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

Advertisements

11-11-11


(

Timothy Gibbs is as bewildered as you are.

Timothy Gibbs is as bewildered as you are.

2011) Horror (Rocket) Timothy Gibbs, Michael Landes, Wendy Glenn, Benjamin Cook, Lolo Herrero, Salome Jimenez, Brendan Price, Denis Rafter, Angela Rosal, Lluis Soler, Jose Bertolero, Oscar Velsecchi, Jose Antonio Marin, Luis Alba, Jesus Cuenca, Titus Ferrer, Alejandro Gil, Jason Abell, Emilie Autumn, Patrizia Medrano. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

They say that the secret to the universe is written in numbers. I call it mathematic mysticism – a belief that the universe is controlled in a supernatural way by math and numbers. While I can get behind science and mathematics as the language of creation, it’s a bit of a leap of faith to think that numbers control our destiny.

Joseph Crone (Gibbs) would probably like a word with whomever or whatever is controlling his destiny. A bestselling author of thrillers, he is bitter and alone after his wife and son died in a fire while he was away. Since then he has had frequent nightmares about their deaths and has been unable to write a single word despite pressure from his agent to follow up on his last book which sold more than 5 million copies.

He is also attending grief therapy class along with comely widow Sadie (Glenn). There is a bit of a connection between them and he begins to open up, telling her he’s been seeing the number 11 a lot lately, particularly in groups of two i.e. nightmares taking place precisely at 11:11pm, a car crash taking place at 11:11am, that sort of thing. Then, he gets word from his estranged brother Samuel (Landes) that their father (Rafter) is dying.

Joseph flies back to Barcelona to be with his family. Samuel is confined to a wheelchair after an auto accident and he and dad are cared for by Ana (Rosal), the housekeeper who’s been keeping a diary and who makes creepy pronouncements. Samuel has become pastor of his father’s church during his illness and despite Samuel’s best efforts attendance is dwindling. Joseph has long since lost his faith, figuring any God who could let his family die in a fire was someone he largely had no interest in getting to know.

Demonic apparitions begin to show at 11:11pm and increasingly inexplicable and largely scary events begin to lead Joseph to the conclusion that yes, there are more things under the sun than can be explained by men and as he does further research begins to come under the sneaky suspicion that something bad is going to happen to Samuel on November 11, 2011. But can someone who has no faith stop something that requires faith to believe in it?

Bousman, who has directed several films in the Saw series, goes the demonic route here and surprisingly for him keeps the blood and gore to a bare minimum. Bousman does an adequate job of creating an environment that is spooky to the max but then populates it with few genuine scares. Mostly one just gets a creepy feeling, like watching a snake swallow a rat. Now if the rat were to suddenly leap out of the snake’s flesh with bared fangs and red glowing eyes…

But I digress. Part of the problem is that Gibbs is playing Joseph as emotionally cut off and almost zombie-like. Now, grief can cause one to shut off one’s feelings and I get that – however, for the purposes of a movie, the hero needs to at least show something other than numbness. He also needs to vary the tones of his dialogue so that he doesn’t sound like a robot. Gibbs is a handsome fellow, sort of a cross between Dermot Mulroney and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but handsome alone can’t carry a film.

Bousman is actually a very entertaining speaker and does some of the best commentaries in the DVD business and he spends a good deal of time lamenting about budget constraints that take the initial climactic battle from 1,111 demons to five guys in rubber masks. You get what you pay for in that sense.

I think Bousman was successful enough at creating a scary atmosphere that the film succeeds overall if just barely. However, this isn’t the kind of movie that will scare you out of your seat. It might just give you the willies so chicken-hearted horror film fans, take note.

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric and creepy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks real scares. Acting is less than convincing. Been-there-done-that demons.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s a horror film so, like, some horrible things happen. There’s also a bit of violence, some disturbing images and a few thematic concerns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bousman states on the commentary track that he believes the house they filmed in Barcelona in was actually haunted and goes on to recount some unexplainable activity that occurred while shooting took place.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.2M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Number 23

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!!

Stone


Stone

Milla Jovovich gets steamy with Robert De Niro in hopes it might win her an Oscar.

