A Stray


A day in the park with your dog,

(2016) Drama (Self-Released) Barkhad Abdirahman, Fathia Absie, Faysal Ahmed, Ayla, Christina Baldwin, Jamaal Farah, Ifrah Mansour, George McCauley, Ben Phelps, Andrew Stecker, Rhiana Yazzle. Directed by Musa Syeed

With our President and his followers at the forefront of an anti-immigration movement that has swept through the West, it is a difficult time to be an immigrant, particularly for those who are Muslims and especially from those regions that are hotbeds of terrorist activity. We rarely get the point of view from the immigrant side of things, but the obstacles they face in this country were already hard to begin with.

Adan (Abdirahman) is a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis with his mom and sister, but he is having a particularly hard time with it. Although when employed he is a hard worker, he also has a temper and a willingness to bend rules, turning him to a life of petty crime. When his mother discovers that he has pawned some of her jewelry, she throws him out onto the street.

A kindly Imam gives him shelter and a menial job, and arranges for the restaurant next door to hire him. The owner befriends Adan and gives him the responsibility of delivering food. On his way to his first delivery, he accidentally hits a dog crossing the street. A passing bicyclist guilts him into taking the dog to the vet, where Adan is relieved to discover the dog is uninjured.

Adan doesn’t particularly like dogs; his religion portrays them as disloyal and filthy. He is eager to give the dog away but nobody seems to want the dog. In the meantime Adan scrounges for food and finds places to sleep wherever he can. He gets money working as an FBI informant mainly translating phone calls that the FBI agent (Baldwin) in charge of him thinks might be national security threats but to Adan’s amusement is mainly about much more mundane things.

As time goes by Adan’s attitude towards the dog begins to change. He sees in him a kindred spirit, and even though he refuses to give the mutt a name, he finds himself identifying with a fellow unwanted creature who doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

I love the duality of the title; on the surface it might seem to refer to the dog but in fact it is the man who is the title subject. Adan is the stray here; it is the dog that gives him a sense of worth. It also must be said that the dog is damn adorable.  W.C. Fields famously advised that you should never work with animals or children and he has a point; none of the mainly non-professional cast stands a chance with the dog.

Abdirahman had a supporting part as one of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips but I suspect he’s in over his head here. His delivery is wooden and although there are times when he uses body language to get his points across (and there he’s very successful), he really has issues delivering dialogue with any sort of emotion. It might be he still doesn’t feel confident in his English, which is heavily accented and some of the fellow viewers at the screening I attended complained that he was difficult to understand in places.

Minneapolis has one of the largest concentrations of Somalis outside of Somalia and we get an insider’s look at their daily lives. Most of the immigrants are, like Adan himself, hard-working when given the chance and want nothing more than to live their lives in peace the way they were unable to in war-torn Somalia. They worship in their mosques, educate their children and hope for a better life for them down the road. The one issue I have is that the pacing of the film is extremely slow and even at a scant 80 minutes feels like it would have done better as a 40 minute short.

The anti-immigration movement that was referred to at the beginning of this review plays only on the fringes of the film as snippets of television broadcasts. We don’t see any active bullying of the Somalis by American thugs and I get the sense that even in today’s environment that kind of thing is rare. It certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a part of the life of Adan and his circle of…well, not really friends so much as acquaintances. Still, I found myself thinking about violence against immigrants throughout the film in the back of my mind.

Given what has happened in American politics since this was filmed it is an incredibly timely arrival. This is a movie that I would like to give a much more enthusiastic recommendation to but the flaws are deep enough I can only give it a mild recommendation. This is a movie that embodies a filmmaker with a story that is absolutely worth telling but who is unfortunately still learning how to streamline his storytelling at this moment.

REASONS TO GO: A personalized look at the Muslim refugee issue. The dog is absolutely adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. Abdirahman is less than scintillating in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some language, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lowriders

3 Backyards


3 Backyards

Edie Falco clearly misses her days on “The Sopranos.”

(2010) Drama (Screen Media) Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Kathryn Erbe, Rachel Resheff, Wesley Broulik, Danai Gurira, Ron Phillips, Dana Eskelson, Randi Kaplan, Louise Millman, Pam La Testa, Antonio Ortiz, Nicole Brending, Kathy Searle. Directed by Eric Mendelsohn

 

The suburbs are quiet, peaceful places where we go to raise our children in an environment that is far from urban. Away from the noise and the hectic place, it is a place of lawn mowers, shopping malls and chain restaurants. Still, the peaceful facade can sometimes disguise the most painful of hearts.

