A Stray


A day in the park with your dog,

(2016) Drama (Self-Released) Barkhad Abdirahman, Fathia Absie, Faysal Ahmed, Ayla, Christina Baldwin, Jamaal Farah, Ifrah Mansour, George McCauley, Ben Phelps, Andrew Stecker, Rhiana Yazzle. Directed by Musa Syeed

With our President and his followers at the forefront of an anti-immigration movement that has swept through the West, it is a difficult time to be an immigrant, particularly for those who are Muslims and especially from those regions that are hotbeds of terrorist activity. We rarely get the point of view from the immigrant side of things, but the obstacles they face in this country were already hard to begin with.

Adan (Abdirahman) is a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis with his mom and sister, but he is having a particularly hard time with it. Although when employed he is a hard worker, he also has a temper and a willingness to bend rules, turning him to a life of petty crime. When his mother discovers that he has pawned some of her jewelry, she throws him out onto the street.

A kindly Imam gives him shelter and a menial job, and arranges for the restaurant next door to hire him. The owner befriends Adan and gives him the responsibility of delivering food. On his way to his first delivery, he accidentally hits a dog crossing the street. A passing bicyclist guilts him into taking the dog to the vet, where Adan is relieved to discover the dog is uninjured.

Adan doesn’t particularly like dogs; his religion portrays them as disloyal and filthy. He is eager to give the dog away but nobody seems to want the dog. In the meantime Adan scrounges for food and finds places to sleep wherever he can. He gets money working as an FBI informant mainly translating phone calls that the FBI agent (Baldwin) in charge of him thinks might be national security threats but to Adan’s amusement is mainly about much more mundane things.

As time goes by Adan’s attitude towards the dog begins to change. He sees in him a kindred spirit, and even though he refuses to give the mutt a name, he finds himself identifying with a fellow unwanted creature who doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

I love the duality of the title; on the surface it might seem to refer to the dog but in fact it is the man who is the title subject. Adan is the stray here; it is the dog that gives him a sense of worth. It also must be said that the dog is damn adorable.  W.C. Fields famously advised that you should never work with animals or children and he has a point; none of the mainly non-professional cast stands a chance with the dog.

Abdirahman had a supporting part as one of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips but I suspect he’s in over his head here. His delivery is wooden and although there are times when he uses body language to get his points across (and there he’s very successful), he really has issues delivering dialogue with any sort of emotion. It might be he still doesn’t feel confident in his English, which is heavily accented and some of the fellow viewers at the screening I attended complained that he was difficult to understand in places.

Minneapolis has one of the largest concentrations of Somalis outside of Somalia and we get an insider’s look at their daily lives. Most of the immigrants are, like Adan himself, hard-working when given the chance and want nothing more than to live their lives in peace the way they were unable to in war-torn Somalia. They worship in their mosques, educate their children and hope for a better life for them down the road. The one issue I have is that the pacing of the film is extremely slow and even at a scant 80 minutes feels like it would have done better as a 40 minute short.

The anti-immigration movement that was referred to at the beginning of this review plays only on the fringes of the film as snippets of television broadcasts. We don’t see any active bullying of the Somalis by American thugs and I get the sense that even in today’s environment that kind of thing is rare. It certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a part of the life of Adan and his circle of…well, not really friends so much as acquaintances. Still, I found myself thinking about violence against immigrants throughout the film in the back of my mind.

Given what has happened in American politics since this was filmed it is an incredibly timely arrival. This is a movie that I would like to give a much more enthusiastic recommendation to but the flaws are deep enough I can only give it a mild recommendation. This is a movie that embodies a filmmaker with a story that is absolutely worth telling but who is unfortunately still learning how to streamline his storytelling at this moment.

REASONS TO GO: A personalized look at the Muslim refugee issue. The dog is absolutely adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. Abdirahman is less than scintillating in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some language, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lowriders

Concussion


The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

(2015) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Sara Lindsey, Matthew Willig, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Jiggetts, Gary Grubbs, Joni Bovill. Directed by Peter Landesman

Football is our modern coliseum and the players our modern gladiators. They are admired, respected and beloved pretty much throughout the United States. When a character here says that the NFL “owns a day of the week – it used to belong to religion, but now it’s theirs,” he isn’t kidding. Football is a mania and nearly a religion itself.

