Ramen Shop (Ramen teh)


Nothing bonds generations more closely than cooking together.

(2018) Drama (Strand) Takumi Saitô, Seiko Matsuda, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jeanette Aw, Mark Lee, Beatrice Chien, Shogen, Tetsuya Bessho. Directed by Eric Khoo

We all need food to sustain life, but food is so much more than that. It is the sharing of meals, the making of memories; how many of your most precious memories are wrapped around a dinner table? We connect to other people through the breaking of bread.

Masato (Saitô) works in his father’s (Ihara) popular ramen shop in the small Japanese city of Takasaki. His father isn’t a particularly affectionate man and is hypercritical of Masato’s labors although Masato has the potential to be a brilliant chef. Masato’s Chinese mother (Aw) had passed away when he was a child; he knows next to nothing of her family in Singapore (where she grew up) because of…well, he’s not really sure why.

Circumstances suddenly arise that give Masato the opportunity to visit Singapore which after reading an enthusiastic foodie’s blog he is even more anxious to do. He meets the blogger Miki (Matsuda) and she takes him on an exploration of Singaporean cuisine. He manages to track down his Uncle Wee (Lee) who receives Masato enthusiastically and brings him home to stay with his family. Masato has a bit of an ulterior motive; he wants to learn how to make bak kut teh, a pork rib soup that is served with its own special tea. It is a dish that his mom used to make for him before she passed.

Masato begins to slowly piece together the circumstances that led to his mother being estranged from her family. Only his grandmother Madame Lee (Chien) rejects Masato outright and he discovers why; Japanese soldiers had brutally murdered his grandfather, Lee’s beloved husband, during the occupation of Singapore and she had never forgiven her daughter for marrying a Japanese man. Masato however refuses to let things lie the way they are and determines to create a relationship with his grandmother in the only way he knows how – through food.

This is a deceptively light movie which Khoo uses to get us; at unexpected moments, there are powerfully emotional scenes that hit us especially hard because they are unexpected. I won’t deny that during the film’s denouement there were tears streaming down my face and I don’t often cry at movies. I’ll let you in on a little secret; most critics don’t like to feel heavy emotions and so they tend to penalize movies that force you to feel them. I’ve never understood that; part of what attracts me to movies is the powerful emotions they can raise. Sometimes having a good cry at the movies can be cathartic and a good way to cleanse the emotional toxins from our systems.

One of the more powerful and disturbing scenes was Masato visiting a war museum in which Japanese atrocities during the occupation are detailed. This may be a little bit too much for the sensitive to handle. However, one must give Khoo kudos for not backing away or sugarcoating those things and they certainly have an integral relationship with the plot.

Thoughtfully, Khoo also shows us in great deal how the various dishes are created and while he doesn’t include measurements of various ingredients, you should at least get the gist of how to make a good ramen on your own although it is not necessary to make your own ramen noodles which any good ramen shop does.

The main drawback of the film is that Khoo inserts flashbacks during the Singapore sequences of Masato’s mum and dad courting, and of his mother’s life in Singapore. They are handled a bit clumsily and sometimes create an unwelcome jarring note in the film. The transitions could have been handled more smoothly.

Lee and Matsuda are both delightful in supporting roles while most of the rest of the cast is adequate including Saitô. Khoo wisely gives us a kind of food porn, with long lingering shots on steaming broth bubbling in the bowl, falling-off-the-bone tender ribs and various iterations of ramen. It is to Khoo’s credit that he realizes the potential for cultural healing as done through food; as Masato utilizes the pork rib soup into a new type of ramen, one can feel the delicious shifting of cultural prejudices taking place. You will leave the theater hungry and craving a good bowl of ramen.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very powerful emotional moments, particularly near the end of the movie. Nicely illustrates the generational link made through food. Very instructional for those wishing to create some of these dishes at home. Guaranteed to make you crave ramen.
REASONS TO AVOID: The flashback sequences are a bit jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes here regarding the fallout of war and the long-term effects on families.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the rare occasions where the U.S. premiere takes place in Puerto Rico rather than either New York, Los Angeles or one of the major film festivals.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Back to Burgundy
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
William

An L.A. Minute


Your life can change in an L.A. minute.

