Capernaum


The love of a child is a wonderful thing.

(2018) Drama (Sony ClassicsZain Al Raffea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef, Cedra Izzam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Elias Khoury, Mohammad Al Abdallah, Faten Asmar, Lama Begaum, Mohammad Chabouri, Samira Chalhoub, Nour El Husseini, Mohammad Hammoud, Farah Hasno, Tamer Ibrahim, Nadine Labaki. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment. Others are meant to be a punch to the gut. This film is of the latter persuasion.

This Lebanese film – winner of the Jury Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where it debuted, and also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars – introduces us to Zain (Al Raffea), a young refugee boy living in Beirut with his parents and many siblings. He is closest to 11-year-old Sahar (Izzam) who periodically joins him on the streets, trying to raise money by selling cups of tomato juice. When his hapless parents – bleary-eyed father (Yousef) and overwhelmed mother (Al Haddad) – sell Sahar to a pedophilic shop owner (El Husseini) for a bunch of chickens, he realizes that he cannot live in that house anymore and runs away.

On the streets he finds Rahil (Shiferaw), an undocumented refugee from Ethiopia with a cute little toddler son Yonas (Boluwatife) who gives Zain shelter and food. In return, Zain watches little Yonas while Rahil goes to work, trying to earn enough to buy forged work permits from Aspro (Chouchnieh) who would be willing to exchange the forged papers in exchange for her son, which she absolutely refuses to do. When Rahil doesn’t show up back home from work one night, Zain is forced to try and get food and money any way that he can. Then, he receives word of a tragedy that will change the trajectory of his life and put him in jail, where he decides to sue his parents for having given him life.

The movie alternates between courtroom drama and social realist drama, with the latter taking the bulk of the film and with good reason for it is much more fascinating than the legal drama. Labaki tells the story mostly in flashbacks from the courtroom proceedings, which while packing some emotional punch do not compare to the almost matter-of-fact way that Labaki displays everyday horrors that confront the impoverished in Lebanon.

As with her other films (this is her third feature), Labaki casts mostly non-professionals in roles that parallel their own lives. The actors were encouraged to react to various events as they would in real life, giving the film a raw you-are-there quality. There are no punches pulled here nor does Labaki offer apologies for the way Zain and his parents act; they are desperate people doing whatever it takes to survive, but at least Zain is able to find humanity within his heart through caring for Yonas. His parents never do.

The movie, at two hours long, is overwhelming in a lot of ways and should not be undertaken lightly. Still, if you need to understand that there are people who have it worse than you do – a lot worse – this is the film to see. It is also the film to see for the cutest toddler performance ever, which is counterbalanced by the blazing performance given by Zain who swears like a sailor throughout and although he’s 12 or 13 (his parents aren’t precisely sure and there’s no paperwork to prove that Zain even exists) he is wise well beyond his years. In any case, lovers of movies shouldn’t pass up this gem.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating mix of courtroom drama and slice of life. Realistic, raw performances throughout. Never pulls punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The boy who played Zain has since been relocated with his family to Norway where he is learning to read and write.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV,  Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Mindfulness Movement

Up and Away (Hodja fra Pjort)


Big people should check for size limits when getting on the ride.

(2018) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Eoin McCormick, Lucy Carolan, Marcus Lamb, Dermot Magennis, Doireann Ni Chorragain, Gary Cooke, Paul Tylak, Susie Power. Directed by Karsten Kiilerich

 

I suppose in an age of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West that the adventurous tales of ancient Arabia don’t hold as much luster. Great heroes like Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad and Scheherazade were much more in vogue when I was growing up and I still remember being captivated by exotic cities with onion domes, minarets and flying carpets. That kind of magic is the sort the world can still use.

This Danish animated feature from an Oscar-nominated animated short director would seem to have more than a little interest for folks like me even if it is based on a more contemporary story. Hodja is a young boy, the son of a tailor in a small village, who dreams of going on great adventures. A carpet seller and neighbor who sells his father’s rugs happens to have a magic carpet and wants to help Hodja go on adventures with his best friend – a goat. The friendly but sad carpet seller wants only one thing in return – for Hodja to find “the diamond,” which turns out to be his granddaughter that he left behind when he fled from an evil Sultan who lives in the big city of Pjort.

Hodja and his goat fly off to Pjort to find their adventure but instead find a city on the brink of starvation, where street kids find whatever scraps they can in exchange for shelter. The miserly owner of the shelter, known as The Rat to one and all because of his rodent-like face, soon discovers that Hodja is in the possession of a magic carpet and knows the Sultan will make him a general in his army in exchange for the carpet. So he steals it from Hodja, leaving the boy stranded in the city. He must use his wits to get his borrowed carpet back or never see his family again.

The animation isn’t half-bad with some beautiful vistas of a city right out of Arabian Nights. It also isn’t half good, as many of the characters look like cartoons. Unfortunately, this is no Aladdin although the setting is similar. The characters are all given exaggerated features and look decidedly like cartoons. That might be fine for Saturday mornings, the 1980s or the Cartoon Network but kids today are a little bit more sophisticated except for maybe the very young.

