In director Eran Kolirin’s sweetly told and keenly observed cross-cultural comedy the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrive in Israel to perform the inaugural concert at a new Arab cultural center. However they find themselves in the middle of nowhere after tight-lipped conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) orders his tired and hungry musicians onto a bus they think is heading to the center. Instead they’re dropped off in a remote desert town with no bus service until the next morning. Dressed in light blue uniforms that are in stark contrast to the sand dunes that surround the town the brass band members look like an invading army armed with instruments instead of machine guns. It goes without saying that they soon attract the attention of some slightly bemused locals including café owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) and her friends. Welcoming the chance to play diplomat the take-charge Dina arranges for food and accommodation for the band even going so far as to let Tewfiq and band Lothario Khaled (Saleh Bakri) stay with her. As lonely as she is beautiful and free spirited Dina clearly has her eye on Tewfiq. He has nothing but honorable intentions toward Dina but he’s not quite sure whether the handsome Khaled can keep his hands to himself. But Tewfiq’s just as concerned about whether the rest of his musicians will try to preserve the band’s “good name” and make it through the night without causing an international incident. As the highly regimented Tewfiq Sasson Gabai possesses the authoritative presence of a military commander--albeit one despised and ridiculed by his subordinates. Indeed his Tewfiq is cheekily called “General” by some disrespectful residents. Still Gabai does allow Tewfiq’s upper lip to unstiffen on occasion revealing a sadness stemming from grief and a genuine pride that comes from representing his country at home and abroad. Tewfiq and Dina are certainly polar opposites--such is her raw sexuality that it’s not hard to imagine her persuading anyone to unbutton his starched collar if given half the chance--but that’s part of their attraction. Thankfully Ronit Elkabetz knows better than to define Dina just by her seductiveness. Dina doesn’t belong in a small town so Elkabetz treats her like a caged lioness who’s almost but definitely not quite been domesticated by her many years in captivity. And what remains of her wild streak comes across as both sexy and scary. But Elkabetz also makes sure that what you see is what you get: Dina’s as kind and honest as she’s frank and bossy. If Dina takes a direct approach to getting her man Khaled’s very much of a smooth operator. And Saleh Bakri is blessed with an easy charm that makes him perfect to portray the quintessential ladies man. Indeed The Band's Visit is never funnier than when he’s at his suavest whether he’s serenading women with his soulful interpretation of "My Funny Valentine" or passing on his moves to a shy virgin on a date with the glummest girl in town. Given Egypt’s peaceful coexistence with Israel The Band's Visit allows director Eran Kolirin a unique opportunity to provide much insight into the cultural similarities and differences between two Middle Eastern neighbors once considered enemies. Not that religion plays an integral part in the proceedings and there are only fleeting references to past hostilities between Egypt and Israel. Most of the tension and painful silences that Kolirin mines to great comic effect are generated from the band feeling like strangers in a strange land and the imposition on townsfolk caused by their unexpected arrival. So Kolirin naturally employs music as an icebreaker. One poignant scene finds band members and their hosts bonding during a singalong. Another features an unhappy husband providing an assistant conductor with the inspiration to complete the overture he started writing many years ago. Otherwise nothing of earth-shattering consequences happens during the course of the night--this isn’t After Hours in the Israeli desert. This is about everyday people--whom Kolirin treats as more than just ciphers--realizing they have more in common than they don’t. Accordingly Kolirin takes great pain to ensure we laugh at the musicians’ predicament rather than at them or the townsfolk. “Music today isn’t all that important ” laments Tewfiq when he opens up to Dina. That sentiment is certainly open to debate in this iTunes world we live in but what The Band's Visit cheerfully proves is that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow got it right when he wrote “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen) has it all: wealth power good looks and a gorgeous fiancée Sam (Jessica Alba). Unfortunately he’s also got a weak heart and it’s only a matter of time before circumstances compel him to go under the knife. Although given anesthesia during the operation Clay is still able to feel pain and hear the doctors around him a situation made infinitely worse when he comes to realize that he is the victim of a nefarious conspiracy to bilk him of his fortune. He’s worth much more dead than alive but to whom? Clay’s (semi-)out-of-body experience allows him--and the film--to travel backwards in time as he tries to piece together clues to the conspiracy that now holds him in its power. The medical aspects of the story are dicey at best but the intent of this sort of film is to try and fool the audience with each plot twist. It’s essentially a whodunit in reverse. Awake’s got a great cast with everyone (except Christensen) occupying the role of red herring at one time or another--and clearly having a good time chewing up the scenery. Christensen’s the straight man here a role he fills with a relaxed charisma and a good amount of empathy. Alba looking absolutely dynamite is the sort of fiancée that any red-blooded male would risk a coronary for. If looks could kill Alba would knock ‘em dead--which just might be a hint or still another red herring. The surgical team includes such reliable stalwarts as Terrence Howard Fisher Stevens (also an executive producer of the film) and Christopher McDonald--many of whom have played heavies before all the better to try and fool the viewer. Lena Olin no slouch in the beauty department herself is cast to type as Clay’s over-protective mother. It’s a role she could play in her sleep but Olin’s far too resourceful an actress not to bring a little something extra to the party. Awake marks the feature debut of writer/director Joby Harold who overreaches from time to time with the twists but who’s always in there swinging. Awake may be far-fetched sometimes to the point of absurdity but it’s not a lazy film. Harold also has the added bonus of Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter on his team who brings a great visual sense to the film. The hospital scenes filmed at Bellevue are appropriately clammy and creepy--which really lend suspense to the proceedings as silly as they sometimes are. It’ll be interesting to see what Harold next has up his sleeve. Awake is very reminiscent of the B-movies of yesteryear preying on a common fear--in this case surgery--and attempting to milk it to maximum effect. It doesn’t add up to a whole lot but it’s not bad.