(2018) Comedy (Strand) Gabriel Byrne, Kiersey Clemons, Bob Balaban, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Renee, Ned Bellamy, Jane McNeill, Katherine Kendall, Craig Anton, Ash Adams, Kimberly Crandall, Brianna Baker, Brad Ashten, Patrick Donohue, J.R. Howell, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Jake Adams, Daniel Guttenberg, David Wood, Jasmine Flanders, Ashley Borders. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

Los Angeles is a dichotomy. Most people think about the glitz and the tinsel, the shining illusions of Hollywood that everyone in Los Angeles is either a gang-banger on the East side or a studio executive in Beverly Hills with a tendency more towards the latter than the former. What outsiders don’t realize is that Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis with as many faces as a city of tens of millions of people can muster. Los Angeles is in many ways inherently unknowable even by Angelenos. I grew up there and I can’t claim to know it; it changes aspects when you’re gone from town for a month let alone twenty years.

Ted Gold (Byrne) is a successful author which in L.A. terms means his books become movies. He lives in a Malibu mansion with his wife Susan (Renee) sleeping on the opposite side of a bed that could easily sleep ten and with a personal chef and maid who start off every morning by spitting in his breakfast. That gives you an idea of how highly Ted is regarded by those around him.

That would include his ditzy agent Shelly (Balaban), his beautiful publicist Tracy (Kendall) and his long-suffering wife Susan (Renee). Ted’s latest “masterpiece” is Kinky Cadavers which is about a homeless serial killer. He ventures out from his Malibu mansion to take meetings, do rounds of publicity on radio shows and talk shows, and have lunch with his agent.

When he accidentally loses a lucky medallion, he goes on a journey among the homeless of Los Angeles and discovers a young performance artist named Velocity (Clemons). He is entranced by her forthrightness, her intelligence and her passion. Under her tutelage he will undergo a journey that will transform his life – and hers.

According to the press notes, this script was written 20 years ago and it shows its age. The cliché of Los Angelinos being kale-chomping New Age douchenozzles is older than that still, and while there are a few who are like that it’s really not universally true. Most of the L.A. residents I know are actually pretty down-to-earth. These kinds of stereotypes and jokes aren’t going to resonate much with those who live in the City of Angels although they might give a few yucks to those who don’t.

Byrne is one of those actors who’s a consummate pro; he never turns in a subpar performance and while he’s appeared in a few clinkers in his time, he generally elevates any film he’s in but this is a rare exception and it’s mainly because it’s the way the character is written. There isn’t one sincere bone in Ted Gold’s body and even when he is confessing his urges to give up the crap he’s writing for something more meaningful, it feels fake and forced – some even see it as a ploy to get more books sold and I’d guess Ted is totally capable of it.

Clemons is actually the scene stealer here; as she was in such films as Hearts Beat Loud. What life there is in the movie mainly comes from Clemons character, who is a free spirit yes but who turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be. Even such cringe-inducing dialogue like “He lost his potency because he lost his purpose” is given a measure of respect in the way she says it which is no easy task, let me assure you.

There are some nice touches here, such as interludes between scenes set in the streets are young people dancing to rap songs, while those set in wealthy areas have sprightly pop music and scenes of SoCal splendor. They get points for filming in Skid Row with homeless extras, but they lose their points for doing that for essentially a woe-is-me rich person problems theme that deals with the problems of being famous. That’s pretty tone deaf if you ask me.

