Children of the Enemy


Patricio Galvez cuddles his grandson.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Patricio Galvez, Clive Stafford Smith, Alba Galvez, Katalina Galvez, Mio Galvez, Persraw Baker Hussein, Eskandar Saleh, Stefan Åsberg, Isobel Coles, Adam Mattinen, Cecilia Uddén, Terese Cristiansson, Jacek Machula, Simon Sowell, Rena Effendi, Beatrice Eriksson. Directed by Gorki Glaser-Müller

Dostoyevsky wrote that a civilization is judged by how it treats its prisoners. That could also be included as to how it treats its enemies – or their children.

Patricio Galvez, a middle-aged musician who had emigrated to Sweden from Chile, made headlines in Scandinavia in 2018-19 when he attempted to rescue his seven grandchildren from the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. You see, his daughter Amanda had converted to Islam along with her mother (at the time divorced from Patricio) and had an arranged marriage with Michael Skråmo, a notorious ISIS recruiter from Norway. Eventually the two moved to Syria over the objections of Galvez, and taken their four children with them. While in Syria, they kept busy – Amanda had three more children there and was pregnant with an eighth when she was killed in an air strike. A couple of months later, Skråmo died during the fall of the caliphate, shot to death in front of his children.

The children were placed in a refugee camp and as the children of ISIS terrorists, were essentially persona non grata in Sweden. Galvez didn’t see the children of terrorists, however; he just saw his grandchildren and put up a tremendous fight to get them out of the camp. But the clock was ticking; the children were severely malnourished and were growing weaker and more ill with each passing day.

The movie chronicles the ordeal of Galvez, which is mostly down time waiting on bureaucrats to return his call, or for some action or another to be taken. He enlists the aid of humanitarian groups, but they can accomplish later. He begins a media campaign which seems to spur the Swedish government into action. However, the Swedish public is less sanguine about the affair; the social media posts are (predictably) nasty, urging Galvez to return to Chile and pointing out his failures as a father to raise a terrorist, wondering if he would be fit to raise these children as well or would they turn out to be just as radical as Amanda turned out to be?

Galvez is very conflicted. On the one hand, he mourns the loss of his daughter, realizing that she was lost years earlier when she was radicalized. He also mourns the damage done by his son-in-law and ISIS in general, all the lives disrupted, the women used as sex slaves, the children left as orphans. But throughout, he perseveres. He realizes, better than most, that the sins of the father (or the mother) should not be visited upon the sons (and daughters).

It is at times a difficult movie to watch; some of Amanda’s letters to her father from Syria are absolutely chilling, as are the home movies the two sent him of the kids. There are some joyous moments, as when Patricio finally gets a breakthrough from the Swedish diplomatic corps and Glaser-Müller puts down the camera to embrace his friend, who is overcome. The grandmother makes an appearance, further complicating matters.

The children themselves we see little of and when we do see them, their eyes are pixilated so that they can’t be easily identified. They are clearly traumatized but for all that, they are still just kids, innocent victims of parents who had followed a path of evil.

There are some negatives here; we don’t really get a lot of personal background. We aren’t told when and how Patricio’s marriage to Amanda’s mother ended, or how the two women ended up converting to Islam and why. Then again, this isn’t meant to be Amanda’s story, although she looms large throughout. We also aren’t told how Patricio managed to afford staying in the hotel near the Iraq-Syria border for a month and a half, or how he could afford to take off work (or even whether he is employed). We learn almost nothing about the mundane details of Patricio’s life, other than that he is a doting grandfather, a grieving father and a musician. A few more blanks needed to be filled in. The score is a bit on the intrusive side as well.

But that aside, this is a powerful documentary that looks at the war on terror from an entirely different viewpoint. The film is currently playing in a limited run in Los Angeles, as well as available for streaming as part of the DOC NYC festival online (see link below). While there are some questions that can never be answered – how can an apparently well-adjusted person be radicalized to that degree – it at least lets us look at the questions it can answer.

REASONS TO SEE: Patricio is a compelling subject with a warm, engaging smile but still a broken heart. Plays almost like a thriller in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t give us much insight as to who Galvez is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like Galvez, Glaser-Müller is a Chilean-Swede.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mass
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Dean Martin: King of Cool

Stateless


(2019) Documentary (Hispaniola/PBS) Rosa Iris, Juan Teofilo Murat, Gladys Feliz. Directed by Michéle Stephenson

Here in the United States, we grapple with our own race relations. On the left, claims that institutional racism has kept Americans of African descent from achieving their own American dream, whereas from the right equally firm assertions that racism is individual, not institutional and that great strides have been made since the Jim Crow era.

In many ways, racism here has been a subtle presence over the past thirty years, but during the Trump administration, it became more overt. We have, in many demonstrable ways, regressed back in time. However, the racism here is nothing compared to what it is in the Dominican Republic.

In 2013, their Supreme Court handed down an astonishing decision that stripped citizenship from all Dominicans of Haitian descent going back to 1929. That left more than 200,000 people stateless – without a country, without rights. The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti; in the Dominican, Spanish is spoken whereas in Haiti the language is French. The Dominicans tend to be lighter-skinned; Haiti is largely populated by those of African descent. The Dominican is relatively prosperous whereas Haiti is impoverished, and what infrastructure had been there was largely reduced to rubble in the earthquake and hurricane that followed it.

The wealthy sugar cane plantations in the Dominican had long imported Haitian labor to do the brutal work in the cane fields, but in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to execute all Haitians inside the Dominican border, and they responded by not only doing that but murdering Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, even Dominicans with no Haitian blood but darker-skinned. Tens of thousands were murdered.

This Canadian-made and financed documentary follows three people; lawyer and activist Rosa Iris, whose primary job is getting citizenship for those whose citizenship was unjustly taken away. She runs for office, hoping to reverse the nationalist trend that has enveloped the Dominican. One of her clients is her cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat, one of the 200,000 affected. He is prohibited from seeing his children and has been living in Haiti, hoping to get his legal status resolved. Finally, there’s Gladys Feliz, a grandmotherly sort who represents the nationalist movement. Hers is the most chilling sequence of all; she seems on the surface to be a lovely and rational person, but then she says things that are simply horrible and clearly racist. For her, Haitians are all about robbery, rape and murder (sound familiar?) and who are out to subvert the island paradise that is the Dominican Republic.

The stories are interwoven with a folk tale-like story of a woman named Moraime, who fled the 1937 massacre. The cinematography for the Moraime sequences are almost dream-like and hauntingly beautiful, as opposed to the stark pictures of the poverty of Haiti and of the Dominican Haitians.

There is a terrifying sequence in which Rosa Iris is driving Juan Teofilo from the Haitian border to Santo Domingo to submit paperwork. Their car is stopped regularly at military checkpoints. Any one of them could result in arrest. We watch mainly through hidden cameras, the tension in the faces of the occupants of the car palpable.

Much of the latter half of the film revolves around the campaign by Rosa Iris to be elected to the national assembly, hoping to bring her activism to the halls of power. Already a target for threats of violence due to her assistance of Haitian-descended Dominicans in getting their citizenship reinstated, now becomes a target for death threats. She is concerned for not only her safety but the safety of her beguiling young son. In all honesty, while her efforts to resolve the injustice politically are noble, we end up spending more time watching her campaign than dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles that face Dominicans of Haitian descent; the meeting that Juan Teofilo has with an apathetic clerk in the records office is one of the most compelling bits in the film. His melancholy face is as memorable as Rosa Iris’ courage and heroism is.

This is a marvelous and chilling film. The United States isn’t quite this bad yet, but we were definitely on the road that leads to what we see here, and we’re not off of it yet (I was thinking that while Gladys Feliz espouses her hateful invective that it was ironic that she would likely be the sort of person that Trump’s policies would have excluded from immigrating to America). The movie, which won best Canadian feature at the recent Hot Docs festival, is also playing Tribeca this weekend. For those who aren’t able to make it to that festival, it will be airing on the wonderful PBS documentary series P.O.V. on July 19th and should be available for streaming after that. This is a movie that those who are passionate about social justice should have on their short list.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosa Iris cuts a heroic figure. The story is compelling and all-too-tragically familiar.
REASONS TO AVOID: The electioneering distracts from the central issue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the election, Rosa Iris continued to receive death threats for her support of the Haitian community; she eventually requested and was granted asylum in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: PBS (effective July 19), Tribeca @ Home (through June 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Penn
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
P.S. Please Burn This Letter

Lady Buds


A bitter harvest.

(2021) Documentary (Pacoline) Felicia Carbajal, Joyce Centofanti, Cheryl Mumzer Goldman, Pearl Moon, Chiah Rodrigues, Sue Taylor, Karyn Wagner, Dani Burkhart, Eileen Russell, Monique Ramirez, Liz Poindexter, Lori Ajax. Directed by Chris J. Russo

 

We have a tendency to use marijuana as something of a punchline, socially speaking. It brings visions of stoners getting an urgent case of the munchies at 2am after a day smoking weed and navel-gazing, laughing at jokes that nobody but other stoners understand, and high-tailing it (pun intended) to Taco Bell for all the gorditas they can afford.

With California legalizing cannabis for recreational use, there is a seismic shift taking place among the growers of the plant. Heretofore small growers essentially ruled the roost (many in Humboldt County, a beautiful redwood-dotted mountainous region), Proposition 84 – which was promised to keep big agribusiness out for at least a year after the prop went into effect – presented the largely outlaw culture of Humboldt and Mendocino counties a confusing maze of bureaucracy and paperwork that soon, it becomes clear, is meant to pave the way for Big Agra to take over.

While the perception that cannabis culture is largely male-dominated, there are a surprisingly large percentage of women who have been involved in the industry and this documentary from first-time feature filmmaker Russo (not related to the Russo Brothers of the MCU so far as I know). Some have been involved with the business for decades, like farmer Chiah Rodrigues, a second generation farmer whose parents were both part of the counterculture; she runs a farm with her husband who prefers to spend time cross-pollinating and cross-breeding different strains of marijuana to produce a superior bud. Then there are the Bud Sisters, long-time friends Pearl Moon and Joyce Centofanti, who joyfully partake of their own product and have become civic leaders in Humboldt for their passion for the business. There are also relative newcomers to the table, like Karyn Wagner, a former New York restauranteur who switched coasts to be with her pot-grower husband and after his untimely death, sought to create branding for her product, calling on her experience in the dining industry. A newcomer to the industry is Sue Taylor, a retired Catholic school principal who hopes to open a dispensary in Berkeley that caters to seniors and would also serve as an education center into the benefits of cannabis, but has to overcome the hurtles of dealing with a bureaucracy that is anything but helpful. Finally there is the energetic Felicia Carbajal, a Latin and queer activist looking to raise the profile of people of color within the industry where they are grossly underrepresented (as they are in most businesses that provide opportunities for success).

As with most documentaries that follow multiple subjects, your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on how you relate to the individuals depicted in it. For me, I found the Bud Sisters to be absolutely delightful. They would definitely be a hoot to hang out with, although it would be dangerous to me as I am, regrettably, allergic to cannabis. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be entertained, and so will you be, listening to their irreverent attitudes. You also feel for the small farmer like Rodrigues, who is seeing a lifetime of work going up in proverbial smoke as she sees the writing on the wall; the legalization brought a dramatic drop in price, as well as the dangers posed by the recent wildfires in California. Some of the old-timers speak of their way of life disappearing, but that was inevitable, just as the invasion of large-money interests into the industry is inevitable. It is extremely likely that the small grower won’t survive when you have a deep-pocketed business able to operate at a loss for years while driving the competition out of business. That has how capitalism has worked for centuries.

This is largely an anecdotal documentary; it doesn’t delve deeply into facts and figures, mostly following along its subjects and taking what they have to say as gospel. Also, while the movie is marketed largely as a celebration of women in the emerging industry, more attention seems to being paid to the fact that they are LGBTQ in some cases or people of color in others. We don’t really get a sense of what being a woman brings to the table of the cannabis industry that is different than what a man brings. You get a sense that all of the people here portrayed are champions of the medicinal values of marijuana and are genuinely interested in helping people even more than they are making a profit, but I’m sure there are some women in the industry who are entirely profit-oriented and it would have been nice to hear from one of those, particularly a young person as most of the subjects in the documentary are middle aged or older.

At the end of the day, you do get some insight into the disquieting prospects the small farmers face in the teeth of big business and big government bureaucracy (California is notorious for making its citizens jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops in order to get anything done) and in that sense, is a fairly universal message for anyone who is thinking of operating a small artisanal farm. The insights on that end are worth looking into, but otherwise I would have been a little happier had the documentary dropped perhaps one or two of the subjects and focused more on the Bud Sisters, Rodrigues and Taylor who I thought were the most interesting subjects.

The movie recently made its world premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Canada, and Canadian readers can stream the film from their website which can be found here. Keep an eye out for it as it should be making the rounds of film festivals throughout the summer and fall.

REASONS TO SEE: The Bud Sisters are absolutely and irrepressibly charming.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use (as you might imagine) as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proposition 64, a ballot initiative legalizing recreational use for marijuana, passed on November 8, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evergreen: The Road to Legalization
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest

It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

War Machine (2017)


War is an all-American pastime!

(2017) Dramedy (Netflix) Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Nicholas Jones, Meg Tilly, Josh Stewart, Tim Downey, Richard Glover, Griffin Dunne, Andrew Byron, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Rufus Wright, Sean Power, Sian Thomas, Paul Hickey, Georgina Rylance. Directed by David Michôd

 

Netflix has been producing original movies for several years but their Adam Sandler comedies aside, their first serious attempt at a blockbuster of their own was this fictionalized Brad Pitt film based on a non-fiction book about the War in Afghanistan. It is not a promising start, although they have several films that have been released since then that are far better and far bigger.

The movie is meant to be a black comedic commentary on the nature of 21st century war as practiced by the United States. It moves at a kind of snail’s pace (at roughly two hours long, it is about a half hour too much) through a bloated script full of unfunny bits. The fault here isn’t Pitt’s although this is perhaps his most deranged work yet; his General Glen McMahon is a walking tic machine, exhorting troops that “We WILL prevail” at the same time expressing frustration with the bureaucracy he has to deal with. His square-jawed expression is the epitome of every Hollywood American military commander yet his odd gait looks like he has some sort of wound in his genitals.

Despite having a cast of some of the best actors and character actors working today, there are simply too many roles and you forget who is who after about five minutes, leading to further confusion that the screenplay hasn’t already caused itself. This has all the earmarks of moviemaking by committee.

I liked the concept and thought that given the pedigree of Michôd (Animal Kingdom) that this project had promise but it pretty much falls apart of its own weightiness. I get the sense that the filmmakers were told to make a comedy, then told to make a commentary on war, then told to make a drama by the powers that be. What they ended up making was a mish-mash that is neither one nor the other but is a tedious waste of two hours. I expected much better

REASONS TO GO: Even at his most subdued, Pitt still exudes star power.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is bloated and dreadfully unfunny.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film references actual events that took place during the command of Stanley A. McChrystal between 2009 and 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wag the Dog
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Suburbicon

The Water Diviner


Love can be illuminating.

Love can be illuminating.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Dylan Georgiades, Steve Bastoni, Isabel Lucas, Salih Kalyon, Megan Gale, Ryan Corr, James Fraser, Ben O’Toole, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jack Douglas Patterson, Ben Norris, Aidan Liam Smith, Damon Herriman, Sophia Forrest. Directed by Russell Crowe

The bond between father and son can be complicated. There’s always an element of competition between them; the old lion wants to have the loudest roar even as the younger lions are coming into their own. Still when push comes to shove, there isn’t a father who wouldn’t move heaven and earth for their children…sometimes even when hope is lost.

Joshua Connor (Crowe) has a farm in Australia. It’s not an easy life; water isn’t easy to come by in the arid landscape. However, with the use of a pair of sticks and his unerring instincts he is able to find places to dig wells that he desperately needs. It’s a hard life but it’s a good one – or would be. You see, Joshua sent his three sons Arthur (Corr), Edward (Fraser) and Henry (O’Toole) to war, in this case World War I. With many troops from their part of the world, they went to invade Gallipoli in Turkey and many thousands of young men in the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) died in the attempt which ultimately failed. All three of Joshua’s sons were among the dead.

The grief of the loss of all her sons had led Joshua’s wife (McKenzie) to take her own life. Now with nobody and nearly four years gone, Joshua feels obligated to go to Gallipoli and bring the remains of his sons back home. However, there’s a problem there – basically so many soldiers died in the battle, one of the bloodiest of the First World War – that proper burials are only now just happening, led by an English Colonel (Courtney) who is being assisted by the Turkish officer Major Hasan (Erdogan) who led the Turkish forces at the battle. Civilians are not welcome – not that there are any clamoring to go. The battle site is still full of booby traps and other dangers that make it a dangerous place even in peacetime.

But Joshua has nothing to lose. With the help of Ayshe (Kurylenko), the owner of the hotel he is staying at in Istanbul and Orhan (Georgiades) her adorable moppet of a son he manages to make it past the British bureaucracy which is dead set on preventing his passage to Gallipoli. Once he makes it there though he acquires the friendship of Hasan, even though he commanded the forces that led to the deaths of his sons – and discovers that even amidst the carnage, hope exists. He also discovers that love might exist as well with the hotel owner whose husband disappeared in the same battle and is presumed dead, although she holds out hope that he may yet return.

Normally the presence of Crowe in front of the camera would insure a wide American release for a film, but the story is a bit of a hard sell to American audiences. Gallipoli doesn’t mean as much to us as it does to audiences in Australia and New Zealand, where the battle is part of the national identity. Released on the 100th anniversary of the battle, the story isn’t so much about the fight as it is of a father’s devotion to his children, even after they’re dead. It is about  his grief and his healing.

Crowe remains a compelling presence, giving one of his best performances in years. Joshua is a quiet and powerful presence, never demonstrative although once he begins interacting with the irresistible Orhan does he begin to start coming out of his shell. There is a bit of an aura of the supernatural here – Joshua has visions of his sons in the battle and is able to infer things that he shouldn’t have been able to know. The more practical-minded among the audience will find that whole concept to be poppycock, although the connection a parent has with their children and the way parents can sometimes know things they shouldn’t about their kids can’t be discounted.

This would be the last movie lensed by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who also shot most of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films and he makes a stark contrast between Australia with it’s blade blue skies and dusty earth, and with Istanbul with its Blue Mosque and beautiful interiors. Then there’s Gallipoli itself with a lovely beach but once over the first hill becomes a scorched hell. Crowe made a smart choice in that department and it will remain part of Lesnie’s lasting legacy as one of the great cinematographers of his – and our – day.

Most of the battle is seen through flashbacks, particularly those that concern the brothers but those scenes can be pretty brutal with limbs getting blown off and young bodies being shredded by machine guns and artillery fire. Crowe doesn’t shy away from these scenes that depict the horrors of war, those who are upset by such things should be forewarned.

I generally don’t respond to specific criticisms of a film brought up by a different film critic but Andrew O’Hehir’s excoriation of Crowe and Warner Brothers, calling this a “disgraceful” film for not mentioning the Armenian genocide which occurred roughly at the same time the battle of Gallipoli was fought, is absolutely mind-boggling. Yes, there are sympathetic Turkish characters here but not all Turks participated in the Genocide which occurred hundreds of miles away and essentially before the main action of the film begins – the battle itself is pretty much only seen in flashbacks other than the opening scene which depicts the withdrawal of troops from Gallipoli. But what is disgraceful is a critic suggesting that a filmmaker not mentioning something that has absolutely nothing to do with his film or the events in it is somehow morally wrong and insensitive. Talk about Liberal Guilt.

For a debut effort in the director’s chair Crowe has come up with a pretty impressive film. Of course, when you have Russell Crowe to star in your first film you’ve got an advantage over most right there. I don’t know what Crowe the director did to inspire Crowe the actor but whatever it was, it resulted in a compelling performance that confirms Crowe’s star power. There is an epic sweep here that reminds me of movies from a bygone era.

The movie hasn’t gotten any sort of push from Warners and has been essentially released as an independent film in select cities. It isn’t easy to find but it is well worth seeking out; this is a surprisingly powerful film that I believe will appeal to more than just Australian audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Crowe who remains a compelling presence. Gripping storyline. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies on Joshua’s visions and instincts a bit too much. The battle scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The horse that Crowe rides in the Australia scenes is actually his own horse, Honey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Legends of the Fall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Age of Adaline

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)


This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

(2014) Comedy (Sony Classics) Ricardo Darin, Rita Cortese, Maria Marull, Cesar Bordon, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado, Oscar Martinez, Osmar Nunez, Maria Onetto, Erica Rivas, Diego Gentile, German de Silva, Dario Grandinetti, Monica Villa, Julieta Zylberberg, Nancy Duplaa, Lucita Mangone, Alan Daicz, Hector Drachtman, Margarita Molfino. Directed by Damian Szifron

Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold although it must also be said that in Latin American countries, there’s nothing cold about good ol’ hot-blooded Latin revenge. It is a cultural imperative, as a matter of fact.

