April 13, 2010


Amreeka (America). The setting you may remember most vividly
in Cherien Dabis's warm and measured debut feature is a White
Castle. Does this orphan of the fast-food strip mall still exist? Absolutely,
just as it did in 2003 when American troops entered Baghdad and
the Gulf War reignited small-town prejudices toward foreign
immigrants, especially Arabs with newly-issued Green Cards.
Drawn from Ms. Dabis' own Palestinian/Jordanian familial roots,
"Amreeka" is the Opening Night selection of the 38th annual
New Directors/New Films (25 feature films showing March 25-
April 5 at Manhattan's Walter Reade theatre and the Museum of
Modern Art). It's an absorbing, viewer-friendly odyssey of a
well-educated Arab mother, Muna (Nisreen Faour) and
her shy teen son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) colliding with the realities
of working-class prejudice all around a rural Illinois White Castle,
where the mother ends up building burgers. As "Amreeka's"
unabashedly commercial poster above shows, she's "serving up
the American dream."

"God loves American hamburgers" and "bless our oops" read the
battered and tattered highway pole signs next to the White Castle,
and the fast-food manager looks and acts like a real drudge.
The boy dipping the fries has blue hair and a pierced lip, which
tells you anything goes in the local youth culture as long as you're
a red-blooded American. The stout Muna puts on a WC uniform
and her best smile, but her equally bulky customers don't like it
when she starts pushing diet pills at them. Worse, the high school
boys are your usual foul-mouthed louts, and you know poor Fadi
is in for a terrible beating. For awhile, "Amreeka" seems to be tilting
into "Gran Torino" country, but Cherien Dabis' film is about
finding a home in a mixed-culture society without losing your
identity or your life. We stay a long way from Clint Eastwood's Detroit.

"Amreeka" has an abundance of refreshing surprises, one of
whom is an appealing high school administrator (Joseph
Ziegler) whose own ancestry as a Polish Jew gives him a natural
affinity toward Fadi, and whose status as a recent divorcee begins
to draw him toward the divorced Muna. He becomes the film's
moral conscience. Another male teacher is tough but fair-minded
in helping transition the boy into his unruly classroom. Muna's
sister and her family, who moved earlier into the community, also
support the newcomers. There's even a Middle Eastern restaurant
tucked somewhere along that endless highway strip where the
combined families have an evening of native food and song.
But "Amreeka's" most touching distinction has to be that White
Castle, in its way a tiny, stubborn survivor in a world of fast-food
behemoths. Cherien Dabis shot this agreeable and
fully mature feature in Ramallah and Winnipeg, the latter doubling
handily for a non-descript Illinois. She had the full cooperation of
White Castle management, a salutary collaboration between one
of our newest independent filmmakers and one of our oldest
independent restaurant chains.

Every Little Step. Deep in the audition-and-callback process for
the 2006 Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line" in the enthralling
documentary by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo is a scene in
which actor Jason Tam is reading for Paul. It is, according to director
Bob Adrian, along with Cassie the most difficult of the 19 roles in
the musical to cast. Jason's monologue is also the most painful
element of "A Chorus Line," for it's based on the heartbreaking
real-life experiences of co-writer Nicholas Dante growing up gay
in Spanish Harlem and working as a drag queen in Times Square.
Jason fashions a reading and a wrenching performance that nearly stops
the auditions--and the picture--cold. The actor appears transformed
by the material and he builds it and builds it, and then he
begins to really cry, and you may find yourself in tears as well.
What is even more astonishing is that the filmmakers are intercutting
Jason's lines with the response of director Adrian and his supporting
staff who are sitting ten feet away, and nearly all of them are weeping,
too. It's the one and only time in the entire artistic journey in
which everyone loses it, and also the one scene in which you sense
an actor has nailed the second most important role with one giant step
of a reading.

Most of "Every Little Step" is a far more jet-propelled review of
the 1974 origins of director/choreographer Michael Bennett's
seminal examination of every dancer's hopes and dreams, as well as
its recent revival in which the choregrapher is Baayork Lee, who
played the original Connie. Ms. Lee emerges as a powerhouse
teacher (her ringing command to her dancers is "EAT NAILS")
and she's a grown-up version of the endearing Yuka Takara, who is
finally chosen as Connie The documentary is also framed by a
continuing narrator, Jessica Lee Goldyn, who will win the role of
Val. The flow of the process is, at heart, a competition among a
huge talent pool, and to its credit "Every Little Step" gives a lot
of screen time to the actors who are cut in the callbacks. The
presentation of auditions often links together readings by multiple
actors trying out for a role. Chances are you'll agree with most
if not all of the choices made by Adrian, Lee and the producing team,
which makes the viewing experience all the more pleasurable.

"Every Little Step" is a defining document of the creative process
that constructs the foundations of musical theatre. The camera
keeps returning to a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing snippets of Michael
Bennett's oral notes and musings. Joe Papp's contributions at the
Public Theater production are acknowledged. Marvin Hamlisch, who
co-wrote "Chorus Line's" Pulitzer Prize winning score, recalls how
in its first previews, audiences seemed put off by something in the
story, and how actress Marsha Mason senses what it was and told
Bennett--that Cassie (Donna McKechnie) has done everything
right and should win, not lose, the part. Bennett changes it to a win
and the rest is history. "Every Little Step" has a lot of these kinds
of anecdotes and secrets, revealed for the first time. It's a love letter
to everything a theatergoer has loved about "A Chorus Line," and
make no mistake, it's the documentary to beat for next year's Oscar.
The last shot of the film, after the end credit crawl, is the perfect coda:
Months later we watch Jason Tam, the actor who broke every heart in that
reading, nodding good night outside the theater and shuffling off alone
into the New York night. He has a peaceful smile at last, and he's earned it.

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