Essentially this movie is The Book of Job given a modern secular twist but as interesting an idea as that might be it relies too much on cliché humor, jokes that don’t hit the mark often and a kind of cynical view of “the industry” and those connected with it. There’s a lot of fertile material in taking on the star-making machine and our celebrity-obsessed society but the movie doesn’t reallyharvest any of it; instead the writers play it safe and that’s what we get here, a movie that feels like people (with the exception of Clemons and Byrne) are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck. This isn’t close to unwatchable but it is only barely recommendable

REASONS TO GO: Clemons is a breath of fresh air.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit (actually, a lot) on the pretentious side and full of L.A. clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mariel Hemingway was originally cast but dropped out just prior to filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 15/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Iron Brothers

The Cakemaker


Bake me a cake just as fast as you can!

(2017) Drama (Strand) Sarah Adler, Tim Kalkhof, Roy Miller, Zohar Shtrauss, Sandra Sadeh, Stephanie Stremler, Eliezer Shimon, Iyad Msalma, Tagel Eliyahu, David Koren, Tamir Ben Yehuda, Sagi Shemesh, Gal Gonen. Directed by Ofir Raul Gralzer

The loss of a loved one is always devastating. Some find themselves having a hard time facing the fact that their loved one is gone. Others feel the need to wrap themselves in everything that reminds them of their late loved one, holding onto it before the memory fades. We all cope with grief differently.

Oren (Miller) is an Israeli businessman whose travels frequently take him to Berlin. His travels to Berlin frequently take him to a café run by Thomas (Kalkhof). It might be for the Black Forest Cake that Oren loves or the cinnamon cookies he takes home to his wife, but as it turns out the connection between the German and the Israeli goes far deeper.

When Oren doesn’t show up at the appointed time and Thomas’ texts and calls to his lover go unanswered, Thomas makes his way to Oren’s Berlin office and there discovers that Oren has been killed in an automobile accident. Gutted, Thomas decides to go to Jerusalem where he finds the café that is being started up by Oren’s wife Anat (Adler). Impulsively, Thomas asks for a job and Anat gives him one as a dishwasher.

However his skills as a baker become much more apparent to the horror of Anat’s brother Moti (Shtrauss) who is deeply distrustful of a gentile and a male one at that in the kitchen. He is concerned that the café’s kosher certification will be threatened. Meanwhile, Anat finds her bond with Thomas deepening, still having no idea of her employee’s relationship with her late husband. Her son Ital (Eliyahu) also begins to open up to Thomas. If the truth should come out, the two will be utterly destroyed.

This is a movie that doesn’t do what you expect it to – and that’s a good thing. I honestly never could figure out where Gralzer was going (he also co-wrote the script) and the choices he made were all good ones. There is a very melancholic air here, understandable considering the subject matter. There are times that Thomas’ actions seem almost creepy but as the movie progresses some sense can be made of them, largely thanks to a flashback late in the film. Still, Kalkhof has a brooding, gentle presence that draws the audience in. Adler is a bit more shrill, but she softens a bit as her character’s relationship with Thomas grows more romantic.

The movie takes it’s time getting where it’s going to which is fine with European audiences but not so much for American filmgoers who are notoriously impatient with slow-paced films. I found the unhurried pace to be actually somewhat soothing; it allows the viewer to process what’s happening. It also allows the filmmaker to linger over some shots of pastries and cakes that are just mouth-watering short of being food porn. My advice is to see this film in a theater that is within walking distance to a nice bakery. You’ll be hungry by the time this is done.

This is an impressive debut for Gralzer and there are few wrong steps taken here. The late-film flashback that explains some of what happened between Thomas and Oren probably should have occurred sooner in the film and the ending was a bit muddled but beyond that this is the kind of rainy day movie that will whet your appetite in more ways than one.

REASONS TO GO: You never know where the film is taking you. The cakes and cookies look incredibly appetizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length feature to be directed by Gralzer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six L.A. Love Stories

The Workshop (L’atelier)


Antoine gives his teacher a speculative look.