This collection of vignettes each looks at vengeance from a different angle, all of them funny and some of them downright hilarious. Mostly set in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires (although at least one is set out in the hinterlands of Argentina), there is a delicious quality to all of them which goes against what we normally see in American movies in which we are taught that an eye for an eye tends to leave everybody blind.

Herein we see a variety of different scenarios, with the first one begins with a beautiful model sits down on a strangely uncrowded airplane and strikes up a conversation with a neighbor. Soon, all of those aboard the plane discover they have a connection and that they aren’t aboard the plane by happenstance.

From there on we go to a waitress, discovering that the corrupt politician who ruined her family has sat down in the deserted diner in which she works is egged on by her somewhat diabolical cook to take her justice, then to an incident of escalating road rage, followed by a demolition expert whose car gets towed, setting off a chain of events that grow more and more devastating. Then we see the results of a drunken hit and run by a spoiled scion of a wealthy man who, sickened by the corruption of those who want to cover up the deed, is torn between saving his son and not contributing to the corruption. Finally we end of with the ultimate Bridezilla who makes a devastating discovery on her wedding day.

Each of the vignettes is told with a sense of humor that has a distinct Latin feel; some of it is quite subtle while some of it is broad to the point of slapstick and there is even some grossness that would make Apatow shudder and exclaim “Now, that’s going too far” – as in the road rage vignette in which one of the combatants defecates on the auto of another. Many auto-worshiping American men would rather have their genitals cut off with a butter knife than have that happen to their own car.

I was fond of the opening vignette which may be disturbing to some because of recent events in France which have some similarities to what you see here. The second one set in the diner isn’t nearly as clever as the others and briefly made me wonder if the rest of the movie would be like the first scene or the second; it turned out to be the former which was quite the relief.

My favorite was that of the munitions expert who is caught up in a corrupt, greedy scam of a towing company and his quest for justice ends up costing him nearly everything. However, in this particular case, his redemption turns him into something of a folk hero as a little man takes on the big machine and wins out. I think we’ve all felt like that at one time or another.

There is definitely a class element here; the road rage incident, for example, involves an upper class man in an expensive sedan versus a working class man in a beat up truck, while the case of the hit and run drunk driving we see the police and lawyer conspire with the wealthy man to have a groundskeeper in the wealthy man’s employ take the fall for the action committed by the wealthy man’s no-account son, which seems to indicate that justice is never truly served when it can be bought by the rich.

If you can see elements of the great Spanish director Pedro Almodovar in the movie, you are to be congratulated for your insight. In fact, Almodovar served as a producer for the movie although he didn’t direct it. Certainly his influence as a filmmaker can be felt in every scene.

This truly isn’t for everybody, I will admit. Americans don’t always find the Latin sense of humor palatable, although I think that we have more in common with it than not. Still, I enjoyed this very much and laughed throughout. It can be absurd and sometimes gross and even occasionally thought-provoking but there is some real superior filmmaking here.

REASONS TO GO: Howling with laughter funny. No weak vignettes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find some of the scenes crass and the opening vignette has elements in common with a recent tragedy that might make it offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of violence, a little bit of sexuality and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film from Argentina to make the final list of nominees for Best Foreign Language film and the third straight to star Ricardo Darin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: It Follows

Home of the Brave (2006)


A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

(2006) War Drama (MGM) Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Christina Ricci, Brian Presley, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Chad Michael Murray, Victoria Rowell, Jeff Nordling, Vyto Ruginis, Sam Jones III, James MacDonald, Sandra Nelson, Ginger Ewing, Jack Serino, Brendan Wayne, Mohamed Zinathiah, Richard De Mayo, Kiara Johnson, Joyce M. Cameron. Directed by Irwin Winkler

For three soldiers serving in Iraq, the word has come down; they’re shipping back home in two weeks. When in Hollywood, that’s a sure sign that something Bad is about to happen.

And so it does. Dr. Will Marsh (Jackson), Vanessa Price (Biel), Tommy Yates (Presley) and Jamal Aiken (50 Cent) are part of an Army National Guard humanitarian convoy bringing medical supplies and personnel to a small Iraqi village when they are ambushed by insurgents. The firefight is sudden and brutal, with the soldiers taking on well-armed adversaries. None of them get out without some kind of wound; Vanessa loses her hand in a roadside bomb explosion, Jamal accidentally shoots an unarmed civilian, Tommy takes a minor wound to his leg and as a result is unable to help when his best friend is killed. As for Marsh, he’s supposed to stitch them all together.

Once they recover from their physical wounds, they’re all shipped home and essentially left to fend for themselves. The VA bureaucracy is bewildering for some, while others fail to take advantage of the programs that are available to help them cope. Vanessa is having problems dealing with her mutilation; not only is she having physical problems adjusting to the prosthetic, her emotional issues are threatening to overwhelm her and alienate her from her family. Jamal is angry and frustrated; his former girlfriend Keisha (Ewing) refuses to have anything to do with him and he can’t seem to navigate the paperwork that will help him get the treatment he needs for his injured back. Tommy is aimless and drifting, unable to handle the guilt of failing his friend; on top of that, he finds himself attracted to his dead buddy’s girlfriend (Ricci), but neither of them seem able to help the other cope with their grief.

Dr. Marsh seems to have the most complex issues. His teenage son (Jones) is angry (what teenage son isn’t?) and takes it out on his father, who struggles to understand him. His wife (Rowell) in turn wants to help him with his pain, but can’t find any sort of common ground to begin with, even if he was willing to let her in which he isn’t. Instead, he turns to the bottle to ease his suffering, with predictable results.

The turmoil of soldiers placed into extremely stressful situations returning into a normal life is daunting. Not many go through the process unscathed but which of these returning vets will break and which, if any, will overcome?

Outside of Jackson, Biel and Ricci, few of the cast were really name actors at the time this was made. Jackson is, as always, terrific as the tormented medic while Ricci has only a couple of scenes in which to display her grief, which to her credit doesn’t seem to be a product of Acting Out Grief 101. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, although 50 Cent at times has difficulty enunciating in one of his first screen roles – his third, to be exact. As for the rest of the cast, most resist the urge to denigrate drama into melodrama but some succumb to the temptation.

The battle sequences are pulse-pounding and realistic, although it reminded me a little bit of the ambush sequence in Clear and Present Danger. Winkler is a veteran director and does a solid job of moving the story along. While the script is extremely flawed in terms of its characterization of the emotional state of the majority of our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the elements that work do so extremely well.

I’ll pretty much see Samuel L. Jackson in just about anything. Yeah, he can be over-the-top but he’s never boring. Winkler manages to make each soldier’s story gripping and you wind up caring about the characters and being interested in their individual journeys but the movie doesn’t really add anything to the overall conversation. In a lot of ways, the topic is and has been better explored in documentaries about the subject. I was disappointed that the script portrayed all of the returning veterans as psychotic, which is not true of the majority of returning war veterans. Yes, there are plenty of Iraq War vets who have problems returning to normal life, but there are plenty who are able to adjust without falling apart.  I’m not saying that they all come through unscathed and adjust easily to civilian life, but most don’t have the extreme reactions these vets did. I would have hoped for more realistic portrayals of vets adjusting to their return to normal life. In short, this is no Best Days of Our Lives.

While this seems to be a modern take on The Best Years of Our Lives, there is at least enough about it that give it some resonance. However, the 1946 movie about returning WWII vets is still the best movie ever produced on the subject and let’s face it, Jessica Biel is no Harold Russell. There is some resonance here however, particularly given the recent VA scandal and the difficulties veterans are encountering getting the assistance they need. Overall I have to say that I found myself interested in the lives of these soldiers and if you get me to that point, that’s half the battle.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackson is always interesting. Opening ambush sequence very powerful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed. Doesn’t really cover any new ground.
FAMILY MATTERS: The subject matter is difficult for less mature audience members to latch onto, and the ambush sequence is fairly realistic, particularly when the roadside bomb does its work. The language is salty throughout; definitely not for younger and more sensitive types.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The closing credits song, “Try Not to Remember” performed by Sheryl Crow was nominated for a Golden Globe.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a trivia track on the Blu-Ray edition; the DVD edition has the usual audio commentary and deleted scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $499,620 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Deli Man

The Good Lie


The importance of family is universal.

The importance of family is universal.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Garrett, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Thon Kueth, Deng Ajuet, Keji Jale, David Madingi, Kon Akuoe Auok, Sibusisi Moyo, Elikana Jale, Afemo Omilami, Michael Cole, Brian Kurlander. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

From 1983 to 2005, the Second Sudanese Civil War was one of the longest wars of its kind on record, and one of the most lethal wars in modern history. Nearly two million people died as a direct result of the war or from the famine and disease that followed it. Four million people were displaced, many more than once. Atrocities were committed by both sides, the government forces and the rebels alike. Many children were forced to serve as soldiers.

During the fighting, entire villages were wiped out and that’s what happened to Mamere (Mongok), Theo (O. Jale), Abital (K. Jale) and their brothers. They tried to make it out to Ethiopia on foot but the fighting was so intense they were forced to find a refugee camp in Kenya, a trip of nearly one thousand miles. Not all of the kids would make it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Theo, in fact, would sacrifice himself when soldiers see Mamere. They take Theo, allowing the other kids who now included Jeremiah (Kueth) to escape and make it to Kakuma.

There they waited for thirteen years, hoping and praying to be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Now grown, Mamere (Oceng) has become an assistant to Dr. Monyang (Omilami) and dreams of going to medical school. Jeremiah (Duany), a devout Christian, leads religious services in the camp. Paul (Jal) who they also picked up along the way, is thoroughly traumatized but all three of them fiercely protect their sister Abital (Wiel).

Then, the good news comes and they are allowed to fly to the States but once there they are in for a shock. For one thing, a bureaucratic INS regulation forces the family to be separated with Abital going to Boston with a foster family there and the boys sent to Kansas City to find work. They are met at the airport by Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a spirited woman whose life is a bit of a mess, who is supposed to assist them with finding jobs – the charity worker Pamela (Baker) having been unable to pick them up.

It becomes clear that neither the agency nor the charity are prepared for these lost boys who have lived in a village their entire lives and do not know what a telephone is as Carrie discovers when she tries to call them. They have no concept of privacy or understanding of technology. The culture shock is overwhelming, but what is beating them down most is the separation from their sister. Although Carrie’s boss Jack (Stoll) warns her not to get involved, she can’t help but want to help them and so begins an odyssey to reunite a shattered family.

While the story itself is fiction, it is nonetheless based on actual events. The actors playing the refugees are Sudanese Lost Boys themselves, which adds a certain level of poignancy to the film; just try to make it through the end credits with a dry eye. A couple of them were child soldiers as well. With the exception of Duany who previously appeared in I Heart Huckabees they aren’t professional actors. You’d never know it from watching this.

Some might get the impression that this is a starring vehicle for Witherspoon but that would be incorrect. She has an important supporting role but it is the Sudanese actors who are the leads here. This is their story; Carrie just plays a part in it. Witherspoon, a fine actress, does a great job in a most decidedly un-glamorous role but she doesn’t appear in the film until nearly half an hour in. If you’re planning on seeing the film just to see her, you are in for a disappointment.

In many ways while we were heaping mea culpas on ourselves for ignoring the Rwandan genocide we were ignoring the carnage going on in the Sudan at the same time. Many people are unaware of the Sudanese Lost Boys or how they have integrated into our society. Some have returned to the South Sudan to help rebuild it now that the war has ended and some have even become part of the government of that new nation (following the Civil War the Sudan split into South Sudan and Sudan, with the latter  retaining its Muslim culture and the former its East African identity. This movie at least serves to illustrate their plight making it important for that reason alone.

Fortunately, it also happens to be a really good movie. Sure, it does drag a little bit in the middle as they first come to the United States and Falardeau inserts maybe more humor in their fish out of water situation than was necessary; we get the point that there was a culture shock. Nonetheless, this is a moving experience that will leave you feeling empathy for these kids who saw things children should never see and made choices nobody should have to make.

Frankly, I’m astonished that it hasn’t gotten any sort of push from the studio – it certainly will contend for top ten movies of the year with me but most folks, even some movie buffs, haven’t heard of this movie which received a pretty cursory release. Not that Warners should feel like they had to give it a wider release because of the subject matter but I think had this made more screens more moviegoers might have found this film, which deserves a much larger audience than it has gotten so far. I hope at least a few of you are motivated to go check this extraordinary film out. It deserves your support.

REASONS TO GO: Important subject matter. Affecting performances by the largely Sudanese cast. Witherspoon and Stoll are both impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the fish out of water element. Lags a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: At times the themes can be rather intense. There’s some violence (although little blood) and occasional rough language. There is also a scene or two of drug use..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Falardeau came to prominence with an Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazhar in 2012.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Rwanda
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Hank and Asha

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!