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

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Front Cover


A handsome, stylish man.

A handsome, stylish man.

(2015) Drama (Strand) Jake Choi, James Chen, Jennifer Neala Page, Elizabeth Sung, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Li Jun Li, Rachel Lu, Wayne Chang, Kristen Hung, Scott Chan, Brian Knoebel, Ben Baur, Shenell Edmonds, Benjamin Thys, Tom Ligon, Fenton Li, Julia Sun, Josh Folan, Peter Benson, Hallie Cooper-Novack, Chris Kies, Morgan Wolk, Jack Ferver, John Cramer, Susan O’Connor. Directed by Ray Yeung

 

Culture can be a blessing and a millstone. Not all of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. That also goes for our sexuality, although that is becoming less of a stigma these days. The LGBTQ community has made some big strides in this country over the past few years but sometimes we forget that it isn’t the same situation everywhere.

Ryan (Choi) is a gay Asian man who works as a stylist in the fashion industry in Manhattan. He’s in demand and very good at what he does, but he is tired of being stereotyped for his sexuality and his culture. He wants a certain magazine cover but instead he’s assigned by his overbearing boss (Villani) to work with an emerging Chinese star named Ning (Chen) who is breaking out in the United States and who had specifically requested a Chinese stylist for his important photo shoot he’s getting ready for.

It is not a match made in heaven. Ning is all about his culture while Ryan is trying to distance himself from his Chinese heritage and embrace his American side. For Ning’s part, he is shocked at Ryan’s open homosexuality. It’s simply not an acceptable part of the culture in modern China. The relationship is rocky and nearly gets Ryan fired but eventually the two begin to find some common ground, particularly when Ryan’s parents get involved. And as the two begin to become friendly, an attraction develops as Ning reveals that he is in the closet. Can two people from two disparate cultures make it work?

This is a movie that has admirable ambitions. Not only does it examine a little-discussed subject in film – being gay and Asian – but from two different angles. Bringing the cultural differences into the mix adds a little bit of spice to the lo mein. One of the big positives here is that Yeung has his feet in both communities and brings his own experiences and perspective to the wok. That lends an air of authenticity to the film that money just can’t buy and is a perfect illustration of what is best about indie films.

The movie rests largely on the shoulders of Choi and Chen and the two work really well together. Their initial antagonism leading to romantic feelings feels a bit Hollywood-esque but the two manage to overcome the clichéd nature of the situation and make the relationship feel real. There’s also some great scenes with Ryan’s parents and grandmother.

In a sense although the romance is at the center of the film, it is really Ryan’s story; it measures his growth and revolves around his perspective. We see the events through his eyes, feel his frustrations and his passions. Ryan is so dedicated to assimilating into American culture that he refuses to have romances with Asian men, only Caucasians. It is this cultural denial – not uncommon among second generation immigrants – that I think is the most fascinating part of the story.

I would have liked the romantic part to have been a little more organic but even though it kind of follows a rom-com formula, this is far from typical. And yes, there are comedic elements here, particularly with cultural fish-out-of-water things but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a comedy or even a dramedy. It tackles some serious issues and gives us insights that maybe we wouldn’t come up with on our own, and isn’t that really the best thing a movie can do for us?

REASONS TO GO: Cultural and sexual attitudes are taken on honestly. There’s legitimate chemistry between the leads.
REASONS TO STAY: The romance aspect seems a little cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leung also runs the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Tenth Man

Outsourced (2006)


Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

(2006) Comedy (ShadowCatcher) Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker, Matt Smith, Asif Basra, Sudha Shivpuri, Bhuvanesh Shetty, Jeneva Talwar, Suarab Agarwal, Larry Pine, Ketan Mehta, Dipesh Shah, Urmi Mukherjee, Bharat Sarjerao Adhangle, Arjun Mathur. Directed by John Jeffcoat

 

We Americans don’t really mix well in other cultures. Perhaps it’s because most of us are descended from people who have fled from other places – heck, even the aboriginals had to cross a land bridge to get here. We are woefully ignorant of cultures that are different than ours, particularly those from places that are far away from where our ancestors started out.