(2017) Drama (Strand) Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Florian Beaujean, Mamadou Doumbia, Mélissa Guilbert, Warda Rammach, Julien Souve, Issam Talbi, Olivier Thouret, Charlie Bardé, Marie Tarabella, Youcef Agal, Marianne Esposito, Thibaut Hernandez, Axel Caillet, Lény Sellam, Anne-Sophie Fayolle, Cédric Martinez, Chiara Fauvel, Jorys Leuthreau, Pierre Bouvier, Téva Agobian. Directed by Laurent Cantet

 

The act of writing is an act of revelation. No matter the format or genre, the writer never fails to reveal something about themselves. Sometimes that which is revealed is something dark and disturbing.

Celebrated novelist Olivia Dejazet (Foïs) is running a writer’s workshop for young people in the seaside town of Le Ciotat, near Marseilles. Once a prosperous shipyard, the mostly working class town has fallen on hard times. Unemployment is high and none of the teens who are attending the workshop have jobs. Apparently the purpose of the workshop is to give them something to do.

They are tasked with writing a thriller set in Le Ciotat. The youngsters debate whether to set it in present day or in the past, or in both utilizing flashbacks. The discussion is mostly friendly but there is one youth who is goading the others – Antoine (Lucci), a handsome and buff young man who insists that the novel be a murder mystery. That’s all well and good with the others but when it comes to motivation for the murder rather than something racially or financially motivated or a crime of passion, Antoine insists that it be more of a thrill crime – a sociopath who kills random people because he can. As he writes stories with this theme to read to the class, it is clear he is a very talented writer…and also that his imagination is disturbing to say the least.

Olivia begins to fixate on her young charge and does research, finding that he is watching right-wing nativist videos and shows an unhealthy obsession with guns and violence. Even as Olivia is drawn to him, she begins to fear him equally and what he might be capable of doing.

Cantet is the brilliant director of the brilliant The Class whose output since then hasn’t been released on American shores. The Workshop marks the first film in ten years by this director to get a U.S. release. Will this put him back on the art house radar the way The Class did in 2008? Probably not; the movie is more flawed than its predecessor.

Lucci, like all the other young people in the film, is an amateur actor local to Le Ciotat with no previous screen credit and he’s quite a find. Handsome and intimidating at times, he projects a sense of menace which is not so much overt but more venal than venomous. He seems hell-bent on pushing the buttons of everyone around him, sometime by saying things that are out-and-out racist or misogynist. Cantet hints that he truly believes some of those things but on the other hand there seems to be an ulterior motive that Antoine has in nearly every relationship he’s in with few exceptions. He despises his working class parents and everything they stand for but most of the right-wing commentaries he listens to disdain he unemployed, which he is.

The relationship between Antoine and Olivia is the central attraction here. The chemistry isn’t exactly sexual although there are hints that it might be. Olivia feels an odd compelling fascination that is mixed with outright and justifiable fear. As a writer, she’s curious about what Antoine is capable of. As a woman, she’s terrified over what Antoine is capable of. The resulting mix makes for a fascinating character study.

Unfortunately, none of the other kids in the class gets as much character development and the movie is long, drawn-out and slow paced which is an ingredient for American audiences switching to something less hard on their barely-there attention spans. That said, the film is still interesting – there are archival films of the shipyard’s heyday interspersed with the modern day action – and Cantet has a better handle on French social issues than almost any other director in France.

Readers in Miami can catch the film at the MDC Tower Theater this week. Tickets can be purchased here.

REASONS TO GO: The dynamic between Antoine and Olivia is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is long and slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen drinking and disturbing dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted in the Un Certain Regarde category of the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Friend Dahmer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Where is Kyra?

Front Cover


A handsome, stylish man.

A handsome, stylish man.

(2015) Drama (Strand) Jake Choi, James Chen, Jennifer Neala Page, Elizabeth Sung, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Li Jun Li, Rachel Lu, Wayne Chang, Kristen Hung, Scott Chan, Brian Knoebel, Ben Baur, Shenell Edmonds, Benjamin Thys, Tom Ligon, Fenton Li, Julia Sun, Josh Folan, Peter Benson, Hallie Cooper-Novack, Chris Kies, Morgan Wolk, Jack Ferver, John Cramer, Susan O’Connor. Directed by Ray Yeung

 

Culture can be a blessing and a millstone. Not all of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. That also goes for our sexuality, although that is becoming less of a stigma these days. The LGBTQ community has made some big strides in this country over the past few years but sometimes we forget that it isn’t the same situation everywhere.

