Cries from Syria


The White Helmets rescue more Syrian children from the rubble of Aleppo.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Helen Mirren (narrator), Abdullah Kurdi, Kholoud Halmi, Hadi Al-Abdullah Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Suzan Malar, President Bashar Al-Asad, Jamil Afesee, Dr. Khalid Alazar, Zaher Al-Saket, Raed El-Saleh, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Ghiath Matar, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

 

What is happening in Syria is absolutely unconscionable. Ruled by President Bashar Al-Asad with an iron fist (ironically he trained as a doctor before stepping in as successor to his brutal father), Syria is a country which has fallen into a morass of death and destruction.

Afineevsky, who helmed the excellent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire about the Ukraine’s fight for freedom from a tyrant allied with Vladimir Putin, has delivered a very orderly and precise account of the events that have led to the situation as it is. There are a lot – a lot – of talking head interviews in the film which is normally a turn-off for me but their stories are all so varied and effective it’s hard to fault the director.

Afineevsky divides the movie into four chapters; the first details the events leading up to the Syrian revolution; how the Arab Spring gave people hope that they would be able to overthrow their own despot. When some schoolboys in the city of Daraa write some graffiti on their schoolyard reading “It’s Your Turn, Doctor” apparently this puts the fear of God into the authorities for the boys are arrested, tortured and many of them are killed.

This leads to outrage on the part of the people of Syria who feel that torturing children is a step too far. They take to the streets in massive demonstrations but Al-Asad orders his army to fire on the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who carry flowers and bottled water to give to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers, disgusted by these orders, defect from the Syrian army and form the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil War begins.

You get a sense that the Syrian people, confronted by one atrocity, believe that they’ve hit rock bottom and then another one begins. Al-Asad starts by laying siege to towns where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. He forbids any goods and services to come in, and starts bombarding the towns, labeling the inhabitants as terrorists when in reality most of the dead and dying are women and children. His bombers target hospitals and schools.

Then he starts dropping Sarin nerve gas on his own people, following that lovely gesture up with Chlorine gas. Both of these mainly affect the children, already weakened by hunger. When the UN gets wind of this, they send troops to confiscate any biological weapons but there is evidence that Al-Asad still has plenty in his possession.

After that, ISIS starts taking over villages in Eastern Syria which are more rural and imposing their own peculiar brand of Islam on the inhabitants. They seem to be saviors at first but their true colors show as they begin executing and beating the villagers for infractions that are almost nonsensical. However, the presence of ISIS brings in Putin and his air force and the bombing under Al-Asad suddenly goes on steroids. Aleppo, one of the larger cities in Syria, is essentially being obliterated.

We get scenes of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who go into bombed out buildings and rescue those buried inside. They inject a little humanity into the unending horrors we witness – one can only wonder how the Syrian people can bear it. There are so many tears, so many screams of loss – it all blends together somewhat by movie’s end.

As a primer for what’s happening in Syria, this film succeeds triumphantly although there are those – an admitted minority of trolls – who mark it as propaganda. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers are on the side of the Syrian people and some think that the Syrian people are terrorists. Those that do tend to be ignorant of the facts but then that’s never stopped anyone from trolling, right?

This is not easy to watch – you may need to step away from time to time and give yourself a break, but it is important viewing. In watching it you’ll run the gamut of emotions – heartbreak, outrage, horror, disbelief, admiration, sympathy, sadness and hopefully, a desire to help. There are ways to assist the Syrian people without having to fly to Damascus. Look into them if you can.

Even though the fourth chapter on the Syrian refugee issue doesn’t measure up to the first three chapters, it is incumbent on us to understand what the refugees are fleeing from and why we need to take them in and give them shelter. It’s only the Christian thing to do, or have we forgotten two travelers to Bethlehem who were denied shelter?

REASONS TO GO: A detailed account of how the civil war began and the events afterwards. An absolutely heartbreaking account of what the Syrian people have had to endure. Excellent graphics make the names of the speakers easier to identify.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is gruesome and might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal wartime violence; definitely not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cher recorded an original song for the film, “Prayers for This World” which plays over the end credits. The song was written by Diane Warren who also penned her big hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Afterimage

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


There's nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

There’s nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

(2016) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Louis Davidson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Directed by Tim Burton

 

I think that as children we can be divided into two categories; those who want to fit in, and those who don’t care. Many who want to fit in often feel like they don’t. We feel alien, peculiar and not at all like someone who is popular or admired. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in. What we fail to realize as children is that sometimes being on the outside looking in is far cooler than being in a cage.