Todd (Hamilton) works for a Seattle-based novelty manufacturing company whose telemarketing division is being laid off – in fact, he’s given the task of laying them off. Then he’s shipped off to India, tasked with training his own replacement. How bad does that suck? But it has been a reality of business for some time now.

In India he finds a call center that might be modern in some ways but it is woeful compared to their American counterparts as are the operators. The young man Todd is training, Purohit (Basra) is eager enough to learn and is quite courteous and in a lot of ways like Todd himself, a good guy. The two men begin to bond, Todd lost in the Indian culture that surrounds him, Purohit lost in the American culture that he has chosen a career selling.

Purohit needs this job because the salary will allow him to finally marry the girl of his dreams. Todd also finds himself falling for a pretty operator named Asha (Dharker) who is sensible, whip-smart and a bit more inclined towards Western customs than many of her peers. However, she has been committed by her parents into an arranged marriage since she was four years old.

However, the corporate commitment to an Indian workforce is about as solid as thin ice. Already they’re thinking of outsourcing the outsourced work to China. In order to save the jobs in India, Todd will have to commit his crew to a higher bar than he’s ever set which might just net him a career move that will take him into the executive level he’s been waiting for. But what does he really want – a life or a career?

This is one of those movies that came and went, getting almost zero distribution. It hung around long enough to inspire an NBC sitcom that ran a couple of years later for a season. Some may remember the sitcom which had a small but fiercely loyal following. In my opinion, the show which did have its charms was not quite so charming as this. The movie has a surprising amount of heart.

Part of the reason the movie works is the believable chemistry between veteran character actor Hamilton and Bollywood star Dharker (best known in the states for playing Queen Jamillia in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). They make a cute couple in every sense of the phrase.

Part of making a successful fish out of water cultural clash movie is that you need to have a really solid understanding of both cultures involved and quite frankly that’s where this movie falls down a bit. It plays too much to the American stereotypes of India, from Bollywood dance numbers to arranged marriages to the general sanitation issues. Now I haven’t been to India myself but I do know that the country is a lot more than that. I suppose when dealing with American audiences you have to paint with broad strokes, but the filmmakers missed an opportunity to give us a better understanding of India and her culture. Even watching a couple of random Bollywood films would give you more insight.

Still, I can understand the filmmakers decision to go this route. They wanted to make a movie that was sweet and funny and romantic and on those scores they get high marks. This isn’t a movie that will give you a thirst for visiting India, learning more about their culture or even heading to your local Indian restaurant. It is a pleasant diversion however and there’s nothing wrong with that.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet-natured and requires little effort to enjoy. Hamilton and Dharker make an attractive couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit condescending towards Indian culture; plays to stereotypes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexual content but nothing too overbearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffcoat was inspired to write the film based on his own experiences in India and Nepal.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video as well as a translation of Hindi dialogue from a few scenes in which no subtitles were provided (which was supposed to help illustrate the confusion that Todd felt).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $703,042 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking it wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life of Pi

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Dev Patel toasts his participation in an early favorite for the best movie of 2012.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Tena Desae, Lillette Dubey, Sid Makkar, Seema Azmi, Diana Hardcastle, Lucy Robinson, Paul Bhattacharjee. Directed by John Madden

 

Everybody ages. Not everybody gets to grow old and it’s for damn sure that not everybody grows as they age period.

A group of seven British retirees find themselves on a bus for the airport taking them to India. They’re not on a holiday or a tour – they are moving to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a budget-priced retirement facility which claims in their advertisements that they have all the amenities needed so that they might spend their golden years in comfort and luxury.

Their interest is that the Hotel is inexpensive enough that they can all afford to live, as they all (with a couple of exceptions) have some sort of financial difficulty. Evelyn Greenslade (Dench) discovered when her husband passed away that he was deeply in debt and she was forced to sell her home in order to pay them off. Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Wilton) Ainslie lost their life savings when their daughter’s internet company which they had invested in failed. Muriel Donnelly (Smith), a retired domestic, is going to India for a hip replacement surgery which is the only place where she can afford one. Madge Hardcastle (Imrie) is out to find herself a rich husband who can support her needs. Norman Cousins (Pickup), a ladies’ man, wants one last one-night-stand to tide him over. Finally Graham Dashwood (Wilkinson) who is a retired high court judge, grew up in India and seeks to find a lost love.

The hotel that they arrive at is far from what the advertisements claimed; it is ramshackle, without working phones and is old, decrepit and in need of much repair. Sonny (Patel), the manager, is highly enthusiastic and likable but lacks business know-how. He is desperately trying to get a local businessman to invest in the hotel in order to get it solvent; his mother (Dubey) wants him to come back to Delhi so that she can arrange a proper marriage for him. Sonny however only has eyes for Sunaina (Desae), a call center employee.

The new residents all react in different ways to their environments. Evelyn takes a job at the call center as a consultant to help the employees, including Sunaina whom she forms a friendship with, how to speak to elderly British sorts. She needs the work in order to afford to live at the hotel.

Graham disappears most of the day, rarely talking about where he’s been and what he’s done. He recommends places for the others to explore, which Douglas takes him up on. Jean prefers to stay in her room and read, complaining about everything and everyone. Muriel, whose racially insensitive views made some uncomfortable, begins to come around after her successful surgery and befriends a maid of the Untouchable class. When she gives her some advice on how to better sweep the pavement, the maid is very grateful, despite Muriel’s discomfort.

In fact, all of the residents are being profoundly touched by their surroundings and by each other. Some will find exactly what they’re looking for; others will be disappointed and others will be surprised. All will be confronted by their own mortality and their own shortcomings – and all will be changed by their experiences, and by India.

Madden, best known for directing Shakespeare in Love, assembled a tremendous cast and wisely lets each of them get their moment to shine. The movie is not so much about aging but about living – about never being too old to change and grow. It’s kind of a cross between Bollywood (without the songs and dance), Ealing Studios comedies, and On Golden Pond. While the movie certainly is aimed at an older audience, there is plenty in it for non-seniors to enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that the script (by Ol Parker) is well-written and full of some wonderful lines not to mention a great deal of wisdom.

Each character gets at least a few scenes to shine in; most remarkable are Dench, Wilkinson, Nighy, Smith and Wilton. Imrie and Pickup also fare well in their moments. Dench does a voiceover (which is the vocalization of the blog she’s writing) that is actually non-intrusive and well-written rather than a lot of Hollywood voice-overs which tend to be the writers showing off how well they can turn a phrase. Wilkinson and Nighy are two of the most consistent actors in Hollywood; Nighy often gets parts that are kind of far-out, but here his character is a decent man, worn down from years of living with a shrew. Wilkinson’s characters tend to run the gamut from amoral executives to care-worn fathers but here he is a lonely man, haunted by his past and the repercussions of his decision not to protest an obvious injustice. The inner decency of Graham shows through at every moment; he’s a judge that I would want hearing my case, a man who wins the respect of pretty much all of his compatriots.

This is a movie that you can fall in love with. It allows Indian culture to shine through without over-romanticizing it; you get the sense of the drawbacks of Indian culture as well (the congestion, the poor infrastructure and yes, the smell). However it counterbalances that nicely with the overall accepting nature of the Indian people, the beauty of the temples, palaces and countryside and yes, the people themselves – Patel and Desae make a magnificent couple.

I went in expecting to like this movie but not to love it but I wound up appreciating every moment of it. None of this rings false and to my way of thinking, you get to view the world through the eyes of people who have largely been discarded and marginalized by the world at large. Some of them do indulge in a heaping helping of self-pity but for the most part they find their niche in the world and inhabit it, much like anybody of any age. I know younger people might find the subject matter of seniors trying to fit into the world uninteresting to them but for those who don’t reject the subjects of India and the elderly out of hand, this is a movie you’ll find tremendously rewarding.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances. An unsentimental but affectionate look at India. Great one-liners.

REASONS TO STAY: Younger people might find the pace boring and the subject uninteresting.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there, and some of the content is a bit sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel that Jean is reading is Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, who also wrote These Foolish Things on which this movie is based.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are pretty much positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

INDIA LOVERS: The area around Jaipur is shown with equal parts crumbling, decaying poverty and ancient beauty. The countryside is equally inviting and for those who haven’t considered visiting India, this acts as a pretty compelling reason to go.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Wild Grass

The Other End of the Line


The Other End of the Line

How very 2008!

