The Attack


Sometimes what you don't know CAN hurt you.

Sometimes what you don’t know CAN hurt you.

(2012) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Ali Suliman, Uri Gavriel, Reymond Amsalem, Karim Saleh, Evgenia Dodena, Dvir Benedek, Abdallah El Akal, Ezra Dagan, Nathalie Rozanes, Ofri Fuchs, Michael Warshaviak, Eli Gorenstein, Vladimir Friedman, Esther Zewko, Ruba Salameh, Ramzi Makdessi, Ihab Salameh, Hassan Yassine, Nisrine Seksek. Directed by Ziad Doueiri

The person that we should know best is our spouse. In an ideal relationship, there are no secrets (at least no serious ones) and we can safely say that we know the person we are married to better than anyone else does – perhaps better than we know ourselves.

Dr. Amin Jaafari is a surgeon of Palestinian descent who has made a place for himself in Israeli society. He and his beautiful wife Siham (Amsalem) live in a lovely home and are accepted by their Jewish neighbors and colleagues. When he becomes the first Palestinian to win a major award for medicine in Israel, he figures he’s made it, although he’s a bit miffed that Siham isn’t there to share in his moment of glory after she goes to Nazareth to visit her family.

The next day, a bomb explodes in a nearby restaurant. 17 people die and dozens are injured. Dr. Jaafari is busy trying to save the dying and help the wounded. He sees firsthand the results of terrorism and doesn’t like what he sees. He goes home and falls into an exhausted sleep but is awakened early in the morning by a call from his friend Raveed (Benedek), an Israeli police officer, summoning him to the hospital. He figures there are more casualties but that is not why he is there. He is brought down to the morgue and is shocked to discover that one of the bodies from the bombing is that of his wife Siham. Half of her body has been blown away. The good doctor faints dead away.

His nightmare is just beginning however. It turns out that the authorities suspect that Siham was a suicide bomber. At first Dr. Jaafari is incredulous. Siham a terrorist? No….HELL No! Nobody knows his wife like he does after all. Dr. Jaafari is certain that when the terrorists release their video as they inevitably do that she will be exonerated. However Captain Moshe (Gavriel) is certain and puts the doctor through an intense interrogation until at last they are satisfied that he knew nothing of the attack. However his neighbors and friends aren’t so sure and distance themselves from him or worse, vandalize his home. His colleague Kim (Dodena) and Raveed stick up for him but Dr. Jaafari is being backed into a corner. Finally when he is given tangible evidence of his wife’s guilt, he journeys to Nablus to find out how she could do such a thing – and who was responsible for turning her into a monster.

As you can tell from the synopsis this is a very intense subject matter. Suliman, an Israeli actor of Arabic descent, has appeared in a couple of high-profile Hollywood projects (Kingdom of Lies, Body of Lies and the upcoming Lone Survivor) and has also appeared in some very good local productions (primarily Paradise Now, Lemon Tree and Zaytoun). This is his best performance to date. It is wrenching to watch his anguish but also his rage. How could he have missed it? Why did she do this awful thing?

To answer those questions he has to go to Nablus and he finds himself in the awkward position of being the husband to a martyr whose death has been glorified. The more he talks to those who may or may not have had anything to do with her choice to do this monstrous thing, the more it becomes obvious that these people are intractable; reason doesn’t enter into it. Dr. Jaafari isn’t trusted and while his wife’s sacrifice keeps him from getting a bullet through his brain, neither does it give him any clout whatsoever when exploring the chain of events that led to her fateful decision.

In the end it was her visit to a site of an Israeli aerial attack that led her on that terrible path. While the movie does get a little slow getting to Nablus, once it’s there we realize that part of the problem in the Middle East is that they are in this awful spiral which neither side will put a halt to by simply saying “We will not retaliate. We won’t escalate. We will just stop.” It is a kind of insanity, one born out of hatred and fear. One idiot reviewer chastised the film for not providing answers. Seriously dude? Some questions have no answers. Sometimes the truth is unpleasant and horrible. One sees a movie like this and understands that the hope for peace in the Middle East is like picking out the right grain of sand on a beach. It requires patience and  perhaps more time than a single life can survive. There are no answers here and maybe Dr. Jaafari isn’t asking the right questions. Either way this is the kind of movie that will generate a great deal of dialogue on its own – a movie that works equally well in the heart and in the head. Talk about a precious grain of sand on the beach…

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Suliman. Raises some intriguing questions.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images are pretty disturbing, there’s some violence and a bit of sexuality and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only Arabic or Muslim country to show the film has been Morocco. Many cited the reason for that was that it was filmed in Israel.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day Night Day Night

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Heartbeats

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The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker

This is about to be a very bad day at the office for Staff Sgt. William James.