Ryan (Choi) is a gay Asian man who works as a stylist in the fashion industry in Manhattan. He’s in demand and very good at what he does, but he is tired of being stereotyped for his sexuality and his culture. He wants a certain magazine cover but instead he’s assigned by his overbearing boss (Villani) to work with an emerging Chinese star named Ning (Chen) who is breaking out in the United States and who had specifically requested a Chinese stylist for his important photo shoot he’s getting ready for.

It is not a match made in heaven. Ning is all about his culture while Ryan is trying to distance himself from his Chinese heritage and embrace his American side. For Ning’s part, he is shocked at Ryan’s open homosexuality. It’s simply not an acceptable part of the culture in modern China. The relationship is rocky and nearly gets Ryan fired but eventually the two begin to find some common ground, particularly when Ryan’s parents get involved. And as the two begin to become friendly, an attraction develops as Ning reveals that he is in the closet. Can two people from two disparate cultures make it work?

This is a movie that has admirable ambitions. Not only does it examine a little-discussed subject in film – being gay and Asian – but from two different angles. Bringing the cultural differences into the mix adds a little bit of spice to the lo mein. One of the big positives here is that Yeung has his feet in both communities and brings his own experiences and perspective to the wok. That lends an air of authenticity to the film that money just can’t buy and is a perfect illustration of what is best about indie films.

The movie rests largely on the shoulders of Choi and Chen and the two work really well together. Their initial antagonism leading to romantic feelings feels a bit Hollywood-esque but the two manage to overcome the clichéd nature of the situation and make the relationship feel real. There’s also some great scenes with Ryan’s parents and grandmother.

In a sense although the romance is at the center of the film, it is really Ryan’s story; it measures his growth and revolves around his perspective. We see the events through his eyes, feel his frustrations and his passions. Ryan is so dedicated to assimilating into American culture that he refuses to have romances with Asian men, only Caucasians. It is this cultural denial – not uncommon among second generation immigrants – that I think is the most fascinating part of the story.

I would have liked the romantic part to have been a little more organic but even though it kind of follows a rom-com formula, this is far from typical. And yes, there are comedic elements here, particularly with cultural fish-out-of-water things but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a comedy or even a dramedy. It tackles some serious issues and gives us insights that maybe we wouldn’t come up with on our own, and isn’t that really the best thing a movie can do for us?

REASONS TO GO: Cultural and sexual attitudes are taken on honestly. There’s legitimate chemistry between the leads.
REASONS TO STAY: The romance aspect seems a little cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leung also runs the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Tenth Man

The Taqwacores


Rock versus punk.

Rock versus punk.

(2010) Drama (Strand) Bobby Naderi, Noureen DeWulf, Dominic Rains, Jim Dickson, Nav Mann, John Charles Meyer, Nicholas Riley, Ara Thorose, Ian Tran, Volkan Eryaman, Tony Yalda, Marwan Kamel, Denise George, Anne Leighton, Rasika Mathur. Directed by Eyad Zahar

Art imitates life, it is said but sometimes life imitates art. Michael Muhammad Knight wrote a novel about a fictitious Muslim punk scene and lo and behold, inspired by the novel, several bands of that nature sprung up. Taqwacore, which is a fusion of the Islamic word taqwa which refers to love, fear and respect for Allah, and hardcore, a sub-genre of punk which many of the Taqwacore bands reside, still is viable today. This indie film is based on the original novel.

Yusef (Naderi) is studying engineering at a university in Buffalo, New York. He is a fairly devout Muslim and feels uncomfortable in the dorms which he finds to be godless and where he is sometimes ridiculed. He decides to find off-campus housing that he can share with fellow Muslims.

Imagine his surprise when he found this house full of musicians and radicals who think that their religion is too strict, too structured. Yusef finds his horizons being widened by such as red Mohawked guitar player Jenangir (Rains) who says “Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.”

Yusef finds his mind broadening but his basic moral framework tested as his new housemates party like it’s 1999 and challenge the very meaning of what it is to be Islamic. Yusef begins to find that the punk ethos dovetails very nearly with that of his new found understanding of his religion.

What I like about the movie is that we get some insight into what it is to be a young man of the Islamic faith in the 21st century. That isn’t always an easy task – few Americans, myself included, really have much of an understanding of Islam. We either look at the lot of them as Jihadists (which they are not) or anti-Christians and particularly, anti-Jew (which most of them are not). I’ve known many people of that faith and you will not find a warmer, more caring and more family-oriented group anywhere.

That said, I like seeing that yes there are people within Islam questioning the things they were taught and told about their religion, very much like what has happened with plenty of Christian young people. I find the thought somehow comforting that questioning one’s faith is somewhat more universal than I first supposed. I don’t know why I would have thought that; it isn’t just a Christian thing after all.

Rains delivers a solid performance as the charismatic Jenangir. With the flaming red Mohawk and natural charisma, he captures your attention pretty much whenever he’s onscreen. I’m sorry I can’t say the same for the rest of the cast, but that isn’t necessarily their fault – their characters are written as fairly bland cliches that don’t really stand out. Yusef, experiencing a life-changing crisis of faith, never seems to change expression much. He may just as well be annoyed that the barista at Starbucks got his order wrong. But then again, his crisis of faith seems rather pat and kind of rote. I wasn’t convinced that he was upset with anything or anyone.

Not everyone is going to love the music here, although I must point out that I found it surprisingly compelling. When you’re aware that the bands that contributed songs to the film were bands that essentially were created because of the original novel this is based on, the songs take on a greater significance.

I would have liked to like this movie more but the rich tapestry of subject matter the filmmakers were given to work with turned out to be a store-bought throw rug. It’s not a bad film, not at all – it just doesn’t really rise far above what you might expect of a movie like this. I would have liked to see greater care in fleshing out the characters somewhat. I would have liked to care about them more.

WHY RENT THIS: Thought-provoking and occasionally informative. Rains delivers a standout performance.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Relies too much on cliche. Characters somewhat bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s rough language throughout and some violence in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is set in Buffalo, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,445 on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogs in Space
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Magic in the Moonlight

Zaytoun


Stephen Dorff can't understand why he isn't a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

Stephen Dorff can’t understand why he isn’t a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

(2012) Drama (Strand) Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Tarik Kopty, Ashraf Barhom, Mira Awad, Joni Arbib, Ashraf Farah, Adham Abu Aqel, Nidal Badarneh, Hezi Gangina, Morad Hassan, Michel Khoury, Osamah Khoury, Doraid Liddawi. Directed by Eran Riklis

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli is one of the world’s great tragedies. From the west, our perspective is that if only cooler heads could prevail on both sides perhaps they could live together in peace. Closer in however the perspective changes and things get a lot more complicated.

In 1982, Lebanon is in civil war and the Israelis are making noises about invading. Palestinian refugee camps house cells of the PLO who from time to time lob rockets into nearby Israel. Young Fahad (El Akal) lives in one such camp in Beirut but despite having a fairly laid back father and grandfather, he skips school regularly to sell gum and cigarettes on the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese themselves are not overly fond of the Palestinians who bring nothing but trouble. They chase Fahad and his friends and sometimes shoot at them. Fahad however s 12 years old and invincible. As for the camp, well, they’re more concerned that Fahad get his training by the PLO. Their homeland isn’t going to reclaim itself, after all.