Jake Portman (Butterfield) is one of those kids who doesn’t feel like he fits in. The only place he feels halfway normal is at his grandpa Abe’s (Stamp) Florida home, where the old man regales him with tales of fighting monsters during Worlds War II, and staying at an orphanage run by a Miss Peregrine, who presided over children with strange powers known as Peculiars.

After getting a call for help from Abe, Jake and his co-worker Shelley (Jones) arrive at Abe’s place to find signs of a struggle. They later find him dying in the yard, both his eyes plucked from his head. This understandably messes Jake up and he starts seeing a shrink, Dr. Golan (Janney). She urges him to follow Abe’s story, particularly after he discovers a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe which takes him and his father Franklin (O’Dowd) – who is more interested in researching his book on bird-watching which he’s been working on for years without progress than in bonding with his son – to an island off the coast of Wales.

There he finds the ruins of the orphanage, bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1943. He also finds some of the Peculiars who take him into a cave which brings him back to 1943 – on the very day the house would be destroyed. There he meets Emma Bloom (Purnell), a lighter-than-air girl who has control over air (she can create windstorms and bubbles of air underwater) and would float away if not tethered or wearing her lead boots whose heart was broken by a young Abe back in the day, the necromancer Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) who can bring life to lifeless things, Olive (McCrostie) who is a pyrotechnic and Miss Peregrine (Green) herself. As it turns out, Miss Peregrine is kind of a guardian spirit called a Ymbryne who are able to morph into birds (in Miss Peregrine’s case, a falcon).

He learns the story of the Peculiars and those who are chasing them – the terrible Wights, who are led by the white-haired Mr. Barron (Jackson) who have been experimenting on Ymbrynes to make themselves immortal. Some of the Wights who are quite human-looking have turned into Hollows, hideous tentacled monsters who eat the eyeballs of Peculiars to revert back to human form.

It turns out that Mr. Barron is much closer by than they think and Jake has become an integral part of the fight. It turns out that Jake is able to see Hollows and sense their presence – a gift that Abe also had. With Jake and Emma falling in love again despite Emma’s best efforts, time is running out and Jake must find a way to protect the children from the evil Wights and from the ravages of time itself.

Burton is one of the most uniquely visionary directors in history. This is the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse, or at least you would think so. This film is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult books by Ransom Riggs, which are in turn based on vintage photographs Riggs had collected that were somewhat spooky or hinted at uncanny powers (if you buy the young adult books, you’ll see the actual photos but some of them can be seen on the Internet if you’re willing to spend time Googling them). Riggs showed these pictures to Burton before filming and it’s plain to see that Burton used them as inspirations for his character design of the children.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a typical Tim Burton film in many ways. I thought it far more mainstream than what we’re used to from the director and far more vanilla in tone. Now while I admire Burton’s work a great deal, even as an admirer I’m willing to admit that his work has been less consistent in the past decade or so, with great work (Big Fish) interspersed with not-so-great work (Dark Shadows). This falls somewhere in the middle, with leanings more towards the latter.

Butterfield is a decent enough actor, but not one who fills a screen up with charisma. Much of the movie depends on Jake becoming a leader, but I’m not sure I’d follow him very far. He just seems kind of…bland. Green, who has maybe the most incandescent smile in Hollywood, doesn’t seem to be having much fun here; she comes off as a kind of second-rate Mary Poppins only less cheerful. I almost expected her to say “Spit spot!” Thankfully, she doesn’t.

Burton reportedly tried to go with practical effects as much as was possible, but you really can’t use them for an army of skeletons battling giant tentacled creatures which takes place during the climax. The effects are reasonably good and the setting reasonably moody but nothing here really impresses other than that Burton seems to do a good job of capturing the tone of the antique photos which colors the whole film.

One of the big missteps oddly enough is Jackson. One of my favorite actors in Hollywood, he doesn’t seem all that motivated here. When I see Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, I want to see Samuel L. Jackson whether that expectation is fair or not. Instead, we get a kind of mannered performance, like what would happen if Tim Curry was impersonating him. He just never convinces me that he’s all that malevolent or dangerous.