Long Island is maybe the ultimate suburb. Being so close to New York City, it offers a respite from the concrete and asphalt, a bit of greenery and wildlife within shouting distance of skyscrapers and taxis. But for all the manicured lawns, the sweet songs of robins and blue jays, all is not perfect here.

Take John (Koteas). His marriage is far from perfect; he and his wife (Erbe) are always fighting and finances aren’t so good. He is going on a business trip but his flight is canceled. Instead of going back home, he checks into a hotel provided by the airline. Instead of staying put, he goes back home and stalks his own family and home. When he calls his wife, he pretends he’s on the plane instead of watching her from the shrubbery. What is he looking for? What does he expect to see? He retires to a diner where he overhears a young woman (Gurira) applying for a waitress position. He follows her out of the restaurant and becomes witness to tragedy.

A little girl (Resheff) impulsively steals some of her mom’s jewelry. Her inexplicable action causes her to miss her school bus. Scared of her crime being discovered (which it surely will if she is late for school), she determines to walk the distance via a shortcut she knows. She comes upon an intimidating young man (Broulik) masturbating in a shed. She also frees a stray dog tied to a tree. Both of these events will have consequences later.

Peggy (Falco) lives a life of quiet unfulfillment. She yearns for recognition, glamour, acknowledgement but instead must settle for a suburban existence of gossip and shopping. She paints as a means of expressing herself, but when a well-known actress (Davidtz) moves into the neighborhood, her imagination is excited. Then when the actress needs a lift to the ferry, Peggy volunteers to drive her, leading to a conversation that is much more revealing of Peggy than it is of the actress.

These three tales are not so much interconnected so much as parallels within the same environment. Mendelsohn’s first film, Judy Berlin, was made very much within the same kind of suburban purgatory as this, his second which follows ten years after the first. Notably, Falco stars in both films and is really the chief reason for seeing both.

All of the characters are for the most part drifting through their own landscapes, powered by their yearnings and melancholy. That pervasive aimlessness colors the movie and prevents it from really taking hold in the imagination, or at least mine – the movie has been well-reviewed and obviously it is connecting with critics other than myself, so take my own lack of connection with a grain of salt.

Falco, who most will remember from her television roles in “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” is one of the best actresses working today. That she isn’t doing more movie work is most likely due to her heavy television schedule, but she always puts on a marvelous performance and this is no exception. Her story arc is the most compelling of the three and she and Davidtz work well off of each other and even though much of her storyline puts her in a car having a conversation, it nevertheless has the most dramatic tension.

Koteas, a longtime character actor who has had moments of brilliance throughout his career, turns in another fine performance as John. While it is at times difficult to understand what is going on inside his head (which to be truthful is true of most of us in real life), we get a sense of his frustrations thanks to Koteas. John’s not getting what he needs in his marriage and career so he plays hooky one day, probably not understanding why he’s doing it himself.

There is a lot of passive-aggressiveness in the movie, if I may do a little armchair psychoanalyzing and that’s okay although it gets a little bit tiresome here. The dialogue sometimes doesn’t ring as true as it might – I get a sense of a writer trying to be clever rather than real people talking.

I also get a sense that there is a good movie here and I’m just not seeing it. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood that day to absorb it properly, or for whatever reason I just couldn’t find a place to latch myself onto. That happens sometimes. I can’t really recommend the movie – I can only go by how I react to it and as you can probably guess, my reaction is fairly negative but those who like Edie Falco should see it and if any of this sounds appealing to you (particularly if you are looking for a suburban-set slice of life) do feel free to disregard my un-enthusiasm and give it a whirl.

WHY RENT THIS: Superior performances from Falco, Davidtz and Koteas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit too much. Dialogue  a bit stilted in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene that has some sexuality involved but most of the rest of the film carries some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mendelsohn is the only director to have won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice; for this film and also for Judy Berlin in 1999.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43,073 on an unreported production budget; might have broken even but it probably didn’t.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mission: Impossible 2

Uncertainty


Uncertainty

Heads I win…tails you lose!

(2009) Drama (IFC) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins, Olivia Thirlby, Assumpta Serna, Louis Arcella, Nelson Landrieu, Manoel Felciano, Jenn Colella, Giana Luca, Sofia Luca, Ana Cruz Kayne, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Ed Wheeler, Michaela Hill. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

 

It is said that every decision we make creates an alternate reality. Take the right fork and life unfolds one way; the left and it turns in a completely different direction. We never know which way things will turn out.

