Outside the Law (Hors la loi) (2010)


Gangsters, Algerian-style.

Gangsters, Algerian-style.

(2010) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Chafia Boudraa, Bernard Blancan, Sabrina Seyvecou, Assaad Bouab, Thibault de Montalembert, Samir Guesmi, Jean-Pierre Lorit, Ahmed Benaissa, Larbi Zekkal, Louisa Nehar, Mourad Khen, Mohamed Djouhari, Mustapha Bendou, Nacer Chenouf, Kheiza Agboubi. Directed by Rachid Bouchareb

In the mid to late 20th century, European colonialism kind of came to an end. It didn’t come easily. The Algerians, for example, fought the French tooth and nail to get them out – took the fight to France, even. There were acts of terrorism committed on French soil; some compared the Algerian FLM group to the Irish IRA. There was a lot of that going on.

Three brothers live on a farm that their family has worked for generations. Then, the family is dispossessed of their land, not because they’ve done anything wrong but because an indolent French aristocrat wants the land for himself.

They scatter to the four winds. Said (Debbouze) becomes an apolitical pimp and promoter of underground boxing matches. Messaoud (Zem) joins the French army and fights in another French colony – French Indochina, what we now call Vietnam. There he sees similarities to what is happening in Algeria, leading him to join a nationalist group when he returns to Algeria. Abdelkader (Bouajila) also joins the FLN – the Front de Libération Nationale or National Liberation Front, and becomes an organizer. Both brothers will be chased by Colonel Faivre (Blancan) who has formed a secret police group called the Red Hand, who answer to nobody in their quest to stop the terrorist attacks.

All three bear a lifelong resentment to the French government for leaving them homeless. Said doesn’t at first want anything to do with his brother’s politics but an unspeakable act of violence leads the brothers on a collision course with the French government.

This movie met with some controversy when it was released in France back in 2010. Even though the Algerian War occurred well over 50 years ago, the wounds from it still run deep. Bouchareb, who is himself of Algerian descent, makes no bones that this movie is from any other viewpoint than that of Algeria. Some felt that the real events depicted – in particular the Setif Massacre, which France has held was a reaction to terrorist attacks in France by the FLN. History tends to side with the FLN and the filmmakers clearly do.

Bouchareb is clearly influenced by Frances Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and other directors of that era. The violence here is almost beautiful in its choreography and the action sequences are well-executed and exciting. While at well over two hours the movie does drag in places, for the most part it moves pretty swiftly.

The three lead actors don’t look very much alike but still have a chemistry (they all appeared in Bouchareb’s previous film Days of Glory) that helps the movie work. As with most brothers, they don’t necessarily agree on everything but one thing they agree on is that they have each other’s backs no matter what. While some of their characters are a bit on the cliche side, the actors all deliver commendable performances.

What the movie doesn’t do is provide a whole lot of context. While in France and Algeria the events here are well-known, here in the States they are not. Of course, not every movie needs to be made for American audiences, but I would think younger audiences in France and Algeria might need a little bit of background as well.

Essentially this is a decently made, well-executed drama with action sequences that stand out. If you’re looking to find out more about history, this is the wrong place to look. However, if you’re looking for an Algerian perspective on the events of that time and place, this isn’t a bad place to start.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid action sequences. Fine chemistry among the leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit cliche. Doesn’t enlighten about the real-life issues.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The official submission for Algeria for the 2011 Oscars; it did make the short list but ultimately didn’t win the statue.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While we normally don’t extol the making-of featurette, this one contains some information about the real-life events that inspired the film. There are also extensive interviews with the filmmakers and cast.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on a $22M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Public Enemies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)


Of Gods and Men

Brother Christian is none to happy that the liberalized Vatican guidelines don’t allow him to administer corporal punishment any longer.

(2010) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Sabrina Ouazani, Abdallah Moundy, Olivier Perrier. Directed by Xavier Beauvois

 

Courage isn’t necessarily picking up a gun or a weapon. Sometimes it isn’t even uttering a cross word. Fighting for what you believe in takes a special type of courage, I’ll grant you but refusing to fight for it sometimes takes even more. Sometimes the greatest courage is to allow events to run their course.

In a small village in Algeria (not named in the movie but where the actual incident took place) in 1996, there was a remote Trappist Monastery made up of seven aging French monks. Although the village was completely Islamic, the monks live a serene pastoral life of raising their own crops and honey, praying and singing daily (the soundtrack is actually breathtaking with beautiful Gregorian chants), and dispensing medicine and clothing to the impoverished villages. They are not attempting to convert anyone to Catholicism, they simply do what they can to help and otherwise show their devotion to God through their simple lifestyle and their will to do good for those around them.

But the outside world isn’t necessarily a perfect place and Islamic fundamentalist violence has begun to show its ugly head. A group of Bulgarian construction workers are viciously attacked and murdered, their throats slit. Another woman is murdered for not wearing a veil. The violence is escalating throughout the country and the government is concerned for the well-being of the monks. They offer to relocate them somewhere that is at least temporarily safer.