This could easily have been a major event film and franchise establishment but instead we get a movie that kind of just gets by. It doesn’t really feel like a Tim Burton movie. Fox currently has a reputation of being a studio that meddles in the product more than most of the others, so one wonders if there is studio interference at play here. Regardless of whether that’s the case or not this is a movie I can only moderately recommend. Chances are it will be a momentary distraction that will escape your memory faster than Emma Bloom escapes gravity.

REASONS TO GO: The film has an odd kind of antiquarian feel. The climax is thrilling.
REASONS TO STAY: The whimsy normally associated with Burton is missing. Jackson is wasted in a bland villainous role.
FAMILY VALUES: There are children in peril and some violence of a fantastic nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Miss Peregrine’s home actually exists; it is called Torenhof and is located outside of Antwerp in Belgium.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Storks

The White Helmets


A profile in courage.

A profile in courage.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Khaled Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar, Khaled Omar. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

 

The civil war that rages in Syria has become a political mess as the citizens of that country have to endure military bombings, the depredations inflicted upon them by their own government as well as the harsh occupation in some places by ISIS. It’s no wonder that refugees are pouring out of that country, trying to find safety and sanity.

But not everyone is leaving. Even in cities like Aleppo there are people still trying to cling to their homes in the hope that things will get better, but even so there are regular bombings and with bombings come people buried in rubble. That’s where the Syrian Civil Defense comes in. Nicknamed “the White Helmets” for their distinctive protective headgear, they go into terribly dangerous situations, into buildings that have been bombed and are structurally unsafe in order to pull out people who are injured or trapped.

We follow three members of that group in Aleppo (the SCD operates throughout Syria wherever they’re needed)  none of whom were trained professionals prior; one was a construction worker who built homes; another a tailor and the third a blacksmith. In fact, they are sent to Turkey to receive the training they desperately need to be more effective. They go unarmed and they fire no shots in anger at anyone – “I think it’s more important to rescue a soul than to take a soul,” says one laconically.

All three are family men who go to work desperately worried about their homes and loved ones, who are at risk every single day simply by virtue of the fact they live in Aleppo. While they are in Turkey they joke with one another, even occasionally playing practical jokes. They talk about their children and their hopes for them. To a man, they all believe that things will eventually get better.

But as the conflict approaches its seventh year with no end in sight, it’s hard not to admire these men who took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The group’s motto is a quote from the Koran; “save one life and you save humanity.” They are certainly putting that to good use.

In another era, these men would have qualified for John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. However, the organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In three years they have saved (as of the release of the film) more than 58,000 lives while 130 of their number have paid the ultimate price.

Do be warned that some of the footage is pretty intense. Most of it was filmed by the White Helmets themselves; the situations were far too dangerous to send camera crews in. Director von Einsiedel didn’t even come to Syria, although he did spend time with the subjects in Turkey. He had more than 70 hours of footage to go through, much of it unusable because it was too graphic. However even of what is shown some of it may be disturbing to the sensitive although when they pull the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble of an apartment building (a one-week old baby who survived a direct hit to her home) one can’t help but cry along with the rescuers who are also crying.

The documentary is only 40 minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. The downside is that it shows mankind at its worst – you can’t help but feel infuriated when you watch bombs hitting civilian targets with the knowledge that they were likely specifically targeted. The upside is that you also see mankind at its best – which makes you think that maybe this species might have a future after all.

REASONS TO GO: The message is uplifting and powerful. The three subjects are engaging and appealing in their ordinariness.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is not suitable for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are many disturbing images and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Khaled Omar, the White Helmet who is depicted here pulling the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble, died in an airstrike in August 2016.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Miss Sharon Jones!

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

Zaytoun


Stephen Dorff can't understand why he isn't a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

Stephen Dorff can’t understand why he isn’t a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

(2012) Drama (Strand) Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Tarik Kopty, Ashraf Barhom, Mira Awad, Joni Arbib, Ashraf Farah, Adham Abu Aqel, Nidal Badarneh, Hezi Gangina, Morad Hassan, Michel Khoury, Osamah Khoury, Doraid Liddawi. Directed by Eran Riklis

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli is one of the world’s great tragedies. From the west, our perspective is that if only cooler heads could prevail on both sides perhaps they could live together in peace. Closer in however the perspective changes and things get a lot more complicated.

