Dheepan


The choices of a refugee are never easy.

The choices of a refugee are never easy.

(2015) Drama (Sundance Selects) Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasthamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaidi, Marc Zinga, Bass Dhem, Franck Falise, Joséphine de Meaux, Jean-Baptiste Pouilloux, Nathan Anthonypillai, Vasanth Selvam, Kartik Krishnan, Rudhra, Tassadit Mandi, Marie Trichet. Directed by Jacques Audiard

 

The issue of refugees from Asia and the Middle East in Europe is a real hot button topic these days. It was one of the key points that caused Britain to leave the European Union and the remaining countries in the Union continue to wrestle with the issue, trying to balance humanitarian concerns with an overwhelming of services in dealing with the influx of new residents.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is winding down and the Tamil Tigers, a fighting group of mostly adolescents but also young men is on the losing side. One of their number is fearful that his participation as a soldier in the Tigers will get him jailed and/or executed so he decides to flee the country. He needs a false passport and gets one for a man and his family, all of whom were killed in the war. The newly re-christened Dheepan (Antonythasan) needs a wife and daughter to make the illusion work; he recruits Yalini (Srinivasan) who is just as eager to get out of Dodge, and orphan Illayaal (Vinasthamby) who has nowhere else to go. The newly minted family takes a boat and heads to France.

They get settled in what appears to be government housing on the edge of Paris. The apartment blocks are overrun by gangs and drugs, much the same as they are here. Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker for the blocks; he often has to dodge drug deals and gang meetings to get his job done. Yalini, who is forced to don a veil when in public even though she isn’t of that religious persuasion, takes care of a disabled old man who turns out to be a former gang member whose apartment is used as a kind of office and conference room for his former gang. Illayaal starts going to a public school where she has issues fitting in – nobody wants to play with her and she reacts the only way she knows how. She also has to learn how to eat with silverware, something she didn’t have to do in Sri Lanka.

The violence they escaped however finds them as the gangs around them erupt into open warfare. The fragile bonds of this family are beginning to dissolve and Yalini is ready to leave France altogether, but still, against all odds, the forced relationship is beginning to take – if the violence doesn’t rip them apart first.

Audiard is one of France’s premiere directors of crime dramas, often taking themes that Martin Scorsese has used and giving them his own twist. This one is superimposed with a timely political issue that seems to be one of Europe’s most pressing concerns at the moment. We get to see the issue from the inside, as the refugees struggle to fit into a society that fears and mistrusts them and in fact despises them. It is clear that all they want is to live in peace but that isn’t always possible in this world.

Antonythasan is a real find. His eyes are extremely expressive; they reflect mournfulness, anger, frustration and occasionally, hope. He is generally disheveled and unkempt but is a handsome man underneath it all as his character is a good man underneath all the wariness and pain. Dheepan has real demons in his past and they are always evident – through his eyes.

Srinivasan is new to the acting game, but she also delivers a raw, uncompromising performance. Her character isn’t always the nicest and she gamely allows the nastier characteristics to be shown as is without glossing it over. In many ways, it’s a brave performance depicting brave people going headlong into the unknown with an uncertain future. It is true that they felt compelled to do it for some pretty overriding reasons but nonetheless one has to admire people who are willing to do that to find a better life. Not all of us could manage.

The objection I have to this film is that the third act eventually becomes an action hero shootout with Antonythasan Schwarzeneggaring it through the last ten minutes or so. After all of that, the ending itself is an abrupt reversal of tone, making three in about fifteen minutes. Even the most skillful directors would have a hard time pulling that off effectively and Audiard certainly has the skills, but unfortunately it doesn’t work here, at least not for me.

Even with that said, this is an impressive movie. It really forces you to see things from the refugee’s point of view and that’s a point of view we rarely get to see amid all the rhetoric of pro-refugee folks who can be condescending about the actual immigrant, and of course the anti-refugee crowd who tend to demonize them as potential terrorists and criminals. Here, Audiard seems to suggest, the refugees have more to fear from the natives than the other way around. I’m not sure that’s true in every case, but it is certainly something to consider.

REASONS TO GO: A crime drama with social commentary thrown in. Searing performances are delivered by the leads. The film addresses a real cultural concern. This is a very human film.
REASONS TO STAY: The third act turns into an action film which is a bit jarring. The daughter’s situation is neglected a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, a bit of foul language and brief sexuality and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Antonythasan was actually a member of the Tiger Tamil as a boy and made corrections to the script in places.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in the Fifth
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Disappointments Room

This is Where We Live


Just a couple of good ol' boys hanging out in the Texas Hill Country.

Just a couple of good ol’ boys hanging out in the Texas Hill Country.

(2013) Drama (Bluff City) Tobias Segal, Marc Menchaca, Barry Corbin, Frankie Shaw, C.K. McFarland, Ron Hayden, Katherine Willis, Marco Perella, Brent Smiga, Brian Orr, Christine Bruno, Carolyn Gilroy. Directed by Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Real life isn’t anything like the movies; you don’t need me to tell you that. Sure, sometimes there’s a resemblance but most of the time we just kind of trudge our way through. There’s nothing really heroic about it from our own perspectives. Others however might disagree.

