Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

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The Wave (Bølgen) (2015)


New Wave in Norway.

New Wave in Norway.

(2015) Disaster Action (Magnolia) Kristoffer Joner, Thomas Bo Larsen, Ane Dahl Torp, Fridtjov Såheim, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Laila Goody, Arthur Berning, Eili Harboe, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Lado Hadzic, Tom Larsen, Herman Bernhoft, Mette Agnete Horn, Silje Breivik, Håkon Moe, Tyra Holmen. Directed by Roar Uthaug

America has essentially had the monopoly on disaster movies. That doesn’t mean that America has the monopoly on disasters – they happen everywhere, all the time. It has been a long time coming that a good disaster movie comes from somewhere not flying the stars and stripes.

Norway’s fjords are lovely, but they are also a ticking time bomb. They are in a mountainous region, and when the set up is just right – as in the tiny tourist village of Geiranger which sits at the mouth of the fjord bearing it’s name – that time bomb can tick rather loudly. As the movie notes in a kind of prelude, rock slides from Ȃkneset Mountain back in 1905 impacted the river below, causing a gigantic wave 240 feet tall moving between two tall cliffs like a bullet through the barrel of a gun, a gun pointed right at Geiranger. Scientists are wary that similar circumstances will happen again.

For that reason, a monitoring station is set up there, and geologist Kristian (Joner) has been a part of the team that has kept an eye on the mountain. However, the lure of corporate money has gotten him and he is leaving the government-run station for the deep pockets of an oil company. His last day has arrived and he and his family – wife Idun (Torp) who works as a desk clerk at the town’s luxury hotel, disaffected teen Sondre (Oftebro) and cute-as-a-button 7-year-old daughter Julia (Haagenrud-Sande).

While station chief Arvid (Såheim) is none-too-happy to be down such a valuable member of the team, he nonetheless gives Kristian a nice send-off. However, readings that show the ground water disappearing suddenly in two sensors on the mountain send Kristian scrambling to examine the evidence, which is disturbing but not enough to have Arvid evacuate the town, especially at the height of tourist season.

Still, something about it bothers Kristian so when he’s just about to drive aboard the ferry, he whips a quick U-turn and heads back. While his suspicions still aren’t enough to get Arvid pushing the panic button, he has succeeded in stranding his family (Idun had been set to finish out the month at the hotel anyway) in the town. With the mountain rumbling, disaster movie fans know that the worst is about to happen. As is true with most disaster movies, who lives, who dies – and what is left of the town – is all up in the air.

Given the film’s small budget, the special effects are pretty impressive. Something with a budget north of $100 million might have made a more realistic looking wave (and it appeared that the filmmakers used practical effects whenever possible) but not much more realistic. When it comes bearing down on the audience, one wishes that the movie had been shot in 3D. That might have been one of those rare instances where the format would have made sense rather than being a gimmick inserted into the movie for the sole purpose of allowing theaters to upcharge the public for the privilege.

Joner, who recently appeared in The Revenant, has a good deal of screen presence and makes a likable hero, even though his workaholic ways and detail-oriented personality drive his family and colleagues crazy. His fierce devotion to his family doesn’t particularly make him unusual among disaster movie heroes but it is unusual to see this kind of character in a European film. Then again, it is unusual to see this kind of subject in a European film.

I had to feel badly for Oftebro, who plays Sondre. He plays a character who is about as disagreeable as you can get and will even irritate Millennials. Apparently, the writer doesn’t think very highly about teens; Sondre is grouchy, disrespectful, self-centered and prone to doing the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. His actions get people killed and put his family in jeopardy; to be fair he does feel bad about it later but while he’s doing those things, you might be tempted to punch him right in the face.

Overall, I was a little bit disappointed in the movie; sure, the effects are better than I expected and the acting was solid, but there are so many disaster movie cliches and scenes that are literally ripped off from other movies such as The Abyss, Dante’s Peak, Jaws and The Impossible. Still, if you haven’t seen those movies and aren’t particularly familiar with the disaster genre, it will all be new to you.

So what this adds up to is a solidly entertaining European take on what has been up to now a genre dominated by American movies. Surprisingly, it is not essentially different than the American take on the genre. In a way, it is kind of comforting to know that some things are the same everywhere in the world – disaster movies apparently being one of them.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive but low-budget special effects. Joner is an effective and charismatic lead.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of disaster movie cliches. You will want to punch Sondre in the throat.
FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic images of a tsunami disaster, and a few profanities.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norway’s official entry for the 2016 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language film award; it didn’t make the final list of five however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Towering Inferno
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Zootopia

Vanishing on 7th Street


Hayden Christensen isn't apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

Hayden Christensen isn’t apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

(2010) Horror (Magnet) Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore, Taylor Groothuis, Jordan Trovillion, Neal Huff, Larry Fessenden, Arthur Cartwright, Hugh Maguire, Erin Nicole Brolley, Stephen Clark, Caroline Clifford-Taylor, Shana Schultz. Directed by Brad Anderson

It is engrained in our nature to be afraid of the dark. That is a legacy from our caveman ancestors, who were terrified by things in the night that were likely to eat them as not. But we live in civilized times. There’s nothing malevolent in the dark is there?

Paul (Leguizamo) is a projectionist in a Detroit movie theater. Like many in that particular profession, he can get quite bored on the job, so he brings with him a book to read and a hat with a lantern on it to read by. When there’s a brief power outage, he is for a moment the only one with light. When the lights come back on, he is shocked to discover that every person in the theater has vanished, leaving behind their clothes, shoes and jewelry. They’re just…gone

He meets a security guard (Cartwright) who had a flashlight on when the lights went out. As they investigate, the lights go out again. Then the guard’s flashlight fails and a shocked Paul watches him disappear before his eyes. Then Paul’s light goes out…

Luke (Christensen) wakes up to find the city deserted. A tough TV news reporter, he heads to the station to see if he can piece together what’s going on. He thinks that there is something in the shadows and that the key to survival is light. Before he is forced to flee the station in the receding light, he sees a video from Chicago that indicates that the Windy City may well be safe.

Luke makes his way to a bar which is one of the few places with light left in Detroit. A portable generator is running them and a suspicious 13-year-old boy named James (Latimore) is the only one there. His mother, the bartender, had stepped out but should be back any moment, a scenario Luke finds highly unlikely.

In short order, they are joined by Rosemary (Newton), a junkie whose baby disappeared, and eventually by Paul who reappeared at a lighted bus stop when his lantern hat re-activated. He is grievously injured however and Luke is obliged to rescue him by the skin of his teeth.

It turns out that there is a malevolence in the shadow that is capable of fooling those who remain alive to step into the dark. With a supernatural darkness enveloping Detroit, Luke knows it’s a matter of time before the generator fails and the only choice they have left is to make a run for it to Chicago, but that’s a dangerous proposition. And as Paul has discovered, what has the events in modern day Detroit have to do with the lost Roanoke colony of the 17th century?

Director Anderson has some pretty impressive titles to his credit, including Transsiberian and The Machinist. While this isn’t on the level of those films, it is pretty nifty nonetheless. It’s a great premise – aren’t we all scared of the dark? – and doesn’t require a lot of gaudy effects to pull off.

His Achilles heel here was casting. While Leguizamo and particularly Latimore do solid work, Christensen and Newton overact without any conscience whatsoever. While I agree that frightened people can act in a hysterical manner, there just doesn’t seem to be any reality to their portrayals. It pulled me out of the movie several times. By the way, don’t look for any explanations as to what’s going on – you won’t find any. While there are some critics who complained about it, I think it puts the audience in the place of the characters who wouldn’t have known what’s going on either.

This is a bleak movie, which is a trademark of Anderson. Some may find it too bleak, but I kind of liked the tone. While I appreciate needing to put some name actors in the lead roles, Christensen and Newton aren’t the two I would have cast. With a couple of different actors as Luke and Rosemary, this might have been a much better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Genuinely creepy with good performances from Leguizamo and Latimore.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very bleak in tone. Christensen and Newton were poor choices for the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of swearing and some pretty grim and gruesome imagery.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film was a theatrical flop, more than one quarter of the box office came from South Korea.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a series of interviews conducted by Fangoria magazine.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $10M production budget; not the numbers the producers wanted.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pitch Black