But the game takes a toll. It is a game of violence, when behemoths smash and crash into each other like meteors in the asteroid belt. Helmets go flying, players wobble off, tottering on their cleats and sometimes, people get concussions. However, the National Football League takes precautions, don’t they?

When Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (Morse) dies unexpectedly at the age of 50, the city of Pittsburgh mourns. That he died homeless and some would whisper crazy is glossed over in the torrents of grief marking the loss of the city’s warrior. When it comes time to autopsy the body, the task is given to Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant who happens to be the forensic pathologist on duty at the Allegheny County Morgue.

What Omalu sees puzzles him. Apparently, Webster was in excellent shape. There were no toxins in his body that would explain his heart just stopping, or his erratic behavior in the years prior to his death. Why is this man dead, wondered Omalu although an antagonistic colleague (O’Malley) urges him to wrap it up. However, Omalu can’t do that. He orders expensive tests – that he pays for himself – to look into the why of Webster’s demise. What he finds is shocking.

Apparently repeated blows to the head can cause trauma that eventually causes early dementia, excruciating headaches, personality changes and suicidal tendencies. That condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE for short) and as he passes on his findings to his sympathetic boss Cyril Wecht (Brooks), other players like Dave Duerson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Andre Waters (Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Willig) begin to show signs of the same problem.

When Omalu takes his findings public, at first the NFL ignores them but as the good doctor persists to the point where the issue can’t be ignored, they go on the offensive and suddenly Omalu’s competency as a doctor is question as well as his status as an immigrant. In the midst of building a life in America with his new Kenyan wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), his American dream may be turning into an American nightmare.

In some ways this is a very important story. The safety of the players should be of paramount importance to the league (you would think) as the players are their commodity. However, the NFL chose to fight against the safety of their player, reasoning that these findings could kill the game altogether. Maybe the game should be killed in that case – no game is worth dying for. I’m sure many readers will find that sacrilegious.

However, Landesman chooses to frame it in the love story between Prema and Omalu and then they draw Prema up as support girlfriend 101, with very little character to the character. She’s so bland that the only reason you can see Omalu falling in love is because Mbatha-Raw is so extraordinarily beautiful. However, the blandness isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s fault – she’s proven herself an outstanding actress. The fault is of the writers who chose to put most of their efforts into Omalu but also the male supporting characters, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a former Steeler team physician who becomes one of Omalu’s staunchest allies, and Dr. Wecht, whom Brooks imbues with a kind of menschiness, as New York Daily News reviewer Allen Salkin so aptly put it.

This is Smith’s movie however and he runs with it like Adrian Peterson through the secondary. Smith is often underrated as an actor because of his laid-back charm and his Fresh Prince grin. One forgets that he has two Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) and some truly memorable performances in other movies. While his filmography of late hasn’t had the kind of success that he’s used to, he still has skills and he could very well get his third Oscar nomination for this performance.

&The movie doesn’t have the emotional punch that it probably should have, although being a non-football fan it might not resonate with me as much as it might. However, parents whose kids want to get into the game would do well to look into CTE and ways of preventing it (there are some excellent pads out there that protect players from concussions in the brain but also in the heart). The NFL certainly comes off here as a somewhat indifferent corporate entity more interested in maintaining the profits rather than the player’s long-term safety. It makes me wonder how the movie got permission to show the logos of the various teams and helmets on-camera and use game footage of NFL games. However, this is a movie in which the performance is better than the overall film. That’s not the last time you’ll hear that particular analysis of a film this holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of Smith’s best performances. An important issue for any fan or parent of a player.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian in places. Wastes Mbatha-Raw.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Willig, who plays Steeler defender Justin Strzelczyk in the movie, played in the National Football League for 14 years for among others, the Jets, Packers, Niners, Panthers and Rams (twice).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imitation Game
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Emperor’s New Clothes

This Narrow Place


This Narrow Place

Sammy Sheikh and Jonathan Stanley affect Motor City tough guy poses.

