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By Michael Calleri

French writer-director Rene Feret's "Mozart's Sister" is a fictionalized account of a short span in the life of Maria Anna Mozart, who was also known as Nannerl. In fact, the French-language title of the movie is "Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart."

Yes, Nannerl was related to Wolfgang. In fact, she was his older sister, and if you believe the many novels written about the pair, and also believe the movie, she had extraordinary musical talent that was discouraged because of her gender. The lush costume melodrama rails against this injustice. Nannerl was five years older than her soon-to-be world-renowned brother, and by all accounts she was a magnificent violinist.

The siblings' father, the determinedly ambitious Leopold, saw the promise in his children and led them on merry adventures through the courts of Europe, where the kids entertained royalty with their musical talents.

Both parents are decent people, but because of the prejudices that existed in the 1700s, it soon becomes apparent to mom and dad that Nannerl may no longer compose music or play the violin. The child was a female in an era that expected females to stay in the background. Nannerl is heartsick. Her most ardent wish is to write down the musical notes she imagines in her head.

Nannerl, wonderfully portrayed by Marie Feret, who is the director's daughter, is a very intelligent and wonderfully appealing young girl. The teenager fights the good fight against the many barriers put up against her wishes to live a life of music. Instead, as you know, she will sit on the sidelines as Wolfgang takes over the world.

The entertaining "Mozart's Sister" is part feminist argument and part travelogue, neither of which is off-putting. The view of life within the royal courts is fascinating. Feret was allowed to film inside the Palace of Versailles.

Some members of the ruling elite look down on the Mozart family, itinerant musicians that they are. However, in the home of Louis XV, Nannerl develops a friendship with one of the king's daughters, Louise, played by Lisa Feret, who is also one of the director's children.

We learn a lot from "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," the new documentary from director Joseph Dorman, which tells the story of Aleichem, whose richly comic writing was a mirror of, as well as a catalyst for, the assimilation of Jews seeking a balance between secular and Jewish culture from the late-1800s through the early-1900s.

He was born Solomon Rabinowitz into a well-off family. Aleichem's father lost his fortune, something that would happen to Solomon as well after he became a stock broker, living most of the time in New York City.

When he wasn't dabbling in high finance, Aleichem wrote stories, becoming the man responsible for legitimizing Yiddish, then primarily a language spoken in Eastern European villages.

The characters in his writings were based on people from his own experiences. The film details how Aleichem and other Jewish humorists used laughter as a defense mechanism against the persecution of the Jews in Russia.

The well-made documentary is narrated by Alan Rosenberg and brings Sholem Aleichem to life with readings of his work, especially material from the musical "Fiddler On The Roof," which is based on Aleichem's words.

Director Dorman doesn't merely deliver a study of a talented man who made and lost a lot of money and wrote timeless tales filled with tradition. He also examines the society that existed in Aleichem's era and explores the legacy he left to generations of Jews.

There are informative interviews, including one with Aleichem's granddaughter Bel Kaufman, who wrote the popular novel "Up The Down Staircase." At 100 years of age, she's a delightful and worthy legacy.

It turns out that people who like looking at birds don't like to be called "birdwatchers." The same sort of identity concept is involved in not calling "Star Trek" fans "trekkies."

Followers of birds, and they are legion, want to be known as birders. Followers of Kirk and Spock, also legion, want to be known as Trekkers.

The new comic movie about bird-watching is called "The Big Year." The studio behind it didn't screen it in most markets around the country; therefore, I had to see it opening day.

Friends of mine in Santa Cruz, Calif., are birders, and they let me know that they enjoyed the movie, possibly because, as they put it, they weren't expecting much. True, it was about a subject to which they are devoted, a factor that always heightens a person's cinematic pleasure. They especially loved the parade of images of more than 700 beautifully photographed birds that closes the film.

I found the movie tedious. A glorious cast is wasted as a group of birders try to win a prestigious annual contest that involves spotting the most birds and writing down the names of the winged creatures. It's all done on the honor system because birders are expected to be honest to a fault. The picture is based on a real-life event.

This comedy lacks laughs because the movie isn't as cohesive as it needs to be. Director David Frankel doesn't have the same grip on the material as he had with his "The Devil Wears Prada." Of course, he doesn't have Meryl Streep, either.

The humor in Howard Franklin's scattershot screenplay is strained and all over the place, part cosmopolitan wit and part slapstick mugging. That the birders are obsessive does come through, but there's a lack of unity among a cast that includes many capable performers.

How do you fail with Steve Martin, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons, Owen Wilson, Joel McHale, Jobeth Williams, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest, Jack Black, Steven Weber and John Cleese in your film?

The problem is that Frankel and Franklin misinterpreted Mark Obmascik's non-fiction book, upon which the movie is based. They misjudged the humorous but respectful spirit in its pages, seeing the birders as kooks rather than affable devotees.

Happily, the cinematography by Lawrence Sher, including the many images of birds, is exceptional. Overall, "The Big Year" is mildly, albeit sporadically entertaining.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 25, 2011