Capernaum


The love of a child is a wonderful thing.

(2018) Drama (Sony ClassicsZain Al Raffea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef, Cedra Izzam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Elias Khoury, Mohammad Al Abdallah, Faten Asmar, Lama Begaum, Mohammad Chabouri, Samira Chalhoub, Nour El Husseini, Mohammad Hammoud, Farah Hasno, Tamer Ibrahim, Nadine Labaki. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment. Others are meant to be a punch to the gut. This film is of the latter persuasion.

This Lebanese film – winner of the Jury Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where it debuted, and also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars – introduces us to Zain (Al Raffea), a young refugee boy living in Beirut with his parents and many siblings. He is closest to 11-year-old Sahar (Izzam) who periodically joins him on the streets, trying to raise money by selling cups of tomato juice. When his hapless parents – bleary-eyed father (Yousef) and overwhelmed mother (Al Haddad) – sell Sahar to a pedophilic shop owner (El Husseini) for a bunch of chickens, he realizes that he cannot live in that house anymore and runs away.

On the streets he finds Rahil (Shiferaw), an undocumented refugee from Ethiopia with a cute little toddler son Yonas (Boluwatife) who gives Zain shelter and food. In return, Zain watches little Yonas while Rahil goes to work, trying to earn enough to buy forged work permits from Aspro (Chouchnieh) who would be willing to exchange the forged papers in exchange for her son, which she absolutely refuses to do. When Rahil doesn’t show up back home from work one night, Zain is forced to try and get food and money any way that he can. Then, he receives word of a tragedy that will change the trajectory of his life and put him in jail, where he decides to sue his parents for having given him life.

The movie alternates between courtroom drama and social realist drama, with the latter taking the bulk of the film and with good reason for it is much more fascinating than the legal drama. Labaki tells the story mostly in flashbacks from the courtroom proceedings, which while packing some emotional punch do not compare to the almost matter-of-fact way that Labaki displays everyday horrors that confront the impoverished in Lebanon.

As with her other films (this is her third feature), Labaki casts mostly non-professionals in roles that parallel their own lives. The actors were encouraged to react to various events as they would in real life, giving the film a raw you-are-there quality. There are no punches pulled here nor does Labaki offer apologies for the way Zain and his parents act; they are desperate people doing whatever it takes to survive, but at least Zain is able to find humanity within his heart through caring for Yonas. His parents never do.

The movie, at two hours long, is overwhelming in a lot of ways and should not be undertaken lightly. Still, if you need to understand that there are people who have it worse than you do – a lot worse – this is the film to see. It is also the film to see for the cutest toddler performance ever, which is counterbalanced by the blazing performance given by Zain who swears like a sailor throughout and although he’s 12 or 13 (his parents aren’t precisely sure and there’s no paperwork to prove that Zain even exists) he is wise well beyond his years. In any case, lovers of movies shouldn’t pass up this gem.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating mix of courtroom drama and slice of life. Realistic, raw performances throughout. Never pulls punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The boy who played Zain has since been relocated with his family to Norway where he is learning to read and write.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV,  Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Mindfulness Movement

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle


You can’t always tell a Jungle Book by its cover.

(2018) Adventure (NetflixRohan Chand, Frida Pinto, Christian Bale (voice), Andy Serkis (voice), Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Cate Blanchett (voice), Tom Hollander (voice), Matthew Rhys, Naomie Harris (voice), Peter Mullan (voice), Jack Reynor (voice), Eddie Marsan (voice), Louis Ashbourne Serkis (voice), Keveshan Pillay, Patrick Godfrey, Lorna Brown. Directed by Andy Serkis

 

Hollywood from time to time gets it in their head to make competing versions of similar stories, whether it’s of apocalyptic astronaut strikes, or remakes of beloved children’s classics.

Most folks are well-aware of the story behind this film, originally a group of short stories penned by British author Rudyard Kipling but not likely from reading the book so much as by seeing the 1967 Disney cartoon. Serkis’ version, which was actually filmed three years before it was released, is a much darker version that in many ways was closer to the stories that Kipling wrote but with enough family-friendly elements to lend confusion as to what this movie wants to be.

The motion capture is generally of facial expressions which becomes a bit of a liability; it’s kind of creepy to see snakes and wolves and bears looking quite that human. The CGI in general is pretty uneven, which considering the amount of post-production time that was available to them seems almost criminal. However, the vocal performances are uniformly swell and American-born child actor Chand shows some impressive athleticism and acting range in this role.

The film was intended to be the first of a trilogy of films establishing what Warner Brothers (the original studio behind the film – see Trivial Pursuit) a franchise but with Disney beating them to the punch doing what they do best, and with that version making like a kajillion dollars at the box office, there was no way this was going to end up as anything other than a footnote, which it really didn’t deserve. Certainly there are flaws, but despite the dark and sometimes brutal tone it is at least a different riff on a familiar tune.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive voice performances. An interesting subplot about identity.
REASONS TO AVOID: The CGI is uneven. Neither a family film nor one meant for adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence – some of it bloody – peril and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally filmed by Warner Brothers to be released in 2016, but Disney’s own version forced them to push back the release a year, and then another as the effects proved more time-consuming than first thought. Only a few months before it was scheduled to be released in theaters, the film was sold to Netflix, the studio rightly thinking that their version would be unfairly compared to the much more family-friendly Disney version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Jungle Book
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Capernaum