In 1982, Lebanon is in civil war and the Israelis are making noises about invading. Palestinian refugee camps house cells of the PLO who from time to time lob rockets into nearby Israel. Young Fahad (El Akal) lives in one such camp in Beirut but despite having a fairly laid back father and grandfather, he skips school regularly to sell gum and cigarettes on the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese themselves are not overly fond of the Palestinians who bring nothing but trouble. They chase Fahad and his friends and sometimes shoot at them. Fahad however s 12 years old and invincible. As for the camp, well, they’re more concerned that Fahad get his training by the PLO. Their homeland isn’t going to reclaim itself, after all.

That all changes with sudden ferocity when Fahad’s father is killed by a falling bomb. Fahad’s feelings for the Israelis moves from disdain and disrespect to downright hatred. Shortly afterwards, Yoni (Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot, is shot down and captured by the PLO. Fahad is given the job of guarding the prisoner whose return to Israel might well bring about the exchange of many of their brothers-in-arms.

Fahad, still seething with hatred and sorrow, torments the prisoner and makes his feelings known to Yoni. When Yoni grabs one of Fahad’s friends to get some leverage to escape, he finds that he can’t harm the child even to secure his freedom. After he lets him go, Fahad shoots him in the leg.

While Yoni is recovering in the local clinic, an incident occurs that gives Fahad second thoughts about his current situation. He approaches Yoni who’s offered to take Fahad to Israel with him if he helps him escape. Yoni seizes the opportunity and agrees. The two steal out into the night.

At first they are antagonistic towards each other (Fahad swallows the key to Yoni’s shackles in order to make sure he can’t run off) but as time goes by, they are forced to rely on each other and they reach an understanding. For starters, Fahad lugs around with him a small bag, a soccer ball (he idolizes the Brazilian star Zico) and an olive tree which he means to plant at the family’s home in Palestine. Yoni thinks he’s nuts at first but slowly grows to realize what the olive tree means. For Fahad, his aha moment is that Yoni is not such a bad man and if one Israeli can be decent, perhaps they are not all as bad as his PLO trainers have made them out to be.

This is essentially a combination of a road film and a buddy film set in the Middle East. Naturally the politics of the region play a heavy role in the plot. Riklis, who previously directed Lemon Tree and  The Syrian Bride, both fine films as this one is as well. In many ways, this is a much more mainstream Hollywood-like film than the other two. Riklis seems to have a real empathy for the Palestinian cause; while he doesn’t come out and say in any of his films that he is in support of their determination to create a country for themselves, all three of these films are seen not from the Israeli viewpoint but from the Palestinian and in all three cases the Israelis are seen as bureaucratic and somewhat insensitive to say the least.

Dorff has been quietly putting together some really quality performances lately (see Brake) and in a just world would be well on his way to the A list. Unfortunately this isn’t a just world and so his work goes mainly unnoticed in small indie films. This is one of his stronger performances and one can only hope that someone is noticing.

El Akal has been in 12 movies in six years and at 15 years old looks to have a pretty strong career ahead of him. While I was a bit frustrated by his performance here – in some scenes he shows tremendous emotional range while in others he is as wooden as the tree he carries around with him – the moments when he is on his game he literally carries the movie. If he can be a little more consistent with his performance there’s no telling what he can achieve.

The movie is divided in three parts; the opening act which focuses on Fahad and his life in (and near) the camp; the second is his and Yoni’s dangerous trek through Lebanon to get across the border – with the help of a Bee Gees-loving taxi driver who provides some needed comedy relief – and the third Yoni and Fahad in Israel and their quest to get Fahad to a home whose location he only vaguely knows. They are all three different in tone; the first harsh and sometimes shocking (a woman is executed for infidelity while Yoni and Fahad negotiate with the cab driver to get them to the border), the second more of a thriller as the two are hunted by the Lebanese military but also by the Palestinian guerrillas. The last act is a bit more warm-hearted and sweet-natured. The three mesh surprisingly well together but that third act is a bit of a letdown after the tension of the second.

I liked the movie about equally with Riklis’ other works. I can’t say that it gives any more insight into the conflict than what we already know – that the two peoples, other than their religious differences, are essentially much more alike than they’d probably care to admit. At the very least they both share a love for a harsh and often unforgiving land which has a beauty all its own.

REASONS TO GO: Dorff delivers another strong performance. Some good suspense and drama.

