Farewell Amor


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Nana Mensah, Marcus Scribner, Brandon Lamar, Joy Batra, Francisco Burgos, Mariam C. Chemmoss, Virginia Hastings, Majah Hype, Joel Michaely, Chrisanthos Petsilas, Howie Sheard, Terrence Shingler, Rayshawn Richardson, Imani Lewis, Kristen Maxwell. Directed by Ekwa Msangi

 

Often we don’t consider the human cost of what goes on in those news snippets on CNN. You know the sort; some correspondent in a utility vest in some country that is at war with itself talking about this militia group or that government army. Caught in the middle are millions of civilians, who often have to flee their war-torn countries to survive. Often, that means families being separated, sometimes for unconscionably long periods.

Walter (Mwine) left the civil war in Angola for the United States, leaving his wife Esther (Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Lawson) – the daughter he barely knew – to try and forge a good life for his family. But seventeen long years passed as the paperwork for their emigration slowly churned through the system. When at last they were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport, they were literally strangers to one another, despite Esther’s exclaimed “Amor!” (the French word for love which can often be taken as “My love”) when first they meet.

They have all changed. Sylvia misses her friends in Dar es Salaam where she and her mother fled to. She isn’t sure how she fits in here in Brooklyn. There is a guy, DJ (Scribner) in her class who thinks she’s amazing. He watches her dancing in the street – she loves to dance – and knows she’s a natural for the high school step dancing team, but she’s not so sure.

Esther has found religion and not just Christianity but a rigid, evangelical Christianity that begins to show through. She disapproves of the decadence in America and her daughter’s desire to be a dancer? “I refused to lose my daughter to America!” she shouts, forbidding her daughter from joining the dance team or to do any sort of activity other than to attend church. It is driving a wedge between Esther and Walter.

As for Walter, he hasn’t been a saint over the past 17 years. While Esther makes friends with a spirited neighbor (Lee), Walter misses the woman (Mensah) who lived with him and was his lover while Esther was in Africa. Esther discovers what Walter had been up to, and is trying to reconcile the old Walter with the new. Will this family survive being reunited?

First-time feature filmmaker Msangi based this on a short film she did several years ago, and she shows herself to be a talent to be reckoned with. This is a film about real people, dealing with real issues. She clearly has an affection for Brooklyn, because she portrays it as a truly wonderful place. She also coaxes some truly affecting performances out of all of her cast members. I can’t recall a movie this year in which the cast was as flawless as this one.

The movie is vibrant, alive with the love of music and dance that Walter and Sylvia (and to a lesser extent, Esther) share. There is also a melancholy of people struggling to figure out how they fit in, where the fit in and feeling alone in a crowd. I think we’ve all gone through that at some point or another, making the movie eminently relatable on a personal level.

Msangi wants us to see the movie from the viewpoint of all three characters, so she divides the movie into three different chapters in which each character is basically the lead of their own chapter. Yes, that does give us an insight into all three of the family members we might not have otherwise had, but it is a little bit of a misstep; we spend the movie going over the same events through the points of view of three different characters and although everyone’s viewpoint is different, it still feels like we’re watching a rerun to a certain extent. I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently to achieve the same aim; I just know that this didn’t work as well as I think she intended.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what is a powerful and essential movie, for sure one that you won’t want to miss. Not only does it give us an insight into the refugee problem, it gives us insight into family dynamics that is different than what we’re used to. I can’t praise this movie enough.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an authenticity here that’s hard to achieve. The music is amazing. Strong performances top to bottom.
REASONS TO AVOID: The Rashomon effect gives us a sense like we’re watching the same movie over and over and over again – because we are.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The United States hosts more international migrants than any other country on Earth, about 19% of the total world’s population.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First They Killed My Father
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan

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Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

The Boy


Greta tries to get Brahms to give her a high five.

Greta tries to get Brahms to give her a high five.