(2010) Thriller (Overture) Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Rachel Loiselle, Peter Lewis, Sandra Love Aldridge, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sarab Kamoo, Dave Hendricks, Rory Mallon. Directed by John Curran

Some of us go through life as blunt objects. We’re cudgels, beating people over the head until they realize what we’re trying to get across. Others of us are sharp objects. We’re scalpels, sliding in unnoticed and making changes in the minds of others sometimes without them even knowing it.

Jack Mabrey (De Niro) is a cudgel. He is a parole officer at a Michigan prison, close to retirement and welcoming not having to deal with the lowlifes and scumbags that he is forced to release back into society. Then again, Jack is no saint either; when his wife threatened to leave him some years back, he counter-threatened her by dangling their baby out the window and promising to drop it three stories onto the pavement. Mrs. Mabrey (Conroy) decided to stay, finding solace in religion which Jack seems to accept; he listens to religious programming on the radio.

His last case is to be Gerald Creeson (Norton) who goes by the nickname of Stone. All corn rows and badass talk, Stone wants to be paroled in the worst way. He’s quite a manipulator, not above using his very hot and sexy schoolteacher wife Lucetta (Jovovich) to seduce Jack. And Jack, for all his Christian values and professional ethics, isn’t above being seduced.

The questions become who is playing who in this scenario. How far is Lucetta willing to go to get her husband out of prison? Is Stone aware of what she’s doing or she the one pulling the strings? Is Jack more aware of what’s happening than he lets on?

This is not your typical drama – it’s not a procedural on the parole system, for one. It’s almost Southern gothic despite its Michigan setting and it’s a script that doesn’t assume the people who are watching the movie are drooling idiots. No wonder it bombed at the box office.

In fact, sometimes the movie is a bit too smart for its own good; you’re constantly left wondering who’s doing what to who and what’s really going on and at some point after all that build-up you want an answer to those questions that will be impressive – and when you don’t get one, you kind of feel let down.

You won’t be let down by the acting here. De Niro is a powerful presence and while this isn’t Jake La Motta or Vito Corleone, he imbues Mabry with a kind of brutal gravitas. It’s the kind of work only De Niro can do, and when he is on his game as he is here, you can see why he’s one of the best that ever was.

Norton is also one of the best actors out there and he has an entirely different role, one which shows his versatility. He is white ghetto trash; a rap-listening corn-rowed trickster who gets off on making people dance to his tune. It’s a powerful performance, as different as night and day as De Niro’s but equally as impressive.

What is surprising is Jovovich who isn’t ordinarily thought of as the same caliber of actress as the two male leads but she holds her own. Her character is vivacious, charming, calculating, cunning, sweet, sexy and devious all at once. It’s a marvelous character which makes you look at your local schoolmarm with different eyes.

Where the film falls down is surprisingly on one of its strengths; it’s intelligence. You are given so many scenarios and so many questions that your head can’t really wrap around them all. While repeated viewings might solve this problem, this really isn’t a movie I’d want to see repeatedly. Also, I had trouble with the relationship between Stone and Lucetta; it needed to be spelled out a bit better.

Usually I don’t have an issue with smart films, but you can’t be smart for no other reason than to be smart. There has to be some rhyme and reason and if it isn’t there, you’re going to give your audience a headache. You don’t want your viewers first impulse to be to grab the Excedrin; that’s a bad thing. Still, there are some elements that are gripping and seeing De Niro and Norton at their best is surely worth considering.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro, Norton and Jovovich all contribute strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cerebral plot overthinks things. Some of the characterizations don’t ring true.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, a little violence and a whole lot of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filming location for the prison scenes, the Prison of Southern Michigan, was once the largest walled prison in the world.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Cell

Babylon A.D.


Babylon A.D.

Despite the indicator on her cap, Vin Diesel still has trouble spotting Melanie Thierry.

(20th Century Fox) Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Gerard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Strong, Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Jerome Le Banner. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

In a world where survival is achieved only by the most ruthless and compassion is as extinct as dinosaurs, is it possible that someone could learn the meaning of sacrifice for the greater good?

Toorop (Diesel) is a mercenary/assassin living in a squalid flat in the remains of a former Soviet Bloc city that has fallen into disrepair and decay. Guns are sold on street corners like pretzels and dinner is whatever game you can kill or steal. Toorop has lived by his principles, his wits and his ability to come out ahead whenever violence is necessary.

His flat is invaded by a bunch of goons who interrupt Toorop’s dinner to take him outside to a high-tech armored limo wherein resides Gorsky (Depardieu), a powerful ruthless Russian crimelord who Toorop owes a debt to. Gorsky tells Toorop if he can smuggle a girl to America – New York to be specific – in six days, his debt will be wiped out and Toorop, who is wanted for terrorism in the good ol’ U.S. of A. can get a new passport, the key to a new life.

The girl turns out to be Aurora (Thierry), a curiously naïve young woman living in a convent run by the Noelites, a somewhat recent addition to the religious scene. She will be accompanied by Sister Rebeka, a rather serene nun who can kick booty when the occasion calls for it. The two of them will have to make it to a train that will take them to Siberia, where they can cross the Bering Sea in a commandeered submarine. It becomes reasonably obvious that someone doesn’t want Aurora to get to where she’s going, but Toorop and Aurora herself manage to avoid bombs, traps and cage fighters in order to get across the ocean with the aid of Toorop’s friend Finn (Strong).

Crossing the automated drone-patrolled frontier of Alaska and Canada into the States proves to be a difficult, although not insurmountable problem. Once the trio makes it to New York, they discover their problems are really starting.

Kassovitz, the director of such excellent films as Metisse and The Crimson Rivers, has publically disowned the movie, complaining loudly about studio interference from the beginning and quite frankly, it’s clear that this is the work of many hands. There are nonsensical action sequences that do nothing to advance the plot, and whole chunks of exposition missing that might make the actions of the lead characters a bit clearer.

Kassovitz has a wonderful dystopian vision here; the Eastern European sequences (mainly filmed in the Czech Republic) are dreary and muddy, speaking of a society in major decay where the infrastructure has all but fallen apart. By contrasts, New York is glittering and gaudy, the very model of a futuristic city. Toorop moves through both of them with the same panther-like grace, his very muscles radiating the tension of an animal that can rip your face off at any moment without any provocation.

However, all those beautiful images are submarined (no pun intended) by a plot that is at equal turns ludicrous and muddy, hard to follow and hard to believe when you can figure it out. The appearances of Rampling as a kind of homicidal Pope and Wilson as a scientist on life support who essentially has all the answers to all the questions about who Aurora is and why she’s so damned important. Worth dying for? Apparently yes….twice.

Although critics are fond of taking shots at Vin Diesel, he is far from the reason this movie doesn’t work. His Toorop is the closest thing he’s played to his signature character of Riddick yet; he’s a little less sociopathic than Riddick but still clearly a survivor that will trample over anything getting in the way of his survival. Not particularly new territory for Diesel but he knows it well and covers it adequately.

Yeoh is also a gamer, and she is given even less to work with than Diesel, but still manages to make her character memorable and believable. Yeoh has been one of my favorite actresses for the past decade and I’ll walk many miles over broken glass to see one of her movies…well, almost. Still, I will go out of my way to check out any movie that’s she’s in, even this one.

There are some good solid concepts in here somewhere and there might have been a decent movie made if the studio had left it alone, and if the writers had made the last third a little better. Kassovitz is a very talented director who deserved better material than this which, unfortunately he had a hand in. Still, something tells me he’ll think twice before working for a big Hollywood studio again and that’s a shame; he’s got some really great movies in him that might benefit from those kinds of budgets.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are spectacular. Yeoh and Diesel give it the old college try but really don’t have enough to sink their teeth into.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a real mess. It feels like too many hands were stirring this soup; it’s the poster child for studio interference and overly ambitious directors clashing with the final film being the ultimate loser.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and foul language, as well as some implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The round Sigil Tattoo on Toorop’s neck is meant to be a protective ward and is known as The Gate of the Necronomicon, symbolizing Man, The Creator and The Watchers.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are full versions of the commercials playing in the background, as well as an animated “prequel” that explains some of Aurora’s backstory.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 13 Tzameti