Exodus (2016)


A refugee child shows his resiliency.

(2016) Documentary (108 Media) Elias Matar, Ethan Bochicchio, Mixail Vorrias, Dr. Khalil Kermani, Ali Güray Yalvaçli, Hacer Hariklar Vlici, Lee Wlmsn, Dr. Bita Kermani. Directed by Elias Matar

 

The recent chemical attacks in Syria and the President’s retaliation for the same have brought back Syria into the spotlight. While President Trump moans about Syrian babies, one may note that he still wants to ban all Syrian refugees from our shores, the majority of whom are women and children.

Elias Matar, who although was born in America was raised in Damascus, feels a particular connection for the refugee crisis and for those crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the outer islands of Greece. In addition to documenting their journeys, he volunteers for a humanitarian agency that helps land the boats making the often perilous crossing, makes sure that the refugees are given dry clothes and food, and helps them to get to refugee registration centers.

The movie documents what the volunteers encounter; overloaded boats and dinghies landing often in the dead of night with cold, wet and desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors not only in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Many of the refugees are children who are most at risk for hypothermia which is a real danger particularly during winter crossings (when this was filmed).

We also get a look at the Greek refugee camps which are fairly ordered, and the illegal Turkish ones which are often run by the smugglers who charge 1800 Euros for the crossing. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and often the refugees go days without food or drinkable water. Thus they are often in weakened conditions when making the dangerous crossing and are more often than not abandoned by the smugglers who leave the refugees alone to make their way to islands like Chios and Lesbos without any sort of navigational equipment or even experience in steering or running a boat.

The numbers can be staggering; in one atypical night, the volunteers were swamped by 37 boats arriving on the island carrying more than 1,900 refugees, overwhelming their resources which are mostly donated to begin with. That particular night had been the first night after several days of rough seas that boats could be safely launched or landed.

The movie, narrated by Matar who has an upbeat tone despite some of the grim things he has to say, puts a human face on a crisis that Americans largely turn their backs on, particularly those who are in the conservative movement. It is popular to defend that attitude of turning away refugees by saying that they could be terrorists but to date no refugee has committed a terrorist act in this country and one look at the faces of the children, who continue to hold out hope for a better life despite indications to the contrary, is convincing enough to make that attitude what it is; a self-serving lie, a means to assuage guilty consciences. Simply put, watching this film will document just how reprehensible that policy is.

We don’t really get much information about the refugees themselves or their stories; mostly they are just a flood of people who cross the point of view of the camera. We do see much of what the volunteers do on a daily/nightly basis and while again we don’t get the stories of what prompted these people to volunteer for this job (other than Matar and Ethan Bochicchio, a high school student who saw Matar’s first film and was moved to travel to Greece to volunteer himself) but the movie runs a compact 72 minutes so there’s not a lot of room for fluff or talking heads.

The footage is raw and sometimes moves from one scene to another without much flow; I suspect this is much like how Matar’s life as a volunteer was. While it’s not particularly hard to follow, it comes off a bit jarring at times. Also there’s a sequence in which a dinghy is loaded (or I should say overloaded) with refuges from one of the more deplorable Turkish camps; that sequence inexplicably goes on and on unnecessarily. A bit more judicious editing would have been nice.

This should be must-viewing for anyone who thinks this country should refuse entry to refugees as well as to all members of government who are connected with immigration in any sense. That our nation once opened our doors and extended our hands to those leaving situations of war, famine and terror makes our present stance all the more disgusting. This is a movie which can potentially change hearts and minds and I urge anyone with any interest in the refugee crisis, whether pro or anti refugee, to see it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie hits some powerful emotions as we see the human faces of the refugee crisis. Some of the footage of the boats landing on Chios is absolutely stunning. Matar is a lively narrator. The compassion of the volunteers is palpable.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit raw and rough.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity, children in peril and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second in a series of films documenting the plight of refugees moving from the Middle East to Western Europe by Matar; the first was last year’s Flight of the Refugees which covered the trek from Macedonia to Germany (a third, Children of Beqaa is in post-production).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Sense of an Ending

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The Two Faces of January


The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

(2014) Thriller (Magnolia) Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky, Yigit Ozsener, Karayianni Margaux, Prometheus Aleifer, Socrates Alafouzos, Ozcan Ozdemir, Nikos Mavrakis, Ozan Tas, Omiros Poulakis, Evgenia Dimitropolou, Peter Mair, Pablo Verdejo, Brian Niblett, Mehmet Esen, Kosta Kortidis, Okan Avci, James Sobol Kelly. Directed by Hossein Amini

In Tom Ripley, novelist Patricia Highsmith created a character whose moral compass pointed straight at himself; Ripley remains fascinating in the imagination not just because of his ability to become a chameleon but because he takes acting in his own self-interest to the ultimate.

While Ripley doesn’t appear in the latest film adaptation of a Highsmith novel, his ghost is hanging around the fringes of the themes here. Things start out pleasantly enough; Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his stunning wife Colette (Dunst) are vacationing in Greece in the summer of 1962. They wander around the Acropolis relying on Greek guidebooks that may or may not be terribly useful when they come upon an American named Rydal (Isaac) who is a tour guide who speaks fluent Greek. He’s also a bit of a hustler, although Colette doesn’t realize it. Chester however, wouldn’t trust the guy to mow his lawn although he does humor his wife and allows her to hire him to guide them the next day.

They spend a pleasant day together and if his eyes linger on the beautiful young Colette a little bit too much and if she is a bit too taken by him, it seems to be harmless. However, Chester is far from the innocent that his summer white suit would indicate. He left behind a mess back in the States of fraud and larceny which catches up with him in his five star hotel room that night. When that ends badly, it is inadvertently witnessed by Rydal who helps Chester clean up a literal mess. It becomes necessary for Chester and Colette to make a hasty getaway but they are unable to pick up their passports from the hotel, without which they can’t leave the country.

Rydal takes the couple to Crete where they can hide out. The ex-pat knows a guy who can forge some documents and while they wait for the passports to arrive, they try as best they can to lay low but once again things don’t go according to plan. Now paranoia and suspicion rule the day and getting out of Crete won’t necessarily be the end to their problems.

Amini, who earned his Hollywood stripes as a writer, chooses a writer’s writer to adapt for his first feature as a director and does a credible job for a debut. He sticks to a basic visual style, relying on his cinematographer Marcel Zyskind to bring the Greek and Cretan landscapes to life. The charming villages, the urban ruins of Athens, the desolate landscape of Crete all play a role in the action.

It doesn’t hurt that each of these lead characters are essentially flawed and make morally-challenged decisions, and yet we still root for them and identify with them. In a sense, there are no villains here; each character is his or her own villain. If there is a villain, it’s Lady Luck; if it wasn’t for bad luck, poor Chester wouldn’t have any luck at all.

Mortensen has ended to choose obscure roles after his breakout performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I had predicted big stardom for him at the time but Mortensen hasn’t really taken roles that would further his profile, preferring to stick to small budget indies and lower profile films with roles that interested him. More power to him. Dunst has taken a similar career path, with only the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy having that kind of major star profile. She has since taken meatier roles like this one. Isaac, on the other hand, is an emerging star who is about to embark on a major franchise of his own, the new Star Wars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised though if he stayed the same course that Mortensen and Dunst have taken on.

Highsmith doesn’t exactly write empty-headed upbeat novels so don’t go into this looking to escape. It requires a certain amount of brain power and a willingness to accept behaviors you might not ordinarily approve of; these are after all desperate people far from home and if you understand that, you’ll understand why they act the way they do.

There are some twists and turns, not all predictable. However I must admit that the movie seems to slowly lose steam during the last third and maybe it’s the somnolent atmosphere of a sleepy small town in Crete or the hard-baked prairies of the center of that island. It just doesn’t bustle with energy is what I’m saying.

This is a much better than average thriller, although maybe not as gritty as noir lovers might like, nor as fast-paced as the average thriller junkie might be comfortable with and yet this is one worth seeing if you get the chance, which Central Florida filmgoers can if they hurry.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific triumvirate, every one likable. Gorgeous Greek scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum over the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (none of it bloody), some sexuality, a bit of foul language and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the directorial debut of Amini who is best known as a writer for such diverse films as Killshot, Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Third Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Big Eyes

Mamma Mia!


Mamma Mia!

Blondes do have more fun, especially in the Greek isles.

(2008) Musical (Universal) Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Julia Walters, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Rachel McDowall, Ashley Lilley, Ricardo Montez, George Georgiou.  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

I will admit it. I was a big ABBA fan in the 70s. Their influence can be felt in music today, from the alternative Swedish pop movement to the pop music of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. They were a phenomenon in their time, and despite the critical scorn heaped upon them, they actually wrote some pretty good music that stands the test of time.

That music also spawned a stage musical that has sold tens of millions of tickets all over the world. This is what is called a “jukebox musical,” one which is written around already established songs rather than having original songs. More on that in a moment.

Sophie (Seyfried) is getting married which is reason enough to rejoice. She is obviously deeply in love with Sky (Cooper), her fella but the one fly in the ointment is that she doesn’t know who her dad is. Her mom Donna (Streep), an ex-pop singer who has retired to the Greek Islands to run a taverna and raise a daughter on her own isn’t talking so Sophie resorts to reading her mom’s diary to find a clue and comes up with three possibilities; Bill (Skarsgard), an adventurer; Harry (Firth) a financier and Sam (Brosnan), a handsome guy.

Sophie invites all three to the wedding. It takes a little time for the boys to figure it out but eventually they realize that they could be daddy. In the meantime, Sophie tries to hide the three of them from her mom, who eventually discovers them. Not a happy surprise, let me tell you.

Mom has invited her best friends and bandmates Rosie (Walters) and Tanya (Baranski) more as moral support than anything else, but also so the three can perform at the bachelorette party for Sophie. However, the appearance of these three men has thrown Donna into turmoil, and Sophie is beginning to have doubts about her wedding too. Can love save the day?

If it can’t, ABBA certainly can. The music of the Swedish supergroup is infectious and uplifting; it’s hard not to crack a smile to songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me.” Director Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed the stage version) utilizes the beautiful Greek island landscape to further up the sunshine quotient.

Streep, who has sung onscreen previously in such films as The Prairie Home Companion and Silkwood, is the champ here. She belts out her tunes with confidence and aplomb and her rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” is a showstopper, one in which even the jaded movie theater audience applauded and cheered to. Certainly at home, you’ll feel goosebumps at the very least.

Unfortunately, not all of the cast fares quite as well. Firth has a pleasant enough voice and Seyfried is strong if not as gifted as Streep but Skarsgard is a much better actor than a singer and Brosnan…well, I like the man but his duet with Streep had me literally wincing. He can’t sing period.

Still, the singing and dancing is mostly okay, and is at least energetic if not always competent. While the acting performances are solid enough, if you’re going to cast a musical I think it’s wise to put people who can sing and dance in it; that is, after all, why we’re seeing the movie no?

Now about jukebox musicals in general; while they don’t disturb me in principle, they have an inherent flaw. Because the songs are already written, the plot must be written around the songs. In regular musicals, the songs are written to enhance and advance the plot; here the plot is set decoration to the songs. The story, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1968 Gina Lollabrigida movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (a fact that the makers of the musical have written of as coincidental) often takes twists and turns and careens right into the ludicrous.

Still, there is the kind of energy that makes you feel good just radiating from the film. Kudos have to be given to the producers and Lloyd for making the movie feel like a movie. Often stage plays that are converted to the big screen have a stagey feel to them, but the beautiful Greek backdrop lessens that to a large extent. You don’t ever feel like you’re viewing this over a proscenium.

However be warned; Lloyd’s decision to let all the actors do their own dancing and singing was a questionable one at best and if she was going to pursue that route, she should have damn well made sure that her cast could handle it. It’s not like there aren’t leading men out there who could have handled the singing and dancing (Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris anybody?) at least adequately. Still, you know what you’re going to get going in and if you’re an ABBA fan, this is heaven on earth. If you’re a movie fan…not so much.

WHY RENT THIS: Joyous and energetic; it’s hard not to be uplifted. Streep is a surprisingly strong singer and Seyfried became a star. Not as stagey as you might expect.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the singing and dancing is really, really bad. The plot is shoehorned in to fit the songs, rather than songs written to enhance the plot.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few comments that are sexually-oriented but otherwise pretty harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was the first to film on the new Pinewood 007 stage after the original had been destroyed in a fire.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting featurette on training the actors to sing, as well as a complete musical number that was cut from the final print (“The Name of the Game”). The Blu-Ray edition also includes the “sing-along” version (with lyrics subtitled during the songs) and Universal’s signature “U-Control” feature with picture-in-picture interviews and trivia. There is also a Gift Box edition that includes the soundtrack on CD as well as a nicely done booklet about the genesis of the film from on stage to on screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $609.8M on a $52M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Seraphim Falls

My Life in Ruins


My Life in Ruins

Is it just me or is Nia Vardalos looking like a young Kirstie Alley?

(Fox Searchlight) Nia Vardalos, Richard Dreyfus, Harland Williams, Rachel Dratch, Maria Adanez, Maria Botto, Alexis Georgoulis, Sheila Bernette, Alistair MacGowan, Bernice Stegers. Directed by Donald Petrie

Life is meant to be lived to the fullest. Too many of us find ourselves spectators in our own story. Sometimes it takes a trip to where civilization began to find out what it means to be human.

Georgia (Vardalos) is an unemployed history professor who has been reduced to being a tour guide for the low-rent Pangloss Tours in Athens – the Greek one, for my readers in the Deep South. She has no life to speak of, her romantic life is a series of miscalculations and full-on bad ideas that have left her lonely and cynical.

Her passion is history and she yearns to pass on that passion for Greek culture, history and traditions to her tourists, but in all honesty she tends to be a bit of a priggish bore and her attempts at humor are right up there with the comic stylings of Al Gore. To make matters worse, she is almost always given the worst tour groups, while her rival Nico (MacGowan) always gets the energetic Canadian group that tips like they just won the lottery.

This trip she is saddled with a couple of beer-soaked Aussies, a kleptomaniac Brit (Bernette), a pair of man-hungry Spanish divorcees (Adanez and Botto), a boorish American couple (Williams, Dratch), a snooty English family, a boring American businessman and an earnest but geeky backpacker. Oh, and there’s also Irv (Dreyfus), an American retiree who punctuates everything with a joke like a Borscht Belt comic run amok. Their tour bus is driven by a shaggy, taciturn Greek named Poupi Kakas (Georgoulis). When his name is first introduced, I just knew I was in for a yuckfest.

Things go predictably badly. The group is not enamored of Georgia’s academic approach and is more interested in shopping for trinkets, frolicking on the beach and drinking in whatever taverna they can find on the road than in poking about yet another set of ancient ruins. Georgia is beside herself. It looks like yet another low rating for her and she is absolutely miserable. She decides this tour will be her last, but a funny thing happens on the way to the unemployment line; she discovers her inner Greek. She learns to take pleasure in life. She finds the soul within Irv who becomes something of a Delphic Oracle to the group (and no, that’s not a lesbian laptop…ba dum BUMP). She will also find the romance she’s been seeking in the form of Poupi, who after a shave and a haircut is transformed from the Unabomber to the cover of a Harlequin Romance paperback.

Nia Vardalos, who was so engaging, charming and funny in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is all that here, and 40 pounds slimmer too. She looks spectacular, but all the charm in the world can’t save this script. It’s full of ethnic stereotypes (shifty Greek merchants, boozy Australians, obnoxious Americans etc.) and rote romantic comedy plot points, making it too full for a whole lot of humor. Vardalos probably should have checked director Petrie’s resume – which includes Grumpy Old Men, My Favorite Martian and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – before signing up for this; Petrie seems to be a competent enough director, but his movies rarely rise far above mediocrity.

The scenery is gorgeous, although you will see much the same kind of thing in the average travel video. Greece has a particular charm that casts a spell on all who have ever been there; the movie at least captures the concept of it but not the charm itself. Dreyfus gamely gives Irv the best moments in the movie, and while he really doesn’t have a whole lot to work with (like the predictable Viagra jokes – hoo haw!) he at least is a seasoned pro, enough to make a nylon purse out of a sow’s ear.

I really do like Nia Vardalos as a performer, as does Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who bankrolled this (as they did My Big Fat Greek Wedding). She can make you fall right in love with her and her Hellenic tendencies when given the right material. Unfortunately, this ain’t it. I can truthfully say it’s far better than the truly awful I Hate Valentine’s Day which was so bad I chose not to review it, but that’s not saying much at all. I can give it a mild recommendation but that’s all; there are far better tours of Greece than the one Vardalos gives here, even after her character gets her mojo back.

WHY RENT THIS: Vardalos is charming and the Greek countryside does weave a certain magic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is very paint-by-numbers and the humor is hit or miss.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of sexuality and language but for the most part is okay for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian Gomez, who plays the creepy hotel clerk, is Nia Vardalos’ real-life husband.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The featurette “Everybody Loves Poupi” re-edits some of Georgoulis’ scenes to give him romantic interest in, well, everybody.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer