying Ricky, a blowhard dim bulb whom nobody wants to hire and who can‘t keep his motormouth shut even when his life depends on it, out of the inchoate loyalty due to a childhood pal.

Chauffeured around Manhattan in a stretch limo by the obligatory phlegmatic thug (Vincent Pastore), the two men flub (Bobby) and bluster (Ricky) their way through one mob-comedy set piece after another: the nightclub that doesn’t have their names on its A-list; the luscious girls who land in their hotel room and don‘t put out; the gun that turns out to be a starter pistol. Made may look like a Wong Kar-Wai movie -- the cinematographer, Chris Doyle, has brought to the film the dark, rich romanticism of the movies he’s shot for the Hong Kong prodigy -- but the sensibility is Woody Allen, only sweeter. Favreau, whose first feature this is, is a crisp writer of dialogue who also knows when to let his actors cut loose and ad lib. Peter Falk is a gas as the cranky Max, a snake in hail-fellow-well-met clothing who thinks he has the two men over a barrel. The pleasures of Made are entirely conversational -- a scene in which Bobby and Ricky launch into their nth round of bickering against a background of squealing penguins at the zoo in itself justifies soldiering through the slight and familiar plot. No one seems to want to make a gangster movie these days without subverting the genre, but Made is appealingly free of the snickering distance that cripples most such movies. Bobby‘s up-and-down relationship with his strung-out girlfriend and his abiding love for her little girl give the film a serious enough edge that when Favreau slips into self-indulgence at the end, you let him have his moment, and gladly. In Swingers Favreau played a man whose life’s goal is to break into movies. Made is the work of a man who, having done just that, is breaking into something more interesting: life.

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In 1996, the UCLA Film and Television Archive mounted its first retrospective of the work of the Israeli director Amos Gitai. A born gadfly, Gitai has devoted the better part of his career to becoming a thorn in the flesh of the Israeli cultural and political establishments. If that hasn‘t exactly endeared him to the authorities at home, it’s earned the director enough cachet, during several years of self-imposed exile in Paris in the 1980s, to enable him to return to his native country in the ‘90s and continue to unpack the many-splendored ways in which his fellow Israelis have been kidding themselves since the state was declared in 1948. The archive’s new series of four films he made during the ‘90s shows that Gitai, now 50, has by no means lost his bite, but that his bark has softened and grown more modulated.

From a prolific early career as a documentary filmmaker, Gitai turned while living in France to elaborately formalized fictions that have rarely seen the light of day in this country. (Facets Video’s imminent release of a 20-volume set of his oeuvre should change all that.) His recent work marks a return to more traditional realist storytelling. Taken together, the films in this series provide a portrait, by turns haunting, hilarious and tragic, of a modern Israel struggling to accommodate -- or ignore -- a past that keeps rising up to bite the country in the throat. A House in Jerusalem, made in 1998 and the lone documentary in the series, is an update of Gitai‘s 1980 film Bayit -- first produced and subsequently banned by Israeli television -- about the history of a Jerusalem house which was expropriated from its Palestinian owners in 1948 and, in Gitai’s hands, becomes a metaphor for the divided city. For someone of Gitai‘s unabashedly leftist political convictions, it would have been easy enough to paint a picture of Jewish occupiers lording it over Palestinian underdogs. Instead, he prowls the now-ritzy suburb known as the German Colony, an unseen interlocutor armed with a restive camera that combs Jerusalem’s impossibly beautiful vistas as Gitai circles his subject matter. It‘s clear that he sympathizes with the current residents, among them several children of Holocaust survivors, even as he documents the habit of selective amnesia that has allowed them to live with the rot at the foundations of their dwelling. Gitai’s intercutting of dialogue with the articulate, fair-minded yet outraged Arab descendants of the house‘s original owner makes this wistful, funny and sensitive film, finally, a delicately calibrated heartbreaker.

Like A House in Jerusalem, Gitai’s black comedy Yom Yom, also completed in 1998, turns on the proposed sale of a house by Arabs to Jews. The second in a trilogy designed to shed light on the particular blends of life in each of Israel‘s three major cities (the first, 1996’s Devarim, about the dilemmas of middle-aged children of Israel‘s founders, is not included in the series), Yom Yom (Hebrew for ”every day“) is set in the director’s native Haifa and chronicles the misadventures of a hypochondriac baker, the offspring of a happy Jewish-Arab marriage, trying to find a direction in life as his parents struggle with whether to sell the bakery to the brash Jewish developer of a shopping mall. With its wry verite style and crowded ensemble of recognizably modern characters -- unmistakably Israeli, yet they could be living in any contemporary city -- Yom Yom is a real charmer.

I wish I could say the same for the trilogy‘s third movie, and arguably Gitai’s best-known film in the West. Kadosh (1999), a handsomely upholstered story of two sisters dealing with different forms of private and institutional violence against women in the ultra-Orthodox Me‘a Shearim quarter of Jerusalem, is a high-minded feminist diatribe against an all-too-easy target, an essentially medieval religious community that can’t reasonably be evaluated with late-20th-century secular skepticism.

The series ends on a high, if not a happy note with last year‘s Kippur, Gitai’s searing semiautobiographical drama about a patched-together unit of soldiers staggering their way through the mad chaos of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When I asked him in an interview last December to assess the prospects for peace in his country, Gitai observed that peace will come when all parties have exhausted themselves. Weighed against current events, this extraordinary film is a sad witness to the exhaustion with which Israel has been living for a long time.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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