(Summit) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo. Directed by Karthryn Bigelow

The movie opens up with a quotation from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” That is to say, the exhilaration brought on by the adrenaline rush of imminent death and constant danger is addictive. At least, so it seems to be for some.

Staff Sgt. William James (Renner) is a bomb defuser for an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, responsible for rendering harmless roadside bombs, car bombs and other devices meant to cause harm to soldiers and civilians alike. It is Iraq in 2004, and the U.S. military has become entrenched in a war no longer justifiable, at least to our minds. Those who are there might see things a little differently.

James has joined a support crew of Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) and the team’s nominal leader Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) due to the grisly death of his predecessor, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Pearce). This is indeed a dangerous business, and the support crew needs to be as alert and on their toes as the bomb defuser or else people die. The support crew keeps watch for Iraqis with detonation devices, snipers or other means of causing the defuser to be unable to do his job. The support crew, particularly Eldridge, had failed to do this and Thompson wound up paying the price for it.

Eldridge and Sanborn have about a month left in their rotation and their only concern is making it out alive. While Sanborn is a pretty by-the-book guy, James is another kind of animal entirely. He is reckless, taking chances not only with his own life but with those of his team. He disobeys protocol without batting an eyelash. The only thing that keeps him from being locked up is that he is absolutely superb at what he does, taking terrifyingly complex devices and figuring out how to defuse them safely.

He seems to be an adrenaline junkie on the surface, but he has another side to him, one he doesn’t allow his team to see. He befriends a young Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs; when the boy is killed by insurgents, James loses it. He is almost cocky in his arrogance but shows a great deal of vulnerability when he lets his guard down – which is admittedly not all that often.

Still, he is called upon to take out bomb after bomb in the heat of an Iraqi summer. How long will his luck last – and how long will his skill save him?

This is the reigning winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and you certainly can argue that it deserved it. While there is much room for debate over the morality of the war, this isn’t about whether we should be there and instead tackles the question of how the stress of being there affects those who deal with the situation day after day.

Jeremy Renner was until now a well-regarded but not well-known actor but all that has changed. The performance he gives here is a career-maker, one that will be associated with him for the rest of his life. His portrayal is nuanced and layered; you get a sense of what motivates SSgt. James but only tantalizing glimpses; much of what is behind the bravado is inferred, and Renner does a marvelous job of giving you clues without being overt.

Lost in the accolades for Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her work here and for Renner, who was nominated for a Best Actor, is the supporting cast. Mackie and Geraghty in particular deliver top notch work, giving Renner all the room he needs to shine.

Bigelow ratchets the tension up with every mission the team goes on. Each bomb is more fiendish and complicated than the last. Because we come to care for these characters, the tension works much better because we don’t want to see them get blown to pieces.

At times the imagery is simply horrifying, much more so than any horror movie can deliver because you realize that the perpetrators are human beings and that these kinds of things really do go on, with our servicemen and women having to deal with the emotional fallout of these horrors. Some of what we see is almost beyond imagining, like a young boy who has an explosive device surgically implanted in him, or an unwilling man who has a suicide bomb strapped to him. The cruelty of those who would do such things makes you wonder if it might not be better for everyone involved if we didn’t bomb the whole damn country back into the Stone Age. Of course, we have to keep in mind that they are the actions of a fanatic few, not the entire population but the thought is certainly tempting at times.

The Hurt Locker is probably not going to change your mind about war. War is Hell, as the saying goes, and Hell is an unfathomably hot and cruel place. The soldiers in this movie are getting a guided tour, and through them, so do we. Unfortunately, movies set in the Iraqi War have not done well at the box office, even superb ones like this one, but this is the kind of movie that you will remember for a long time after having seen it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great intensity from beginning to end. Renner gives a career-making performance. We care enough about the characters that the tension is increased exponentially because of it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of war violence and the kind of language you’d expect in these situations. Quite frankly, it’s the tension more than anything else that makes this not for the faint of heart.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie (adjusted for inflation) to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, but given the honors accrued by the movie after the home video release, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a special edition sometime around Christmas.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Toy Story 3

From Paris With Love


From Paris With Love

Mr. Clean gets just a little bit tougher on dirt.

(Lionsgate) John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden, Yin Bing, Amber Rose Revah, Eric Gordon, Francois Bredon, Chems Eddine Dahmani, Alexandra Boyd, Sami Darr, Michael Vander-Meiren. Directed by Pierre Morel

While the cold war came to an end, espionage didn’t. Spies are alive and well and some of them are living in Paris.

James Reese (Rhys Meyers) is a personal aide to the United States ambassador to France (Durden). He is smart, efficient, ambitious and charming. He’s the point man on nearly all of the ambassador’s projects, from a meeting with the French Defense Minister (Gordon) to an upcoming trade summit with African nations. Reese has a beautiful French girlfriend named Caroline (Smutniak) who loves him so much that she proposed to him. Bold, them French girls are.

James also works for a government espionage agency as a low-level functionary. Most of the tasks he’s been giving are fairly routine, like changing license plates on getaway vehicles and placing electronic monitoring devices in the French Defense Minister’s office. He yearns to be a field operative – a spy – doing his part to save the world but up to now he hasn’t gotten the chance. Still, in these tasks he shows efficiency and ingenuity; so much so that he is given a new task – to partner up with a veteran field operative, Charlie Wax (Travolta).

Wax is foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and operates by his own set of rules. He shoots first, asks questions later then shoots again. He doesn’t mind leaving a trail of damage in his wake the size of an F5 tornado swath. With his shaven head and goatee, he resembles a cross between Satan, Mr. Clean and ex-wrestlers Goldberg and Stone Cold Steve Austin and in temperament…well, whichever one of those has the foulest, vilest most evil temper.

He is there investigating a drug ring run by Palestinians. He tells James to take him to a Chinese restaurant, a dodgy one in a seedy part of Paris. He’s heard the egg foo yung (not even a true Chinese dish, as James is only too happy to inform Wax; it’s an entirely American invention) is superior here, but he’s heard wrong. The service isn’t bad though – in fact, it’s killer.

After letting one of the waiters live through the inevitable barrage of bullets, Charlie and James follow the surviving waiter through the back streets of urban Paris to a…an….well, it’s sort of a cross between a mannequin warehouse and a Chinese theater. At least, as far as I could tell; Might have been a skating rink there too for all I know.

He gets the address of someone farther up the food chain and the two, Wax and James – who is beginning to wonder if he’s really cut out for working with a cowboy like Wax – move their way up the ladder, leaving a pile of bodies as they go. However, Wax has told James a liiiiiiiittle white lie; it’s not drug dealers he’s after, but terrorists. And James, as it turns out, is unknowingly involved, right up to his pretentious moustache.

Director Morel last brought us Taken, a surprisingly effective taut thriller. He showed himself to be an effective action director there, and he is here as well. The car chases are well-staged and the fights for the most part, well-choreographed. There is enough of an adrenaline rush here to keep you going for the whole movie.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the story. A good spy story should have things coming at you from every direction, but there isn’t much of that here. There is a big twist to the plot but it isn’t anything you haven’t seen and can’t predict. Simple can be better in most cases, but in others simple doesn’t work quite as well.

What does work well is Travolta. Completely unrecognizable as Charlie Wax, Travolta takes the opportunity to go completely over-the-top. Alone of anyone in this movie he seems to be having a good time and he takes us along for the ride. If there’s a reason for a sequel to this movie, it’s to see what Charlie does next.

Rhys Meyers, of Showtime’s “The Tudors” has a role that isn’t nearly as fun and doesn’t have the potential, but he makes the humorless James at least palatable. Smutniak also does really well as Caroline; of all the characters she might have had the most depth, but unfortunately the writers chose not to really explore it so she winds up symbolizing the film as something of a wasted opportunity.

Still, as mindless entertainment goes this is top-notch. Travolta is at the top of his game and that alone is worth the price of admission. There are several sly references to Pulp Fiction which may not be the best idea – who wants to remind themselves of a better movie than the one they’re watching – but for my part I found those references to be a nice homage. The movie, in any case, is the cinematic equivalent of a Royale with Cheese; tasty but ultimately filled with empty calories.

REASONS TO GO: Travolta is obviously having a good time with his larger-than-life role and it elevates the movie. Morel is a strong action director.

REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t particularly innovative and the big twist isn’t much of a surprise (ask Da Queen – I called it early on). The villains aren’t particularly intimidating.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be bloody and occasionally gruesome. The language is pretty rough and there is also some drug use depicted. Teens and older only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 1955 film To Paris With Love is said to have been the inspiration for the Ian Fleming James Bond novel To Russia With Love which was made into a film in 1963. None of the three films are related.

HOME OR THEATER: Ahhhh I gotta go big screen on this one. Not that it’s got grand vistas or big effects; it just feels like a popcorn movie to me.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Wolfman

Traitor


Traitor

Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels are moving at cross purposes.

(Overture) Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Archie Panjabi, Alvy Khan, Said Taghmaoui, Raad Rawi. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Our government uses the term “war on terror” despite the fact that from its outer trappings, its not so much a war as it is a guerilla action. In this fight, boundaries blur and it is not always possible to tell who is innocent and who is not. In the war on terror, the casualties are not always easily apparent.

Samir (Cheadle), as a young boy, saw his father killed in the explosion of a car bomb (who set the bomb and why is never explained in the film). As an adult, we see him in Yemen, attempting to sell plastic explosives to a terrorist group. When that group is captured by the Yemeni police, Samir is thrown in a Yemeni prison along with Omar (Taghmaoui), a high-ranking soldier in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Samir is questioned by Agents Clayton (Pearce) and Archer (McDonough) of the FBI. They’re anxious to make a deal with the soft-spoken, highly intelligent Samir but he demurs. They basically throw up their hands and leave him in prison to rot.

In prison, Samir and Omar develop a bond as Omar witnesses Samir’s devotion to Allah and when the Brotherhood stage an escape for Omar, he takes Samir with him. They flea to Marseilles, where the former army demolition expert Samir helps develop a remote-controlled device to use to detonate a bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Nice. Eight people are killed in the explosion, the news of which apparently disturbs Samir – he had been hoping for a higher body count, he tells Fareed Mansour (Khan), their Pakistani handler.

As it turns out, Samir had been hoping for a certain body count that had been lower – the bodies had been planted at the Embassy by security advisor Carter (Daniels), who was Samir’s real handler. Samir is actually an undercover agent looking to get to Nathir (Rawi), one of the highest ranking terrorists in the world. He is also trying to find out what large-scale operation the Brotherhood has in mind on American soil.

But is Samir really an American operative, or does he have his own agenda? Time is running out; the operation is taking place soon, Samir is wanted by police organizations world wide for his part in the embassy bombing and Clayton and Archer are closing in. Who will protect the innocent when the lines are so very blurred?

Director Nachmanoff has delivered a taut, well-paced thriller that keeps you guessing as to Samir’s loyalties despite the fact that they tell you he is working for Carter early on. The fact that you’re never quite sure whose side he’s working on til near the end is a tribute to Cheadle the actor, and his performance is the primary reason to seek this movie out.

Everything in this movie is about motivation and the fact that the motivation for so much is unclear. What drives Samir – be it the boyhood tragedy we see in the first frames or the prejudice he encountered in America – is never fully explained. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions, mostly from Samir’s actions.

Other than those playing FBI agents, the driving forces behind the characters remain foggy in them as well, particularly the Muslim characters. The exception is Omar, who seems to be simply driven by the convictions of his faith. Omar doesn’t hate the Americans he wants to kill so badly; he is merely a soldier in a jihad doing Allah’s will. If those he follows tell him it is Americans he must kill, then so be it.

The movie travels from location to location with dizzying speed (done on a relatively modest budget so kudos to the producers) and keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next. While the scenes taking place in the Middle East are vivid with color, there is a grainy, washed out aspect to the scenes taking place in Europe and North America I found intriguing. I’m not sure what the filmmakers intention was in terms of message – it could well have been that the weather was bad while they were shooting on location. It is a bit annoying, at least to my sensibilities.

There is an authenticity to the movie – Nachmanoff, who also co-wrote the movie, consulted with several intelligence community professionals to try and get the procedural and political aspects right and this pays off. He also succeeds in humanizing terrorism, putting a face on what we sometimes tend to characterize as mindless fanatics. While there is certainly fanaticism within the radical jihadist movement, these are also human beings with an agenda, a plan to achieve it and the patience to see it through – patience from an unshakable belief that God is on their side.

