City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

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Unfriended


Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig's Facebook page.

Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig’s Facebook page.

(2015) Horror (Universal) Moses Jacob Storm, Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman, Mickey River, Cal Barnes, Christa Hartsock, Darell M. Davis. Directed by Levan Gabriadze

The world has changed. Now more than ever our lives are wrapped up in social media and the internet. Friday nights for the average teen aren’t hanging out in malls anymore; they’re hanging out in chat rooms, Skyping with your friends, checking out videos on YouTube, listening to tunes on Spotify and often all at the same time.

There is also an ugly side to being a teen, one that has been around forever. It’s the cruelty of youth, the instinct to tear down those things – and people – that don’t fit in with the norm, that don’t march in lockstep to the beat of whatever your clique is marching to. Whether it is slut shaming, outing the gay kid or posting videos of the carnage that is a drunken teen party, kids do things without thinking of what the consequences of their actions can be, not just for those they’re being cruel to but to themselves as well.

And it’s a typical Friday night for Blaire Lily. She’s chatting up her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) and on a Skype conference call with her friends Mitch, Jesse Felton (Olstead), Adam Sewell (Peltz) and Ken Smith (Wysocki). Pretty typical stuff, except what they have forgotten is that it’s the anniversary of the suicide of their friend Laura Barns (Sossaman). She’d taken her own life after a video of her drunken antics at a party had been posted to YouTube, complete with her passing out and soiling herself. The anonymous posting had devastated her world; trolls urged her to take her own life and eventually she did.

Now there’s a mystery caller who has hacked into their call, someone who knows all about their secrets but wants someone to fess up – who posted the video to the net of Laura Barns that led to her death? And the mystery caller has ways of making them talk, like a deadly game of Never Have I Ever that exposes some of their indiscretions to one another as the terrified teens begin to turn on each other. Who is this mysterious caller and what do they want? Blaire is beginning to suspect it’s Laura Barns herself.

Gabriadze has come up with a clever concept that the film is scene entirely through Blaire’s keyboard; we see her cursor moving, typing in responses to the chat, and the video on YouTube and Skype that she’s seeing. In a sense, this is a kind of found footage film to the ultimate degree. The downside is that this is going to get dated awfully fast but for 2015, it will fit in perfectly for the teens of the era.

The other side is that for all the gimmickry – and it is gimmickry, make no mistake – that no horror movie can rise above and become a classic without characters in it that will be memorable, that you want to root for and become genuinely concerned for as they are picked off, one by one. That doesn’t happen here. Perhaps I’m old and jaded but none of these kids stood out at all; all of them were spoiled, shallow and had a mean streak deep down. How can I relate to someone who would post a video of their “best friend” passed out drunk in their own poop on the internet where it will remain forever? Does that sound like someone you want to spend any time with?

And like most horror movies lately, there’s not an adult to be seen. Anywhere. It’s like teen paradise where parents are always absent and they can pretty much do what they want. That’s how you sell movies like that to teens; they’re the heroes, there are no adults telling them what to do and when there are adults around they’re generally assholes or incompetent. No wonder they think we’re all morons. Of course, so often we are from their point of view. Or from anyone’s.

Anyway, this is the kind of horror movie that’s a little short on scares; mostly you’re watching Blaire’s laptop screen. That may sound boring but there is a kind of interactive element to it; the result is that you feel like you’re the one doing the typing and it does bring you closer to the story which is more or less a Ten Little Indians revenge rehash. If only we could have cared about the characters being knocked off the movie might have been more than a passing fancy that in five years will be dismissed as being “so 2015.”

REASONS TO GO: Nice concept.
REASONS TO STAY: More concept than execution. Characters all bland and undistinguished.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity and violence, some sexuality and teen drug and alcohol use as well as a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Facebook accounts see in the film actually exist and can be accessed by anyone.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Monkey Kingdom

42


Ebony and Ivory...

Ebony and Ivory…

(2013) Sports Biography (Warner Brothers) Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk,  John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr., Gino Anthony Pesi, Brett Cullen, Cherise Boothe. Directed by Brian Helgeland 

I think that I’m not alone in admiring Jackie Robinson or considering him a personal hero of mine. Nearly every American is aware that he was the first African-American to play in major league baseball – in fact, many erroneously believe he was the first African-American to play in professional sports – Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall both played in the NFL in 1920 and Robinson made his debut in 1947. But Robinson’s achievement bears closer examination; at the time baseball was America’s pastime. The reaction to a black man in the game most closely identified with the American spirit was not unlike the same reaction one might get if they spit on the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Branch Rickey (Ford), president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a very good baseball club, having challenged for the pennant for years. Rickey, a devout Methodist, had made the decision to bring a black man into baseball, a decision that horrified his second in command Harold Parrott (Knight) who envisioned the white fans of Brooklyn deserting the team in droves.

However Rickey was not to be denied and so he went on an exhaustive search to find the right man for the job. He considered a number of stars from the Negro Leagues (some of whom, like Roy Campanella, would end up on the team eventually) but eventually settled on Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs. Impressed with his character, Rickey summoned the player to Brooklyn.

Robinson, recently married to college sweetheart Rachel (Beharie), is a bit mystified. He has no idea what Rickey has in mind and it is inferred that the idea that he’d be the one to break the color barrier is the furthest thing from his mind. When Rickey tells him he’s looking for someone to turn the other cheek, Robinson is insulted; are they looking for someone without the guts to fight back? “No,” Rickey thunders, “I’m looking for someone with the guts not to fight back.”

Robinson has more than enough guts and he reports to spring training…in Florida. Naturally the natives don’t take too kindly to an uppity you-know-what playing a white man’s game – in Sanford, the sheriff threatens to shut down the game if Robinson plays. His manager, Clay Hopper (Cullen) is read the riot act by Rickey. Eventually, Robinson makes the minor league Montreal Royals, one step away from the big leagues. He spends the season there.

In 1947, Robinson attends training camp – this time in Panama – with the Dodgers and the team is fully aware that Robinson, who’d torn up the International League with Montreal the previous season, is going to be on the opening day roster and on April 15, 1947 Robinson makes history by taking the field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

It’s an uphill struggle however. His own teammates circulate a petition, asking Rickey to reconsider (manager Leo Durocher (Meloni) essentially tells them that if they don’t like it, they can expect to be traded). Things aren’t helped much when Durocher is suspended for the season and Burt Shotton (Gail), of whom a New York Sportswriter consistently referred to as Kindly Old Burt Shotton (it’s in Roger Kahn’s excellent The Boys of Summer if you want further insight to this story), is hired in his place.

On the field, Robinson gets it from all sides – the fans, the players, even the managers, particularly Ben Chapman (Tudyk) of the Philadelphia Phillies whose graphic racial attacks are as reprehensible and as vicious as anything you’re ever likely to hear. Hotels refuse to put the Dodgers up because of Robinson’s presence and yet the man perseveres, refusing to give in, turning the other cheek until both cheeks are bruised.

The question to ask here is whether or not the movie tells Robinson’s story properly and I’m of two minds of that here. I think it does a really good job in establishing his relationships with Rickey and Rachel, as well with sportswriter Wendell Smith (Holland) who is hired more or less to be Robinson’s assistant – picking him up and driving him around, arranging for lodging with black politicians when the white hotels won’t admit him, essentially serving as friend and confidante. He also gives Robinson perspective from time to time which proves valuable.

A Jackie Robinson biography had been in the works years ago, with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington attached. Sadly, it never came to pass and sadder still, part of the reason why was studio reluctance to do a movie about Robinson. However, it is a hopeful sign that Warner Brothers agreed not only to do the film, but allow an unknown to be cast in the lead.

Boseman has a relaxed, easy presence that is fiery in places, tender in others. He has the potential to be a star, not only because he captures some of the personality of Robinson but clearly fleshes out the legend some. Unfortunately, the writers really didn’t give him a lot to work with in terms of defining who Robinson was beyond the diamond. That might not be entirely their fault – Robinson was an intensely private man who tended to keep most of his thoughts and feelings to himself. However, Rachel is still alive as are two of his three children and perhaps some contact with them might have fleshed out Robinson’s profile a bit further, although it’s possible they would have preferred to keep what the ballplayer wanted kept private during his lifetime the same way afterwards.

Beharie is also lustrous here and shows signs of being an excellent leading lady. I hope this role gets her some further roles in big films – she has the beauty and the charisma to carry them. I really liked her as Rachel, although again we fail to see the extent of the support she gave Jackie which was considerable by all accounts.

Ford gives one of the most memorable performances of his career, playing Rickey note-perfect as a Bible-thumping curmudgeon on the outside with the kind of heart of gold on the inside that the real Rickey rarely revealed to the public. There’s a really nice scene in a locker room after Jackie is spiked and is being stitched up when he asks Rickey why he did what he did and finally Rickey comes clean with him. It’s the kind of scene that shows up on Oscar telecasts.

