Exodus (2016)


A refugee child shows his resiliency.

(2016) Documentary (108 Media) Elias Matar, Ethan Bochicchio, Mixail Vorrias, Dr. Khalil Kermani, Ali Güray Yalvaçli, Hacer Hariklar Vlici, Lee Wlmsn, Dr. Bita Kermani. Directed by Elias Matar

 

The recent chemical attacks in Syria and the President’s retaliation for the same have brought back Syria into the spotlight. While President Trump moans about Syrian babies, one may note that he still wants to ban all Syrian refugees from our shores, the majority of whom are women and children.

Elias Matar, who although was born in America was raised in Damascus, feels a particular connection for the refugee crisis and for those crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the outer islands of Greece. In addition to documenting their journeys, he volunteers for a humanitarian agency that helps land the boats making the often perilous crossing, makes sure that the refugees are given dry clothes and food, and helps them to get to refugee registration centers.

The movie documents what the volunteers encounter; overloaded boats and dinghies landing often in the dead of night with cold, wet and desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors not only in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Many of the refugees are children who are most at risk for hypothermia which is a real danger particularly during winter crossings (when this was filmed).

We also get a look at the Greek refugee camps which are fairly ordered, and the illegal Turkish ones which are often run by the smugglers who charge 1800 Euros for the crossing. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and often the refugees go days without food or drinkable water. Thus they are often in weakened conditions when making the dangerous crossing and are more often than not abandoned by the smugglers who leave the refugees alone to make their way to islands like Chios and Lesbos without any sort of navigational equipment or even experience in steering or running a boat.

The numbers can be staggering; in one atypical night, the volunteers were swamped by 37 boats arriving on the island carrying more than 1,900 refugees, overwhelming their resources which are mostly donated to begin with. That particular night had been the first night after several days of rough seas that boats could be safely launched or landed.

The movie, narrated by Matar who has an upbeat tone despite some of the grim things he has to say, puts a human face on a crisis that Americans largely turn their backs on, particularly those who are in the conservative movement. It is popular to defend that attitude of turning away refugees by saying that they could be terrorists but to date no refugee has committed a terrorist act in this country and one look at the faces of the children, who continue to hold out hope for a better life despite indications to the contrary, is convincing enough to make that attitude what it is; a self-serving lie, a means to assuage guilty consciences. Simply put, watching this film will document just how reprehensible that policy is.

We don’t really get much information about the refugees themselves or their stories; mostly they are just a flood of people who cross the point of view of the camera. We do see much of what the volunteers do on a daily/nightly basis and while again we don’t get the stories of what prompted these people to volunteer for this job (other than Matar and Ethan Bochicchio, a high school student who saw Matar’s first film and was moved to travel to Greece to volunteer himself) but the movie runs a compact 72 minutes so there’s not a lot of room for fluff or talking heads.

The footage is raw and sometimes moves from one scene to another without much flow; I suspect this is much like how Matar’s life as a volunteer was. While it’s not particularly hard to follow, it comes off a bit jarring at times. Also there’s a sequence in which a dinghy is loaded (or I should say overloaded) with refuges from one of the more deplorable Turkish camps; that sequence inexplicably goes on and on unnecessarily. A bit more judicious editing would have been nice.

This should be must-viewing for anyone who thinks this country should refuse entry to refugees as well as to all members of government who are connected with immigration in any sense. That our nation once opened our doors and extended our hands to those leaving situations of war, famine and terror makes our present stance all the more disgusting. This is a movie which can potentially change hearts and minds and I urge anyone with any interest in the refugee crisis, whether pro or anti refugee, to see it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie hits some powerful emotions as we see the human faces of the refugee crisis. Some of the footage of the boats landing on Chios is absolutely stunning. Matar is a lively narrator. The compassion of the volunteers is palpable.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit raw and rough.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity, children in peril and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second in a series of films documenting the plight of refugees moving from the Middle East to Western Europe by Matar; the first was last year’s Flight of the Refugees which covered the trek from Macedonia to Germany (a third, Children of Beqaa is in post-production).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Sense of an Ending

Beasts of the Southern Wild


The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

(2012) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Brown, Henry D. Coleman, Kaliana Brower, Philip Lawrence, Hannah Holby, Jimmy Lee Moore, Jovan Hathaway, Kendra Harris, Windle Bourg, Jay Oliver, Roxanna Francis, Marilyn Barbarin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin

2013 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Director – Benh Zeitlin
Best Actress – Quvenzhané Wallis
Best Adapted Screenplay – Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
WINS – 0

Oscar Gold 2016

There is something precious about a child’s imagination. It is untamed, full of beasties and monsters but also full of beauty and innocence. Our worldview as adults is well-informed by our daydreams as children. I, for one, wish I could have held on more to those dreams.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) is a resolute 6-year-old girl living in the Bathtub, a (fictional) part of the Louisiana bayou that rests on the “other” side of the levee. Whenever it rains, the Bathtub floods. The people who live there are rough and tumble, really recognizing no authority but their own. Their lives are hardscrabble and they eke by on whatever they can manage.

Hushpuppy has a daddy named Wink (Henry) who is prone to disappearing. After one such disappearance, he returns home with a hospital gown and ID bracelet. He has a rare blood disease and it is slowly killing him. He means to make his daughter as self-sufficient as he can in what time he has left.

Her somewhat prescient teacher Miss Bathsheba (Montana) tells her and her classmates about global warming and the polar ice caps melting, adding that this would release prehistoric beasts called aurochs that would rampage across North America, devouring everything in their path. She also warns that a gigantic storm is coming. When it hits, Wink and Hushpuppy try to ride it out but when all is said and done the devastation is catastrophic. Worse still, the aurochs are on the loose.

First-time feature director Zeitlin has crafted an impressive debut that takes its visual cues from Terrance Malick. He co-wrote the movie along with Lucy Alibar, loosely based on her play. This feels far from the average stage adaptation because those often feel like you’re seeing a filmed version of a stage play with little depth of field so to speak. Almost all of this is outdoors and not just any outdoors but the somewhat wide and endless bayous of south Louisiana where the Gulf and the land are almost one entity.

Wallis won her Oscar nomination deservedly and it is a performance that will startle anyone who has seen juvenile actors “act.” Most of them are fairly unbearable with occasional exceptions but Wallis blows all of them out of the water here. Her Hushpuppy is primordial and wise at the same time, seeing the world with innocent eyes yet with a certain amount of world weariness that comes from living a difficult life. It’s a deep and layered role that would hopelessly stump even veteran actors but Wallis is so natural it’s like it was written for her, which it surprisingly wasn’t.

Most of the rest of the cast are locals; that makes for predictably varying performances although for the most part they are adequate enough. The aurochs are nicely rendered, considering the tiny budget the movie had and there are some moments of real beauty. Zeitlin doesn’t always connect things together real well but it can’t be denied that he has a really uncanny eye. This is a beautiful film.

The movie does move slowly in the middle as the residents of the Bathtub prepare for the storm. And like many movies that dry to depict the imagination of a child, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s real and what isn’t. Overall though this is a gorgeous movie, somewhat bittersweet about the process of growing up and how sometimes, the fantasies of youth are preferable to the realities of adulthood.

WHY RENT THIS: Wallis is a force of nature here. An imaginative story imaginatively told.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of children in peril, brief profanity, disturbing images, some sensuality and adult themes are the order of the day.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At nine years old, Wallis became the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy history, a record that still stands through 2016.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are audition tapes, a featurette on the Aurochs, and a short film that Zeitlin previously made.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.1M on a $1.8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold continues!

Eye of the Hurricane


 

Eye of the Hurricane

Grant Collins' Popeye impression never fails to get a laugh.

(2012) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Melanie Lynskey, Brian Doyle-Murray, Nicola Peltz, Campbell Scott, Jose Zuniga, Gregory Cruz, Grant Collins, Wendi Motte, Joyce Guy, Colin Ford, Eddie Bowz, Andrew Wilson Williams, Ben Sabet, Christopher James Forrest, Julie Ann Dinneweth. Directed by Jesse Wolfe

 

What happens during a natural disaster is sometimes not nearly as devastating as what happens in its aftermath. Sometimes the worst part of picking up the pieces is realizing that the pieces will never be reassembled in quite the same way ever again.

A small town in Florida has been hit by a devastating hurricane and stands in ruins. Electricity and water are out and most of the residents live in a tent city. Amelia Kyte (Lynskey) is in a state of shock; her husband, who flies a hurricane hunter for the Air Force, hasn’t returned and she holds vigil at the local base (which itself was severely damaged in the storm) until she gets some news, which isn’t forthcoming. In fact, she isn’t even allowed on the base nor will anyone in charge talk to her about the fate of her husband, or whether he is alive or dead or even missing.

She is far too involved in her own grief to pay much attention to her children; 16-year-old Renee (Peltz) who is forced to fill out forms and watch out for her little brother, 9-year-old Homer (Collins) who lost his eye in the storm. Homer is sure that if they find the missing eye that it can be put back in his head no harm no foul. To this end he enlists Abby Nelson (Motte), his best friend and maybe the toughest girl in town.

A local fisherman, Bill Folsom (Scott), is trying to extract his boat out of the water where it is blocking the ramp, irking other fishermen who know that the ramp is needed for the crane they’ve hired to pull their own boats out of the water as well. Bill is sweet on Amelia and has been for a long time. He keeps watch on Homer as much as he can, but has a tendency to do and say the wrong thing – like telling Homer tales about the Seminole (Cruz), a local figure reputed to have magical powers. Eventually, Homer gets it into his head that the Seminole might be able to use his magic to help find Homer’s eye.

Bill is trying to work some magic of his own, spending nights and what’s left of his cash to repair Amelia’s house and making it livable again so that maybe he could move in there with her sometime down the line. In the meantime, Renee has fallen for a married relief worker (Zuniga) and is frustrated and fed off with her mom who is completely self-absorbed. By the time word finally comes through and Amelia re-joins the land of the living, it may well be too late to repair the rift that has grown between her and her daughter – or to save her son, whose own obsession has led him to attempt something incredibly dangerous.

I really wanted to like this movie; the premise is intriguing and there are some solid performers in the cast. Unfortunately, there are also a whole lot of logical lapses. For one thing, no military base – even one that’s compromised as this one was – is going to allow the wife of one of their own to sit outside their gates wondering if her husband is dead or alive. They would at least give her some information and if not, assign someone to help her family out. They wouldn’t just leave her hanging like that.

And FEMA be damned, the Red Cross wouldn’t have one or two case workers to handle a tent city like that. A place like that would be swarming with personnel and there’d be evidence of electrical workers trying to restore power. Here the town is left pretty much left forgotten and yet it’s possible to drive to Miami where there are lights, bars that are open and serving beer to minors. I’m not sure if the filmmakers knew the legal drinking age here is 21, but they depict beer being served to people clearly identified as 16 years old without being carded. No bar is going to risk their liquor license like that.

Those are just the few off the top of my head but you get the drift. Little things like that annoy me, I have to admit. What’s worse is that the juvenile actors cast in the parts of Abby and Homer don’t come off as being real kids. That might be because the parts weren’t written that way, but they act more like kids on a TV show rather than kids who have been through a major disaster and in Homer’s case, have been injured to the tune of a lost eye. While I can see Homer’s obsession with recovering that eye and of boredom and lack of supervision causing them to get into trouble, there are times that Homer just is too much like Bobby Hill in “King of the Hill;” a little bit too snarky. Same goes for Abby; she was acting like a kid out of a Tyler Perry movie.

The sad thing there’s really a movie here. Scott, Lynskey, Zuniga and Peltz all deliver solid performances and while Lynskey’s Amelia was annoying early on as you got to know the situation her motivations became pretty clear and suddenly she was a bit more sympathetic.

It’s really hard sometimes to critique efforts like this; for one thing, we’re not talking big budget Hollywood productions here and I know that the filmmakers want to tell the story the best way they can. Unfortunately, I can’t in all conscience say that I liked this movie and I can’t for the same reason recommend it without a whole lot of caveats.

REASONS TO GO: Scott, Lynskey, Peltz and Zuniga do well.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many lapses in logic. Juvenile actors too inconsistent.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there and some implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted on March 15 at the Omaha Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trouble the Water

SWAMP BOAT LOVERS: There are several different types of boats regularly used in Florida swamps and the Everglades on display here, from rowboats to skiffs to power boats.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Girl Model

The Mechanic (2011)


The Mechanic

Jason Statham wants to renegotiate his fee.

(2011) Action (CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden, James Logan, Joshua Bridgewater, Mark Anthony Nutter, John McConnell, Lara Grice, Ada Michelle Loridans, Eddie Fernandez, Lance Nichols, J.D. Evermore. Directed by Simon West

Being an assassin is a lonely business. Killing people for hire tends to breed a certain amount of paranoia into one’s makeup; meticulous planning leads to success in this world, and those who allow a human interaction into the mix are just begging for trouble.

Arthur Bishop (Statham) is the best in the world at what he does. He’s a mechanic, a professional hitman who takes care of problems. He is adept at any sort of hit; be it one that looks like an accident or natural occurrence, or one that sends a message. He is employed by a shadowy company that rents out hired killers to wealthy clients, although Bishop’s hits are apparently only criminals and terrorists. As John Cusack said in a similar role in Grosse Point Blank, “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it.”

After taking care of a Columbian drug lord (Logan) in a typically efficient and professional manner, Bishop returns home to New Orleans to meet with his mentor and corporate contact Harry McKenna (Sutherland) to receive his payment. The two banter about like old friends, which they are; bitching about corporate politics and Harry’s somewhat useless son Steve (Foster) from whom he is estranged. Bishop then goes home to his gorgeous house on the bayou which is accessible only by boat

Not long thereafter Harry meets an untimely end. Bishop is none too thrilled about it, but he has issues to take care of. Harry’s son Steve also shows up, angry at the world and ready to take out a random carjacker (Bridgewater) in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bishop shows up just in time to avert a stupid act of vengeance that would have ruined Steve’s life and agrees to take him on as a protégé. He trains him not only in the skill of firing weapons but in the art of killing. He even takes him along on the job to watch him kill a gunrunner (Evermore), a kind of “take your surrogate kid to work day” exercise.

The two then go after a couple of victims on their own, a rival mechanic (Chase) and a preacher/cult leader named Vaughn (McConnell). Due to Steve’s sloppiness and inability to follow instructions, they both turn messy. About then they discover that the death of Steve’s dad was ordered by Dean (Goldwyn), a high-ranking executive of the company which coupled with the botched assignments makes them a corporate liability. The mechanics become problems for other mechanics to fix. Can they get to Dean before he gets to them?

This is a remake of a 1972 film with Charles Bronson in the title role and Jan-Michael Vincent as Steve. That one, directed by frequent Bronson collaborator Michael Winner, was much more noir than this and like many films from the era had a somewhat fatalistic atmosphere. Some of the conceits of that movie don’t really translate well to this era of filmmaking, so the movie is different (although not radically so) than the original.

Director West, who has a mentor of his own in Michael Bay (West is best known for directing Con Air), is a strong action director and knows how to appeal to the hearts of men everywhere. There is nary a woman to be seen except as hookers (Anden) and victims (Grice and Loridans, whose arm Bishop threatens to stuff down a garbage disposal to motivate her dad for information).

Jason Statham was a wise bit of casting. Like Bronson, he plays it close to the vest emotionally. He conveys amusement with a little half-smile and annoyance with a half-frown. He is the perfect ice cold killer, which is what the character needs to be. He bares his chest and then some in the opening moments of the film, and ladies will get a nice up close look at nearly all of him later in the movie; for the guys, he kicks ass without ever breaking a sweat. However, it must be said he has the best stubble beard in the business.

Foster is an up-and-coming actor who already has an Oscar nomination under his belt; although this is most assuredly not going to win him his next one, I think that he’s going to win gold in that department in the very near future. He gives Steve menace and vulnerability at once, as well as a sexual ambiguity that adds some spice to the role. It’s a magnificent portrayal and well worth the price of admission for his performance alone.

The movie is a bit too workmanlike. My problem with it is that Bishop is so good that even when things go south you never get a sense that he’s in danger. He always seems to be two or three steps ahead of everybody else. He’s a bit like Superman in that regard; Superman is so strong and so invulnerable that it’s pretty hard to convey a sense of jeopardy. Bishop needs a really strong opponent and there isn’t one in the movie. No kryptonite here, either.

Still, it’s got all the elements you need in an action film – fast pacing, great stunts, things blowing up, a couple of hot naked (or nearly naked) babes and lots and lots of guns. While action movies have less cachet since the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, this one at least is a decent enough entry in the genre. Action fans will certainly be satisfied.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent action sequences. Foster is really good in his role. There may be no better action star at the moment than Jason Statham.

REASONS TO STAY: You rarely get a sense that there is any danger for Arthur Bishop – he’s almost too good for there to be a sense of jeopardy here.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect in a movie about an assassin, there’s lots of violence and a couple of disturbing on-screen murders. There’s also plenty of foul language, some nudity and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarah, the role played by Anden, was played by Jill Ireland in the original 1972 version (Ireland was then-wife to Charles Bronson). The character in that movie had no name and was listed in the credits as “The Girl.” 

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences don’t have that epic a quality to them; the explosions might work better on the big screen. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all a matter of personal preference whether or not you want to see it at home or in a theater; you make the call.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Way Back