Under the Wire (2018)


Riding a motorcycle through a drainage tunnel is not recommended – unless you’re running for your life.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Paul Conroy, Sean Ryan, Lindsey Pilsum, Marie Colvin, Wa’el, Edith Bouvier, Dr. Mohamed Mohamed, Remi Ochlik, William Daniels, Anderson Cooper, Janine Birkett, Julian Lewis Jones, Ziad Abaza, Nathan Dean Williams, Karine Myriam Lapouble, Anne Wittman. Directed by Christopher Martin

In this dangerous era when even the gathering of news has become politicized and reporters identified by national figures as “enemies of the people,” we need more than ever to remember the heroic nature of some journalists who risk their lives to report the news – and occasionally, give them.

American Marie Colvin remains today regarded as the finest war correspondent of her generation. She often went into places no sane person would willingly go to tell the stories of those who cannot leave – victims of genocide, civil war or governmental terrorism. She is credited with saving the lives of 1,500 people (mostly women and children) in East Timor in 1999, refusing to leave when other journalists fled, shining the light on what might have been an unspeakable act of violence by the Indonesian government who, faced with Colvin’s bulldog-like reporting, eventually backed down.

She lost her eye in 2001 covering the Sri Lankan civil war by a governmental soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – despite crying out “Journalist, journalist!” which normally stops soldiers in their tracks. She would later claim that this one knew exactly what he was doing. Thereafter she wore an eyepatch which became something of a trademark for her.

Her frequent collaborator, British photographer Paul Conroy (Colvin by this time was employed by the Sunday Times of London) snuck into Homs, a city in Syria that had borne the brunt of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal fury as a stronghold for those wishing a democratically elected government in Syria. They were smuggled in via a drainage tunnel by anti-government activists including Wa’el, a translator for the team. The Syrian government to that time was refusing to allow reporters in Homs ostensibly for safety reason, but more likely because they didn’t want anyone to know that they were raining down a terrifying barrage of mortars onto civilian targets.

On the evening of February 22, 2012, the improvised media center was bombarded by explosive shells even as those who remained were planning to leave. Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the explosion; Conroy and French journalist Edith Bouvier were both gravely wounded. With little in the way of medical supplies, the two journalists desperately needed to get out but things looked pretty hopeless for them.

Martin uses footage shot by Conroy, recreations and other sources to show the last days of Colvin and Conroy’s miraculous escape, as well as interviews with Conroy, Wa’el, Bouvier and journalist William Daniels who was also there, as well as interviews with Colvin’s editor Sean Ryan and colleague and friend Lindsey Pilsum. He also uses some of her television appearances, including her final broadcast from Homs being interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN the night before she died. It is likely that the Syrian government forces utilized her satellite phone signal to target the building, although Syria has to this day denied any involvement with Colvin’s death, asserting that it was a homemade terrorist bomb filled with nails that was the cause of the journalists’ death – a claim hotly disputed by Conroy.

We see the sometimes hard to watch footage of broken bodies and explosions bringing rubble onto the heads of those inside; we watch a nurse assisting Dr. Mohamed Mohamed (who remains in Homs today, treating those wounded in government attacks) realize that the baby she is treating is her granddaughter – and then the agony of having to watch the baby die because they don’t have the medical supplies needed to save her. It is these types of story that are Colvin’s legacy.

The movie is raw and sometimes unbearable. This won’t win any prizes for subtlety. At times it may seem a bit hagiographic but at the same time it also reminds us just how dangerous and non-glamorous war correspondence is, Hollywood’s best efforts to the contrary. The film also makes one wonder why the world hasn’t done something about Assad, a cockroach of a human being – well, that’s being perhaps a bit overly nasty to cockroaches – who should have been tried years ago for war crimes against his own people. It also makes anew the President’s claims against the media not credible.

The fact is that we need the media to keep us informed. How otherwise would we know about the genocide in Rwanda, the continuing crisis in Syria, the atrocities around the world that continue to go on year after bloody year. We justifiably salute first responders and the men and women of the military who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and to save lives. Are reporters like Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, William Daniels, Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy doing any less? Don’t they deserve that kind of respect? This film shows that they do.

REASONS TO GO: This is a true portrait in courage. It is almost like a Hollywood action film in places. Conroy’s account of his escape is absolutely incredible. The images are horrifying and certain to stir some fury at the Syrian regime.
REASONS TO STAY: The depiction of Colvin’s ultimate end is a bit clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some disturbing images as well as depictions of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2016 Colvin’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Syrian government, claiming that they had proof that the attack was ordered by the Syrian military.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Private War
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
To Kid or Not to Kid

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Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.


No matter what the pose is, hip hop star M.I.A. is a controversial figure.

(2018) Music Documentary (CineReach/Abramorama) Maya Arulpragasam, Diplo, Ben Bronfman, Kala Arulpragasam, Spike Jonze, Arular Arulpragasam, Sugu Arulpragasam, Kali Arulpragasam, Justine Frischmann, Nick Huggett, Lynn Hirschberg. Directed by Steve Loveridge

 

In this age where everything is divisive, there are few more polarizing figures than hip-hop superstar M.I.A. To some, she is a terrorist supporter (her father was one of the founders of the Tamil Tigers who fought against oppression of her ethnic group in Sri Lanka). To others, she is a hero standing up for the victims of genocide in her native Sri Lanka. For others, she’s a brilliant musician, combining elements of world music and hip-hop. To some, she’s a dilettante who lives in luxury while railing against poverty.

The truth is that M.I.A., born Matangi Arulpragasam but nicknamed Maya early on in her life, is all of those things. She has always been her own person, refusing to be put in a box. As a child her mother and remaining children (she talks early on how two of her six brothers were killed in Sri Lanka) immigrated to England where she encountered racism and abuse for her refugee status. She spent much of her early life, like most teens, trying to figure out what her place in the world was and early on determined not to be pigeonholed.

Music has always been a refuge for her and although she went to art school with the intention of being a filmmaker and indeed started out making music videos for Elastica and other bands of the era (she and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann became close friends) it was her mash-ups of various beats and ethnic sounds that caught the attention of XL Recordings and with an in-yo-face performance style and unforgettable songs became one of the biggest stars in the world.

She has never been shy about expressing herself; invited by the NFL to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl, she expressed her disillusionment at America by flipping the bird to the cameras for which she was sued by the NFL which was eventually settled. A crude gesture, sure but that’s M.I.A. all over.

Loveridge utilized old home movies and videos (as a teen she was a compulsive recorder of life events) as well as behind the scenes access to create a portrait of a very complex and often difficult woman. She has a voice and a platform and something to say and her activism is on display in an often hagiographic documentary but at the same time she really doesn’t give a rat’s behind what the world thinks about her – yet she seems driven to having as much exposure as humanly possible. Is it so she can get her message across? Maybe…it’s hard to know sometimes what’s hype and what’s real.

My big issue with the documentary is that it jumps all over the place, both in a chronological sense and a thematic sense. At one point we see her with one fiancée, then in a scene or two later she has a different fiancée and is pregnant without any transition. It’s jarring and while I don’t think we necessarily have to delve that much into her personal romantic life, there should be some flow there and that’s what this documentary lacks.

The movie will be making an appearance locally on October 1st at the Enzian Theater for their South Asian Film Festival and while the movie is British in origin, certainly the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka is a big part of this film as is the music of the Tamil culture. What you end up thinking about M.I.A. – disingenuous huckster using her message as publicity for her musical career, or committed and passionate activist desperately trying to bring the plight of the Tamil people to the mainstream Western media – is up to you. I’m not here to review her life, only her documentary and I find the film massively flawed, although the story of her life is compelling enough. Unlike documentaries however, real life doesn’t get the opportunity to be fixed in the editing bay, something this film desperately needed. M.I.A. seems to have done better in that regard than the film about her did.

REASONS TO GO: The activism of M.I.A. is very much to be admired.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary isn’t very well-organized; at times it feels like it’s jumping back and forth all over the map.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loveridge met M.I.A. at film school; this is his first documentary feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Dresser

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

Monkey Kingdom


Monkey see, monkey do.

Monkey see, monkey do.

(2015) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Tina Fey (narrator). Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill

What could be more fun than a barrel full of monkeys? Try an ancient Sri Lankan temple full of monkeys.

The latest nature documentary from Disney’s nature documentary arm once again enraptures us with incredible images of animals in their natural habitats just being themselves. In this case, we’re following a tribe of Macaque monkeys in an abandoned ancient temple that has largely been reclaimed by the jungle. We get to see monkey culture as very much a mirror of our own, with those at the top getting the best of everything and those at the bottom struggling to survive.

The heroine here is Maya, one of the bottom dwellers. She exists on whatever scraps of food she can find on the floor of the jungle. The tops of the fruit-laden fig trees are reserved for Raja, the alpha male and the Sisters, a trio of red-faced dowagers who serve as Raja’s support group. In monkey society, the sisters are essentially born into privilege whereas Raja earns his position by fighting his way to the top.

The social hierarchy is very strict and attempts to rise above one’s place is met with severe punishment. Maya’s outlook changes when she meets Kumar, a male who has been driven from his own tribe by their alpha male looking for a new tribe to join. Kumar is taken by Harold…I mean, Maya…and her cute-as-a-bug bowl haircut that resembles Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber. Eventually Maya ends up pregnant while Raja drives off Kumar when Kumar is a little too flippant with his status. Typical man, running away when responsibility calls, right?

Now Maya is a single mum and she’s not just trying to survive on her own but must eat enough so that her milk flows for her baby. To get the nutrition she needs she has to take a few chances and brave monitor lizards, human settlements and the wrath of the sisters in order to keep her child fed. The whole tribe however faces incredible adversity when another tribe invades their home and pushes them out. With many of the males injured and the tribe displaced, it is surprisingly Maya who leads the tribe to steal food from the humans and lick their wounds until they are sufficiently recovered to make an attempt to take back their home.

Like most DisneyNature films, the animals are anthropomorphized so that kids can identify with them, which to Disney executives is crucial I suppose although I think the executives would be surprised by how kids would identify with the animals without having to resort to making them characters. That’s just me talking though.

What DisneyNature does right in a big way is the footage itself. Did you know monkeys can swim underwater? I didn’t until now, and watching them hunt for lily pad seed pods under water is literally breathtaking. We get vistas of the Sri Lankan jungle, beautiful sunsets, winged termites rising by the thousands becoming a flying feast for the monkeys and so much more. The footage is absolutely transfixing.

The monkey battles are handled tastefully, including the death of one of the monkeys. However, the vision of angry monkeys screeching and galloping into battle like golden brown cruise missiles might upset children of a sensitive nature. You know your child well enough to know whether or not they can handle it. In general I think most children can; as I said, it’s handled with sensitivity but be aware in any case.

Despite my complaint about turning the animals into Disney characters, I still look forward to the DisneyNature films every year. Not only are they incredible to watch but Disney makes a real effort to call attention to issues within the biodiversity of this wondrous planet of ours. They also contribute financially to organizations who help preserve habitats and save entire species, so one has to give respect for that, although I’d love to see them do a film on black rhinos who are nearly extinct. Maybe in 2017. In any case, if naturalist Jane Goodall puts her stamp of approval on a film about monkeys – and she has on this one – you really can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible footage of monkeys and their environs. Teaches us a bit about our own culture.
REASONS TO STAY: The usual bugaboo about humanizing animals. May be a bit too violent for sensitive children.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming was done in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chimpanzee
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: True Story

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The mine train ride from hell.

(1984) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri, Rushan Seth, Philip Stone, Roy Chiao, David Yip, Ric Young, Chua Kah Joo, Rex Ngui, Philip Tann, Dan Aykroyd, Raj Singh, D.R. Nanayakkara, Stany De Silva. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom can only be kindly called a miscalculation. With Lucas wanting to go with a darker mood, which served him successfully in the Star Wars trilogy, writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were brought in (Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was unavailable) and came up with a dreadful mishmash that is set prior to Raiders (of course if Lucas had been thinking properly, he might have remembered that The Empire Strikes Back was the weakest entry in the original trilogy). Yes, there were some dark moments in Raiders, but nobody was ripping anybody’s heart out, and in fact because of this movie the MPAA created the PG-13 rating as a stopgap between PG and R ratings which this movie clearly fell between.

As Temple of Doom opens, Indy is in China, trying to sell the remains of the first emperor of China to Lao Che, a Chinese gangster (Chiao). When the gangster tries to kill Indy, the hero escapes, using unwilling accomplice (and nightclub singer) Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a shield, and a kid, Short Round (Quan, who also appeared in The Goonies) as a driver. Indy’s agent at the airport (Aykroyd in a cameo) books Indy, Shorty and Willie on a cargo plane which turns out to be owned by Lao Che.

The pilot and co-pilot bail out over the Himalayas, causing the plane to crash in India. After a thrilling bail-out and a ride down a mountain in an inflatable raft, Indy, Willie and Short Round reach an impoverished village where the children have been stolen — along with a sacred stone — by the local maharaja (Singh). Indy takes his team to a palace to try to retrieve the stone, and uncover a hideous Thuggee cult, led by Mola Ram (Puri, one of India’s top actors) which is using children as slave labor to uncover the remaining two Sankhara stones, to become tremendously powerful. Indy is briefly drugged and becomes a slave of Mola Ram, but Short Round saves him and the trio escapes, only to find themselves trapped by Mola Ram’s troops while on a rickety suspension bridge over a crocodile-infested gorge.

This movie never feels quite right.  For one thing, instead of retrieving the Lost Ark of the Covenant, he’s basically after three rocks that have some power that is never really defined. There were other problems with the story; it was evident that without the support system of Brody and Sallah, Indy seemed a trifle lost. Also, having the precocious kid save the hero’s bacon again and again also smacked of cliché. I think all in all that it wasn’t able to capture the feel of the old time serials the way Raiders did.

Capshaw’s character whines so much that she’s become truly despised by many fans of the trilogy. Capshaw is a fine actress who performed better in other films (although she basically left acting behind her after marrying Spielberg whom she met and fell in love with during filming of Temple of Doom) and her chemistry with Ford never really meshes.

While Puri makes a terrific villain (maybe the best in the series in many ways), the way he is dispatched at the end of the film is far too easy and convenient. In fact, the movie’s last reel is a real howler, with Ford telling a village elder “I understand the power of the stones now,” which makes one of us. As MacGuffins go, the stones are pretty weak; both the Lost Ark and the Holy Grail at least have some specific uses. Of course, Hitchcock might have said that it really doesn’t matter what a MacGuffin does as long as everybody is after it.

 That’s not to say there aren’t things to recommend in the movie. The mine train chase scene is frankly amazing (although the special effects are a little bit dated) and there’s a riff on the famous swordfighter scene in Raiders. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shows off Sri Lanka’s natural beauty (standing in for India, where government officials refused to give the production permission to film because of objections to portrayals of Indian culture) to great effect. Although this isn’t his best work of the series, it’s still Harrison Ford (and yes, he takes his shirt off here and he looks pretty good) and while it’s arguable whether this will be the role he’s most remembered for (some will say Han Solo is and I can’t bring myself to disagree) it certainly is in the top two.  

This was clearly the weakest entry in the series (at least before the most recent one). With the participation of Short Round, the writers kind of made Indy a bit emasculated; one wonders if they wanted to make the second film more kid-friendly. If so, why have scenes in which human sacrifices are performed where a heart is torn out of a person’s chest still beating and then have the victim lowered still alive into a lava flow? Not exactly Disney now is it?

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Indy; great action scenes and Harrison Ford shirtless which wasn’t a bad thing back in the day.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much kid saving the day. Dark tone clashes with attempts to make it more kid-friendly than the first. Capshaw whines far too much. Fails to capture the serial spirit of the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of intense torture and violence; could be nightmare inducing for wee ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first sequel that Spielberg ever filmed, although technically it was a prequel since it took place the year before Raiders of the Lost Ark was set.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.1M on a $58M production budget; the movie was an international blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Lucky One