New in Film:Laila's Birthday, Lorna's Silence, World's Greatest Dad
Toward the end of Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi's tragicomedy about daily life in his West Bank hometown, the frustrated protagonist shakes his fists at the heavens and blames the 60-year Israeli occupation for his woes. That's the only direct polemic in Laila's Birthday, and this beguiling second feature, after the respectfully received Ticket to Jerusalem, is all the better for keeping its head close to the ground of the surreal business of getting through the day in Ramallah. Veteran Israeli-Arab actor Mohammed Bakri plays Abu Laila, an unemployed judge eking out a living as a taxi driver who heads out to work at the beginning of the film, charged with bringing home a gift and a cake for his little girl's birthday. Prickly, unbending, and a rigid follower of rules, Abu Laila is hopelessly ill-equipped for the bedlam of a city plagued by corruption, inefficiency, and the occasional missile from across the border. Part Tati, part Chaplin, part absurdist satire in the manner of Palestinian director Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance), Laila's Birthday is beautifully shot and overlaid with a spare, lyrical score that lends rueful emphasis to Masharawi's exasperated fidelity to a chronically malfunctioning city. Ella Taylor
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne emerge once more from their lower depths as secular worker-priests of the Belgian cinema. In describing one of their movies, you describe them all. Their characters are the victims of soggy street-cart food and social disintegration — no God, no family or community infrastructure, no moral compass. Here, it's Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian living with a Belgian junkie, Claudy (Jérémie Renier). Spouse or roommate? The details casually drop into place. They're married only as a business arrangement: Claudy got his dope money; Lorna got Belgian citizenship, which she's scheduled to transmit through remarriage to another incoming immigrant — all arranged by phlegmatic lowlife mobster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). This being a Dardenne film, the protagonist is stashing money to buy a modest dream of "normal life"—Lorna wants to open a snack shop with her boyfriend. This being a Dardenne film, Lorna's a self-preserving solipsist, blind to any harm she does getting hers, which includes having passively agreed to Fabio's plan: murder. In a sense, the Dardennes make economic horror movies, starring the dregs of the working class. Claims for something higher don't read; the Dardennes challenge their beleaguered subjects, not themselves and not their audience. When Lorna and her ilk confront the "moral conundrums" of bare-subsistence life, no alternative answer seems viable. This leaves the impatient viewer to wait for the constipated soul to arrive at inevitable relief. Nick Pinkerton
World's Greatest Dad
Playing dark, Robin Williams has developed the burly insecurity and gargoyle frown of the damned. In World's Greatest Dad, Williams' Lance is an unpublished serial novelist and an unpopular poetry teacher at the same high school attended by the son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara). He's raising Kyle alone, and the son incarnates every nightmare of downloaded premature debauchery. Sabara's character is irredeemable, leaving a lingering stain on the movie. He's the point man for a perfect-fit cast, with the standouts including his lone, sallow school friend Evan Martin and Henry Simmons as an alpha-male teacher and unflattering contrast to Lance. The particular stew of midlife and pubescent despair that clogs a single-father male-child household has rarely been achieved so well: Lance's parental tough love is a trailed-off "Ahh..." The details of leftover dinosaur-themed wallpaper (unnoticed as it peels) and the dirty sneaker prints on the glove compartment are enough to convince that screenwriter/director Bobcat Goldthwait knows his stuff. His cringer lands improbably on its feet after every reckless plot turn — involving autoerotic asphyxiation and fraudulent authorship — all the way until an over-fondness for music montage fells it in the last reel. Nick Pinkerton
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