REASONS TO STAY: El Akal is inconsistent. Some actions taken by the characters aren’t explained well.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence and children in harm’s way; there’s smoking (some of it by children), some foul language and some adult themes and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Zaytoun” is Arabic for “olive” and refers to the olive tree Fahad carries around with him throughout the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Defiant Ones

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Aftermath

Total Recall (2012)


 

Total Recall

Colin Farrell is no saint, despite the halo.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho, Will Yun Lee, Dylan Scott Smith, Mishael Morgan, Lisa Chandler, Natalie Lisinska, James McGowan. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

It is part of being human to be unsatisfied with the lives we’ve been given. Never mind that we make the choices that determine the course of that life – too often we sit and wonder why our lives aren’t more exciting and daydreaming what we would do if we were Heidi Klum or James Bond.

Doug Quaid (Farrell) builds robotic cops on an assembly line on a late 21st century Earth. Chemical warfare has rendered almost all of it uninhabitable except for the area around Great Britain and most of Australia. Workers live in the Australian section, known as The Colony and travel by a futuristic super-elevator through the center of the earth called the Fall to their jobs in the elite United Federation of Britain, which is ruled over by Vilos Cohaagen (Cranston), the autocratic chancellor. He is happily married to Lori (Beckinsale), a nurse. He and his friend Harry (Woodbine) often go out drinking together. And yet Quaid feels like something’s missing.

In a world where a resistance, led by the enigmatic and reclusive Matthias (Nighy) tries to end the oppression of the UFB in the Colony, Quaid longs for adventure and intrigue. He sees an ad for a company called Rekall which creates artificial memories for any sort of life; from being rich and famous, a chick (or stud) magnet, a secret agent. The latter appeals to Quaid so he decides to avail himself of their services.

Only almost as soon as the needle goes in, the cops come bursting in the door guns blazing. Quaid is the only one left alive and it looks like he’s going to be arrested but suddenly Quaid takes down the officers one by one and is left with not a scratch on him and a stunned expression on his face. When he goes back home to tell Lori about it, she reacts like any wife would if their husband did something without telling them; she tries to kill him (the difference between Lori and Da Queen is that Da Queen would have succeeded).

Confused and frightened, he goes on the run and discovers that he was somehow involved with the resistance, that his name is not Doug Quaid but Carl Hauser and that all of his memories are false, implanted there by the UFB along with Lori who is a crack agent of theirs. They are after something in his head; so is the resistance, who sends Melina (Biel) to rescue him.

They are on the run trying to make it to Matthias and the resistance. Can they get there before Cohaagen carries out his terrifying plan to invade the Colony and murder millions?

Many will recall with affection the 1990 version of this movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin as Quaid/Hauser, Lori and Melina respectively, directed by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven. While the early version was set on Mars (mostly), this one is set entirely on Mother Earth and both are loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (referred to in dialogue by the receptionist at Rekall during the movie as a kind of lovely little tribute). While this one is a little closer to the source material, it still isn’t quite what you’d call too faithful to the original.

One of the problems with the original is Schwarzenegger. Not that he’s terrible – his natural charisma carried the movie in a lot of ways – but that he’s too believable as Hauser. The movie works better with Farrell because you can believe him as Quaid much more easily than you could believe Schwarzenegger and you also believe him less as Hauser than you can believe Schwarzenegger – but you can nevertheless believe him. You get more of a sense of his confusion and doubt as to what’s real and what isn’t, his initial frustration and boredom and his later rage.

Beckinsale makes an excellent Lori; loving and cuddly but vicious and ruthlessly efficient at her job as  UFB undercover agent. She’s a fine actress who unfortunately (or fortunately if you want to look at it that way) has been cast in a lot of action roles because of her success in Underworld and it’s sequels. She does get a little bit of a chance to shine as an actress here, enough so that I find myself wishing she had more dramatic roles offered to her because she is so good.

Biel and Farrell have decent chemistry together and she makes a pretty fair action heroine herself. The special effects are pretty spectacular but it’s the action sequences that make this movie worth seeing. From the opening fight in the Rekall office to the climax on the roof of the Fall terminus, this is as well-choreographed as any Asian martial arts masterpiece.

As late summer blockbusters go, Total Recall fits the bill nicely. Judging on the early box office returns and simply that this is a bit darker-toned than the original, this probably won’t be the hit that the original was. However, in many ways it’s a superior movie although quite frankly despite the fact that they are basically related at the end of the day comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Or maybe, closer to the point, like comparing oranges and tangerines.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences. Well thought-out and spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: Less of a light tone than the original. No Ah-nuld.