Bobby (Gordon-Levitt) is a Canadian musician waiting for his green card. Kate (Collins) is a Broadway actress and dancer. They have been together for ten months and they are deliriously happy together. They meet in the middle of the Brooklyn bridge on the fourth of July and they are trying to come to a decision as to what to do. Bobby flips a coin; then they both run in opposite directions Bobby towards Brooklyn and Kate towards Manhattan. At the end of the bridge on either side they meet…each other?!?

Here the story veers off into two different directions. The Brooklyn side (in which the couple wears green) is one in which Bobby spends the weekend with Kate’s Argentine parents who are a bit old school. Kate’s mom Sylvia (Serna) doesn’t trust Bobby much and wants Kate to make something more of herself. Kate bonds with her little sister Sophie (Thirlby) who wants to follow in her footsteps while Bobby tries not to feel too out of place.

The Manhattan side (in which the couple wears yellow) the couple find a cell phone left behind in a taxi. When Bobby calls the number on it to get the phone to its rightful owner, he lands the couple smack dab in the middle of a situation. When someone comes to claim the phone, he is shot dead before their eyes. The two wind up running from a ruthless assassin hell-bent on retrieving the phone at any cost.

This is one of those parallel story films that occasionally crop up (Sliding Doors is the best-known of these) but the styles of story are about as dissimilar as you can get; one is a slice of life drama that explores the couple’s relationship and personalities whereas the other one is an action-thriller a la Collateral that moves at break-neck speed. The problem here is that the two storytelling styles are so dissimilar that they actually clash.

The pacing of the thriller gets thrown into painful reverse by the thoughtful reveries of the drama. The effect is jarring and off-putting. The sad thing is that if they had told the stories straight, both of these tales – or either one – could have been a compelling movie on its own, particularly the Brooklyn portion.

Gordon-Levitt is a reliable actor just coming into his own when this was filmed. You can see that he has gained in confidence from his indie films of just a year or two earlier. Collins is a performer who generally does a lot of supporting parts although she’s had lead romantic roles in a movie or two; she has some pretty good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt although Kate is a bit whiny in places.

I kind of wish they’d taken the couple from the Brooklyn film and put them into the Manhattan film; the Bobby and Kate of the thriller do a lot of stupendously dumb things, to the point where it becomes almost farcical. Conversely the Brooklyn portion drags in places, mainly because of the contrast with the high-energy Manhattan portion.

There was a good movie to be made here but unfortunately this turns out to be two mediocre movies crammed into the same reel. It wasn’t a bad idea – it’s just the thriller and the drama aren’t really compatible which ends up making the movie a little bit unsettling and quite frankly, life is unsettling enough without having to get the same feeling from your entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Gordon-Levitt and Collins. Nice idea.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Thriller and slice-of-life drama don’t mix very well. Sometimes seems awkward and forced.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, sexuality and just plain bad language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was written without dialogue. This was done on purpose so that the actors could improvise their dialogue on the spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some audition footage from Gordon-Levitt and Collins doing a scene that was never filmed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36,689 on an unreported production budget; this is most likely a box office bomb.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: 5 Days of War

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Keira Knightley and Steve Carell are not impressed with the dailies.

(2012) Dark Comedy (Focus) Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Derek Luke, Gillian Jacobs, T.J. Miller, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Mark Moses, Bob Stephenson, Martin Sheen, Melinda Dillon, Tonita Castro, Jim O’Heir. Directed by Lorene Scafaria

 

What would you do if you knew that you were going to die. Not just you, but everyone. Everything? All that we have made, all that we have done – all gone. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you want to be with when the end comes?

That’s the question that confronts Dodge Peterson (Carell). Actually, it confronts everybody. An asteroid named Mathilda (and how sad that the instrument of our destruction is called Mathilda) is on its way on a collision course with Earth. Attempts to divert the 80-mile wide rock have failed miserably and in 21 days, it will crash into our world, killing all living things and, in all likelihood, a few dead things as well.

His wife, upon hearing the news, makes a run for it, with someone she actually loves as opposed to her husband whom she has been cheating on for quite awhile anyway. Dodge, an insurance salesman, makes a few desultory attempts to go to work but as it becomes clear that society will be soon breaking down completely, he gives up on that.

His maid (Castro) comes in as always, preferring to keep herself occupied and gently reminds Dodge to pick up some window cleaner. Returning home from the store through the park, he notices some young people embracing. Despondent, he ingests the entire bottle of cleaning product and lies down.