(2008) Romantic Comedy (MGM) Jesse Metcalfe, Shriya Saran, Larry Miller, Michael Chen, Nauva Green, Sara Foster, Harry Key, Austin Basis, Tara Sharma, Sushmita Mukherjee, Asheesh Kapur. Directed by James Dodson

Sometimes the difference between people is greater than the distance between their cultures. Love bridges a lot of gulfs but it generally has a hard time with secrets and lies.

Priya Sethi (Saran) lives in Mumbai and is obsessed with American culture. She works for Citibank as a customer service representative with a flawless American accent. She calls herself Jennifer David on the phone and passes herself off as a Caucasian woman living in San Francsico. Her family is far more traditional than she is and are disturbed by her American bent. However, they are pleased when Priya reluctantly agrees to marry Vikram (Kapur), a somewhat boring and generally unappealing arranged match.

Granger Woodruff (Metcalfe) is an advertising executive trying to save the account of a major hotel chain headed by Kit Hawksin (Miller), who is about ready to bolt after a series of ads make his hotel look like a hook-up place for escort services. Granger is a bit of a smug S.O.B., confident in his ability to sell anything, most especially himself and to woo beautiful women. However, what he doesn’t know is that there have been some fraudulent charges on his Citibank credit card.

Priya, or rather Jennifer David, is assigned to Granger’s case. She and Granger strike up a series of phone conversations that begin to morph from business professional to purely personal. She has begun to fall for the young ad executive, particularly when she looks up his picture on the Internet. She resolves to fly to San Francisco to meet him as Jennifer David and sets up a meeting with Granger.

Unfortunately, he is under the impression that Jennifer is a Caucasian woman so when he arrives at the rendezvous he assumes quite naturally that the darker-skinned Priya is not Jennifer (which she isn’t to be fair) and asks other Caucasian women if they are Jennifer. Crushed, Priya returns to her hotel and is getting ready to check out when she quite literally runs into Granger.

The two immediately strike up a friendship and go on a series of dates in San Francisco and are spiraling ever closer towards falling in love. Unfortunately Priya’s family has also flown to San Francisco to collect their wayward daughter and return her home for the marriage which they arranged. When Granger discovers the truth, he is completely floored and upset and calls off the budding love affair with Priya. It seems that cultural differences will get in the way of true love, after all…or will they?

This is an Indian-American co-production and the subject matter seems quite natural. Saran is well-cast; beautiful and bubbly, she is the ideal Indian woman from an American standpoint; strong-willed, gorgeous, and open-hearted. She is a top actress in Bollywood and has apparently chosen to remain so which is a shame; I think she’d do well on a more global stage if the right part came along.

Unfortunately she is one of the few standouts in the movie. The plot is a bit rote in the fish-out-of-water romantic comedy sub-genre. The comedy seems to rely more on people acting like idiots and keeping secrets from one another unnecessarily than on actual wit. I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were trying to meet the common denominators between American and Indian film audiences and wound up missing the mark for both.

Still, it is rare for Bollywood to “Americanize” itself and to be honest, I’d love to see more of it – I never turn down a chance to see more of the Indian culture which is horribly misunderstood here in the States. Unfortunately, this movie seems to pander more to American cultural insensitivity rather than celebrating the rich and fascinating Indian culture which could have made a much better – and more successful – movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Saran is charming and the culture clash aspects are at least fairly interesting. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Filmmakers don’t have the courage of their convictions. Characters are a bit witless.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive material but it is fairly minor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that major Bollywood film Production Company Adlabs has paired up with an American distributor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $507,534 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: I Am Number Four

Dark Matter


Dark Matter

Ye Liu examines Meryl Streep's face for unsightly blemishes.