Making things worse is that the story is very predictable (you’ll be able to figure out who the granddaughter is without breaking a sweat) and the characters very cliché – the disapproving dad, the headstrong girl, the greedy Sultan and the sneaky Rat – and none of them are developed much beyond that. I get that animated features intended for kids don’t necessarily have to meet high standards of character development but come on! I guess these cliché characters might be new to the very young.

I suspect in fact that this is meant for younger tykes – one gets a distinct impression that the filmmakers are dumbing down the proceedings which is a common failing with animated features. You certainly don’t get the impression that there is enough respect here to understand that kids actually appreciate a better quality story than one that just goes through the motions. Even the least discerning kids will likely get bored with this quickly.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice animated sequences. The music is nice.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is predictable and the characters are all cliché. This is pretty dumbed down for the kids. The ending is just awful.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kiilerich was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1997 for When Life Departs.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Under the Wire

La Familia


Father and son are on the run.

(2017) Drama (Celluloid Dreams) Giovanni Garcia, Reggie Reyes, Kirvin Barrios, Indira Jimenez, Ninoska Silva, Vincente Quintero, Mariû Favaro, Dixon Dacosta, Tatiano Mabo, Alberto Gonzalez, Morris Merentes, Natacha Pérez, Luis Domingo Gonzalez, Sahara Alvarez, Jesus Rivas, Andy Duque, Miguel Angel Suárez, Franlys Diaz. Directed by Gustavo Rondón Córdova

The economic woes in Venezuela have brought that nation to the brink of collapse. What does that mean to those that live there however? For the wealthy, it’s pretty much business as usual. For the poor of Venezuela, the effects are devastating.

Pedro (Reyes) is poor. He’s a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t attend school which doesn’t seem to alarm anyone. He lives in one of the more impoverished districts in Caracas, the capital. His father Andreas (Garcia) is a day laborer, working whatever odd jobs he can find to squeak by. His mother is nowhere to be found; whether she is dead, deserted or divorced the movie never quite elaborates.

Pedro, essentially growing up without any supervision, runs around the streets with a group of kids, each trying to prove how much tougher they are than the rest. Pedro mostly pals around with Jonny, his best friend. One afternoon they are accosted by a kid with a gun who attempts to rob them of the cheap cell phone they found. Pedro, never one to take anything lying down, gets into a fight with the would-be robber. It ends badly for the young kid.

When Andreas finds out, he knows what he has to do; get the heck out of dodge. He knows that the kid that Pedro hurt has relatives who are in the gangs that run the ghetto, and they are going to make an example of both Pedro and his dad. Andreas takes a reluctant Pedro to a different part of the city and tries to earn as much money as he can so that they can get out of Caracas forever.

But that isn’t going to be easy. Pedro is headstrong and has zero respect for the work ethic of Andreas. For his part, Andreas is not above stealing some bottles of booze from the catered parties he works as a waiter at from time to time when his mostly construction work is done for the day to resell for a little extra cash but otherwise prefers to walk the straight and narrow, preferably crouched down under the radar. Pedro prefers to stand up straight and tall and take on all comers, bowing and scraping to nobody.

The two get along about as well as two brood bulls in a paddock full of cows. Pedro wants to go back to where he belongs; Andreas wants something better and knows he will never find it for himself. Something’s got to give.

This is a terrific character study in that both Andreas and Pedro are given richly developed personalities of the kind we rarely see in the movies anymore. Neither one is cliché and neither one is easily summed up. Neither Andreas nor Pedro can be put into a specific box; they are both complex and imperfect. Much of the realism of the film – which was filmed in some of the worst crime-ridden areas of Caracas – is owed to how well the two main characters are shaped.

Garcia, a celebrated stage actor in Venezuela who has done some memorable film roles as well, owns the screen. His gaze is that of a frightened lamb who knows the slaughterhouse is nearby. His eyes dart from place to place, but he seems to find peace and satisfaction in working hard. Eventually the joys of receiving a paycheck begin to affect Pedro who starts out as a tough guy but shows layers of depth as the film wears on.

.The tone here is pretty bleak, not just for Pedro and Andreas but for Venezuela as well. While Córdova isn’t pointing specific fingers here, there is no escaping that this is a parable for his country from the corruption to the crime to the hopelessness. The realism inherent in this film is sobering and smacks of truth. I can’t speak directly to the situation in Venezuela but I know poverty and how it affects of the souls of those afflicted by it and that’s where this film soars. That this is a first feature for Córdova is impressive; no doubt so long as he doesn’t get into hot water in his native land he is going to be a major talent coming out of Latin America. This movie is a triumph from beginning to end.

REASONS TO GO: The father-son dynamic is caught perfectly. The life lessons here are hard-earned – as they are in real life.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this film to be too bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity as well as sexual content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reyes was discovered by casting personnel for the film while playing soccer in a middle class neighborhood in Caracas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running Scared
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee