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By Joe Bendel. In the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s California Suite, Dame Maggie Smith played a beloved English actress, rather embarrassed to be nominated for a lightweight comedic role. She won her second Oscar for that role. Somewhat ironically, Smith is back in Oscar contention for more or less the sort of part Simon’s character was up for. However, the just winner of back-to-back Emmy Awards for Downton Abbey, Smith may not exactly be the sympathetic favorite for Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s feature directorial debut, which opens today in New York.

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Beecham House for retired musicians (mostly classical, aside from a few token big band vets) is anticipating the arrival of a new resident. Jean Horton was the diva of her day. She was also part of the celebrated “Rigoletto Quartet,” whose other three members are already residents of Beecham. Their reunion is the cause of great trepidation for her. Everyone gets along with Wilf Bond, the compulsive old flirt. Likewise, Cissy Robson’s good nature never fails her, but her mind is slowly slipping. Reggie Paget is another story. Still sharp as a tack, he remembers only too well his ill-fated relationship with Horton. Indeed, his bitterness still lingers.

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Will the four former friends be able to put their differences behind them and come together as a quartet to save Beecham House at the annual talent show gala? Are the ponds in New Hampshire still golden?

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Smith might be the film’s biggest name, but the Weinsteins shoulld have put Quartet’s Oscar chips on Tom Courtenay. He brings such exquisite dignity and sophistication to Paget, viewers will long to see him in a film with more heft. Smith is fine as Horton, but the character just seems so bland and pedestrian compared to Downton’s fan favorite, the Dowager Countess. Rounding out the foursome, Billy Connolly is likably roguish as Bond and Pauline Collins is rather sweet and earnest as Robson. There is nothing really wrong about Quartet, per se, except a lack of ambition, essentially amounting up to a bit of Marigold me-too-ism.

No horses were injured in the filming of Quartet, so it has that going for it. Do not expect any surprises, though, in this story of third act pluckiness adequately but not inspiringly helmed by Hoffman. Frankly, there is something slightly frustrating about a film whose most inspired moment is its closing credits, in this case showing vintage photos of its cast of accomplished opera singers, classical musicians, and classically trained thespians early in their careers. Predictable and unabashedly sentimental, Quartet should satisfy those who like sugary, ascot-wearing films (but classical music connoisseurs will be better advised to check out A Late Quartet instead). It opens today (1/11) in New York at the Paris Theatre.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on January 11th, 2012 at 10:26am.

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By Joe Bendel. Everyone wants to sell them out and nobody wants you to see them up close and personal: they are the Israeli settlers living in both official and unofficial settlements within the West Bank. A great number of them also happen to be Ukrainian and Russian immigrants. Filmmaker Dmitriy Khavin continues to document the Ukrainian Diaspora, giving viewers a rare unfiltered look at the Israeli settlement experience in The Territory, which premieres this coming Tuesday at the JCC in Manhattan as part of the Generation R film program.

The settlements are not what you might expect. Where once there were dormitories and trailers there are now pleasant looking middle class homes. Granted, they are often found in gated communities, not uncommonly with armed guards out front. The land around them looks rather harsh and arid—hardly terrain worth fighting for. However, the fortifications are clearly there for a reason.

These first and second generation Soviet immigrants are products of the Refusenik movement. Their families’ experiences under Communism directly shaped their Zionist convictions. Still, they might not exactly be what viewers expect, either. Some are simply taking advantage of the inexpensive housing. Yes, Khavin also talks to some who express less than edifying opinions on their hostile Arab neighbors. Yet, many are clearly inclined to live in peace and harmony with all residents of the territory. Nonetheless, they consciously chose the risks involved in forming a buffer to protect the rest of Israel.

From "The Territory."

Throughout The Territory, Khavin challenges preconceptions across the political spectrum, beginning with film’s calm, peaceful tone. There are no bombs exploding here. His interview subjects go about their daily business like people anywhere, adopting a God-is-my-copilot attitude. Occasionally there are ugly reminders of the terrorism for which the territory is infamous for. One of Khavin’s guides takes viewers to the shrine dedicated to a tiny infant murdered by a sniper. Residents assume the young innocent was deliberately targeted by the Palestinian murderer and it is hard to argue with them, given the results.

The West Bank settlements will always be a thorny issue to untangle. However, the media would like people to blindly assume they are all lunatic Kahane clones, which simply is not the case. Indeed, many are part of the epic Russian and Ukrainian stories starting tragically in the early Twentieth Century. A real example of documentary filmmaking journalism, the forty-one minute The Territory ought to be broadcast on PBS, perhaps as part of a series with Khavin’s other films (like Artists of Odessa), but do not hold your breath. A balanced and intriguing look at one of the world’s most misunderstood tracts of land, The Territory is recommended for all inquisitive viewers when it screens Tuesday (1/15) at the JCC in Manhattan.

Posted on January 11th, 2012 at 10:24am.

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