Seed (2017)


Team Nomad’s success is no shoe-in.

(2017) Documentary (Something Different) Ethan Reid, Shahar Hussein, Pulkit Mahajan, Brian Collins, Adi Abili, Milan Koch, Saheen Ali, Paul Glaser, Christopher Wellise, Peter Berger, Brent Freeman, Sean Hughes, Devin Mui, Arjun Dev Arora, Ahmed, Bettirose. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

When most of us think of hackers, we think of pimply-faced basement-dwelling laptop rats who take out their anger on not getting laid – ever –  by disrupting legitimate websites and from time to time stealing information from major Internet sites. Sometimes we think of the Anonymous hackers who disrupt the socially unjust. We rarely think of hacking as a source for positive change.

And yet AngelHack who were one of the earliest proponents of “hack-a-thons” (competitions for hackers) have turned the innovation of these code writing iconoclasts into potential businesses with seed money coming from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and other underwriters. It’s a very big deal in the hacking community and one of the most prestigious events on the Hacking calendar. They sponsor something called Silicon Valley week where dozens of hackers/code writers/would-be entrepreneurs get together, pitch their apps to first the AngelHack board who determine if they have the stuff to go on to the big stage where they can pitch their demos to industry leaders.

It’s a situation in which the stress levels are ratcheted up to an 11. The documentary follows three teams, including Team Report Taka with spokesperson Bettirose is trying to develop an app that will save lives in their native Nairobi, Kenya; Shahar Hussein is driving for Uber in New York while his brother-in-law Ahmed is watching over their start-up in Palestine which will help businesses there hook up with couriers to deliver packages. Finally Team Nomad, led by three teens are juggling high school with their app which will allow shoppers to take a picture of an item they see that they want to buy and then be taken to a site where they can buy it, something that appeals to the social media generation who can’t be bothered to look stuff up.

Each of these teams are among 14 teams from across the globe vying for interview time with venture capitalists and substantial seed money that could help their dreams take off. Each of the teams are in it for different reasons; one to change the world, another to make a better life for themselves and their families, a third just to prove they can do it.

It isn’t easy though. Team Nomad is having serious troubles getting their app to work for the demo. Shahar and Ahmed are not seeing eye to eye on their business’s future. The Report Taka team needs to be able to convince the various judges that their app is much more than a locally useful app that is worth developing for global use. The day they present after all is called Global Demo Day. The stakes are incredibly high.

This kind of film lives or dies based on how much the audience identifies with the various participants and ends up with a rooting interest for them. Team Report Taka came the closest for me; their app is one that collates reports of dumped garbage and analyzes it, helping the Kenyan government determine if it is proving a threat (garbage that collects in the rivers of Nairobi often contribute to flooding which can be severe enough to end lives). They have a difficult time communicating in English and perhaps understanding the capitalist culture that drives these kinds of things. It’s hard not to root for people who want to save lives though.

The other two teams are less altruistic. Both are working on apps that will aid e-commerce, and that’s all well and good. The teens involved with Team Nomad are often a bit cocky and considering they have a concept and not a working app makes one wonder if they are selling smoke and mirrors. Finally Shahar is maybe a bit mule-headed as is Ahmed and the two of them butt heads on some fairly basic issues. It isn’t always pretty.

Wonder has a nice visual sense and some of the shots here are really cool, but he for some reason decides to do some of the interview segments in unusual locations and positions; the Report Taka team is made to lie down on the floor like spokes on a wheel while Team Nomad is in a dark room lit by blue computer screens. I get that he wanted to get away from typical talking head tropes but it ended up being distracting and off-putting. An A for imagination but an C- for execution.

Nonetheless while the movie doesn’t really add much to the competition documentary subgenre, it is at least reasonably informative although some of the jargon may fly over the heads of those who aren’t technologically inclined. I consider myself reasonably tech-savvy and some of the things that the various participants said left me befuddled but I suppose most documentaries have their share of jargon, no?

I found the process that the teams undergo to be fascinating enough to overcome some of the films’ flaws. It’s available right now on Amazon Prime so those who are members of that service can stream the movie for free; it is also available for rent for those who are not Prime members. In any case, for those who are intrigued by how software is developed, this is a movie that will be right up your alley. For those who may prefer that how their Fandango app works be a mystery to them should probably give this one a pass.