That all changes with sudden ferocity when Fahad’s father is killed by a falling bomb. Fahad’s feelings for the Israelis moves from disdain and disrespect to downright hatred. Shortly afterwards, Yoni (Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot, is shot down and captured by the PLO. Fahad is given the job of guarding the prisoner whose return to Israel might well bring about the exchange of many of their brothers-in-arms.

Fahad, still seething with hatred and sorrow, torments the prisoner and makes his feelings known to Yoni. When Yoni grabs one of Fahad’s friends to get some leverage to escape, he finds that he can’t harm the child even to secure his freedom. After he lets him go, Fahad shoots him in the leg.

While Yoni is recovering in the local clinic, an incident occurs that gives Fahad second thoughts about his current situation. He approaches Yoni who’s offered to take Fahad to Israel with him if he helps him escape. Yoni seizes the opportunity and agrees. The two steal out into the night.

At first they are antagonistic towards each other (Fahad swallows the key to Yoni’s shackles in order to make sure he can’t run off) but as time goes by, they are forced to rely on each other and they reach an understanding. For starters, Fahad lugs around with him a small bag, a soccer ball (he idolizes the Brazilian star Zico) and an olive tree which he means to plant at the family’s home in Palestine. Yoni thinks he’s nuts at first but slowly grows to realize what the olive tree means. For Fahad, his aha moment is that Yoni is not such a bad man and if one Israeli can be decent, perhaps they are not all as bad as his PLO trainers have made them out to be.

This is essentially a combination of a road film and a buddy film set in the Middle East. Naturally the politics of the region play a heavy role in the plot. Riklis, who previously directed Lemon Tree and  The Syrian Bride, both fine films as this one is as well. In many ways, this is a much more mainstream Hollywood-like film than the other two. Riklis seems to have a real empathy for the Palestinian cause; while he doesn’t come out and say in any of his films that he is in support of their determination to create a country for themselves, all three of these films are seen not from the Israeli viewpoint but from the Palestinian and in all three cases the Israelis are seen as bureaucratic and somewhat insensitive to say the least.

Dorff has been quietly putting together some really quality performances lately (see Brake) and in a just world would be well on his way to the A list. Unfortunately this isn’t a just world and so his work goes mainly unnoticed in small indie films. This is one of his stronger performances and one can only hope that someone is noticing.

El Akal has been in 12 movies in six years and at 15 years old looks to have a pretty strong career ahead of him. While I was a bit frustrated by his performance here – in some scenes he shows tremendous emotional range while in others he is as wooden as the tree he carries around with him – the moments when he is on his game he literally carries the movie. If he can be a little more consistent with his performance there’s no telling what he can achieve.

The movie is divided in three parts; the opening act which focuses on Fahad and his life in (and near) the camp; the second is his and Yoni’s dangerous trek through Lebanon to get across the border – with the help of a Bee Gees-loving taxi driver who provides some needed comedy relief – and the third Yoni and Fahad in Israel and their quest to get Fahad to a home whose location he only vaguely knows. They are all three different in tone; the first harsh and sometimes shocking (a woman is executed for infidelity while Yoni and Fahad negotiate with the cab driver to get them to the border), the second more of a thriller as the two are hunted by the Lebanese military but also by the Palestinian guerrillas. The last act is a bit more warm-hearted and sweet-natured. The three mesh surprisingly well together but that third act is a bit of a letdown after the tension of the second.

I liked the movie about equally with Riklis’ other works. I can’t say that it gives any more insight into the conflict than what we already know – that the two peoples, other than their religious differences, are essentially much more alike than they’d probably care to admit. At the very least they both share a love for a harsh and often unforgiving land which has a beauty all its own.

REASONS TO GO: Dorff delivers another strong performance. Some good suspense and drama.

REASONS TO STAY: El Akal is inconsistent. Some actions taken by the characters aren’t explained well.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence and children in harm’s way; there’s smoking (some of it by children), some foul language and some adult themes and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Zaytoun” is Arabic for “olive” and refers to the olive tree Fahad carries around with him throughout the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Defiant Ones

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Aftermath