I liked this movie a lot, but could have liked it more with a little less baseball, a little more character and maybe a little more time overall with Jackie off the field. Even so, this is an impressive film which I can pretty much recommend without hesitation. As cultural icons go, Robinson has left a towering legacy. That legacy is deserving of a movie that reflects that and while I’m not sure 42 gives it what it deserves, it at least makes a fine attempt in the meantime.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what he endured. Ford does some of his best work ever.

REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give you a sense of who Jackie Robinson was other than what you can deduce from the history books.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some pretty bad language including liberal use of the “N” word (which you have to have if you’re doing a bio on Robinson since he heard it more than his share) and some thematic elements that might be disturbing to young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in his career Harrison Ford has portrayed a real person.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; positive reviews overall for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A League of Their Own

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The ABCs of Death

Afghan Star


Afghan Star

Randy Jackson found Lema's performance "pitchy."

(Zeitgeist) Habib Amiri, Setara Husseinzada, Rafi Naabzada, Lema Sahar, Hamid Sakhizada, Massoud Sanjer, Daoud Sediqi, Tahir Shaqi, Fazi Hadi Shinwari. Directed by Havana Marking

The fallout from the War on Terror continues to wreak havoc on those countries that it has touched. After years of totalitarian rule by the Taliban, Afghanistan is finally beginning to turn the corner and modernizing, loosening ridiculous strictures laid on that country in the name of religion. For example, it was a crime under Taliban rule to listen to music or broadcast musical content on television.

A charismatic young television producer named Daoud Sediqi caught a glimpse of the British show Pop Idol (the American version of which is American Idol) and thought it would be something worth bringing to Afghanistan. Normally, I’d be making some joke about war crimes here, but the broadcasting of that show would prove to have a profound effect on the country.

This documentary, made by British filmmakers, captures a season of the show and its effect on Afghanistan. While the Taliban is gone, its supporters still wield enormous power, particularly in the Kandahar district. Death threats for those who go against the strict rules of the Imams is not uncommon.

Afghanistan also has a number of different ethnic groups, all more or less at each other’s throats. Sediqi was hoping that the voting would cross ethnic lines but in truth it hasn’t up to now. The program set up a cell phone voting program which would tend to favor younger and more open-minded voters, although in all honesty the results were still more or less along ethnic lines.

In fact, the four finalists – whom the documentary focuses on – were from different ethnic groups. There’s Rafi, who has the slick, charismatic and handsome look that would make him at home on our own version of the show. Hamid is a more polished vocalist from a professional group; he is from the marginalized Hazara ethnic group and he hopes his success will shine a spotlight on the plight of the Hazara. Setara is a fiery young woman from Herat whose last appearance on the show involves dancing and allowing her scarf to slip, both major no-no’s for the chaste Islamic woman. Lema is also a woman, also from a conservative region of Afghanistan whose music lessons, had the Taliban discovered them, would have led to her immediate execution.

That the documentary exists at all is a tribute to the resilience of the Afghans. Footage early on from the 1980s shows that the country had at least a passing interest in modern Western music, although that was abruptly and brutally cut short by the ascension of the Taliban.

This is not about the music competition and quite frankly, unless you’re a BIG fan of Afghan music, you’re probably not going to care who wins so much. In fact, the drawback here is that the music is mostly along traditional Afghani lines and those less open-minded sorts are going to dislike it pretty intensely. For my part, I found the music okay, not being a particular expert in the particular art form. All I can say is that I liked most of it.

Can you imagine what American Idol would be like if Kelly Clarkson would have had to go into hiding for dancing during her performance, or if Sanjaya had been making a political statement just by entering? It’s an amazing juxtaposition between two different cultures, where contestants in one thrive on popularity and the ability to sell records, compared with contestants who want to perform because they finally have been allowed a forum to. How exciting it is to see a voice which has been silenced for so long to finally be given its chance to shine?

WHY RENT THIS: A very compelling look at modern Afghan culture, particularly on the clash between traditional Islam and Western influences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The “pop” music of the show is actually fairly traditional music from the various Afghan ethnic groups and some may not find it to their liking.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the subject matter is on the mature side, but otherwise should be suitable for nearly everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official United Kingdom submission for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film for 2010. It did not, however, receive a nomination.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Havana Marking detailing the difficulties in making this documentary.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Kick-Ass