(2011) Drama (Self-Released) Sammy Sheikh, Jonathan Stanley, Sayed Badreya, Anthony Azizi, Lonette McKee, Val Howard, Rita Khori, Oscar Brown, Mike Batayeh. Directed by Sooney Kadouh

 

Anger can only take you so far. When you are wounded as deeply as it’s possible to be, your first instinct is to lash out. Sometimes that may take you on a journey you never intended it to.

Hassan (Sheikh) is on a mission. His little brother died in a bombing in Beirut. He has entered the United States illegally to plant a bomb, using parts manufactured at the same plant where the bomb that killed his brother was manufactured. While stuck in an unsavory part of town, he meets Chris (Stanley), a drug addict who lives on his own in Detroit. Chris gives Hassan a ride to the home of Hassan’s Uncle Aziz (Badreya).

At the urging of his aunt, Hassan invites Chris over for dinner and weaves a tale about his attending Wayne State, where Hassan’s sister Nadia (Khori) is also attending (Nadia has been staying with Aziz for some time). As Hassan spends more time with Chris, he begins to see a side to America and Americans that he hadn’t planned on. The drug addict and would-be bomber begin to form an unlikely friendship, to the point where Hassan begs Tina (Howard), Chris’ drug connection, to “let him go.” Chris also develops affection for Nadia, not a welcome thing to her conservative Muslim family.

However with terrorist Faoud (Azizi) breathing down his neck, Hassan must make a choice between carrying out his plans and avenging his brother, or letting his rage go and perhaps creating an entirely different legacy for his brother and himself.

There are a lot of “fish out of water” buddy movies out there but this is unusual in that both the main characters are fish out of water, as it were. Hassan is from a completely different world; the life of a suburban Detroit family is like an entirely different planet to him. He is conflicted by his need to avenge his brother and by his own decency. He genuinely wants to help Chris kick his habit and uses the fasting of Ramadan to help him find some self-discipline.

Chris lives on the fringes of society, shunned by his own family who have declared him dead in order to deal with his situation. As the family life he never knew begins to give him new strength, he begins to change – becomes less the hustler, less the hedonist and finding more important things to focus his attention on.

There are some grungy neighborhoods on display here, both in Detroit and Beirut – I suspect the filmmaker was trying to draw a line between the two. There are also some nice neighborhoods and families that are welcoming and caring. The two worlds are in the same city but completely alien to one another. It’s hard to imagine they exist so close together.

Both Sheikh and Stanley are engaging, charismatic performers. It is their job to carry the film and it is their relationship that drives it. I’m not familiar with either actor, but I would venture to say that not only do they have good chemistry together they also individually do striking jobs to make their characters memorable and realistic.

They have a surprisingly good supporting cast. Often in indie movies, the acting chops begin and end at the leads but here, it’s uniformly there from top to bottom. That’s simply gold for a young director trying to establish a reputation.

I was a little bit unsure of the kicking of Chris’ drug habit; it seemed a little bit too pat and too clean and as we all know kicking that kind of habit is generally horribly painful. I also have to admit the ending was a little bit to the Hollywood side, but that’s all right; I liked it anyway. Indie movies often try to go out of their way to make their endings dark and depressing, but this one would probably have made a studio marketing chief sigh blissfully – and there’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do think that they could have used a bit of a trim on some of the subplots – was it really necessary to visit Chris’ mother and discover that he’s literally dead to her? – but all in all this is a pretty well-crafted movie with enough strong moments to make it recommendable to anyone, even those who might not necessarily be indie film fanatics.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances from the leads and an interesting story. I liked the ending although it might have had some “Hollywood” overtones to it.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the subplots could have been trimmed or cut altogether.

FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, some foul language and a bit of violence.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeing in either venue.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Dog Sweat