Luzzu


Fishing as it has been done for centuries.

(2021) Drama (Kino Lorber) Jesmark Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Michaela Farrugia, Uday McLean, Yuric Allison, Paul Cilia, Reece Vella, Marcelle Theuma, David Scicluna, Marta Vella, Stephen Buhagiar, Noel Grech, Adrian Farrugia, Thelma Abela, Joseph Scicluna, Michael Sciortino, Sonia Cassar, Dianna Bonnici, Joseph Schiavone, Yorgen Vella, Emmanuel Muscat. Directed by Alex Camilleri

 

The Mediterranean island of Malta is not exactly a film hotspot. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe by land area, and is full of traditions that go back centuries. Like many other countries, though, it is finding that its traditions are under siege by the economic realities of modern geopolitics.

Jesmark (Je. Scicluna) is a fisherman. He, like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, have fished from a small, brightly painted wooden boat called a luzzu. However, Jesmark has found, like many of his compatriots, that fishing has been less successful as he is competing with vast trawlers that are able to catch thousands of fish in a single trip where he is struggling to net three or four. He adheres to the rules of the local fisheries board, and works hard. However, he is disquieted by the local fish auctioneers consistently selling his fish below what they are worth, and he is unable to find other buyers for his catch.

To make matters worse, Jesmark has a baby with his girlfriend Denise (M. Farrugia) and that baby is having growth issues, necessitating some expensive baby food, visits to specialists and medications – all expensive and all putting a strain on what little money they are able to save. And to top things off, his beloved boat, the Te Palma, has developed a leak that will not be cheap to repair. “Without a boat, you’ll lose your way,” a fellow fisherman warns. These things have driven a wedge between Jesmark and Denise, and she moves out with his son to live with her mother, who already has a strained relationship with Jesmark, whom she disapproves of.

Jesmark is forced to compromise his ethics, working on the black market selling fish illicitly, some out of season, some off the books. Jesmark indeed feels that he has lost his way, and with the European Union putting pressure on local fishermen to buy back their luzzus and move them into different occupations which Jesmark is extremely reluctant to do, it is looking more and more like he will have little choice if his small family is to survive.

It is unsurprising that Camilleri has a background in documentaries, for this has the look and feel of one. The marketing material describes the film as “neorealist” or “hyper-realistic” and both monikers are true; there is a very authentic vibe here – you can almost smell the salt air and the rotting wood of the docks. That is the mark of a good documentary.

Jesmark Scicluna, who is not a professional actor, is a real find here. Ruggedly handsome with a sober mien (he rarely smiles in the movie nor is there much reason for him to), he has a charismatic personality that leaps off the screen as he fights forces that he doesn’t understand and are way out of his control. It’s an extremely effective performance that is bound to resonate among those who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet even with a good job. If the fishing industry is really as bad as it is made out to be here, he could have a legitimate shot at a career in front of the camera.

The story moves effortlessly from the documentary-like first act into the second act which is more of a crime drama, although one that has little suspense. We feel more the economic squeeze on Jesmark than we do any sort of fear of the consequences if he is to be caught. This leads to an ending that is poignant and well-earned.

Camilleri is a protege of Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) who also produced the film. Like some of his mentor’s best films, Camilleri infuses this film with a sense of how difficult it is to survive when everything is stacked against you, as it is these days. This isn’t an easy movie to watch in the sense that it will take you out of your own troubles; chances are you’ll recognize some of your own troubles in the film. However, the movie is brilliantly acted by a largely amateur cast, wonderfully shot by Léo Lefevre, and certainly worth your time and trouble to seek it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Jesmark is an absolutely magnetic presence. An engaging story that has universal appeal. Perfectly captures the desperation of those living on the edge of a financial abyss.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too quiet and slow-paced for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesmark Scicluna is an actual fisherman in Malta who was cast by Camilleri for the film, along with a number of other fishermen playing – you guessed it, fishermen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CODA
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Son of Monarchs

Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang

 

I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.

In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.

One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.

It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?

But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?

This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.

But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.

But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tiny Tim: King For a Day

The Family (2013)


Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

(2013) Comedy (Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Dominick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Palumbo, Stan Carp, Vincent Pastore, Jon Freda, Michael J. Panichelli Jr., Paul Borghese, Anthony Desio, Ted Arcidi, David Belle, Raymond Frnaza, Christopher Craig, Cedric Zimmerlin, Dominic Chianese, Oisin Stack, Sissi Duparc, Elba Sette-Camara. Directed by Luc Besson

You can choose your friends. Sometimes, you can choose your enemies. You can never choose your family however – and sometimes that might be just as well.

Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro) is an American living in France. Not just an American, however – an American from Brooklyn. And not just an American from Brooklyn – a mob boss from Brooklyn. You see, he ratted on the mob and has been taken into the witness protection program, hauling his none-too-thrilled-about-the-situation family along for the ride.

That ride has taken them from the Riviera to Normandy, shepherded by their very put-upon handler Stansfield (Jones) and his agents Di Cicco (Palumbo) and Caputo (Lombarozzi). Stansfield urges the family, now calling themselves the Blakes, to blend in but they’re having a hard time with it, as usual. Pretty wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) longs for good old American comfort food and when she asks the local grocer where the Peanut Butter is, he disdainfully tells her they don’t carry that sort of  thing there, then insults her in French to a couple of old biddy regulars at the cash register, not realizing she speaks French. Maggie doesn’t lose her temper however – she just improvises a bomb and blows up the store.

Pretty daughter Belle (Agron) is sweet as pie, but when a group of French guys drive her to the local park and make it clear that they expect her to put out under the impression that all American girls are sluts, she beats one of them to a bloody pulp with a tennis racket and takes their car. Industrious son Warren (D’Leo) quickly horns in on the black market pill and cigarette market at school, and attracts the ire of the school board while Belle attracts the eye of a callow young teaching assistant named Henri (Stack) to whom she wants to deliver up her virginity on a silver platter.

As for Giovanni, calling himself Fred, he masquerades as a writer which inspires him to write his memoirs which might not be such a good idea considering how much he knows. He also is frustrated with the quality of the town’s water which he traces back to an industrial plant on the edge of town, leading him to take extreme solutions in hand.

All of the Manzonis want nothing more than to go back to Brooklyn and resume the lives they once led but as it turns out Brooklyn is coming to them. Well-armed, as a matter of fact, and none to happy about their situation.

Besson is without a doubt the finest action director/writer/producer in France and his tutelage has turned out several other fine directors in the genre, such as Olivier Megaton. This is a cross between an homage to Martin Scorsese’s mob films (and Scorsese serves as a producer here) and a farce along the lines of Married to the Mob (which Pfeiffer memorably starred in). At times the two genres rest uneasily together but for the most part Besson keeps the balance between the two light.

This is the kind of role that De Niro has done a million times before and there is a familiarity to him playing this kind of character that gives the audience an easy in to the film. He has the good fortune to have Pfeiffer to play off of – the chemistry between the two is note-perfect and they make such a good team it makes me wonder why they were never cast together before (they actually were, in Stardust but shared no scenes together in that one).  Pfeiffer is regal here, a mafia princess with a fierce protective instinct, a touch of pyromania and a volcanic temper. She is every bit De Niro’s equal here which is a rare occurrence.

Agron, best-known for her work on Glee has a meaty role here and she sinks her teeth into it with gusto. Belle is a bit of a homicidal maniac under the veneer of a sweet girl next door. Her love for her family is fierce but she, like the rest of her brood, is a more than a little sociopathic and more than a little out-and-out crazy.

There are plenty of action scenes but it is the farce that works best here, the fish out of water scenes that have the ugly Americans trying to make things work with the even uglier French. Sure, there are plenty of stereotypes here (I’m sure there were lots of Italian-American societies cringing at their portrayal here) but it’s all in good fun and not meant to be taken seriously. As entertainment goes, this isn’t half-bad. If you have no plans to catch it in theaters, it might well be a good fit on home video instead.

REASONS TO GO: Wry sense of humor. De Niro, Pfeiffer and Jones are all stellar.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of cliché. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some violence, plenty of bad language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the film society debate attended by Jones and De Niro, the wrong movie is sent and they instead view Goodfellas which De Niro starred in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Analyze This!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Missing Person

Cold Souls


Cold Souls

David Strathairn shows an amazed Paul Giamatti what a soul looks like; being in Hollywood, he's never seen one before.

(2009) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Goldwyn) Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Lauren Ambrose, Katheryn Winnick, Rebecca Brooksher, Michael Tucker, Armand Schultz, Boris Kievsky, Gregory Korostishevsky. Directed by Sophie Barthes

What is our soul, really? Is it just a concept, as ephemeral as a thought? Or is it something real and tangible, something that can be made physical and as such, something that can be removed if need be?