He wakes up the next morning, feeling a bit ill but having the cleanest esophagus in town. He also has a dog whose leash is tied up to his ankle with a note reading only “Sorry” on his chest. He takes the dog home. He also runs into Penny (Knightley), a neighbor who has lived in the same complex for three months but whom he hasn’t gotten to know although she is well aware of his wife – and her boyfriend, which is how Dodge comes to learn of her infidelity.

Angry, he throws out all of her stuff and in the process finds a box of his mementos, including some pictures. As he takes a trip down memory lane, taking sips from a bottle of prescription cough syrup that his wife left behind, he notices Penny sitting on his balcony, crying. He invites her in after agreeing not to rape her (in exchange, she promises not to steal anything). She is distraught not just because the world is ending but because she broke up with the loser boyfriend (Brody) that she left England for and now will never see her family again because all air travel has stopped (and cell phones and land lines are useless since nobody is sticking around to keep those systems running).

It also turns out that Penny has been getting some of his mail mistakenly and has just now remembered to give it to him. Among the letters is one from his first love Olivia, who he’d broken up with long ago and who had gone on to marry someone else. But, the letter says, she’s divorced now and is looking to reconnect with the true love of her life – Dodge.

He realizes that he needs to go find her because this might – okay, will be – his last chance at true love. However, there is rioting going on, increasing in violence and as it becomes apparent the apartment complex will be overrun, Dodge finds Penny and begs her to drive him to his home town where he can find Olivia (his own car got taken out by a suicide jumper). He promises in return that he knows a guy with a plane who can fly her to England.

On that note, they set off. On the way they run into a variety of people, including a trucker (Petersen) who doesn’t want to wait for the asteroid to incinerate him and an ex of Penny’s named Speck (Luke) who is planning on riding out the asteroid in an underground bunker with a six month supply of potato chips and who is eager to have Penny stay as breeding stock. What Penny and Dodge find on their journey to be with the ones they love is not what they expect.

From the initial sound of it you might think this is a movie about death but it’s not. It’s a movie about life. It’s a movie about how precious life is and a reminder that we are all under a death sentence – we just don’t have the date marked down on our calendars just yet.

Carell plays the subdued, somewhat wallflower-ish guy better than anybody; he’s done it well in such movies as Crazy, Stupid, Love and Dan in Real Life. This is his best performance to date. Dodge is a man who hasn’t lived life; life has just happened to him, and he feels a certain sense that he’s missing something. He comes to live for the first time in those final days, and not just because he shows up at parties that become orgies, or stopping in restaurants where everybody is determined to party the rest of their lives away. For the first time, he is doing something instead of being done to and it empowers him in ways you might not imagine.

Knightley is an Oscar nominee who has proved in other movies that she’s not just a pretty face. She is continuing to grow as an actress. Penny is a free-spirited sort who has made a mess of her romantic life, putting her in a position that she is far from the places and people she loves when it is too late to get back to them. Penny is a bit kooky, but Knightley subdues that aspect of her personality, making her more of a person who marches to her own beat rather than someone who has to wear her quirkiness on her sleeve, which is a refreshing change given how many offbeat indie heroines I’ve seen lately.

The underlying theme here is that life is meant to be lived and none of us know how much time we really have. There’s no sense in living a life of regret because there will come a time when it is time to pay the piper and when we justify our lives to whatever higher power you believe in, it is the regret we must justify with the least amount of ammunition to do it with. I found this movie uplifting, despite the subject matter. When we left our screening, Da Queen and I overheard a teenage girl complaining to her boyfriend that the movie was too depressing. Perhaps she lacks the life experience to see past the end of the world aspect – it is in the title after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise – but there is a rich subtext going on here that is very much worth exploring. The worst aspect of this movie is that I think the studio made a mistake in when they released this. Despite the apocalyptic element of the movie, it really doesn’t fit in as a summer film. It might have been better served as a fall or holiday release. I think people are more in tune with this kind of movie at that time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Gives much pause for thought. Strangely uplifting even though the subject is a bit depressing.

REASONS TO STAY: Inconsistent. Lacks a sense of social anarchy that would surely occur.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of drug use, a little bit of violence and quite a bit of foul language, some of it sexual.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife of Dodge Peterson is played by Steve Carell’s real-life wife, Nancy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are pretty polarized.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile

VINYL LOVERS: Penny has an extensive collection of vinyl records from the 60s, 70s and 80s as well as a pretty sweet audio set-up.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter