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Capone's Art-House Round Up with Ahmed Ahmed's comedy doc JUST LIKE US and the hypnotic LE QUATTRO VOLTE!!!

Published at: June 17, 2011, 7:03 a.m. CST

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

JUST LIKE US
My first exposure to the comedy of Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed was as part of VINCE VAUGHN'S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW, in which he was one of four very funny comics that took part in a whirlwind tour of the States. Taking a page from that format, Ahmed films his travels through the Middle East with a handful of other comics (both North American and Arab born) doing their routines in English to audiences in Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to crowds ranging in size from a few hundred to several thousand.

Credited also as director, Ahmed's mission seems to be to show the universality of experiences and how many topics in comedy translate easily across cultures. Some of the more fascinating material in JUST LIKE US has to do with the restrictions or lack of restrictions (depending on the country) the comics had to work under, and how often they broke the rules.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the movie is the presence of Whitney Cummings, whose participation in this tour made her the first American woman to ever perform live in Dubai. Ahmed wisely spends more time following the comics' adventures off stage as they make their way through the various regions getting to know the people. One of the best and most heartfelt moments involves the director visiting his adoring family in Egypt, a reunion that clearly doesn't happen often enough.

JUST LIKE US opens with on-the-street interviews with random Americans being asked if they know the difference between Arabs and Muslims, with the responses being exactly what you'd think they'd be. In the end, I think the film would like those who see it to at least be able to answer that question. Once we get past that point, the conversation should get a whole lot more interesting, and JUST LIKE US is a great first step and tearing down a few boundaries and prejudices. It never forgets to be funny, but it also never loses sight of its message. Hey, just because public entertainment of any kind is forbidden in some of these countries doesn't mean they don't know how to laugh.

LE QUATTRO VOLTE
I think I can say with almost no hesitation that you have never seen a documentary like LE QUATTRO VOLTE. Acclaimed at every festival it has played (Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, etc.), this film set in the Italian region of Calabria follows the lives of the people and animals (no joke). In this contemplative marvel, we meet an elderly shepherd (Giuseppe Fuda) tending to his goats. The old man has a persistent cough and a dog, both of which provide some of the only sound we have in this movie. Unveiling itself with no dialogue or narrative structure, the movie is more of a series of scenes that, when seen one after the other, give us a comprehensive experience of being a part of this isolated mountain area.

The press notes for LE QUATTRO VOLTE call it a docu-essay, and I guess that works if you need to call it something. But that doesn't really give you a sense of how involved you get in the smallest dramas. For example, a baby goat strays from the flock because that's what baby goats do. It gets lost and calls out desperately for its mother as the day turns to night. It's agonizing to watch whether or not he'll find the flock again. Director Michelangelo Frammartino structures his work in such a way that we find value and meaning and levels of fascination in the smallest things. The life of a single fir tree, cut down for a festival in the village, is one of the more remarkable journeys I've ever seen.

I will absolutely warn you that those of you addicted to more typical summer offerings may be bored out of your skull with this movie. But for those of you who like a little peace and quiet between your explosion-filled sequels, you may find LE QUATTRO VOLTE something astonishing. The images are stunning, the faces unforgettable, and the journey is the stuff of life. I got just as much fulfillment out of this film concerning the cyclical path that life has always taken us on as I did watching The Tree of Life, only this film doesn't have dinosaurs, I'm sorry to say. The events depicted in this movie are a microcosm of the rest of the world, and I was endlessly transfixed by them. Not for everyone, but if you're in need of a little soul enrichment, this is the movie for you.

-- Capone capone@aintitcool.com
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