Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

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Brawl in Cell Block 99


Vince Vaughn is reborn as a badass.

(2017) Crime (RLJE) Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter, Dion Mucciacito, Marc Blucas, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Franco Gonzalez, Victor Almanzar, Keren Dukes, Rob Morgan, Mustafa Shakir, Brian Wiles, Adrian Matilla, Tuffy Questell, Philip Ettinger, Jay Hieron, Phillip Dutton, Larry Mitchell, Dan Amboyer, Pooja Kumar, Devon Windsor. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

 

The grindhouse movies of the 70s were an art-form unto themselves. Quentin Tarantino is famously influenced by them as is director S. Craig Zahler who impressed with the bloody Western Bone Tomahawk. But whereas Tarantino seems content to evoke them and illustrate his encyclopedic knowledge of them, Zahler is more interested in using them as a building block to create more contemporary fare.

Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) is a big man. He drives a tow truck for an auto wrecker yard but with times being what they are, he is laid off. Coming home, he discovers his wife Lauren (Carpenter) in bed with another man. An ex-boxer like Bradley might be forgiven if he used his pugilistic skills to create a whole new face for his wife and lover but instead, he utilizes his temper in a more constructive manner and after his moment is passed, begins to talk calmly and rationally to Lauren about reconciliation.

Jobs are hard to come by so Bradley goes back to one he had before going the straight and narrow; as a drug courier to old friend Gil (Blucas). The work is lucrative and Bradley is soon able to afford a much nicer house for his wife who is now pregnant with their daughter. Bradley is content with the way things have gone. However, when Gil takes on a partnership with a Mexican cartel, Bradley is troubled; he doesn’t trust the Mexican thugs at all and his suspicions are soon borne out. A shoot-out with the cops ensues and Bradley ends up taking the fall for his boss and gets seven years in prison for his troubles.

But his troubles are far from over. Bradley gets a visit from a slimy lawyer (Kier) who informs him that the cartel boss has taken his wife hostage. As far as the cartel is concerned, Bradley cost them millions of dollars and they expect repayment. His wife will be released unharmed if Bradley performs a simple task for them; if not, they will abort the baby.

The “simple task” turns out to be very complicated – Bradley must kill an inmate of Cell Block 99. The trouble is, Cell Block 99 is in Red Leaf Maximum Security prison; Bradley is in a medium security jail. In order to get himself transferred to Red Leaf, he’ll have to call on his inner badass and once at Red Leaf with its cigarillo-smoking warden (Johnson), he must get himself transferred to Cell Block 99 which is where the most violent offenders are sent. Time is ticking down on his wife and unborn child and Bradley must find a way to get the job done – until he discovers that the job isn’t at all what he thought it was.

This movie is hyper-violent with a ton of gore. Heads get stomped like melons; arms are broken into shapes that arms were never meant to take. Faces are peeled off like orange peels and people are shot every which way. If those sorts of things bother you, stop reading and find a different movie to watch because clearly this movie isn’t for you.

It certainly is for me though and one of the biggest reasons why is Vaughn. He’s made a career out of fast-talking wiseacre comedy characters who have a bit of the con man in them but this role is light years away from that. Bradley is soft-spoken but prone to fits of intense and shocking violence. With a shaved head and a Gothic cross tattooed to the back of his skull, he looks like the kind of trouble that most people walk across the street to avoid. Vaughn fills the roll with quiet menace and in the process reminds us that he began his career playing a variety of roles until comedy derailed his versatility for a time. Hopefully this will lead for a wider variety of roles for the actor who has proven he can handle just about anything.

Johnson also does a fine job in his role as the serpentine warden who is neither corrupt nor evil; he’s just doing a brutal job brutally. Putting a stun harness on the prisoners is simply the easiest way to control them; he’s not torturing them so much as educating them, at least from his point of view. It’s a great role for Johnson and hopefully will bring him some just-as-juicy big screen roles from here on out.

The length of the film is a problem. At just a hair over two hours, the pacing of the first hour is a bit too leisurely to sustain itself and you might find yourself looking for something else to do but try to hang in there; once the movie gets going, it stays going. The problem is that by the time that happens, the last half hour begins to really wear on the viewer. Some of the build-up should have been more judiciously edited. It felt very much like we were watching a director’s extended cut rather than the final theatrical version.

Still in all this is the kind of entertainment that B-movie fans are going to love. These types of movies have become more in vogue particularly with the support of Tarantino who has essentially resurrected the genre in terms of respectability – grindhouse type movies have never really gone away, after all. However films like this one have not only kept the genre running but have given it true vigor and made it a viable artistic concern as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is at his very best here. The gore effects are pretty impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow moving, particularly during the first hour. You begin to feel the movie’s more than two hour length during the last half hour.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as a goodly amount of violence, some of it graphic and/or gory. There are also some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaughn put on 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for filming and also did extensive boxing training over the two months prior to cameras rolling; he claimed that his boxing training made the fight choreography much easier to learn.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starred Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Heaven Without People