However, Brother Christian (Wilson), the monk elected leader and spokesman of their little group, feels that their place is in the village where they can continue to do good work. The government offers them protection, volunteering to station military men at the monastery but Brother Christian believes this would be inappropriate. Despite the growing danger, he wants to stay. Not all the monks are on board with this idea, however.

Despite the fact that the monks live in harmony with the villagers and offer care free of charge, despite the high regard in which their neighbors hold them, the inevitable happens and terrorists begin to turn their keen eyes on the monastery. It soon becomes obvious that the monks are in mortal danger, with each one reacting in his own way to the prospect of their own deaths staring them in the face. The monastery’s doctor, the 70-something Brother Luc (Lonsdale) is sanguine but others are less so.

This was France’s official entry into the 2011 Foreign Language Film Oscar sweepstakes and it’s easy to see why. Not only is this beautifully filmed – the composition of the various scenes is as close to paintings as film gets – but it is beautifully acted as well. Lonsdale in particular will grab your attention; he is at turns cantankerous and serene. Wilson, best known as the flamboyant Merovingian in the Matrix trilogy, is a quiet leader who persuades rather than commands. His relationship with the village elders is based on trust and respect, and he knows the Koran as well if not better than the terrorists who quote it.

But this is not about terrorism or even death. It’s about belief and faith, and how powerful those things can be even in the face of pain and death. This is a movie that invites quiet contemplation. Much of the first part of the film depicts the daily life of the monks; it makes the second half so much more powerful because of it. American audiences might have trouble sitting through the first part but I found it to be very evocative. Who wouldn’t love a lifestyle so simple and so fulfilling?

This is a depiction of humanity both at its worst and at its best. You may recoil at the inhumanity and cruelty of men, but you will be uplifted by the courage and nobility of men as well. Catholics have taken their fair share of shots lately. This is a fictionalized version of these events but nevertheless I must confess that this movie made me prouder to be Catholic than I have been in a very long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartbreaking and soul-stirring. Marvelous performances all around but particularly by Lonsdale and Wilson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very understated.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images including one scene of devastating violence and also  bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won three Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in 2011, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Lonsdale.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette in which the actual monastery where these events took place is visited, and also another one in which author John W. Kiser, who wrote a book on the events, discusses the real Tibehirine monks at Merrimack College with Augustine academics.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $42.2M on an unreported production budget; this was undoubtedly a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where Do We Go Now?

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: I’m Still Here

Animal Kingdom


 

Animal Kingdom

Grandma's forgotten to take her meds again.

(2010) Crime Drama (Sony Classics) Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Laura Wheelwright, Clayton Jacobson, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Jacqueline Brennan, Anna Lise Phillips. Directed by David Michod

 

You can choose your friends but not your family. Usually that’s not a bad thing but for certain families, it is a nightmare indeed. Growing up in a family of sociopaths is bound to affect you, even if you’ve been shielded from the worst of them.

Joshua “J” Cody’s (Frecheville) mom is a heroin addict. Make that was – she checks out of this world while watching TV. J calls the authorities and while paramedics work on her, watches “Deal or No Deal” impassively. The boy has issues.

He is sent to live with his grandmother which might seem to be a good idea but really is throwing J from the frying pan into the fire. Janine (but everyone calls her Smurf) Cody (Weaver) might seem motherly and affectionate on the outside (she is always asking her sons for a kiss, kisses which go on just long enough to be uncomfortable) but her boys – Darren (Ford), Craig (Stapleton) and Andrew (Mendelsohn) – the latter known to one and all as Pope – are, respectively, a dim-witted thug, a coke-addicted unpredictably violent thug and a remorseless psychopath. How’d you like to attend that family reunion?

J gets sucked into the family business of armed robberies, drug dealing and other petty crimes and he gets to know Pope’s right hand man Baz Brown (Edgerton) who yearns to leave the life. However when a transgression against the family leads to tragedy, Pope is forced into hiding and Craig and Smurf assume control of the family business. Meanwhile, Police Sgt. Nathan Leckie (Pearce) is hot on the trail of the family and is concerned for J’s well-being. He also sees J as a potential informant, the key to ending the Cody family’s reign of terror once and for all.

It’s hard to believe that this is Michod’s first feature as a director. It’s so self-assured and well-executed that you’d think someone like Coppola or Scorsese had something to do with it. It doesn’t hurt that he has a bangin’ script to work with, as well as a group of actors who are quite talented although other than Pearce and Edgerton not terribly well-known in the States.

Weaver was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards and while she didn’t win, she gives a performance here that she will undoubtedly be remembered for the remainder of her career. She is at turns sweet and cuddly, cold and manipulative and creepy and psychotic. She’s the type of person who in one moment can be kissing her grandson and the next ordering his execution. It’s a bravura performance and worth renting/streaming the movie for all by itself.

