Luzzu


Fishing as it has been done for centuries.

(2021) Drama (Kino Lorber) Jesmark Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Michaela Farrugia, Uday McLean, Yuric Allison, Paul Cilia, Reece Vella, Marcelle Theuma, David Scicluna, Marta Vella, Stephen Buhagiar, Noel Grech, Adrian Farrugia, Thelma Abela, Joseph Scicluna, Michael Sciortino, Sonia Cassar, Dianna Bonnici, Joseph Schiavone, Yorgen Vella, Emmanuel Muscat. Directed by Alex Camilleri

 

The Mediterranean island of Malta is not exactly a film hotspot. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe by land area, and is full of traditions that go back centuries. Like many other countries, though, it is finding that its traditions are under siege by the economic realities of modern geopolitics.

Jesmark (Je. Scicluna) is a fisherman. He, like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, have fished from a small, brightly painted wooden boat called a luzzu. However, Jesmark has found, like many of his compatriots, that fishing has been less successful as he is competing with vast trawlers that are able to catch thousands of fish in a single trip where he is struggling to net three or four. He adheres to the rules of the local fisheries board, and works hard. However, he is disquieted by the local fish auctioneers consistently selling his fish below what they are worth, and he is unable to find other buyers for his catch.

To make matters worse, Jesmark has a baby with his girlfriend Denise (M. Farrugia) and that baby is having growth issues, necessitating some expensive baby food, visits to specialists and medications – all expensive and all putting a strain on what little money they are able to save. And to top things off, his beloved boat, the Te Palma, has developed a leak that will not be cheap to repair. “Without a boat, you’ll lose your way,” a fellow fisherman warns. These things have driven a wedge between Jesmark and Denise, and she moves out with his son to live with her mother, who already has a strained relationship with Jesmark, whom she disapproves of.

Jesmark is forced to compromise his ethics, working on the black market selling fish illicitly, some out of season, some off the books. Jesmark indeed feels that he has lost his way, and with the European Union putting pressure on local fishermen to buy back their luzzus and move them into different occupations which Jesmark is extremely reluctant to do, it is looking more and more like he will have little choice if his small family is to survive.

It is unsurprising that Camilleri has a background in documentaries, for this has the look and feel of one. The marketing material describes the film as “neorealist” or “hyper-realistic” and both monikers are true; there is a very authentic vibe here – you can almost smell the salt air and the rotting wood of the docks. That is the mark of a good documentary.

Jesmark Scicluna, who is not a professional actor, is a real find here. Ruggedly handsome with a sober mien (he rarely smiles in the movie nor is there much reason for him to), he has a charismatic personality that leaps off the screen as he fights forces that he doesn’t understand and are way out of his control. It’s an extremely effective performance that is bound to resonate among those who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet even with a good job. If the fishing industry is really as bad as it is made out to be here, he could have a legitimate shot at a career in front of the camera.

The story moves effortlessly from the documentary-like first act into the second act which is more of a crime drama, although one that has little suspense. We feel more the economic squeeze on Jesmark than we do any sort of fear of the consequences if he is to be caught. This leads to an ending that is poignant and well-earned.

Camilleri is a protege of Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) who also produced the film. Like some of his mentor’s best films, Camilleri infuses this film with a sense of how difficult it is to survive when everything is stacked against you, as it is these days. This isn’t an easy movie to watch in the sense that it will take you out of your own troubles; chances are you’ll recognize some of your own troubles in the film. However, the movie is brilliantly acted by a largely amateur cast, wonderfully shot by Léo Lefevre, and certainly worth your time and trouble to seek it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Jesmark is an absolutely magnetic presence. An engaging story that has universal appeal. Perfectly captures the desperation of those living on the edge of a financial abyss.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too quiet and slow-paced for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesmark Scicluna is an actual fisherman in Malta who was cast by Camilleri for the film, along with a number of other fishermen playing – you guessed it, fishermen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CODA
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Son of Monarchs

Sorry We Missed You


It’s a grim prognosis for the working class.

