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

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Animal Kingdom


 

Animal Kingdom

Grandma's forgotten to take her meds again.

(2010) Crime Drama (Sony Classics) Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Laura Wheelwright, Clayton Jacobson, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Jacqueline Brennan, Anna Lise Phillips. Directed by David Michod

 

You can choose your friends but not your family. Usually that’s not a bad thing but for certain families, it is a nightmare indeed. Growing up in a family of sociopaths is bound to affect you, even if you’ve been shielded from the worst of them.

Joshua “J” Cody’s (Frecheville) mom is a heroin addict. Make that was – she checks out of this world while watching TV. J calls the authorities and while paramedics work on her, watches “Deal or No Deal” impassively. The boy has issues.

He is sent to live with his grandmother which might seem to be a good idea but really is throwing J from the frying pan into the fire. Janine (but everyone calls her Smurf) Cody (Weaver) might seem motherly and affectionate on the outside (she is always asking her sons for a kiss, kisses which go on just long enough to be uncomfortable) but her boys – Darren (Ford), Craig (Stapleton) and Andrew (Mendelsohn) – the latter known to one and all as Pope – are, respectively, a dim-witted thug, a coke-addicted unpredictably violent thug and a remorseless psychopath. How’d you like to attend that family reunion?

J gets sucked into the family business of armed robberies, drug dealing and other petty crimes and he gets to know Pope’s right hand man Baz Brown (Edgerton) who yearns to leave the life. However when a transgression against the family leads to tragedy, Pope is forced into hiding and Craig and Smurf assume control of the family business. Meanwhile, Police Sgt. Nathan Leckie (Pearce) is hot on the trail of the family and is concerned for J’s well-being. He also sees J as a potential informant, the key to ending the Cody family’s reign of terror once and for all.

It’s hard to believe that this is Michod’s first feature as a director. It’s so self-assured and well-executed that you’d think someone like Coppola or Scorsese had something to do with it. It doesn’t hurt that he has a bangin’ script to work with, as well as a group of actors who are quite talented although other than Pearce and Edgerton not terribly well-known in the States.

Weaver was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards and while she didn’t win, she gives a performance here that she will undoubtedly be remembered for the remainder of her career. She is at turns sweet and cuddly, cold and manipulative and creepy and psychotic. She’s the type of person who in one moment can be kissing her grandson and the next ordering his execution. It’s a bravura performance and worth renting/streaming the movie for all by itself.

Mendelsohn is nearly as impressive. He is absolutely without remorse or any real human feeling other than rage. He takes because he can; he wounds because he can and he kills because he can. He understands that he is the de facto godfather of Melbourne’s most notorious crime family and will do whatever it takes to keep it that way. He is not motivated so much by love of family as he is love of being feared.

Frecheville has perhaps the most difficult and most thankful role of all. If this were Goodfellas he’d be Henry Hill; he’s the audience surrogate but at the same time, he is a wounded puppy. He’s got definite issues but at the same time he’s a typical teenager, prone to acting rashly and not always logically. It is tough for a character like this to remain sympathetic but Frecheville manages to make J remain so throughout the film, even when he’s doing boneheaded things.

There are times when it gets a bit too realistic for my tastes; I was genuinely creeped out by some of the actions of the Cody family from grandma on down, and there were times I was taken out of the experience because of it. Still, for the most part this is one of those movies you can’t turn away from once you sit down to watch and it will stay with you for a long while after you get up to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Stark, brutal and authentic. Career-defining performances from Weaver, Mendelsohn and Frecheville. Taut and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes overboard on the creepy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, as well as some drug use (as well as drug culture depictions) and a buttload of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie owns the record for most Australian Film Institute nominations for a single film with 18.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A with director Michod and actress Weaver from the Los Angeles Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; it seems likely that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Midnight Meat Train

Fifty Dead Men Walking


Fifty Dead Men Walking

Jim Sturgess can't believe the rug Ben Kingsley is wearing.

(IFC) Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Zegers, Natalie Press, Rose McGowan, Tom Collins, William Houston, Michael McElhatton, Gerard Jordan. Directed by Kari Skogland

It is said in any war that information is the most potent weapon. Make no mistake about it, the Irish Troubles were most certainly war, even if the British didn’t recognize it as such; in retrospect, in every other significant way they did treat it as war, nonetheless.

Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is a small-time petty criminal in Belfast, selling stolen brassieres door-to-door. He has a kind of elfin charm that others may possess but the Irish have perfected; a kind of roguish crooked charisma that is endearing, like a naughty child you can’t help but smile at even as they’re munching on the cookie they just pilfered.

He’s not particularly fond of the British but he likes the IRA even less after they break the legs of his mate Sean (Zegers). Still, he has no intention of getting involved until he gets nicked by the police. He is given into the hands of British Army intelligence officer Fergus (Kingsley) who recognizes McGartland’s innate talent to inspire trust. McGartland agrees to be an informant on the IRA, an incredibly dangerous thing to do. McGartland himself witnesses the torture and murder of an informant and knows that inevitably he will be found out, or will flee to live in hiding for the rest of his life.

He keeps his activities on both sides of the law secret from his wife Lara (Press) and even Sean. In the meantime, he infiltrates the IRA earning the trust of section chief Mickey (Collins) who becomes something of a father-figure to him. He also gets the attention of Grace (McGowan), a red-headed beauty who specializes in counter-espionage and “sleeping with the enemy” as it were to get their secrets. She develops an attraction for McGartland.

Although McGartland initially views his service as a bit of a lark (hey, he gets a brand new car out of the deal), he quickly comes to realize that this is no game. As the noose tightens around him and the date of a planned massacre at a pub approaches, McGartland wonders if he will be the hero or the victim in all of this.

The movie is loosely adapted from McGartland’s auto-biography (yes, there is a real Martin McGartland) although how loosely is subject to debate – there are those who question the facts in the autobiography itself. Canadian director Skogland has a nice eye for Ireland, settling the film into the rhythms of Irish life in the 1980s. The movie is loud, explosive and gut-grinding suspenseful.

It helps to have actors of the caliber of Ben Kingsley in your cast. Wearing a rather hideous rug, he still brings humanity to the British soldier who is ordered to use his assts, then becomes attached to them. When the British army turns its back on McGartland at the hour he needs them the most, Fergus takes it upon himself to make things as right as they can be.

The action is often brutal; IRA executions weren’t clean and antiseptic. They were sending a message, so the murders are pretty gruesome. The faint of heart may want to keep that in mind when they rent this disc.

The film rests on the shoulders of Sturgess, the young actor who was impressive in Across the Universe and 21. He is also impressive here, playing a cocky young hood who gradually changes into a frightened informant, one who knows that he is in a life-or-death struggle but yet his information saved by his own reckoning more than fifty lives, the dead men walking of the title. Sturgess not only gives McGartland depth, he also allows the character to grow and mature, something you don’t see a lot of in the movies.

While the pacing is a bit glacial in the first part of the movie, it slowly turns up the pressure as the movie progresses, until by the end of the movie you’re just about ready to scream. I wouldn’t say its masterful suspense direction, but it’s damn close. Certainly Skogland hits all the right notes for the most part.

The anger of the IRA towards McGartland is no joke; at least one attempt has been made on his life (the depiction of which bookends the movie) and he lives in hiding today; while the IRA is no longer the terrorist organization it once was, its memory is long and if McGartland were to emerge chances are they would at least try to kill him.

Some of the thick Irish brogues are difficult to understand so the filmmakers thoughtfully provided subtitles to allow you to decipher some of the dialogue which was much appreciated. That’s also a bit of a metaphor for the movie; the characters are speaking in plain English, but their meanings are in an entirely different language – the language of violence.

WHY RENT THIS: There’s a good deal of tension in the film, even though you know McGartland is going to survive. Sturgess and Kingsley give superb performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie drags at the beginning and is never that clear about McGartland’s motivations.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of brutal violence and torture, and as you might expect, plenty of foul language (nobody curses so eloquently as the Irish). There is also some sexuality as well, and plenty of adult themes. In short, not for the young ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kari Skogland’s last movie was The Stone Angel. The real Martin McGartland made a statement that he doesn’t endorse the film and that it was “inspired by” his story rather than is “based on.” He remains in hiding to this day.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Jennifer’s Body

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

A beach party, Pittsburgh-style.