While there are several twists and turns that I thought a bit too unnecessary (the last one regarding Carter is a particularly hoary cliché and could have been excised from the movie), this is still worth giving a look to. After all, in the war on terror the ultimate casualty has been the truth.

WHY RENT THIS: Cheadle’s performance is rock-solid, as is Guy Pearce’s. A very different look at the war on terror and its (unintended) casualties. A nicely-paced, taut thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Needlessly twisty, plot-wise. Much of the movie looks grainy and washed out, particularly when the setting is in Europe and North America.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very violent imagery and raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be made by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, but after a management change there the property was dropped, allowing Cheadle to take it to Overture Films, the big screen subsidiary of the Starz premium cable channel..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Simpsons Movie

Day Night Day Night


Day Night Day Night

Luisa Williams thought she was playing blindfolded musical chairs on the Ellen Degeneres Show but she was so wrong.

(IFC First Take) Luisa Williams, Josh Phillip Weinstein, Gareth Saxe, Nyambi Nyambi, Tschi Hun Kim, Annemarie Lawless, Frank Dattolo. Directed by Julia Loktev

We read about suicide bombers in the Middle East every day. One has to wonder what kind of person would do such a thing; even more to the point, would it be possible for an American to contemplate doing such a thing?

A young 19-year-old girl (Williams) is more than contemplating it. She has made the decision to detonate a bomb in Times Square. She is picked up at the bus station by an Asian driver and taken to an anonymous hotel room where she meets her handlers, all of whom wear black ski masks. She herself is often blindfolded.

The conversation is almost blindingly banal. She is told she must fit in without standing out. She asks for pizza. She waits by a cell phone for periodic calls from her handlers. Eventually, they bring a backpack filled with explosives and she is once again driven to Times Square. There, she walks around, stopping to snack once in awhile, summoning up the courage to detonate the bomb.

That is the movie in a nutshell. Director Loktev deliberately withholds as much information as she can; we’re never told why the girl, who is identified only as “She” (except on her fake ID on which she is called Leah Cruz), is doing what she wants to do. We know nothing of the organization that is preparing her for the task. We don’t know why Times Square was chosen (other than the obvious) or even what kind of statement the terrorist organization is trying to make.

What Loktev does is concentrate on the bomber’s face. She is young, elfin and not unlike any other girl you might see in a college dormitory. Her eyes do not reflect madness or obsession; they are sad and frightened, or dull and resigned. She lapses into whispered prayers from time to time although it isn’t clear who she’s praying to or even why. The effect has been compared to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc which isn’t inaccurate. There, as here, there many tight shots of the actress’ face and rarely is there a shot where her face isn’t visible.

Williams’ face is the canvas that Loktev chooses to use to tell her story and I think that canvas is deliberately made to be austere and nearly blank. We are made to choose our own conclusion, which is a lot of work for a movie-going public which tends to prefer having their ideas handed to them, neatly wrapped with a bow.

Loktev does a magnificent job of creating a great deal of tension when the girl is loose in Times Square. We don’t know from moment to moment if she is going to decide to stop and pull the trigger. When she seems about to, one actually flinches.

Unfortunately, the movie is a victim of its own conceit. In trying to juxtapose the banality and boredom of waiting for the task at hand to be performed and the tension and brutality of the act itself, we are left with far too much emphasis on the former. I will admit that it does make the latter more effective, but I think we spend far too much time watching the girl eat, read, and scratch herself. It numbs the mind and allows the focus of the viewer to wander, never a good thing.

Loktev is clearly a talented and gifted writer/director, and I expect that in years to come we might be hearing a great deal from her. This isn’t Oscar material mind you, but it is a solid effort – flawed, but solid. Those who like their movies a little more challenging might well enjoy this. Those who prefer to be spoon-fed in the cinema should probably steer clear.

WHY RENT THIS: An innovatively told look at a suicide bomber on American soil. The tension mounts as the movie lurches towards its conclusion.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are a lot of scenes meant to portray the banality of the moment juxtaposed with the seriousness of the situation, but at times it gets to be too much and winds up being a bit boring quite frankly.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is unrated, there is a little bit of foul language; the subject matter is a bit adult and the storytelling method may be a bit much for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the second feature to be directed by Loktev; her first was Moment of Impact in 1998.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Last Chance Harvey