REASONS TO GO: The process is fascinating.  Some of the cinematography is really cool.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a little bit jargon-heavy. Sometimes the filmmaker goes a little bit overboard with the artistic license.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity but not a lot of it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three members of Team Nomad were all 16 and 17 years old when the process started and needed to be driven to preliminary events by their parents.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wordplay
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan

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Miral


When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you're in trouble.

When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you’re in trouble.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Omar Metwally, Vanessa Redgrave, Willem Dafoe, Makram Khoury, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Al Massri, Rana Al Qawasmi, Ruba Blal, Stella Schnabel, Donald Liddawi, Shredi Jabarin, Dov Navon, Liron Levo, Yolanda El Karam, Rozeen Bisharat, Iman Aoun, Lana Zreik. Directed by Julian Schnabel

Woman Power

The West Bank conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on virtually since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. There seems to be no end to that fight and even today no compromise between the two seems within reach.

Shortly after Israel became a nation in 1948, Hind al-Husseini (Abbass) finds a group of 55 children, orphaned by the fighting, sitting in the street with nowhere to go. She takes them in, founding an orphanage and school that came to be called the Dar Al-Tifel Institute. Quickly, 55 refugee children grew to over 2,000.

Nadia (Al Massri) is a woman who has suffered brutal sexual abuse, eventually running away from home. She is eventually sent to prison for slapping an Israeli woman who called her a harlot and shares a cell with Fatima (Blal), a former nurse who set a pipe bomb in a crowded theater. The two women grow close and Fatima sets Nadia up with her brother Jamal (Siddig), a kind man who doesn’t hold with his sister’s terrorist beliefs. Nadia eventually gives birth to a daughter named Miral, named for a desert flower common in Palestine.

As a young girl (El Karam), Miral is sent to the Dar Al-Tifel Institute to study under Hind who sees something special in Miral. Hind preaches that education is the way to eventual peace and at first, Miral is inclined to agree with a woman she has grown to admire very much. However, as Miral (Pinto) grows into a young woman and sees that outside the walls of the Institute the Israelis are treating her people so poorly, she begins to have doubts. And when she is sent to teach children in a refugee camp, she falls in with Hani (Metwally), a young man part of a terrorist organization, her point of view begins to radicalize.

Schnabel who is an American of Jewish descent has received a good deal of critical adoration for his film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Here, he continues to apply his artistic sensibilities (Schnabel is also a noted painter) to the silver screen although here with mixed degrees of success. He and his cinematographer Eric Gautier pull forth some really beautiful images, but in order to make some of them more compelling there are a lot of over-exposed shots as well as extreme close-ups or oblique camera angles that make the image unidentifiable until the camera pulls back or changes angle. That’s okay as an occasional trick but it happens a bit too often for my taste.

He also employs the hand-held camera a bit too much. Shaky-cam as it’s popularly known can lend a sense of immediacy to a movie, giving the viewer the perspective of being amidst the action but too much of it can be vertigo-inducing. It’s like driving a dirt road for too long in a car with bad suspension.

Pinto, best known for her work in Slumdog Millionaire captures the essence of the Miral of the novel that the movie is based on. While some have criticized her casting (she is from India rather than Palestine and speaks with a pronounced accent), I find that kind of criticism invalid. Either she’s right for the part or she isn’t, and she clearly is.

Most of the first third of the film belongs to Abbass who is simply put one of the greatest actresses on the planet, although she is largely unknown in the United States because she works mostly in the Middle East. She plays Hind with compassion and gravitas, but always with a life that shines through. She swamps most of the actors here and there are some pretty darn good ones, like Siddig who in his post Deep Space Nine career has turned into a fine actor and is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film.

The middle third is Nadia’s and Al Massri captures her fragile nature nicely. She’s a woman whose life is pervaded by the terrible things that have happened to her and she can’t escape her demons, ultimately succumbing to them. She is a tragic figure who is a sympathetic one in the pages of the book but here we have a harder time sympathizing with her.

The story is told with lots of flashbacks and with seemingly random events that are without initial context until something in the film gives them that. It can be very confusing to the casual viewer and requires a great deal of focus to really follow it – reading the book beforehand was helpful to me, I have to say. I do like that Schnabel takes the Palestinian view which is so rarely seen in the United States, although that is changing as there have been more films shown from the Palestinian viewpoint as of late although mostly from independent distributors. I also found it unnecessary to make all the Israeli characters but one essentially monsters. You can show the Palestinian point of view without reducing it to a cartoon of good guys versus bad guys.

This is a movie about women coping with an impossible situation; two are strong, one damaged and all of them come out changed. While this received little critical love when it came out and was essentially given little support by the studio when it came out in limited release, it’s still a compelling film to watch if you have the patience to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully filmed.  Abbass is a force of nature. Unusual for Hollywood, presents Palestinian viewpoint.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit chaotic and occasionally confusing. Too much shaky-cam and image modification.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a sexual assault as well as some other violence and adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Journalist Rula Jebreal who wrote the screenplay based on her semi-autobiographical novel was dating Schnabel at the time (the director, not the actress).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a post-screening Q&A with Julian Schnabel as well as a tour of his production office.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900,647 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Woman Power concludes!

Amreeka


Amreeka

Nisreen Faour finds out about another American institution; the dinnertime sales solicitation call.

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Andrew Sannie. Directed by Cherien Dabis

While our economy has taken a nosedive and Americans are suffering through one of the worst recessions in history, we can at least take comfort that at least we are not an occupied nation. Palestinians don’t even have that.

Muna Farah (Faour) lives on the West Bank and, ironically enough, works in a bank. A bank on the West Bank…okay, I had to point it out. Anyway, she has to endure two military checkpoints in each direction going from her home to work and back. It is often humiliating, especially when her son Fadi (Muallem) loses patience and makes a smart remark to one of the soldiers, nearly getting detained in the process if nor for the begging and pleading of his mother.

Muna dreams of a better life in America (or Amreeka as it is pronounced in Arabic) where her sister Raghda (Abbass) escaped 15 years before. Although ostensibly Muslim, she isn’t particularly devout which makes her a bit of a pariah in her own land. However, she hits the jackpot when she gets a green card in the annual lottery for one of the coveted documents. Although she knows she will miss her family in Palestine, she looks forward to better things for her and her son in a new land, and quite frankly, Fadi is gung ho to get out of Dodge. Before they leave, Muna’s mom gives her some cookies and other food to bring to Raghda.

At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Muna and her son are detained for three hours. It is 2002, not long after 9/11 and tensions are running high, particularly with any Arabic sorts coming into the country. While Muna is arguing with one of the immigration officials, the cookies and other foods are confiscated by the customs agents.

Unfortunately, Muna foolishly put all her life savings into the cookie tin. Broke and too proud to accept help from her sister other than the lodging in their suburban home. Raghda’s husband Nabeel (Abu-Warda) is a prosperous dentist, but he is watching his practice disintegrate before his eyes as long-time patients, distrusting any Arab, are leaving for non-Arabic doctors.

Muna is unable to find work suitable for her banking experience and takes the only job she can find – working the counter at a White Castle. Once again her pride prevents her from informing her family that she has such a menial job, so she leads them to believe she is working in a neighboring bank, scurrying over to her real workplace after Raghda drops her off at the bank.

Fadi on the other hand is having enormous difficulty fitting in at the local high school, which is truly a staggering task even under the best of circumstances, but throwing in his ethnicity and his unfamiliarity with American high school culture and he is having a rough time. His cousin Salma (Shawkat) helps guide him through the minefields that are American high schools, but even so he manages to step on a few nonetheless.

There are a few other plot elements (such as a romance for Muna with the Jewish principal of Fadi’s school, played with gentle humor by Ziegler) but that’s essentially it. This is writer/director Dabis’ first feature and is heavily based on her own experiences growing up as an immigrant from Jordan in Ohio. There are some moments that are genuinely heartwarming as well as others that are wrenching.

Part of what makes this movie so watchable is a very likable cast, starting with Faour. She is not the lithe and lean starlet that most lead actresses are, but down-to-earth, charming and possessed of a smile that lights up entire cities. In that sense, she reminds me of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-era Nia Vardalos, albeit with less brass.

Abbass is one of my favorite actresses you’ve never heard of. She is best known for a small but pivotal role in The Visitor but was completely overshadowed by Richard Jenkins there; she has also appeared in such gems as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride and was superb in each. She has more of a supporting role, but lends dignity and world-weariness to the part of a woman desperately homesick, and watching her situation fall apart before her very eyes, with everything she values in jeopardy including her marriage. Abbass could have easily stolen the movie but wisely – and generously – toned things down, allowing Faour to take center stage. In the end, I think that was a better move for the film overall.

Most of the other roles aren’t as richly written as the two sisters, although Shawkat is compelling as the Americanized Salma and her conflict with her mother should resonate with anyone who has been privy to mother/daughter conflict. I would have liked to see Fadi, Nabeel and the principal get a bit more to work with, but this still remains a good first effort and serves notice that Dabis could be a director to keep an eye out for.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Faour and Abbass illustrate the difficulties Palestinian Muslims face in post-911 America as well as in their occupied homeland. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting characters seem to be very artificially drawn and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some teen drug use, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate to let mature teens check this out.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Winnipeg where there are no White Castle restaurants; the White Castle corporate offices shipped out the supplies for one there, creating a set so realistic that locals kept trying to order from it, even though no food was ever sold there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A short film by director Cherien Dabis, “Make a Wish” is present.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.2M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Smash His Camera

Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)


Lemon Tree

Tarik Kopty finds himself with a strange urge for lemonade.

(IFC) Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Danny Leshman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Tarik Kopty, Amnon Wolf, Doran Tavory, Amos Lavie, Smadar Yaaron, Hili Yalon. Directed by Eran Riklis

Simple things can turn into complicated issues without much urging. We have a wonderful talent as a species of turning a molehill into an insurmountable mountain.

Salma (Abbass) is a Palestinian widow living on the edge of the West Bank eking out a living from a lemon grove that has been in her family for generations. With only the elderly Abu Hussein (Kopty) to assist her – her son has fled to America to find opportunity as a dishwasher – she cares for her lemon trees with meticulousness born of generations of love for the trees she has been given custodianship for. She is able to sell her lemons at market and maintain her household in that fashion.

That is, until the somewhat smarmy Israeli defense minister (Tavory) moves in to the large house bordering the other side of her grove, on the Israeli side of the border. His security detail sees the grove as a threat – why, terrorists could hide among the trees and launch an attack on the home of the minister. Salma is ordered to cut down her grove, for which she will be properly compensated by the Israeli government.

To Salma, this would be the equivalent of a mother being asked to smother her babies. It’s not merely a source of income to her – the grove is a connection with her family’s past. She balks at the order and puts in for an appeal with the Israeli military. In order to help her navigate the tricky waters of the Israeli appeal process, she needs a lawyer. She specifically wants a Palestinian lawyer since she doesn’t trust the Israeli lawyers but none of them will take the job. None of them, that is, besides Ziad Daud (Suliman), a young lawyer trying to establish himself.

The case becomes a cause célèbre in the Israeli news media, and the minister finds increasingly that he is becoming an unsympathetic figure. Even his own wife (Lipaz-Michael) doesn’t support his cause. He is becoming increasingly less comfortable with the attention and is eager for the case to come to a conclusion.

To make matters worse, the grove has been barricaded by the military pending the outcome of the trial and is overseen by armed soldiers, with Salma being banned from tending to her trees which are slowly beginning to die, lending urgency to the situation. To make matters worse, Salma and Ziad are beginning to feel a strong attraction for one another, which is bringing further frowns to the faces of the Palestinian village elders.

This is loosely based on an actual incident. Director Riklis, who also helmed The Syrian Bride (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), is a solid storyteller who wastes no motions. This is his strongest work to date, and it’s clear that Abbass, who also starred in The Syrian Bride, has an excellent rapport with the director.

