Dheepan


The choices of a refugee are never easy.

The choices of a refugee are never easy.

(2015) Drama (Sundance Selects) Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasthamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaidi, Marc Zinga, Bass Dhem, Franck Falise, Joséphine de Meaux, Jean-Baptiste Pouilloux, Nathan Anthonypillai, Vasanth Selvam, Kartik Krishnan, Rudhra, Tassadit Mandi, Marie Trichet. Directed by Jacques Audiard

 

The issue of refugees from Asia and the Middle East in Europe is a real hot button topic these days. It was one of the key points that caused Britain to leave the European Union and the remaining countries in the Union continue to wrestle with the issue, trying to balance humanitarian concerns with an overwhelming of services in dealing with the influx of new residents.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is winding down and the Tamil Tigers, a fighting group of mostly adolescents but also young men is on the losing side. One of their number is fearful that his participation as a soldier in the Tigers will get him jailed and/or executed so he decides to flee the country. He needs a false passport and gets one for a man and his family, all of whom were killed in the war. The newly re-christened Dheepan (Antonythasan) needs a wife and daughter to make the illusion work; he recruits Yalini (Srinivasan) who is just as eager to get out of Dodge, and orphan Illayaal (Vinasthamby) who has nowhere else to go. The newly minted family takes a boat and heads to France.

They get settled in what appears to be government housing on the edge of Paris. The apartment blocks are overrun by gangs and drugs, much the same as they are here. Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker for the blocks; he often has to dodge drug deals and gang meetings to get his job done. Yalini, who is forced to don a veil when in public even though she isn’t of that religious persuasion, takes care of a disabled old man who turns out to be a former gang member whose apartment is used as a kind of office and conference room for his former gang. Illayaal starts going to a public school where she has issues fitting in – nobody wants to play with her and she reacts the only way she knows how. She also has to learn how to eat with silverware, something she didn’t have to do in Sri Lanka.

The violence they escaped however finds them as the gangs around them erupt into open warfare. The fragile bonds of this family are beginning to dissolve and Yalini is ready to leave France altogether, but still, against all odds, the forced relationship is beginning to take – if the violence doesn’t rip them apart first.

Audiard is one of France’s premiere directors of crime dramas, often taking themes that Martin Scorsese has used and giving them his own twist. This one is superimposed with a timely political issue that seems to be one of Europe’s most pressing concerns at the moment. We get to see the issue from the inside, as the refugees struggle to fit into a society that fears and mistrusts them and in fact despises them. It is clear that all they want is to live in peace but that isn’t always possible in this world.

Antonythasan is a real find. His eyes are extremely expressive; they reflect mournfulness, anger, frustration and occasionally, hope. He is generally disheveled and unkempt but is a handsome man underneath it all as his character is a good man underneath all the wariness and pain. Dheepan has real demons in his past and they are always evident – through his eyes.

Srinivasan is new to the acting game, but she also delivers a raw, uncompromising performance. Her character isn’t always the nicest and she gamely allows the nastier characteristics to be shown as is without glossing it over. In many ways, it’s a brave performance depicting brave people going headlong into the unknown with an uncertain future. It is true that they felt compelled to do it for some pretty overriding reasons but nonetheless one has to admire people who are willing to do that to find a better life. Not all of us could manage.

The objection I have to this film is that the third act eventually becomes an action hero shootout with Antonythasan Schwarzeneggaring it through the last ten minutes or so. After all of that, the ending itself is an abrupt reversal of tone, making three in about fifteen minutes. Even the most skillful directors would have a hard time pulling that off effectively and Audiard certainly has the skills, but unfortunately it doesn’t work here, at least not for me.

Even with that said, this is an impressive movie. It really forces you to see things from the refugee’s point of view and that’s a point of view we rarely get to see amid all the rhetoric of pro-refugee folks who can be condescending about the actual immigrant, and of course the anti-refugee crowd who tend to demonize them as potential terrorists and criminals. Here, Audiard seems to suggest, the refugees have more to fear from the natives than the other way around. I’m not sure that’s true in every case, but it is certainly something to consider.