Mendelsohn is nearly as impressive. He is absolutely without remorse or any real human feeling other than rage. He takes because he can; he wounds because he can and he kills because he can. He understands that he is the de facto godfather of Melbourne’s most notorious crime family and will do whatever it takes to keep it that way. He is not motivated so much by love of family as he is love of being feared.

Frecheville has perhaps the most difficult and most thankful role of all. If this were Goodfellas he’d be Henry Hill; he’s the audience surrogate but at the same time, he is a wounded puppy. He’s got definite issues but at the same time he’s a typical teenager, prone to acting rashly and not always logically. It is tough for a character like this to remain sympathetic but Frecheville manages to make J remain so throughout the film, even when he’s doing boneheaded things.

There are times when it gets a bit too realistic for my tastes; I was genuinely creeped out by some of the actions of the Cody family from grandma on down, and there were times I was taken out of the experience because of it. Still, for the most part this is one of those movies you can’t turn away from once you sit down to watch and it will stay with you for a long while after you get up to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Stark, brutal and authentic. Career-defining performances from Weaver, Mendelsohn and Frecheville. Taut and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes overboard on the creepy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, as well as some drug use (as well as drug culture depictions) and a buttload of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie owns the record for most Australian Film Institute nominations for a single film with 18.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A with director Michod and actress Weaver from the Los Angeles Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; it seems likely that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Midnight Meat Train

Incendies


Incendies

Lubna Azabal wants a bigger percentage of the gross - and she's not going to take no for an answer!

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulim, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allan Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Yousef Shweihat. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Our relationships with our parents can be complicated to say the least. Often we forget that they too are flesh and blood people who lived lives before we were even a gleam in their eyes – that they were once young and passionate, and lived through times both good and bad. Sometimes, we just don’t know our parents at all.

Twins Simon (Gaudette) and Jeanne (Desormeaux-Poulim) are summoned to the office of their late mother’s employer Jean Lebel (Girard), who happens to be a notary. He has, he informs them, been named executor of their mother’s will. She has asked to be buried naked and face down without a headstone or a name plate. Instead, the twins are given two envelopes – one addressed to the father they thought was dead, the other addressed to the brother they didn’t know they had. Once those envelopes are delivered, then she could be properly buried.

Simon, who obviously has some issues with his mommy, refuses to play her games but Jeanne, who is a graduate student in mathematics and deals with insolvable problems, has to fill in the blanks that have suddenly appeared in her life. She decides to retrace her mother’s steps, back to the unnamed and fictional Middle Eastern country (that is most likely based on Lebanon) where her mother was born.

There we find that her mother, Nawal Marwan (Azabal), was born a Christian in a country where Muslims and Christians don’t really play together well. She falls in love with a Muslim who gets her pregnant which is a no-no. After giving birth, she is forced to leave her village and stay with her uncle in the city of Daresh, where he is a newspaper editor and she attends university while her newborn is left in an orphanage. Years later when civil war breaks out between the Christians and the Muslims, she goes on a journey to find her son, one that will take her through as much suffering as it is possible for a human being to witness.

This may sound like a very dark tale and certainly it is grim in places, but it is also very uplifting. The movie is driven by the things that divide us, but the powerful element of forgiveness is also very much present.

Villeneuve proves himself to be not only an adept director, but potentially an elite one with his marvelous storycrafting here. The movie begins with a somewhat scattered feeling and as the movie continues, the threads begin to emerge into a pattern until at last the big picture comes into focus. The twist that brings it all together is a doozy; there were audible gasps at the screening I attended.

Azabal is a tremendous actress who starts out very emotional, wearing her feelings openly but becoming more guarded as the movie progresses (it’s a defense mechanism). That’s the opposite of how movie characters usually progress, and kudos to her and Villeneuve for pulling it off. Nawal is a complex women, one who has been through a great deal of trauma, who has seen men at their worst (Christian militiamen with pictures of the Virgin Mary on the butts of their guns massacring a busload of Muslim women) and yet manages to find a way through to grace, which she achieves near the end of her life and by sending her children on this journey, allows them to achieve it as well.

There are certainly socio-political elements to the movie as well, with a good hard look at the prejudices and hatreds of a region that seems doomed to wallow in it forever. Yet, there is great beauty there, and the warmth of family and hospitality that makes watching the country descend into the madness of religious civil war all the more heartbreaking.

This is one of the most provocative movies you’ll see this year. It was the favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, although it wound up losing to In a Better World – both movies are about equally as good, to my mind and both deserved it. This movie, however, gets a bit of an edge when it comes to the issues raised and the character of Nawal, who is as extraordinary a woman as you’re likely to meet in the theater this year.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and terrific images.

REASONS TO STAY: It takes a bit of patience to get on board.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some pretty intense violence not to mention a good deal of foul language and a twist with an extremely adult theme.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The stage play that the movie is based on premiered in France on March 14, 2003 in France and the title translates to “Scorched.”

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this on a big screen if you can find it.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: An Education