(Peace Arch) Jon Foster, Peter Skarsgaard, Nick Nolte, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Omid Abtahi, Keith Michael Gregory, Seth Adams. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

There comes a point where we all need to find ourselves. We drift aimlessly from moment to moment, never really sure who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to act. Sometimes, it takes one strange summer to right our drifting ships.

Art Bechstein (Foster) has a very bright future ahead of him. The son of Joe Bechstein (Nolte), a powerful businessman in the city of Pittsburgh, he’s been accepted to a prestigious university to learn business, with an eye to becoming a stockbroker, much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe’s business, you see, is laundering money for the mob, and he is eager for Art to take over the family business.

Art would much prefer to lose himself in a minimum wage job for the summer, and he finds just the one as a clerk at a book store. He gets involved in a highly sexual relationship with Phlox (Suvari) his manager, and exists in a state of passive stupor. Only when he meets Jane (Miller) at a party does he begin to rouse from the waking slumber he seems caught in.

Jane also has a boyfriend, Cleveland (Skarsgaard), a petty criminal who has a penchant for manipulation, bisexuality and occasional violence. Still, Art is fascinated by him and the two become buddies, each sleeping with Jane and eventually with each other. Cleveland is his own worst enemy and soon runs afoul of the wrong people, leading Art to seek intervention from his father, the ultimate in degradation as far as Art’s concerned. Unfortunately, in Pittsburgh, happy endings aren’t a regular occurrence.

This is based on Michael Chabon’s coming-of-age novel which he wrote in 1988. Chabon, who also wrote “The Wonder Boys” and “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” is one of my favorite authors today. He is a very literary, smart kind of writer and the movie tries to capture that feeling. Director Thurber, who previously helmed Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, was much taken by the novel and convinced Chabon that he was the man to bring it to the screen after many failed efforts to do so. That he persevered and got the movie made is to be commended.

That said, it should be noted that the movie suffers from a surfeit of languidness. I think Thurber was trying to emphasize the overall passiveness of the Art character, but Christ on a crutch, he’s borderline narcoleptic here. Art never acts at any time in the movie, always reacts and consequently it’s hard to get fully invested in the character. Foster doesn’t help by playing him colorlessly, although that may have been intentional given the script. Foster’s voice-over narration is over-utilized in places, although the fact that much of the narration is lifted directly from the book is somewhat compensatory.

That opens the door for Skarsgaard and he kicks the damn thing in with a vengeance. This becomes in no small way Cleveland’s movie and Skarsgaard plays the character as something of a modern-day pirate, full of lust for life and zeal for lawlessness. It’s a memorable performance and Skarsgaard could well be on his way to becoming one of the better young actors in Hollywood.

Nolte has become a solid character actor with his hangdog expression; he glowers often like a pit bull is hidden inside. He’s tough but reaches out to his son with regularity, knowing in advance that his feckless boy will turn away. He puzzles over how such a creature could have come from his loins, but doesn’t overly obsess about such things. It’s a great role for Nolte and he’s perfectly cast.

Miller and Suvari are both pleasant enough in their roles, with Suvari getting the nod for performing in a role that has little going for it and makes it at least memorable, which is more than Foster could do with the lead role.

The Pittsburgh depicted here is a tough survivor, the capital of the Rust Belt. While Philadelphia carries with it certain sophistication and is firmly planted in an Eastern mindset, Pittsburgh is more rooted in the Midwest and is much more blue-collar. Abandoned factories and rough and tumble punk clubs are just some of the hangouts for the characters here, and it feels pretty authentic – that much the filmmakers got right. Unfortunately, the movie could have used a bit more oomph in it and quite frankly, a different actor as Art. Foster may well be a decent actor, but he simply couldn’t make Art a character I’d want to spend any time with – not even the 90 minutes of the movie that is about him.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard gives an electrifying performance that lights up the screen. Chabon’s prose, utilized in the narration, is always quite wonderful to hear. Nolte gives yet another solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is uneven and Foster is unfortunately not terribly memorable as Art, although this is perhaps intentional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, sexual tension and nudity throughout, as well as some fairly strong language. Definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, the character of Cleveland is not bisexual and plays a very minor role. His character was merged with the main gay love interest Arthur Lecomte in order to provide a love triangle for dramatic purposes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting interview with author Michael Chabon, director Thurber as well as some other people connected with the production detailing the novel’s somewhat bumpy journey to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Great New Wonderful