Paul Giamatti (playing himself – kind of) is an actor who has been lauded for many performances and is currently taking on the role of Uncle Vanya in a Broadway production of the Chekhov play. It’s meant to be a comedy, but Paul is having issues. He is feeling too much and his performance is suffering.

He reads an article in the New Yorker about a service in which souls may be extracted and stored. Intrigued, he meets up with the man behind it, Dr. Flintstein (Strathairn) who assures him that the procedure is painless and safe. After some reluctance on his part at first, Paul finally decides to do it.

The operation is as promised; brief, painless and safe. At first, it’s like a great weight taken off of his shoulders. Surprisingly, whereas souls took all sorts of odd shapes and sizes, Paul’s looks very much like a chick pea – or garbanzo bean if you prefer. Such a small thing, Paul muses, but such a great weight it carries with it.

At first things are swell. But as time passes, things are not swell, as things often become. Soon, Paul’s wife Claire (Watson) – whom he never informed about his procedure – notices a change in Paul’s personality. So does the director (Tucker) of the play, which is very disturbing as they are days away from opening and Paul is clearly not even close to ready. It seems that Paul’s soul was necessary after all and he returns to the clinic to have it re-installed.

Except it’s missing. As it turns out, there is a high demand for black market American souls in Russia and a mule named Nina (Korzun) has taken Paul’s soul, thinking it was Al Pacino’s, for the girlfriend (Winnick) of a Russian mobster who yearns to be a movie star. Paul must journey to Moscow to retrieve his stolen soul in the company of a sympathetic Nina, who has elements of all the soul’s she’s carried within her, including Paul’s. However he’ll have to brave the wrath of a Russian gangster and the bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union if he’s to get his real soul back.

Not many would tackle souls as a subject for a movie in a Hollywood that is politically correct, for fear of offending the religious right or the non-religious left. In that sense, Barthes is an equal opportunity offender here but I don’t get that’s her actual goal.

She’s gathered a decent cast around her. Giamatti is an Oscar-nominated actor, one who has been giving consistently strong performances nearly every time out since his coming out party for Sideways back in 2004. He’s not playing himself, really – he’s playing a character here loosely based on himself – or at least looking a lot like himself – but maybe more of what he perceives others perceive him as. I know that sounds confusing but don’t think about it too much and you’ll get used to him being addressed with his real name onscreen.

Strathairn is also one of the best character actors of his generation, one who projects competence and character in every role. While his part is essentially comedic, he lends a bit of – not gravitas precisely, but legitimacy in any case. As always, even in a part that might not necessarily demand it, he gives a smart performance.

Watson, who I’ve barely mentioned in the description of the plot, manages to make the most of her brief appearance. She is understanding and devoted to the point of ferocity to her somewhat quirky husband. She comes off as a somewhat ideal wife and that in itself can make for a bland performance, but she is far from that here. As a critic, I appreciate that she took a role that lends itself to being taken for granted and makes it shine. I also liked Korzun’s performance as the sympathetic soul mule. It may have taken the souls of others for her to develop a conscience but Korzun makes Nina’s change from amoral employee to sympathetic assistant to Giamatti a fluid and organic one.

I have a thing about movies that make you think, and this one is one of those. Director Barthes, who also wrote the script, is offering up a debate about a subject not often tackled by the movies because of the religious implications. What is the soul? What makes it important? What does it look like? How can it be changed? What happens to us when it does?

Big questions deserve big answers and sadly, none are forthcoming here. The problem with the movie is that it is VERY cerebral but it really leaves the debate in the theater and not on the screen. Because it’s so very thought-provoking, it takes it’s time getting itself established and the whole Russian mobster sub-plot felt a bit misguided. Still, it’s a smart and at times very funny exploration of a subject that’s so rarely tackled in ANY medium that the filmmakers get a couple of points just for attempting it. I’m looking forward to more movies that provoke this kind of debate from Ms. Barthes.

WHY RENT THIS: A unique concept, well-executed. Fine performances from Giamatti, Strathairn and Watson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So overly cerebral that at times the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality as well as some fairly mature concepts. The language can get a little rough too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was inspired by a dream that Woody Allen had in which he discover his soul resembles a garbanzo bean.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a three-minute featurette on the design and construction of the soul extractor.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: In a Better World (Haevnen)

Dog Sweat


Dog Sweat

Sunset in Teheran.

(2010) Ensemble Drama (Indiepix) Ahmad Akbarzadeh, Tahareh Esfahani, Bagher Forohar, Sharokh Taslimi, Rahim Zamani. Directed by Hossein Keshavarz

Since the revolution in Iran deposed the Shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Iran has existed as an Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, its laws deriving from the Sharia law of the Koran. Moral police enforce the laws, harassing women who are wearing lipstick, or young men for wearing t-shirts that display messages friendly to the West.

