Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

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Force Majeure (Turist)


There's no business like snow business.

There’s no business like snow business.

(2014) Dramedy (Magnolia) Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Brady Corbet, Jakob Granqvist, Franco Moscon, Malin Dahl. Directed by Ruben Östlund

We never know how we’ll react in any given situation. We imagine, we hope we’ll react with courage and compassion but the truth is there’s a good chance we’ll act to save our own skins rather than someone else’s when push comes to shove. It’s not necessarily a horrible thing but it can cause those around us to reconsider their image of who we are.

Tomas (Kuhnke) and Ebba (Kongsli) are taking a ski vacation in the French Alps with their adorable kids Harry (V. Wettergren) and Vera (C. Wettergren). It’s definitely a much-needed trip; Tomas is a bit of a workaholic whose ear seems permanently glued to his cell phone. This is a chance to let the cares and worries of day to day life melt away and for him to reconnect with his family. Thus far, everything seems to be working.

They’re eating lunch on the terrace of their ski resort one afternoon when an avalanche begins. At first, it’s no cause for alarm. After all, the resort has been purposely setting them off on a regular basis, the days and nights punctuated by soft explosions triggering downfalls of snow to relieve the pressures of an excessive snowfall on the trails. You’d think that they’d be used to it by now.

But the deadly avalanche continues to approach and Ebba begins to feel uneasy. Something is wrong. “Nonsense,” says Tomas full of masculine know-it-all-ness. They’re perfectly safe. Still it gets closer and closer and people begin to nervously rise to their feet. Then as it becomes apparent that it’s not going to stop, the panic begins. People begin to run off the terrace and Ebba goes to grab her children and carry them to safety except they’re too heavy, she can’t lift them and before anything can be done, the avalanche is upon them.

Everything is white. As things come back into focus, Ebba realizes that she and her children are all right. The avalanche must have petered out just before colliding with the resort. All they’d been hit by was the avalanche “smoke,” the fine powder that rises from the surface of the snow. Shaken, the family continues eating their meal, not knowing what else to do.

Everyone’s all right and that’s the important thing, right? But not to Ebba. Her husband abandoned her and her children, leaving them to save himself. He needs to come clean and admit it. Tomas, however, doesn’t see it that way. That’s not how it happened. He refuses to come clean. This becomes stuck in Ebba’s craw. She needs him to own up. She needs to hear him admit that he panicked. She picks at him like a scab.

On the other end, he can’t admit it. It’s just not possible. To do so would be to admit that everything he is as a man is lacking. That he failed to protect his family, one of the most basic instincts that there is in the masculine ego. It’s unthinkable. So the immovable object collides with the unstoppable force and the marriage of Tomas and Ebba suddenly becomes vulnerable.

This is Sweden’s entry into the foreign language film category of the Oscars and quite frankly, it’s a good one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t end up on the short list when the announcements come out next month. This isn’t a movie you can standardize in a single category. It’s essentially the story of an unraveling marriage depicted in the style of a thriller. As an audience, you’ll feel like you were at a couple’s party and you walked in on them having a vicious argument in the bedroom. If there were Oscars given for the use of awkward silences, this would win hands down.

Kuhnke and Kongsli play their roles with an easy familiarity that mimics that which exists in real couples who have been together for years and now know each other better than they know themselves. There are few surprises in the routines of everyday life and while Ebba feels more than a little neglected, Tomas is completely oblivious that there’s a problem. His ego won’t let him admit to it.

Not that Ebba is a saint. She is a bit of a nag and can be cold and critical. She has a streak of self-centeredness all her own. Her need to validate her point that her husband failed her becomes consuming; looking at the relationship from afar it is clear that both characters would benefit from letting go of the incident but neither one is built that way. As friends get pulled into their escalating competition, it certainly looks like one of them is going to break.

The avalanche sequence is handled with some CGI but mostly practical effects and is one of the film’s highlights. Can’t say the same thing about the ending which is confusing and seems tacked on and unnecessary. In fact, the movie seems a bit long and might have benefitted from more time looking at the family and less at their friends, who are drawn into an argument over how they’d react in a similar situation which leads to bad feelings between them as well. Those darn Swedes.

While the situation is an extraordinary one, kudos to Östlund for keeping the characters real. They react in ways that aren’t necessarily shining examples of forbearance and in doing so channel every one of us. If you can’t relate to Tomas and/or Ebba, you haven’t been alive long enough to appreciate the subtleties of long-term committed relationships or the fallibility of human beings.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling plot handled in a realistic manner. Some fine performances by the leads. Avalanche sequence is nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Ending is unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity as well as sexual situations and some occasional foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The children of Tomas and Ebba in the film are played by a real life brother and sister.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Outdoors
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild