Collisions


Nobody knows how to tuck you in as well as your mom.

(2018) Drama (Widdershins) Jesse Garcia, Izabella Alvarez, Ana de la Reguera, Jason Garcia Jr., Erika Yanin Perez, Clanya Cortes, Suilma Rodriguez, Molly Noble, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Molly Brady, Joey Hoeber, Duane Lawrence, John Flanagan, Thomas Cokenias, Christopher Gonzales, Tina Marie Murray, Mike Schaeffer, Sarah Kramer, Veronica Valencia. Directed by Richard Levien

Over the last year or so, America’s immigration policy has come under fire, particularly in how families are treated at the border – children separated from their parents at the border and sent into cages to live. As horrific as that is, the media hasn’t really commented on the fact that immigrant parents have been deported for decades, often leaving their children at the tender mercies of the foster care system.

12-year-old science prodigy Ital (Alvarez) who has a very real chance of getting accepted to the California Science Academy and her younger brother Neto (Garcia Jr.) arrive home from school one day to find that their apartment has been apparently ransacked. However, it is much worse than that; ICE had broken into the home and arrested their mother Yoana (de la Reguera) and taken her to a detention center with the eventual plan to deport her.

They are placed with their uncle Evencio (Garcia), a carefree trucker who has been estranged from his more down-to-earth sister. The difference between Evencio and Yoana is that Evencio has a green card and Yoana does not. Evencio helps them find an immigration lawyer but Ital has little faith that the lawyer is competent enough to reunite the small family and insists that Evencio take them to see their mother who has since been transferred from the Bay Area where they live to a detention center outside of Phoenix. Reluctantly, Evencio takes the kids he doesn’t want on the road with him in his truck to see the sister with whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship.

Given the recent headlines, the movie is about as timely as it gets. With the Director of Homeland Security (under whose jurisdiction ICE falls) having recently been fired for not being hardline enough on illegal immigration, the movie undertakes to show the human side of the immigration question from the viewpoint of immigrants who are already in this country. Yoana works several jobs to support her kids and to provide them with a better life than she ever could have given them in Mexico. She’s a widow trying to do her best in a world that isn’t kind to people of her skin tone.

The movie is constructed as a character drama within a road movie within an issue film and while that’s not unique, it’s rare that a road movie revolves around any sort of issue and Levien is to be congratulated for making that kind of leap. He doesn’t sacrifice any of the elements that make the drama work to make it more of a road movie yet that’s what this demonstrably is. Everything works in harmony even though on paper you might think it wouldn’t.

While the adult performers (mainly Garcia but also de la Reguera in an abbreviated role) are all fine, the film is carried by Alvarez and Garcia Jr. Ital is a firecracker of a young girl who has had to grow up a little more quickly with her dad deceased; in some ways she’s the man of the house. Alvarez gives her the right amount of spine and vitriol – she doesn’t have a lot of respect for her ne’er-do-well uncle – and she is absolutely a mama bear when it comes to her younger brother. The character is written to be a little bit too precocious in my eyes and this becomes really apparent in the last reel when Ital decides to take matters into her own hands. I think any child would be absolutely terrified of having their mother taken away and we see Ital be angry about it but we never see the fear or hurt. Perhaps that is part of her nature but it doesn’t seem realistic to me. We don’t see the child side of Ital hardly at all.

Garcia also has a lot of screen time and Evencio is a kind of guy who likes to party and doesn’t take life too seriously. He drives a truck and makes a good living at it but it’s part of the lifestyle he wants which is of maximum freedom. So at truck stops he is happy to get wasted, party with truck stop hookers and generally hang out with his buddies. Of course, Evencio is a young guy and that is the nature of young guys so at least that part of his character makes logical sense.

The cinematography is solid which you would expect from a road movie, but not spectacular but then again it really doesn’t need to be. Vistas of desolate California would tend to distract from the human equation of the drama and that’s where the focus properly lies. Levien, a first-time feature filmmaker based in San Francisco, is trying to point out the inherent cruelty in this country’s policies regarding illegal immigration and in that he’s mostly successful. I get it that Ital needed to be a strong 12-year-old girl for the purposes of this movie but I think it would have benefited strongly if she had been allowed to be a little girl a little bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely subject well-acted by the cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film goes off the rails near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug use, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Infiltrators
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teen Spirit

A Most Wanted Man


R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Roadside Attractions) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Neil Malik Abdullah, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Rainer Bock, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit, Herbert Gronemeyer, Ursina Lardi Directed by Anton Corbijn

 

It is a tricky world out there, complicated and dangerous. These days, being a spy is a lot more than playing baccarat and sipping a superbly made martini and spies aren’t urbane, elegant men in formal wear. They’re more often than not rumpled, middle aged bureaucrat sorts who wouldn’t make an impression on anyone at first glance.