The Iranian population is the youngest on the average on Earth, with two thirds of the population under thirty. These young people have grown up indoctrinated by the mullahs and ayatollahs as to the rightness of Islamic law. They have also grown up seeing American television on clandestine broadcasts, showing them the freedoms available elsewhere and many yearn for the same thing for themselves.

Massoud (Taslimi) copes with this yearning by drinking himself into a stupor day after day on black market liquor (alcohol is forbidden in Islam), often imported from America or the notorious home brewed “Dog Sweat.” His indolent life comes to a screeching halt when his mother is seriously injured in a car accident, her neck broken as well as other terrible injuries. She is brought to a hospital which is overcrowded and by our standards, primitive. She gradually slips away and Massoud becomes enraged with what he sees his country’s decline.

Hooshang (Akbarzadeh) and Homan (Zamani) are the best of friends, inseparable. They work out at the gym together, horseplay in their swimming pool and hang out at cafes. And while it is never stated overtly, it seems pretty likely they are gay which is also forbidden – in fact, it is so forbidden it doesn’t legally “exist” in Iran. Their parents are most eager to get them married off. Many gay men in Iran are faced with similar choices – to exist as “bachelors,” unwed and severely limited in their activities, or to have some freedoms as married men and fathers. When Hooshang is paired with a bride, the relationship with Homan is put into doubt.

His bride is Mahsa (actress uncredited), who yearns to be a pop singer which is also forbidden in Iran – women cannot sing solo. Still, she cuts a demo in a friend’s studio and proves to be quite talented. She gets some interest but now a respectable married woman she must decide whether to risk her standing or pursue her dream.

Kate (actress uncredited) is a self-proclaimed feminist who is having an affair with a married man – a man who happens to be married to her cousin. Her brother Dawood (Forohar) is recently returned from studying at an American university and he becomes enamored with Kate’s friend Katherine (actress uncredited). The two decide they want to take their relationship farther but finding a place to do it is difficult at best so they walk the streets of Teheran endlessly, waiting for their chance for privacy and intimacy.

In the meantime Kate is also being pursued by Bijan (actor uncredited) in a creepy stalker-like way. She is left with the choice of a life of sexual encounters with a man she loves but cannot have, or the freedom of being a married woman with a man she doesn’t love.

Such is life in Iran. I found the glimpse fascinating. Much like life in any totalitarian regime, people find a way to live their lives, looking for back alley ways to get the things they want and need to bypass the authorities. There is the ever-present specter of the harsh punishment for violators, including imprisonment and execution for certain offenses.

The filmmakers had to shoot this guerilla style, sometimes without the knowledge of authorities and sometimes with forged permits. The result gives us a look at the everyday Iranian, free of government propaganda about how moral the society is. Some might find it more moral than our own in many ways, but people have their own moralities; some find drinking, smoking, dancing and fornicating to be perfectly acceptable by their own moral compass. All right, most do.

There were plenty of logistical difficulties in making this film. For one thing, they could only make it in small doses, forcing some actors to drop out as they became more nervous about their involvement in it being discovered. This leads to some storylines feeling hurried and ending abruptly.

There’s a great scene when Kate and Dawood’s mother finds a condom on the floor. She assumes it’s Dawood’s and asks him when he’s going to bring his girlfriend home, and seems pleased that her son is interested in someone. When he responds that the condom isn’t his, she goes into Kate’s room and has a screaming match, calling her daughter all sorts of names and slapping her face until Dawood intervenes and says he was mistaken, that the condom is really his. It seems that some things aren’t so different in their society as ours, eh?

While this is an ensemble-style drama, the storylines for the most part don’t intersect. While Keshavarz does an admirable job of giving all of the stories equal time and attention, some are more successfully told than others – an occupational hazard for this kind of storytelling. Still, this is worth checking out if for no other reason to see how the other half lives – and how things could easily be here were fundamentalist religious sorts in charge.

REASONS TO GO: A rare glimpse of everyday life in Teheran and the challenges that face the people living in a fundamentalist theocracy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the story lines meander a bit and end abruptly.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sexuality (although nothing overt), smoking and drinking, some violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Teheran, usually clandestinely and often with forged permits. The actresses mainly wore wigs when filming scenes without their shawls in order to keep their heads covered per Islamic tradition and Iranian law.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the images of Teheran deserve a big screen viewing.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Happy Poet

Sleep Dealer


Sleep Dealer

No sleep for the weary.