(2019) Drama (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberKris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Julian Irons, Sheila Dunkerley, Maxie Peters, Christopher John Slater, Heather Wood, Alberto Dumba, Natalia Stonebanks, Jordan Collard, Dave Turner, Stephen Clegg, Darren Jones, Nikki Marshall. Directed by Ken Loach

 

It has likely never been harder to be a working man now than since the Middle Ages. Making ends meet is nearly impossible; wages have dropped sharply while the cost of living continues to rise. Jobs are not plentiful, certainly not of the kind that pay well enough to live decently. Cutting corners has become a way of life as people traverse the gig economy with tentative steps, knowing that they are much like people walking in a minefield with steel-toed boots.

Ricky Turner (Hitchen) has just lost his job in the construction industry and frankly, he’s sick and tired of working jobs that can be taken away from him at a moment’s notice. He wants to be his own boss and make a wage that will allow his family to have the things they need. However, jobs are particularly scarce in Newcastle, where he and his sweet wife Abbie (Honeywood) live with their teenage son Sebastian, or “Seb” as they call him (Stone) and their brilliant tween daughter Liza Jae (Proctor).

One of Ricky’s mates links him up with PBF, a parcel delivery service who is run by the bullet-headed bulldog-like Maloney (Brewster) who runs his business like a drill sergeant. In the parlance of PBF, they don’t hire employees, they onboard independent drivers. Drivers must supply their own vans, or rent one from the company at an exorbitant rate. However, if Ricky works hard and delivers his parcels on time, he will be making more than he ever did in construction, maybe enough so after two years they can save enough to put a down payment on a house, the dream of many renters.

isn’t quite so enthusiastic. In order to buy a van, they’ll have to sell the car that she uses to get to her job which is as an in-home caregiver to the elderly. She goes to their homes, cooks their meals, bathes them and tucks them into bed. She’s ideally suited for the job, but her clients are all over the map and getting to her appointments on time required a car. Taking the bus will cause her to be late more often. However, in the interest of family harmony, she gives in.

At first, things are sunshine and roses. Ricky does well on his route and becomes Maloney’s fair-haired boy, but there are some troubling signs. For one thing, the constant murderous pace of delivering parcels means drivers never get breaks and must learn to pee in a bottle rather than stopping anywhere for a bathroom break. For another, missing delivery windows and deadlines can lead to a system of demerits, which cost the drivers fines which put them in debt to PBF, forcing them to work more.

To make matters worse, Seb is indulging in some hooligan-ish behavior, skipping school, spray-painting graffiti along the roadsides and eventually getting into more serious trouble, forcing his parents to miss work in order to attend meetings with school headmasters and eventually police officers. Ricky is often so exhausted that he can barely see straight when he drives his van and taking the bus has forced Abbie to work longer hours as well. And despite the promise of better pay, the family is barely holding their heads above water as it is – it will take only the slightest of bumps to drown the lot of them.

Loach is one of the finest English directors of the past four decades and when I say that this is one of his best ever, keep in mind that he has films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake on his filmography. Like many of his films, this is a taut, no-frills productions – there’s no score, and few special effects. The brisk pace keeps the story moving and whereas lesser directors might get bogged down in subplots, Loach and his longtime collaborator writer Paul Laverty keep their focus throughout.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets fantastic performances from the entire cast, some of whom are non-professionals and Hitchen and Honeywood exhibit some marvelous chemistry and screen presence. The dynamic for the entire Turner family feels organic and realistic; this could be the family living in the flat (or apartment) three doors down from yours, Ricky the guy down at the pub (or bar) rooting for his favorite team (in Ricky’s case, Manchester United).

The accents are very thick here, as they are in that part of England and so subtitles are necessary; some of the phrases may not be familiar to American audiences, so it might be frustrating to those who aren’t familiar with English idioms. Still, this is a marvelous film that is a triumph for the 83-year-old director who shows no signs of slowing down. This is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing the working class, so much so that it may cut a little too close to home for some. Even so, it should be required viewing for economics and business students who should see what the human toll of the current profits-at-any-cost mindset of business worldwide really is.

REASONS TO SEE: A grim portrayal of the working class circa 2019. The family dynamic feels very realistic. Hitchen and Honeywood do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: The heavily-accented English requires subtitles and some of the idioms used may be difficult to follow for the layman.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The license plate number for Ricky’s van is AK65 JFX.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: DriverX
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick