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
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

The Park Bench


It's the awkward silences that bring us closer together.

It’s the awkward silences that bring us closer together.

(2015) Romance (Cake and Ice Cream/Galaim Vivendi) Walter Perez, Nicole Hayden, Stella Maeve, John Prosky, Brian Mulligan, Dustin Fitzsimons, Beau Bonness, Francisco Ovalle, Angel Arial, Madison Browning, Mackenzie Browning, Araceli Cesar, Jerry Franco, Ella Raziel, Stephen Brown, Carlene Moore. Directed by Ann LeSchander

As we build the relationship with the person we love, little things may take on special meaning to us. It could be a song we listened to regularly, as in the case of my wife and I. It could be a certain meal that you ate often as you were courting. Or it could be a place that takes on a certain importance in the process of falling in love.

Mateo (Perez) is the son of Mexican immigrants who is trying to navigate his way through college. He is holding on by his fingernails, only able to attend due to the scholarships he has obtained, scholarships that are now imperiled because he is failing English Literature. Even with that, he is forced to work a series of odd jobs in order to pay for schooling and of course to support himself.

Emily (Hayden) is getting ready to defend her Masters thesis in Library Science. She is also getting ready to marry Eddie (Fitzsimons), a pleasant young man who is studying to be a pharmacist. Her life is progressing upon the set course that she has planned for it; a good career, a stable husband who can provide for her, eventually a family and a suburban home.

The two are meeting at a park bench because Mateo needs a tutor and Emily has drawn his name from the student tutoring service. At first they don’t seem to be very compatible; Mateo’s schedule can be haphazard and Emily is a bit uptight about being on-time to tutoring sessions for the three times a week they need to meet. While the two have reservations about one another, eventually they decide to give it a go.

Emily turns out to be a really good tutor, just as she said she was. But she is learning a lot from Mateo as well; about his culture, about his viewpoint of the world (the viewpoint of the son of illegal immigrants). She is pleasantly surprised by the delicious food that Mateo’s mom cooks for him (a scene in which she tries ceviche for the first time is priceless).

The regular tutoring sessions at the same park bench turn out to be confessionals for the both of them as they get to know each other better. And as you can imagine, their feelings for each other begin to deepen into something else. Can the uptight Emily get past her need for stability to embrace love for its own sake?

LeSchander has crafted a very efficient but effective romance – I wouldn’t quite call this a comedy although there are some funny moments. Essentially this is the most cost-effective movie I think I’ve ever seen. The whole movie is set at a single park bench in a lovely glade (I wish I could find out which park this was filmed at; I’d love to go there someday). The scenes are delineated by framing devices and flashbacks and animations enhance the story.

The animations seemed a bit unnecessary to me but I can understand why they’re there. Mostly, this movie is all conversation and filming a conversation can be a very static enterprise indeed. While the two leads are attractive and do their jobs well, nobody wants to see a picture about talking heads. Unless it’s the Talking Heads, of course.

Bad musical puns on my part aside, there is a pleasantness to the movie that is quite appealing. Watching it is like sitting in a park yourself on a lovely warm spring day, watching life happen around you with the occasional odd lost birdwatcher wandering into frame. In that sense, this is a movie that tends to create the warm fuzzies, much like a beautiful spring day can.

It’s not without its faults. The ending seems a bit out of character, particularly for Emily. Hayden does a good job of taking a character who could easily be unlikable and making her at least sympathetic. Perez, on the other hand, has a good deal of charisma. His charm, good looks and screen presence could take him much further in the business with a little bit of luck (and an aggressive agent). At times, the spark between the two of them was less intense than I would have liked but then again, this is a fairly low-key endeavor to begin with and some sparks smolder slowly rather than ignite quickly.

This is very much the kind of movie that I have a soft spot for. It charms without being smarmy and tells its story well. LeSchander seems very confident behind the camera and she prioritizes the right things. This isn’t a movie that is going to make critics go wild with praise but it’s the kind of movie to build a career on. I liked it a lot and can recommend it as the lovely diversion that it is.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive leads. Perez has some screen magnetism. Charming. Efficiently made.
REASONS TO STAY: More of a collection of vignettes at times. Could have used a tiny bit more structure. Ending comes out of left field. Spark not there.
FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is LeSchander’s first full-length feature. Previously she has directed several short films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes No score yet. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :One Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 5 Flights Up

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)