(Maya Entertainment) Leonor Varela, Jacob Vargas, Luis Fernando Pena, Giovanna Zacarias, Marius Biegai, Emilio Guerrero, Jake Koenig, Ursula Tania, Jose Concepcion Macias. Directed by Alex Rivera

Technology has become in many ways a crutch. We have come to depend on it to solve our problems and make the world a better place, but it seems that rather than doing that it tends to create new problems. Still in all technology gives us hope for the future; but what happens when the future becomes a thing of the past?

In the near future, the United States has built a wall around it, closing its borders. It remains connected to the world via the Internet, to which people are plugging into now directly into their cortex and their spine so that not only do they experience onscreen but directly into their brains, able to experience the memories and emotions of others. This is a costly process, but it can be purchased on the black market for the right price.

Memo (Pena) lives in the Mexican village of Santa Ana Del Rio in Oaxaca. The river that nourished the farm of his father (Macias) has been dammed up by a big corporation and the cost of water has skyrocketed. None of this matters to Memo, who loves technology and dreams of being part of a brave new world. He has a talent for hacking and picks up military chatter of the security forces guarding the dam.

Unfortunately, he’s naïve about how sensitive the company is to being listened to. They perceive it to be the work of “aqua-terrorists,” groups that believe that the big corporations have no right to control basic human needs like water and are anxious to give water back to the people by any means necessary. The companies are quite willing to fight back, also by any means necessary. Unfortunately, there is collateral damage of innocents caught in the crossfire.

Devastated by having his home destroyed and his father killed by a military drone, Memo travels to Tijuana where he meets Luz Martinez (Varela), a budding reporter who sells interviews on her blog site, only nobody has purchased any yet. However, to her surprise, her interview with Memo is sold to an anonymous buyer who pays in advance for more interviews with Memo.

In the meantime, Memo has gotten implants on the black market, enabling him to connect to the Internet but more importantly, allowing him to get work in a virtual workplace. The technology exists for workers in Mexico to connect to computers who connect them to robots in the United States that do the actual physical labor; the Mexican workers control the robots. These workers are called “sleep dealers” because they are required to stay awake for their entire shift as falling asleep causes a feedback that can cause them injury and/or death, and their shifts can be very long indeed.

Memo however has more on his agenda then being a worker in this new age; he wants to find those responsible for the death of his father and bring them to justice. The key to his plans rests in the hands of a military pilot who no longer believes in the cause he’s fighting for. Can Memo fight the powers that be without being crushed by them?

First-time director Rivera is the son of first-generation immigrants from Peru; several of his cousins came to the United States as undocumented workers, so he has a real passion about their story. He is also extremely fond of science fiction movies, having been reared on movies like Blade Runner, Brazil and Star Wars.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the budget of any of those movies, so he has to make do with effects that are less than state of the art. The movie is visually striking nonetheless and the concept is exceedingly interesting, and makes some logical sense.

The acting isn’t what you’d call compelling, but Varela and Pena do solid jobs. Varela is the best-known member of the cast, having appeared in Blade II, Innocent Voices and Hell Ride. Pena is best known for his appearances in Mexican telanovelas, or soap operas.

One of the things that I love most about science fiction is that it gives us a forum for examining issues of the present-day. Certainly immigration and undocumented workers are a problem much on the minds of Americans, and certainly on the minds of those living south of the border. Globalization, both in economic terms as well as in terms of information exchange, seems to be inevitable, and will no doubt create problems of its own. The idea of virtual workers is not so far-fetched; as we offshore data entry and call center jobs, as well as manufacturing ones, it won’t be long until corporate sorts wanting to maximize profits will look for ways of offshoring manual labor as well.

Those who love dystopian visions are going to really dig this; those science fiction fans that prefer Star Wars-type action are going to be largely disappointed. Rivera has crafted a movie that does what it can with the budget it has, but more importantly, gives you pause to think. This is a very impressive debut that largely flew under the radar, getting almost no American release at all. It’s worth seeking out, although it might take some doing for you to find it. It’s well worth the effort.

WHY RENT THIS: An intriguing premise told from a viewpoint rarely seen in modern film – that of the undocumented worker.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Budgetary constraints made some of the film’s effects look a little bit cheesy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sexuality; there are also a few thematic elements that might be a bit much for younger viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize (given to a film focusing on science or technology) at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everybody Wants to Be Italian