Some might see Diane Sutton (McFarland) as a heroine although I doubt she’d agree. The Suttons of Llano, Texas (up in the Hill Country for those looking to visit) have had it rough. If bad breaks were an art form, Diane would be Picasso. Her adult son August (Segal) has Cerebral Palsy in one of its most severe forms. Her husband Bob (Hayden) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s-like dementia. Her daughter Lainey (Shaw) has an attitude the size of Texas and seems bitter at the lot life has given her. On top of it Diane’s blood pressure is high and her doctor (Perella) advises her to slow down, eat better and stop lifting heavy objects.

Yeah, right. Not on this planet. Nobody else possesses the strength and the cognition to move August from his wheelchair to bed (or to the shower or to the toilet). Even getting him out of the house is a chore of brute strength as Diane has to carefully maneuver him down the stairs. And she is the breadwinner, stocking shelves at a local grocery store. To say she’s tuckered out is an understatement.

At last she hires a handyman to build a wheelchair ramp for their home. Noah (Menchaca) is a hard drinking good ol’ boy who bears an eerie resemblance to Walker, Texas Ranger-era Chuck Norris (a fact which amuses Bob no end). He also has some demons of his own but he has a kind heart and August and he get along famously. Diane observes this and with the kind of hope that can only come from a woman used to being disappointed by life, she asks him if he can help out watching August.

To her surprise, he says yes. Noah becomes a caretaker for August who seems pretty amped to have a friend. Lainey regards Noah with suspicion and not a little hostility for her part. Noah gradually learns what is required to care for an adult whose mind is perfectly fine but is trapped in a body that prevents him from doing even the most basic things. As Noah gets to know August better, a deep friendship forms between the two.

However, Noah is prone to messing up and when you are caring for another human being, you can’t have too many of those. Noah’s presence has triggered something in each member of the family, as his interaction with them has triggered something in himself. Will their journeys unite them or will this family – in as fragile a state as any family can be in – be torn apart?

This could easily have been a Lifetime Movie about a heroic mom who holds a family beset by illness and tragedy together with the force of her will but Menchaca – who wrote and co-directed this – wisely chose to pass on the treacle and write from the heart with an eye (and ear) for the everyday struggles of working families who more or less have to go it alone in difficult times. The Suttons aren’t saints, nor are they sinners – they’re just folks like you and I, in a nearly intolerable situation and coping the best they can which isn’t always pretty. Sometimes they take out their frustrations out on each other. Sometimes they are unexpectedly tender. At no time are they anything other than authentic.

This is also as Texas a movie as you’re ever going to get. I’m not talking Dallas Cowboys Texas – I’m talking about small town Texas where skipping rocks is about all the entertainment you’re going to get on a dusty afternoon. Rather than turning the townspeople into chainsaw-wielding maniacs, it draws them closer together. They look out for each other and while sometimes they look away when someone makes a fool of themselves, you get a sense that this is a community that is fully aware that all they really have is each other. Cinematographer Ryan Booth captures the lonely desolation that has its own beauty and grandeur from the small town diners to the dusty prairie to the calm before a violent thunderstorm. This is a beautiful film that even those who don’t love Texas will see why many do.

Segal has the most physically demanding role and he handles it about as well as can be expected. His frustration at being unable to communicate is palpable – imagine if you couldn’t speak, had limited movement of your limbs and had to rely on caretakers for everything – even letting them know what your basic needs are can be a challenge, particularly for someone who doesn’t know you well enough to understand that your fingers brought to your mouth means you need to go to the bathroom, not that you’re hungry. It is pivotal that Segal convey that to the audience and he does so nicely

Menchaca also gives a superior performance as Noah. Noah’s a good ol’ boy sure but he’s also damaged, his relationship with his own family shredded and strained if it exists at all. His ghosts are influencing his interactions with the Suttons for better and occasionally for worse. Noah can be violent, particularly when he drinks (which is often) but he can be kind as well. He has empathy for Diane and even for Lainey who treats him shabbily.

McFarland does a magnificent job as well. Diane starts out heroic but as the movie progresses so too does our perception of her. She’s not the saint we first thought she was; there is a selfishness to her as well; she resents Noah’s relationship with August and as she becomes less of his total focus she doesn’t know exactly what to do so she lashes out – at Lainey, at Bob, at Noah and even occasionally at August himself.

The most impressive thing here is that for virtually the entire cast and crew (although veteran actor Barry Corbin is aboard) this is their first feature-length film. This is as mature and as accomplished a film as you’d be likely to find from veteran Hollywood crews as there are – that it comes from a tyro independent team is to say the least encouraging.

This will be playing the festival circuit for awhile. Hopefully a savvy distributor will get hold of it and give it some sort of theatrical release (if not a home video release). This is one of those hidden gems that you’ll want to view more than once, as welcome as a summer storm on a dry dusty molten hot August day in the Texas highlands. For any serious film buff, this is one to seek out. Check their Facebook page regularly (click on the photo above) to see when it’s playing near you and if it is, do what you have to and see it. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Real people facing a real issue realistically. Each character undertakes a fascinating journey. Beautifully photographed and acted.