FAMILY VALUES: The action scenes are fairly intense and violent; there’s not a lot of gore but there is some. There’s brief nudity, some sexuality and of course foul language. Those who are prone to dizziness should note that there are lots of scenes of things spinning and dropping so you may want to be aware of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fight scene at Rekall was done in one continuous shot; Farrell did his own stunt work for it and it took 22 takes before it was done correctly.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

BLADE RUNNER LOVERS: The set design, look and filming style for scenes set in The Colony are very reminiscent of the Ridley Scott classic.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Bleeding House

This Narrow Place


This Narrow Place

Sammy Sheikh and Jonathan Stanley affect Motor City tough guy poses.

(2011) Drama (Self-Released) Sammy Sheikh, Jonathan Stanley, Sayed Badreya, Anthony Azizi, Lonette McKee, Val Howard, Rita Khori, Oscar Brown, Mike Batayeh. Directed by Sooney Kadouh

 

Anger can only take you so far. When you are wounded as deeply as it’s possible to be, your first instinct is to lash out. Sometimes that may take you on a journey you never intended it to.

Hassan (Sheikh) is on a mission. His little brother died in a bombing in Beirut. He has entered the United States illegally to plant a bomb, using parts manufactured at the same plant where the bomb that killed his brother was manufactured. While stuck in an unsavory part of town, he meets Chris (Stanley), a drug addict who lives on his own in Detroit. Chris gives Hassan a ride to the home of Hassan’s Uncle Aziz (Badreya).

At the urging of his aunt, Hassan invites Chris over for dinner and weaves a tale about his attending Wayne State, where Hassan’s sister Nadia (Khori) is also attending (Nadia has been staying with Aziz for some time). As Hassan spends more time with Chris, he begins to see a side to America and Americans that he hadn’t planned on. The drug addict and would-be bomber begin to form an unlikely friendship, to the point where Hassan begs Tina (Howard), Chris’ drug connection, to “let him go.” Chris also develops affection for Nadia, not a welcome thing to her conservative Muslim family.

However with terrorist Faoud (Azizi) breathing down his neck, Hassan must make a choice between carrying out his plans and avenging his brother, or letting his rage go and perhaps creating an entirely different legacy for his brother and himself.

There are a lot of “fish out of water” buddy movies out there but this is unusual in that both the main characters are fish out of water, as it were. Hassan is from a completely different world; the life of a suburban Detroit family is like an entirely different planet to him. He is conflicted by his need to avenge his brother and by his own decency. He genuinely wants to help Chris kick his habit and uses the fasting of Ramadan to help him find some self-discipline.

Chris lives on the fringes of society, shunned by his own family who have declared him dead in order to deal with his situation. As the family life he never knew begins to give him new strength, he begins to change – becomes less the hustler, less the hedonist and finding more important things to focus his attention on.

There are some grungy neighborhoods on display here, both in Detroit and Beirut – I suspect the filmmaker was trying to draw a line between the two. There are also some nice neighborhoods and families that are welcoming and caring. The two worlds are in the same city but completely alien to one another. It’s hard to imagine they exist so close together.

Both Sheikh and Stanley are engaging, charismatic performers. It is their job to carry the film and it is their relationship that drives it. I’m not familiar with either actor, but I would venture to say that not only do they have good chemistry together they also individually do striking jobs to make their characters memorable and realistic.

They have a surprisingly good supporting cast. Often in indie movies, the acting chops begin and end at the leads but here, it’s uniformly there from top to bottom. That’s simply gold for a young director trying to establish a reputation.

I was a little bit unsure of the kicking of Chris’ drug habit; it seemed a little bit too pat and too clean and as we all know kicking that kind of habit is generally horribly painful. I also have to admit the ending was a little bit to the Hollywood side, but that’s all right; I liked it anyway. Indie movies often try to go out of their way to make their endings dark and depressing, but this one would probably have made a studio marketing chief sigh blissfully – and there’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do think that they could have used a bit of a trim on some of the subplots – was it really necessary to visit Chris’ mother and discover that he’s literally dead to her? – but all in all this is a pretty well-crafted movie with enough strong moments to make it recommendable to anyone, even those who might not necessarily be indie film fanatics.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances from the leads and an interesting story. I liked the ending although it might have had some “Hollywood” overtones to it.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the subplots could have been trimmed or cut altogether.

FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, some foul language and a bit of violence.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeing in either venue.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Dog Sweat