(2007) Drama (First Independent) Meryl Streep, Ye Liu, Peng Chi, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, Yonggui Wang, Lei Tsao, Jing Shan, He Yu, Bo Yi, Boris McGiver, Bill Irwin, Taylor Schilling. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

We struggle to understand the complex workings of the universe. Mostly the discoveries we make serve to illustrate that we are painfully ignorant and that the universe is a far more wondrous place than we could ever imagine. However, there is a dark side to the universe, one that resides in the matter that not only binds the universe together but touches the dark places in the human heart.

Liu Xeng (Liu) is a Chinese student studying for his doctorate at an unnamed Southwestern U.S. university. He is admonished by his family as he leaves for the great unknown that is America to make his family proud and bring no disgrace to the family name. No pressure, right?

He is brought into a world of academic politics, woefully unprepared. Brilliant in the science of cosmology (the study of the workings and origins of the universe), he is interned to Dr. Reiser (Quinn), one of the most respected scientists in the United States. At first, they get along very well – Xeng is brilliant which reflects positively on Dr. Reiser.

Xeng joins a number of other Chinese students sharing a house in the university community. Mostly, they like to hang out, drink beer, talk about chicks – and particle physics. Those wacky college students! Xeng even develops a crush on a comely barista (Schilling), although that turns out to be unrequited. He’s living the American dream, college nerd style.

The Chinese students stay in America is being facilitated by Joanna Silver (Streep), a wealthy patron with a keen interest in Chinese culture. She takes a special liking to the young Xeng, whose brilliance and shy sweetness intrigue her. Then one day, Xeng has a breakthrough – a theory about dark matter that might change the way we see the universe.

But the wheels start to fall off. His theory comes into direct conflict with Dr. Reiser’s own – which the arrogant and egocentric Reiser can’t allow. Reiser works behind the scenes to discredit Xeng, who loses an important prize to one of his roommates who has been making a point of kissing Dr. Reiser’s ass. Xeng is unable to land a job following his graduation and is forced to sell skin care products door to door to make ends meet. His mental state fractures and shatters, leading to tragedy.

This is loosely based on events at the University of Iowa in 1991 when a graduate student named Gang Lu opened fire on several professors and students, killing five before turning his gun on himself. The academic world depicted here is not necessarily the one that was encountered by Lu in his downward spiral, but it is pretty accurate as to some of the down side – dark side – of modern American universities. It is sadly true that politics usually trump performance when it comes to human endeavor.

The culture clash between the Chinese students and their American hosts is one of the most compelling things about the movie. The students are astonished to discover that Americans send their elderly to separate facilities; in China, caring for the elderly is part of a family’s responsibility and to not do so would be a serious loss of honor.

There are a lot of scientific ideas that are put across here that are necessary for the advancement of the plot. They could easily be dry and confusing to the audience, but Shi-Zheng manages to make them at least reasonably understandable with a liberal use of computer graphics to aid him.

Getting Streep was amazing; I don’t know how they convinced her to do this movie but she is typically wonderful, performing in a way that is effortless and authentic. She doesn’t exactly steal the movie but she is the most prominent reason to see the film. Liu as Xeng does a credible job, but his mental deterioration doesn’t feel authentic; he goes from frustrated to homicidal almost without any sort of transition. It’s a little bit jarring, even if you do know it’s coming.

The middle third drags a little bit, but the first and last parts of the movie are exceptionally paced. The feeling of impending tragedy hangs throughout the movie. Shi-Zheng has divided the film into five chapters, each pertaining to a specific element. He utilizes a Chinese children’s chorus singing standard American songs as a kind of linking device that foreshadows and forebodes.

I like many of the elements of the movie; it just doesn’t generate a movie that is a cohesive whole. The conceit of Dark Matter as an allegory for petty human emotions under the surface is a nice one, but a bit obscure. That may wind up losing some audience; still, anything with Meryl Streep is going to be worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Meryl Streep elevates the movie with yet another unforced performance. Shi-Zheng manages to present complex scientific ideas without sailing completely over the heads of the audience. The cultural clash between the students and their hosts are the best element of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third drags a bit and Liu Xeng’s mental breakdown doesn’t feel authentic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of intense violence, some sexual content and a modicum of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Chen Shi-Zheng is best known in China for directing Chinese opera productions; this is his feature film directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $66,375 on an unreported production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With