REASONS TO STAY: Some moments may be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a few bad words here and there, some scenes of child peril, some sexuality and some smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Sutton house was actually the home of Menchaca’s football coach who had recently passed away; much of the furniture and fixtures within were original to the house.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just now hitting the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Pride and Joy and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Robot & Frank


Robot & Frank

Never argue with a robot; it’s utterly unsatisfying.

(2012) Science Fiction (Goldwyn) Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard (voice) Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong, Ana Gasteyer, Bonnie Bentley, Rachel Ma, Dario Barosso, Joshua Ormond, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Jake Schreier

 

As we get older, it is inevitable that our bodies start to lose function. We are no longer as strong as we once were; our skin sags, our eyes grow dim, our hearing not so keen. And our brains, that most wondrous organ also can lose function; we can’t think as quickly, we have difficulty understanding and accepting new things – and worst of all, it becomes difficult for us to remember.

In the near future of, say, 20 years from now, Frank (Langella) lives on his own in an isolated house in upstate New York. His grown kids worry about him; he is suffering from some memory loss. He seems to have difficulty getting that his favorite diner closed years ago to be replaced by a bath store with a bitchy owner (Gasteyer). His flighty daughter Madison (Tyler) embraces new age causes which he thinks are goofy but he still loves her in the tolerant way parents do.

His son Hunter (Marsden), a family man and a successful lawyer, lives five hours away by car and dutifully drives up to see his dad once a week but this is proving to be a strain on his family. His solution is to by his dad a robot (Ma, voiced by Sarsgaard) which dad clearly doesn’t want. Nonetheless he’s stuck with the caretaker whom he disdainfully refuses to name.

At first Frank is wary and mistrustful; he doesn’t want help, he doesn’t need help. He just wants to be left alone to eat his breakfast cereal, walk into town where he can go to the library where the comely librarian Jennifer (Sarandon) helps him find books he hasn’t read yet.

But the library is soon going to change as a snooty software tycoon (Strong) who wants to get rid of all the books and create a library “experience” for surfing the internet – a concept that would have been good for a laugh if the reality of it weren’t so inevitable. Frank doesn’t handle change well.

There was a time when he was a cat burglar, a “second story guy” who specialized in figuring ways in. As he discovers that his robot is useful for picking locks much quicker than Frank ever could, suddenly Frank is given a project to focus on.

Of course when a certain house gets robbed, Frank becomes a suspect mainly because he’s always a suspect. He’s matching wits with a local sheriff (Sisto) who isn’t used to this kind of high end crime in his jurisdiction and shows it. Unfortunately, Frank’s mental facilities are beginning to crumble; can he pull this last job off?

There is a bittersweet quality to the movie that I like very much. This isn’t a saccharine unicorns and rainbows look at old age where our elderly sail off with dignity into a gorgeous Hollywood sunset. This is about the realities of old age; the walking outside in the bathrobe, the forgetting that that the milk has long gone sour, the difficulty of recalling the names of one’s own children. The indignities that come with a brain that is no longer at peak performance.

Langella in recent years has become as reliable a character actor as there is out there. He’s done some fine work in films as disparate as Starting Out in the Evening and Frost/Nixon. He can be a force of nature or a cynical whisper. It doesn’t seem that long ago when he lit up the New York stage as the ultra-sexy Dracula, but it has been almost 40 years. He makes Frank cantankerous but vulnerable; a man who deals with his oncoming dementia by denying it. It’s a beautiful, layered performance that should in a just world get Oscar consideration but may not have the backing to take on the big studio juggernauts like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock.  That’s a pity – it’s a performance worthy of recognition.

Marsden and Sarandon have some good moments in their roles as well; Tyler’s is less memorable which is surprising since she’s usually so good. Still, she has three Oscar nominees to compete with and it’s understandable she might get lost in the mix, particularly when the role is so feather-light. Sarsgaard’s vocal performance as Robot reminded me as a cross between Kevin Spacey and HAL9000. If the good folks at Apple decide to retire Siri at any point, they should give Mr. Sarsgaard a call.

There are some moments that are gently funny, even laugh-out-loud. There are also at least two sure sniffle-inducing scenes guaranteed to tear you up if you are as sensitive as Da Queen and I both tend to be. While not everything works here, this is a very fine indie film that captures the indignities of aging with humor, dignity and grace.

REASONS TO GO: Nice dry sense of humor. Langella shines. Marsden and Sarandon are nifty as always.

REASONS TO STAY: Cops are a bit too cartoon-ish. Drags a bit through the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly bad words here and there but not many.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design of the caretaker Robot is based on the Honda ASIMO, a robot in use in Japan.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are solidly positive..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

ROBOT LOVERS: Not only is a robot one of the main characters and several other robots appear throughout the film, the end credits roll over video of actual robots in use today.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Trouble With the Curve