For Here or To Go?


A Bollywood dance number in the Silicon Valley.

(2015) Dramedy (Many Cups of Chai) Ali Fazal, Melanie Kannokada, Rajit Kapur, Amitosh Nagpal, Omi Valdya, Samrat Chakrabarti, Keith Stevenson, Damien Chen, Alan Coyne, Malavika Jayasimha, Niyati Joshi, Gaurav Dwivedi, Vij Nathan, Satish Sattnathan, Dee Marshall, Robin Oleson, Debbie Vu, Ashok Tangri, Gursimran Singh, Richa Sukla, Anita Vora. Directed by Rucha Humnabadkar

 

Immigration is a hot button topic these days. Often it seems that immigration of any kind – even the legal sort – is anathema to some. It is fact, however, that more illegal immigrants overstay their temporary visas than climb over walls and cross rivers. It is the most common form of illegal immigration.

Not that Vivek Pandit (Fazal) is considering it. He is a talented programmer who has come up with some software that will make a difference; even though he is working for a large company that doesn’t appreciate him, a new start-up is more than interested in his software and it looks like a lucrative offer is imminent.

The problem is that time is running out on Vivek’s visa – he has a year left until he must leave. The start-up really doesn’t have the manpower or the inclination to help him get his green card and the offer falls apart. Frustrated, Vivek looks to try and get his immigration status sorted out.

With him are his roommates Sam (Chakrabarti) who has a zest for life and a somewhat indefatigable attitude and Lakshmi (Valdya) who is a gay man and is terrified of telling his parents, which further fuels his desire to remain in the United States permanently. All three are facing their own immigration issues; while all are making good money in Silicon Valley, none of them are willing to buy furniture while their immigration status is in limbo.

Vivek also meets Shveta (Kannokada) at a Bollywood speed dating event  and the two hit it off, but once again Vivek’s uncertain future prevents the couple from truly exploring the possibilities their relationship could offer.

Although the movie first made its first appearance at San Jose’s Cinequest Film Festival back in 2015 (appropriately enough since it’s set there) it’s just getting a theatrical release now and it certainly is as timely now as it was then if not more so. Considering the ruling party’s seeming disdain for the role of immigrants in our society and a feeling that the system which is clearly broken and in need of fixing that it is not going to get anytime soon this could make for compelling viewing had the filmmakers not gone the light touch route.

Fazal is an appealing and handsome lead and exudes charm, charisma and screen presence. He could very easily become a romantic lead in major studio films if Hollywood weren’t so squeamish about casting Indian men in anything but villainous roles. He has done a couple of Hollywood films (including Furious 7) and looks to have a very promising career ahead of him.

The movie has a lot of energy and even does a Bollywood-style musical number in Silicon Valley (which is about as surreal as it gets). Having lived and worked in that area for more than 12 years prior to coming to Orlando, I will admit that some of the settings in America’s tech capital brought back some memories that gave me the warm fuzzies. That won’t be true for everybody but do take that into account when reading this.

While the romance between Vivek and Shveta seemed to be somewhat by-the-numbers, there were a couple of scenes that generated some heat. However the romance seemed a bit more of a distraction than a central aspect of the plot. Given the subject of the systemic issues of immigrating to America which I think would make a great movie, it’s a bit disappointing that it is treated more as a light comedy rather than a serious issue.

Don’t get me wrong though; this is very entertaining, charming and sweet. The leads are likable and good-looking. There is a lot of energy in the film and you can tell it was made with affection and joy. All of these are very good things indeed. I think the movie was trying to skirt the line between being light entertainment and a serious issue film and ends up falling over the light entertainment precipice. Perhaps someone else will make a film from the legal immigrant’s standpoint that will shed some needed light on this controversial issue.

REASONS TO GO: Something like a Bollywood film in an American setting, the film takes on the complexity and frustration of our immigration system. It’s buoyant and fun upon occasion.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic aspect seems a bit rote. The subject matter is often given a much more lightweight handling than it deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature-length debut of director Rucha Humnabadkar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outsourced
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg

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Amreeka


Amreeka

Nisreen Faour finds out about another American institution; the dinnertime sales solicitation call.

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Andrew Sannie. Directed by Cherien Dabis

While our economy has taken a nosedive and Americans are suffering through one of the worst recessions in history, we can at least take comfort that at least we are not an occupied nation. Palestinians don’t even have that.

Muna Farah (Faour) lives on the West Bank and, ironically enough, works in a bank. A bank on the West Bank…okay, I had to point it out. Anyway, she has to endure two military checkpoints in each direction going from her home to work and back. It is often humiliating, especially when her son Fadi (Muallem) loses patience and makes a smart remark to one of the soldiers, nearly getting detained in the process if nor for the begging and pleading of his mother.

Muna dreams of a better life in America (or Amreeka as it is pronounced in Arabic) where her sister Raghda (Abbass) escaped 15 years before. Although ostensibly Muslim, she isn’t particularly devout which makes her a bit of a pariah in her own land. However, she hits the jackpot when she gets a green card in the annual lottery for one of the coveted documents. Although she knows she will miss her family in Palestine, she looks forward to better things for her and her son in a new land, and quite frankly, Fadi is gung ho to get out of Dodge. Before they leave, Muna’s mom gives her some cookies and other food to bring to Raghda.

At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Muna and her son are detained for three hours. It is 2002, not long after 9/11 and tensions are running high, particularly with any Arabic sorts coming into the country. While Muna is arguing with one of the immigration officials, the cookies and other foods are confiscated by the customs agents.

Unfortunately, Muna foolishly put all her life savings into the cookie tin. Broke and too proud to accept help from her sister other than the lodging in their suburban home. Raghda’s husband Nabeel (Abu-Warda) is a prosperous dentist, but he is watching his practice disintegrate before his eyes as long-time patients, distrusting any Arab, are leaving for non-Arabic doctors.

Muna is unable to find work suitable for her banking experience and takes the only job she can find – working the counter at a White Castle. Once again her pride prevents her from informing her family that she has such a menial job, so she leads them to believe she is working in a neighboring bank, scurrying over to her real workplace after Raghda drops her off at the bank.

Fadi on the other hand is having enormous difficulty fitting in at the local high school, which is truly a staggering task even under the best of circumstances, but throwing in his ethnicity and his unfamiliarity with American high school culture and he is having a rough time. His cousin Salma (Shawkat) helps guide him through the minefields that are American high schools, but even so he manages to step on a few nonetheless.

There are a few other plot elements (such as a romance for Muna with the Jewish principal of Fadi’s school, played with gentle humor by Ziegler) but that’s essentially it. This is writer/director Dabis’ first feature and is heavily based on her own experiences growing up as an immigrant from Jordan in Ohio. There are some moments that are genuinely heartwarming as well as others that are wrenching.

Part of what makes this movie so watchable is a very likable cast, starting with Faour. She is not the lithe and lean starlet that most lead actresses are, but down-to-earth, charming and possessed of a smile that lights up entire cities. In that sense, she reminds me of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-era Nia Vardalos, albeit with less brass.

Abbass is one of my favorite actresses you’ve never heard of. She is best known for a small but pivotal role in The Visitor but was completely overshadowed by Richard Jenkins there; she has also appeared in such gems as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride and was superb in each. She has more of a supporting role, but lends dignity and world-weariness to the part of a woman desperately homesick, and watching her situation fall apart before her very eyes, with everything she values in jeopardy including her marriage. Abbass could have easily stolen the movie but wisely – and generously – toned things down, allowing Faour to take center stage. In the end, I think that was a better move for the film overall.

Most of the other roles aren’t as richly written as the two sisters, although Shawkat is compelling as the Americanized Salma and her conflict with her mother should resonate with anyone who has been privy to mother/daughter conflict. I would have liked to see Fadi, Nabeel and the principal get a bit more to work with, but this still remains a good first effort and serves notice that Dabis could be a director to keep an eye out for.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Faour and Abbass illustrate the difficulties Palestinian Muslims face in post-911 America as well as in their occupied homeland. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting characters seem to be very artificially drawn and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some teen drug use, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate to let mature teens check this out.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Winnipeg where there are no White Castle restaurants; the White Castle corporate offices shipped out the supplies for one there, creating a set so realistic that locals kept trying to order from it, even though no food was ever sold there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A short film by director Cherien Dabis, “Make a Wish” is present.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.2M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Smash His Camera

Crossing Over


 

Crossing Over
Harrison Ford is getting tired of the “Didn’t you used to be Han Solo” jokes.

 

 

(MGM) Harrison Ford, Jim Sturgess, Alice Braga, Alice Eve, Cliff Curtis, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Justin Chon, Summer Bishil, Jacqueline Obradors, Melody Khazae. Directed by Wayne Kramer

 

 There are those in this country who want to build walls. Not decorative ones; ones that will keep illegal aliens from coming in, and by illegal aliens we mean Latin Americans. Immigration is a very emotional issue for many people; all of us are immigrants from somewhere back in our family tree. Even Native Americans crossed a land bridge to get here.  

Los Angeles may be the ultimate melting pot in that regard. It draws people from all over the world like moths to a flame. While most are aware of the Mexican population in Los Angeles (most of whom arrived here legally incidentally), there are immigrants from all over the world that live in the City of Angels, many awaiting their call to receive that Holy Grail – U.S. citizenship.

 

For those coming in using the other route, there are people like Max Brogan (Ford), an immigration agent. He is a good man with a conscience doing a job that requires none. During a raid of a garment factory, he comes face to face with Mireya Sanchez (Braga), an undocumented worker who begs Max to pick up her child from child care, which Max does, but even that feels inadequate so he escorts the kid back to Mexico to the grandparents.

 

Max’s partner Hamid Braheri (Curtis) comes from an Iranian family whose patriarch is about to get American citizenship, but a tragedy strikes the family when Hamid’s sister is murdered along with the married man she’d been having an affair with.

 

In the meantime, a young Bangladeshi schoolgirl named Taslima (Bishil) presents a paper in her high school civics class that comes dangerously close to defending the 9-11 hijackers, but in reality is just asking for people to see things from their point of view. This creates a storm of controversy that starts from her being called names culminating with a by-the-book FBI agent (Obradors) knocking on her door, threatening to deport her family.

 

Taslima will be defended by immigration attorney Denise Frankel (Judd) while her husband, green card adjudicator Cole Frankel (Liotta) engages in a relationship with Australian actress Claire Sheperd (Eve) exchanging sex for a green card.

 

All of these stories entwine somewhat peripherally, but are told concurrently a la Crash or Babel. These types of movies need a firm hand to keep the stories separate but at the same time maintaining audience interest. There’s a tendency for people to get less invested in multiple story lines than they might in a single story line, so it behooves the filmmaker to make all of the story lines compelling.

 

That doesn’t happen here. That’s not to say that there are no compelling story lines here; certainly the Max Brogan character provides a moral center, and having Harrison Ford act as your movie’s moral center is an enviable position to be in for any filmmaker. Curtis is also a likable actor and his moral conflict between his ethnic culture and American law also makes for a compelling tale.

 

However, the Claire/Cole liaison seems out of place, almost as an excuse to get the very gorgeous Eve naked. Not that I’m against seeing a beautiful woman naked, but it seems gratuitous here. And while I like the debate stirred up in the Taslima sequence, there seems to be some preaching going on here, making Taslima the innocent victim of a goon squad of FBI storm troopers, which seems a bit cut and dried to me.

 

In the spirit of “let the buyer beware” you should be warned that this movie took two years from filming to release. The initial edit was over two hours long and the studio heads demanded that the final cut be trimmed down to an hour and a half, or the movie would go direct-to-video. The filmmakers made the cuts, but the studio essentially sent it direct-to-video anyway, giving it a very limited, unpublicized release. There is certainly evidence that this was filmmaking by committee in places.

 

There is certainly room for debate on the subject of immigration, and while I have a tendency to be sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant (both legal and otherwise), I can see that there are both sides to the story. Unfortunately, this is a movie that doesn’t really allow too much thought, settling instead for clichés. Still, at least its existence might encourage those who see it to think about the issue, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

 

WHY RENT THIS: A stellar cast in a movie that examines a hot-button issue that continues to plague our country even now.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Another case of too many threads and too many plots.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s the holy trinity of language, violence and sex; all present and all inappropriate for younger audiences. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn originally had a small role in the movie, but it was reportedly cut at his request due to the backlash from the Iranian-American community over an honor killing subplot, which they thought to be misleading and inflammatory. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)