Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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The Mighty Atom

Underworld


Black leather outfit #231.

Black leather outfit #231.

(2003) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robby Gee, Wentworth Miller, Kevin Grevioux, Zita Gorog, Dennis Kozeluh, Scott McElroy, Todd Schneider, Sandor Bolla, Hank Amos, Zsuzsa Barisi, Rich Cetrone, Mike Mukatis. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

Underworld sounds like a great concept: a secret war between vampires and werewolves going on for a thousand years without humans knowing a thing about it. In the midst of this, a vampire falls in love with a human who becomes a werewolf but is really something else … oh dear, my brain just exploded. Let me start again.

 

Selena (Beckinsale) is a Deathdealer, one of an elite vampire warrior caste that hunts down werewolves. She is quite good at it – maybe better than anyone. Things are looking up for the vampires at this point. They are winning their war with the Lycans (werewolves), their high-tech weapons more than overcoming the brute strength and power of the lycanthropes. On top of it, the time of the Awakening is near, when one of the ancient original Vampires awakens from its slumber to assume the mantle of leadership for a few centuries (there are three original vampires still around; they require centuries of sleep in order to survive).

 

Selena notes that the Lycans have taken interest in a human named Michael Corvin (Speedman), an intern at a large urban hospital. She decides to investigate. This becomes a tightrope as she tries to keep him alive, saving him both from the Lycans who seem to want him, as well as from her own race who wants him dead, The other vampires become downright irate after Corvin is bitten by Lucian, the Lycan leader (Sheen). And as Selena digs deeper, she is thwarted by Craven (Brolly), the Vampire leader, and in desperation, awakens her mentor Viktor (Nighy) for guidance.

 

Before you can say “Wouldn’t it be a total Hollywood cliché if she fell in love with Michael Corvin?” she falls in love with Michael Corvin. Then she begins to find out the truth about the war, and it ain’t pretty. In fact, the vampires are keeping a lot of deep, dark secrets.

 

The problem with “Underworld” is that there is an incredibly rich backstory that screams for further exploration. But director Len Wiseman is forced to sacrifice much of the dialogue and backstory for action and effects, and so it can be kind of hard to keep track. Those who have seen the sequels to this will find that it is less of a problem but seeing the original cold without the benefit of some of that backstory that comes out in the sequels can be confusing.

 

The vampires, who are supposed to be arrogant and aristocratic, come off as indolent and lackadaisical. Think of it almost like vampires written by Anne Rice on lithium. I know that at the time this was made it was fairly fashionable to portray vampires as members of a vanishing race, going un-quietly into oblivion, but, sheesh. At least none of them sparkle in the sunlight.

 

Although technologically advanced, there’s no real hint as to where the vampire technology is coming from. Few of the vampires in the movie seem to do little more than sit around in crumbling, faded mansions sipping what I guess is meant to be blood from wineglasses. They wear trendy Eurotrash fashions and generally behave as if they are guests at an interminably long party at which the guest of honor hasn’t yet arrived. And they’re supposed to be winning?

 

As decadent as the vampires are, they are in some ways preferable to the Lycans. Although they have more vitality than the vamps, they still come off little better than the disposable thugs that populated the  TV Batman series. When they hit someone, you almost expect cartoon graphics reading “POW!” “BAM!” and “KA-THUNK!”

 

In any Romeo and Juliet type of romance, which Underworld ultimately is, there has to be an element of tragedy and there just isn’t one here. Sure, there’s bloodshed, mayhem, death and destruction, but as the movie lurches to a climax, the tragedy seems to be less and less involved with the romantic leads. That strips the love story of its poignancy and just about kills any shot at romanticism. If you were to populate Romeo and Juliet with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver in the leads and instead of having them kill themselves at the end instead mowing down all the Montagues and Capulets with machine guns, you get the idea of what we have here.

 

It’s a shame, since Speedman and Beckinsale work well together and have some nice chemistry. And while Beckinsale’s costume designer seems determined to break some sort of cinematic record for the most variations on black leather in a single movie, Beckinsale still manages to look vivacious and attractive, even alluring, while kicking some major patootie.

 

The visuals are what work about Underworld which makes sense, since director Wiseman comes from an art-direction background. The cityscapes are crumbling, corrupt, dimly lit and depressing, a cross between the landscape of Tim Burton’s Gotham City and  the Detroit of The Crow. The effects are pretty nifty too, particularly the sequences in which the Lycans morph from human to werewolf. The action sequences are a highlight, beautifully choreographed.

 

Ultimately, though, this is a good concept gone bad. Think of Underworld as a grand mansion that looks terrific from the outside, but once you open the door turns out to be empty and cold.

WHY RENT THIS: Beckinsale is an excellent action heroine. Some nice art direction and special effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing with more backstory than time to explore it. Sets up a romance then forsakes it for action and gore. Vampire profile a little too Anne Rice.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of violence and gore, as well as some pretty foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Beckinsale and Wiseman would fall in love after meeting on this film. They eventually got married and remain so to this day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes a storyboard vs. film comparison and a music video. The unrated 2-Disc DVD edition (and Blu-Ray) includes these as well as a History Channel Fang vs. Fiction quasi-documentary that looks at traditional vampire/werewolf lore and compares it to this film for reasons unknown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $95.7M on a $22M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

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