 

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is such a spy. He chain smokes, drinks too much and has a pot belly not well-disguised by his ill-fitting suit. He looks like middle management for some automobile manufacturer – in fact, he is middle management but in a far different vocation. He is part of an anti-terrorist group, a small but dedicated group who monitor potential terrorist activities in Hamburg, a port city in Germany from which Mohammed Atta once organized the events of 9-11.

 

Since then, German intelligence has kept a close eye on what’s going on in the city as have their counterparts in the CIA. While Gunther’s group operates in a quasi-legal state, able to break German law with a certain amount of impunity, Dieter Mohr (Bock), the local station chief, is more of a by-the-book sort who has a bureaucrat’s soul and  the keen political sense of a born game player. Naturally he and Gunther clash repeatedly, Dieter disdaining the cowboy tactics of Gunther and Gunther less than forgiving of Dieter’s lack of field experience and political gamesmanship.

 

Into this highly volatile environment comes Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a half-Russian half-Chechen man who has escaped Russian prison and entered Germany illegally. The Russians have branded him a terrorist, but Gunther sees him as a means to an end. He could be just what the Russians say he is, or the innocent victim of overzealous Russian hatred for Chechens in general. Gunther really doesn’t care which. He sees him as an opportunity to get to bigger fish in the pond, particularly Dr. Abdullah (Ershadi), a spokesman for Arabic charities who may actually be raising money for terrorist organizations while decrying terrorist activities publicly.

 

Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. He needs to get in touch with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe) for reasons that are his own. Gunther, a manipulative and sometimes cruel man, knows that he needs to make Annabel and Tommy his operatives and he will stop at nothing to do it, be it blackmail, kidnapping and intimidation, or even death threats. Whatever it takes.

But there are games within games, with a U.S. Embassy official (Wright) who may or may not be a CIA operative and who may or may not be Gunther’s ally. Gunther and his team are walking a fine line and with Mohr breathing down his neck he may not make it out of this one unscathed.

 

This is based on a recent John Le Carre novel (the acclaimed author is also a producer on the project) and like most Le Carre works, this is more of a gritty look at the world of espionage rather than the gloss and glamour of the James Bond series. Anton Corbijn, whose last film was The American which is similarly themed, is the perfect choice to sit in the director’s chair. Like the work of Le Carre, that film is complex and tense with characters whose motivations are maddeningly unclear. In other words, probably a more realistic look at the intelligence business.

This is the last leading role that Hoffman would complete before his untimely passing earlier this year and thankfully, it’s a good one. Gunther is world-weary, tired of the constant betrayal and backstabbing which on occasion has cost him the lives of his colleagues. The only people he truly trusts are on his team and one suspects, he isn’t 100% certain about them either. He is a master manipulator but he can also have his own buttons pushed. Near the end, you hear Hoffman wheezing as he breathes – whether that was an indication of the actor’s ill health or if he was capturing the out of shape frustration and passion of Gunther as things come to a head we’ll probably ever know.

McAdams is a good actress in her own right, but she is hidden behind a German accent whose authenticity varies. Dafoe and Bruhl are also fine actors but neither has a whole lot to do. Wright makes a fine foil for Hoffman, cool and terribly overbearing who clearly has little respect for Gunther and European intelligence in general.

 

In fact, this has a much more European outlook on modern espionage and intelligence. Le Carre generally had a fairly cynical outlook towards the benevolence of the CIA and often made them either incompetent or villainous in his books. There is often a moral complexity to his work which requires a lot more patience than American audiences tend to be comfortable with.

And therein lies the rub. American audiences are not tailor made for the kind of pacing and complexity that comes with the best of Le Carre’s work. There is no easy way to put it – we Americans tend to have a very finite attention span and we require stimulation nearly non-stop. That’s what years of video games will do to you.

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does a great job of making Hamburg a character in the movie. She’s dingy, gritty and a little bit disreputable here – we see the seedy underbelly of a town that already has a rough reputation to begin with. We get that palpable sense of danger and dissatisfaction.

I found this movie to work on a lot of levels, particularly in regards to Hoffman’s performance which has an outside shot of netting him a posthumous Oscar. Roadside Attractions, the art house arm of Lionsgate, has a few Oscar nominations to its credit so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I found the middle of the movie to be a bit tough sledding, but nevertheless this is a fitting send off to one of the best actors of his generation who left us too soon.

REASONS TO GO: Stand-out performance  by Hoffman. Nice tension. Hamburg used as a character in the film.

REASONS TO STAY: Le Carre likes a lot of twists and turns which some moviegoers may not appreciate. Stately pacing.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the last completed film of Philip Seymour Hoffman (he also appears in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts one and two but his filming hadn’t been completed when he passed away).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Boyhood