She is at the moral and physical center of the film, in nearly every scene and she handles herself with serenity and calm, but with just a hint of fiery sensuality that makes her scenes with Suliman provocative. Salma is a very strong and determined woman, well aware of her expected role as a widow in her community but she is also a woman, and a beautiful one at that. This is the kind of performance that gets overlooked by the American film community but is nonetheless worth seeing.

This is neither pro or anti Palestinian. It doesn’t take sides in the conflict other than to acknowledge that the people getting hurt are the innocents caught in the middle who are merely trying to live out their lives in peace, as Salma is. It takes some shots at the traditional roles of woman in the region, and for that alone its worth watching.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern David-and-Goliath fable that is an allegory about Israeli-Palestinian issues even as it explores the role of women in both cultures. Outstanding work by Abbass as Salma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting roles might have been fleshed out a bit more.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality and sexual tension, and a little bit of foul language but generally acceptable viewing for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hiam Abbass won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for her work in this movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations

Private


A particularly lovely image of Hend Ayoub in the Italian drama "Private."

A particularly lovely image of Hend Ayoub in the Italian drama "Private."

(Typecast) Mohammed Bakri, Lior Miller, Hend Ayoub, Tomer Russo, Areen Omari, Marco Alsay, Sarah Hamzeh. Directed by Saverio Costanzo.

In an occupied territory, life is very different than what it is in a land that is free. In an occupied territory, what you thought was yours can be taken away in a moment.

Mohammed (Bakri) is a Palestinian academic living in the occupied West Bank. He and his wife Samiah (Omari) have been arguing. They have received word that their home is scheduled to be commandeered by the Israeli army. Mohammed wants to stay – it is an issue of principle. “I don’t wish to be a refugee,” he explains. “A refugee is a non-person.” Samiah is concerned their five children will be placed in harm’s way. One night, they are awakened by troops led by the ramrod-straight Lt. Ofer (Miller) and are ordered to leave immediately. When they refuse, Miller reluctantly allows them to stay on the bottom floor only but will not allow them upstairs, where the Israelis will be billeted.

What follows is a tense standoff. Mohammed and Samiah try to go about their lives as best they can, while their eldest daughter Miriam (Ayoub) seethes and their eldest son Jamal (Alsay) commits little rebellions. At night, they are contained in what they call the “prison room,” not allowed to leave even to use the restroom. One night, when there is gunfire, their youngest Sarah (Hamzeh) is caught outside their locked doors. Mohammed desperately tries to comfort the terrified girl through the doorway.

While some of the Israeli soldiers, particularly Eial (Russo) are sympathetic, Ofer is paranoid and brutal – even his own men are scared of what he’ll do. While Mohammed counsels passive resistance, his children grow more and more frustrated and willing to resort to acts of violence to get the unwanted soldiers out of their home. In point of fact, they have no home. They have no privacy.

Surprisingly, this is an Italian film from a filmmaker better known for documentaries and this is shot in documentary style. Hand-held cameras help heighten the tension and occasionally Costanzo shoots in night vision-like black and white to ratchet up the tension and sense of reality.

His cast, mostly Palestinian and Israeli, are superb, particularly Bakri as the patriarch whose resolve is crumbling. He’s an intelligent man caught in a situation where reason disappears. Ayoub is also compelling as the hot-headed daughter. She spies on the soldiers in her bedroom, leading to some of the film’s most tense moments when she is on the verge of being discovered.

The problem I have with the movie is the ending. First, it’s rather abrupt which is fine, and it leaves the story unresolved, which I can also accept, but it launches into an English-language ballad which derails everything. Those last few moments are inappropriate given the tenor of the film.

This is one of the better films to come out of Italy in quite a while. Originally conceived as a direct-to-video program, its success on the European festival circuit prompted a limited release here in the States. It’s a bit difficult to find, but worth checking out (I know Netflix carries it).

WHY RENT THIS: A tense and satisfying portrayal of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and what it means to those living there. Wonderful performances, particularly from Bakri and Ayoub, are worth noting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is abrupt and a bit weak.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject is adult and there are moments when children are placed in extreme jeopardy.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Love Happens