Marcello Mastroianni in a tight spot in "Macaroni"

“Macaroni” — a 1985 film starring Jack Lemmon and Marcello Mastroianni — is an offbeat story set in always-interesting Naples. Lemmon plays Robert Traven, a careworn airline official who visits Naples for a business meeting after being absent since he served there with the U.S. military during World War II. Traven has no sooner flopped, exhausted, in his hotel room when he is disturbed by a visit from Antonio Jasoniello, who claims that not only were he and Traven acquainted during the war but that Traven had a romance with Jasoniello’s sister. Traven rudely denies ever having known Jasoniello or the sister, even when Jasoniello produces a snapshot of the Yankee soldier and the bella ragazza.

 After chasing Jasoniello away, Traven has second thoughts and seeks the man out, purportedly to apologize and to return the snapshot. He finds Jasoniello working in the refrigerated archives of the Bank of Naples, and what he may have intended to be a perfunctory visit turns into an increasingly complicated relationship with the whole Jasoniello clan — including Jasoniello’s son, a would-be rock musician who is a little reckless about how he tries to jump start his career.

Traven is puzzled by the fact that he is recognized and called by name by a succession of strangers in Jasoniello’s neighborhood. Jasoniello shrugs this off, but Traven eventually learns that his celebrity status was deliberately concocted and maintained for four decades by Jasoniello himself. Therein lies a touching and hilarious story.

“Macaroni” (I can’t account for that title) has a talented and almost entirely Italian cast. Mastroianni himself, of course, was the quintessential Italian film actor, though the combination of his heavy accent and the less-than-ideal sound quality on this DVD made him at times difficult to understand. Pairing him with Lemmon was a wise decision, and the movie is entertaining and uplifting.

The Angel Levine is one of the oddest movies we’ve watched, and from what I’ve read on the Internet it strikes people in many different ways. Some abhor and ridicule it and some like it and watch it repeatedly. A cast that includes Harry Belafonte, who produced this 1970 film, Zero Mostel, Ida Kaminska, and Milo O’Shea seems a promise of success, but the reality is more complicated.
 The Angel Levine,which is based on a story by Bernard Malamud, concerns a down-and-out tailor named Morris Mishkin (Mostel, of course) who sees a man steal a woman’s fur coat in a New York shop and calls attention to it. As the thief is chased into the street, he is hit by a car and killed. The thief — now dead — turns up later in the apartment where Mishkin lives with his bedridden wife, Fanny (Kaminska). The thief — played by Belafonte — introduces himself as Alexander Levine, a Jew, and, without saying how he died, explains that he has been sent from God to perform a miracle on Mishkin’s behalf, but can do so only if Mishkin believes that Levine is an angel. Mishkin is afraid that Levine’s real motive is robbery or some other mischief, but Levine is persistent.
 
In a parallel plot, Levine tries to use his brief return to earth to reconcile with his former lover, Sally, played by Gloria Foster. This enterprise is complicated by the fact that Levine cannot tell Sally that he is dead and isn’t going to be around for the long haul.  

ZERO MOSTEL

Although the pessimistic Mishkin is not easily convinced of Levine’s purported state of existence, the pair slowly develop a relationship in which Mishkin becomes as interested in Levine’s welfare as Levine is interested in his.

The acting in this film — including that of Milo O’Shea in the unlikely role of the irascable Jewish doctor who attends to Fanny — is what one would expect of such reputable performers. The film is a showcase for Belafonte’s magnetism and Mostel’s mastery of the wobegone persona. Some scenes, however, are ponderous, including a long inaudible passage — which we witness from outside a drug store — in which Levine carries out a plot to get Fanny’s prescription without paying for it  and a scene in which the Mishkins carry on a conversation in Yiddish, without subtitles.

The film is far from perfect, and yet it is provocative — especially in the way it portrays the dilemma of the Mishkins, who at life’s end are without the means to live in comfort and security.

DANIELLE CANTANZARITI

In our quest to keep up with the career of Keisha Castle-Hughes, we came across a 2008 Australian film, “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger.”

This is a rather blunt story — written and directed by Cathy Randall — about a 13-year-old girl, the title character, who attends a private school, where the snobbish and often brutal cliques ridicule and shun her, while she also navigates a home life made difficult by a rigid mother (Essie Davis) and thoughtless father (Russell Dykstra). Esther falls in with Sunni — Castle-Hughes — an older and more worldly wise student at a public school. The relationship introduces Esther to a gritty world she has been unaware of, and it teaches her a hard lesson about the hazards of trying to fit in by distorting one’s own identity.

DANIELLE CANTANZARITI

Esther is played by Danielle Cantanzariti, who got the part when she turned up for a cattle call audition for extras. The film-makers had screened about 3,000 candidates over a period of four months. The girl is excellent in the role. The character is quirky and smart, and Cantanzariti really goes to town on that. The story has both drama and humor, and this child is skilled at both. Some of the exchanges between her and her brother Jacob (Christian Byers) — who has his own share of complexes — are  hilarious.

Castle-Hughes gives a smooth performance as Sunni, whose self-assured demeanor masks the tension in her life with an amiable but unfocused single mother, Mary– nicely played by Toni Collette. The delicate balance in Sunni’s own life is revealed when she loses control in her attempt to re-make Esther, and the younger girl goes too far in order to preserve her standing with her peers. Castle-Hughes played an 12-year-old Maori girl in “Whale Rider” and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in “The Nativity Story.”

The film has a soundtrack that is well tuned to Randall’s themes, including music related to the Blueberger family’s Jewish faith, which figures prominently in the story in a couple of ways.

“Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” cost a lot to make and didn’t return much for the investors. It deserved better.

KEISHA CASTLE-HUGHES and TONI COLLETTE