REASONS TO GO: A crime drama with social commentary thrown in. Searing performances are delivered by the leads. The film addresses a real cultural concern. This is a very human film.
REASONS TO STAY: The third act turns into an action film which is a bit jarring. The daughter’s situation is neglected a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, a bit of foul language and brief sexuality and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Antonythasan was actually a member of the Tiger Tamil as a boy and made corrections to the script in places.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in the Fifth
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Disappointments Room

Appaloosa


Appaloosa

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris discuss the finer points of Western living.

(New Line) Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henricksen, Timothy Spall, James Gammon, Adam Nelson. Directed by Ed Harris

Without law and order, all would be chaos. But who writes the laws and who maintains the order? When the two are one and the same, is it justice or vengeance?

The town of Appaloosa in New Mexico Territory circa 1882 is living without either. The local sheriff and his deputies all disappeared on a routine trip to a local ranch, run by the ruthless Bragg (Irons). In desperation, the town fathers (Spall and Gammon) hire a notorious gunslinger, Virgil Cole (Harris) and his right-hand man Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to become town marshal and protect the town from the increasingly egregious offenses of Bragg’s thugs.

Cole and Hitch make a mark right away when they have a run-in with several of Bragg’s men in the local saloon. When asked to desist from urinating on the bar, they refuse. When told they were under arrest, they guffaw. When told that if they resist arrest or be shot, they resist. When they’re shot, they die.

Bragg is, to say the least, displeased and a wary standoff exists between the vile rancher and the deadeye lawmen. Into this mix comes a young ranch hand who witnessed Bragg murdering the previous marshal in cold blood and is willing to testify. A more devastating development comes in on the stagecoach, Miss Allison French (Zellweger), a widow of limited means and resources who is neither a schoolmarm or a lady of the evening. Instead, she plays piano – and not very well. However, she knows how to use her considerable charms to her own advantage and has the unerring instincts of a survivor. A showdown is inevitable, and the world of Appaloosa will never be the same afterwards.

Harris, one of the finest actors of his generation, hasn’t sat in the director’s chair on a feature length film since 2000’s Pollack and this film couldn’t be more different than the other. There are elements of the old school western to this, but it is firmly New School western as well. It isn’t as violent and brutal as say, Sam Peckinpah might have done it and it isn’t as iconic as Clint Eastwood might have done it.

Instead, this is a movie that is extremely character driven. Virgil is less educated, prone to using words he has difficulty in pronouncing or even remembering; Everett is smarter, quieter, and content to be second banana to Virgil but is as dangerous as a rattlesnake in his own right. Bragg is a steely-eyed villain of the traditional Western, evil because he can be. All three actors in these roles do fine jobs.

At the core of the movie is the relationship between Virgil and Everett, and it is a friendship that is totally believable. Certainly Virgil is not without his flaws, but Everett never questions his boss openly and when he does, only because he sees danger coming. Otherwise, he is fine with letting Virgil do his thing, which sometimes can be unhealthy for those who cross him.

Unfortunately, Zellweger’s Allison is less easy to get a handle on. In these more enlightened times she might come off as manipulative and disloyal, but she is really a pragmatist. She gives her loyalty to whomever can best protect her and provide for her and if something better comes along, she gladly takes it. It’s not a flattering role, but Zellweger bravely assumes it, warts and all.

The big problem with Appaloosa lies in its pacing. Harris is content to let the characters drive the plot rather than the other way around. The advantage to that is that it allows the characters to become real people in our eyes; the disadvantage is that the plot moves along at a fairly majestic place, making the movie feel longer than it actually is. The fact that there are a couple of false codas in place before the final denouement doesn’t help matters.

I will admit to having a soft spot for Westerns. Not because I’m a particular fan of them mind you but because I have a soft spot in my heart for underdogs and no genre fits the description of underdog in Hollywood better than Westerns. They are archaic in many ways and a throwback to a different time and maybe that’s what I like about them most. When well-executed, they are wonderful entertainment. I wanted to like Appaloosa much more than I did, and in some ways, despite its flaws, I still admire it. Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience recommend it completely because of the egregiousness of its flaws. However, I can say that lovers of good Westerns will find a lot to like about the movie. Those who aren’t so fond of Westerns should mosey on to another choice in the video store.

WHY RENT THIS: Westerns are few and far between these days and ones that give you pause to think even more so. Strong performances by the cast and wonderful cinematography make this a solid effort.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing drags in places, making the movie seem longer than it actually is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a modicum of harsh language, just enough to make this for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Mortensen both worked on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four featurettes here but two worth noting; one on the historical accuracy of the film, mostly to do with costume and set design, and an interview with legendary cinematographer Dean Semler.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

Leaves of Grass

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled to be released until a to-be-determined date this summer. A full review will be posted on its theatrical release date or DVD release date. In the meantime, here’s a mini-review.

Edward Norton stars in the dual roles of Bill, an uptight but brilliant academic and Brady, an Oklahoma pot grower who is equally brilliant but pot-addled into a life of lesser accomplishment. When Brady gets into trouble with a drug distributor, he lures his identical twin brother Bill home by faking his death. Once there, Bill gets subjected to a life he left behind on purpose and in the process discovers the family he’d turned away from. With a barrel full of excellent performances led by Norton but including director Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfus and Josh Pais, the movie takes a startling left turn about two thirds of the way through that is unexpected but delightful. It’s a very well made movie that will grow on you, pot references aside. See it at a film festival near you or at your local art house, or if not, on DVD when it comes out in that format.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Waking Sleeping Beauty

12 Rounds


12 Rounds

John Cena has an idea of how to deal with Randy Orton.

(20th Century Fox) John Cena, Steve Harris, Ashley Scott, Aidan Gillen, Brian White, Gonzalo Melendez, Taylor Cole. Directed by Renny Harlin

Police officers are sworn to serve and protect the populace, but the fact is that they are all only human. When everything they love is on the line, how far would one police officer go?

In New Orleans, the feds are tracking Miles Jackson (Gillen), a notorious terrorist, but he turns out to be far too clever for them and escapes their clutches with the aid of his girlfriend Erica (Cole) and accomplice. He is not too clever, however, to avoid the eagle-eyed NOPD patrolman Danny Fisher (Cena) who spots the terrorist’s escape vehicle being driven by his girlfriend. Despite his partner Hank Carver’s (White) misgivings, Danny pulls them over not realizing Miles is hiding in the trunk.

A shoot-out ensues in which Carver is shot, although not seriously and the bad guys flee in their muscle car. Danny pursues them on foot, cutting through yards until he miraculously catches up and uses a conveniently nearby boat to stop the car in its tracks. When the girlfriend attempts to flee the scene on foot, she is cut down by a speeding truck (which apparently didn’t see the boat blocking the street) and killed.

Of course, Miles blames Danny for the death of his girlfriend and plots an elaborate revenge. A year later Miles escapes from prison and kidnaps Danny’s girlfriend Molly (Scott). He informs Danny that he will have to perform a number of elaborate and dangerous tasks. If he fails at any one of them, Molly will die. With the FBI getting involved, New Orleans will turn into a battleground between these two deadly men.

Director Renny Harlin has quite an action pedigree, with such action classics as Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight. While this isn’t to the level of those big-budget films, it’s actually quite satisfactory as an energetic modern action film. Cena, better known as a WWE wrestler, proves himself to be a promising action star, much in the same way The Rock did at a similar point in his career. Does he have the same kind of talent as Dwayne Johnson? I’m not sure, but if he wants to pursue the acting thing I think he could have a future ahead of him. He’s got the charisma and the looks to do it.

The problem here is that the script tends to ask you to take an awful lot on faith. Several of the situations really stretch the boundaries of believability to the breaking point which is a bit of a shame because if they had actually toned it down just a hair this would have been a better movie.

As it is its solid, mindless entertainment that fits the bill if you’re looking to 86 your troubles from your head for a couple of hours. While most of the cast (which is largely made up of unknowns) does a credible job, it is Cena that shoulders the load on his broad muscled frame and he does it with panache. Given the negative reviews this generated, I was pleasantly surprised at how good this movie was. Don’t expect another Die Hard movie but don’t expect a direct-to-video Dolph Lundgren disaster either.

WHY RENT THIS: Cena proves himself to be a decent action star. Harlin is an expert at staging action sequences and these are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a bit on the brainless side. Some of the sequences really stretch believability a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of action but if you feel comfortable letting your child watch Cena on a weekly WWE program, this ought to be fine too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cena is the first wrestler to appear in more than one WWE Films release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on Cena’s stunts in which we learn that the wrestler is deathly afraid of heights. Who knew? On the Blu-Ray edition, there are a couple of viral videos about the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Awake