Moviegoers can enjoy two excellent films on-Island this weekend. Neither is readily available in theatres elsewhere.
A charming romantic comedy, “Losing Control,” plays Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s winter series. A deeply satisfying bio-pic, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” screens twice on Sunday, Oct. 16, at the Capawock Theatre.
The great popularizer of Yiddish literature, Mr. Aleichem is best known for “Fiddler on the Roof.” The 1964 Broadway musical and 1971 movie were adapted from his comic stories about Tevye the Milkman and his daughters.
While Mr. Aleichem’s stories describe life in the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century, their themes touch on universal themes. Sholom Aleichem is a Hebrew greeting, “May peace be with you,” which the author adopted, with slightly different orthography, as a pen name.
Born Solomon Rabinowich to a successful merchant in a small Ukrainian town, he went from a happy childhood to poverty at 13 when his father’s business failed and his mother died. After his father remarried, life with a shrewish stepmother didn’t get much better.
“To make people laugh was almost a sickness with me,” the movie quotes the writer as saying. The movie points out that his commitment to Yiddish, the language of ordinary Jews, in contrast to Russian or the more liturgically oriented Hebrew, reflected the vitality of that language at the time in the same way English came alive in Shakespeare’s time.
Writer/director Joseph Dorman’s perceptive eye brings the author to life with well-chosen, high-quality archival photos that emphasize facial expressiveness. Slow zooms and reverses, tilts, and other cinematic techniques turn old photographs into character-revealing portraits and inviting urban vistas.
Along with Mr. Dorman, cinematographer Edward Marritz deserves kudos for his work, which turns the documentary’s traditional talking-head interviews into compelling material. “Sholem Aleichem” will inspire viewers unfamiliar with the great author’s work to seek out his stories and autobiography. That’s good filmmaking.
While the subject may be more frivolous in “Losing Control,” this movie’s cinematic satisfactions match “Sholem Aleichem.” Writer/director Valerie Weiss surely based this very funny movie on her own experiences earning a Harvard Ph.D. in Biophysics, followed by her founding of the film program at Harvard’s Dudley House.
The sophisticated level of “Losing Control’s” humor offers a welcome relief from the low-ball comedies currently coming out of Hollywood. The title itself, a pun on the central character’s scientific research orientation, signals that this film will not turn into a gross-out fest.
Grad student-charmer Samantha (Miranda Kent) has been struggling to replicate her Y-Kill (a serum she invented to kill the Y chromosome in sperm) research findings for years so she can graduate. Her boyfriend Ben (Reid Scott) declines a fellowship to China to stick by her side.
When her advisor Professor Straub (the reliably funny John Billingsley) vetoes degree completion once again, a distraught Sam takes refuge in the nearby coatroom. Ever-loyal Ben produces an engagement ring in this ridiculous setting, but Sam insists that before she can marry him she needs to test their love the way any good scientist would.
“I can’t keep waiting,” Ben complains. “I’m going to China.” In classic romantic comedy style, the complications multiply. “Losing Control’s” jokes, sight gags, and plot conundrums offer satisfying originality to an easily cliché-ridden genre.
Boston-oriented viewers will get a kick out of the nicely done shots of Harvard Yard and Cambridge. The only weakness in this frothy latte is Sam’s overly stereotyped Jewish mother, but once Actor’s Studio pro Lin Shaye gets on a roll, even that flaw dissolves.
“Losing Control,” 7:30 pm, Saturday, Oct. 15, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 M.V. Film Society members. mvfilmsociety.com.
“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” 4 & 7 pm, Sunday, Oct. 16, Capawock Theatre, Vineyard Haven. 508-627-6689.