(2016) Thriller (STX) Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, Ben Robson, Jett Klyne, Lily Pater, Matthew Walker, Stephanie Lemelin. Directed by William Brent Bell

When you hire someone to watch your children, you are in effect hiring a security guard for your most precious item. Sadly, we rarely think of it that way and so often we leave our children in the care of people who we know nothing about.

Greta Evans (Cohan) is one such person. She’s an American in a small English country town having applied to be a nanny for Brahms Heelshire (Klyne) who lives on an isolated estate for a mysterious reclusive family. Papa Heelshire (Norton) and his wife (Hardcastle) are leaving on a well-needed vacation and they need someone to look after Brahms.

Greta has a bit of a past; she is on the run from an abusive boyfriend (Robson) and is looking to start over someplace where she can make new memories and at first it seems this situation is perfect for her. Then she meets Brahms and discovers that Brahms is a little bit different than most boys; he’s a porcelain doll.

At first she thinks it’s a joke and then when she discovers from flirtatious grocery delivery man Malcolm (Evans) that Brahms died in a fire nearly two decades ago (there are flame marks on the facade of the mansion) she feels some sympathy for the Heelshire clan. But she is given a long list of rules to follow; she must play music loudly for the doll, read stories to it in a loud clear voice. She must dress it and undress it and kiss it goodnight when she puts it to bed.

At length the rules and the weirdness of the situation begin to get to her. She begins to willfully disobey the rules but then strange things start to happen. She hears noises in the night, and a childish voice seems to speak to her. Then she notices that the doll isn’t always in the same position that she left it and items of her clothing begin to disappear.

She begins to wonder to Malcolm whether or not she is going crazy. She wonders if her ex has been paying her a visit. She also wonders if It might not be that the doll is actually alive – and little Brahms is, as his father so eloquently put it – still with her.

This has been marketed as a horror film but that’s not quite accurate; this is more of a thriller with supernatural overtones. There is a twist near the end and while I admire the spunk of the writer for going that way, it doesn’t really suit the film especially after what transpires in the first hour. Bell has fashioned a kind of Gothic atmospheric ghost tale, with a spooky mansion, things that go bump in the night and inanimate objects that move by themselves. The creepy factor is sky high.

Also sky high is Lauren Cohan’s potential as a leading lady. The Walking Dead star plays a much different role here and fans that only know her as Maggie are going to be a little discombobulated by the change. Greta is a bit less self-sufficient, a little more timid. She is not the sort of woman who takes charge and kicks ass, although when backed into a corner she comes out fighting. I can’t think that this will be her last shot at movie stardom; she has what it takes to be a huge star.

There are a couple of scary moments but the end of the movie is pretty disappointing from the standpoint that as imaginative as the first half of the movie is, the ending just seems to have been purchased at a Hollywood screenwriter surplus store. Endings are a very hard thing to write but this one feels a bit forced to say the very least.

I don’t mind stories that lead you one way and then go another; those can be quite delightful but when the way they were leading is far better than the destination they end up at it can be a problem. The movie looks like it’s going in a supernatural ghost story direction – and the filmmakers are building up a lovely mood without going overt on the special effects scale – and then end up doing an abrupt right turn and going in a more visceral rather than atmospheric direction. I ended up feeling like I’d invested so much into the first half that I left the film feeling a little cheated.

REASONS TO GO: Cohan has serious lead actress potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Creepy rather than scary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of terror, a little bit of violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film’s exteriors were shot at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, British Columbia.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Quiet Ones
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Diablo

The Infidel


The Infidel

Omed Djalili spontaneously breaks out into a rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man."

(2010) Comedy (Tribeca) Omid Djalili, Richard Schiff, Archie Panjabi, Igal Naor, Mina Anwar, Amit Shah, Soraya Radford, Miranda Hart, Matt Lucas, James Floyd, Leah Fatania, Ravin Ganatra, Bhasker Patel, Michele Austin, Rod Silvers. Directed by Josh Appignanesi

The variety and scope of cultural diversity among humans is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it gives us so many different viewpoints about the human condition; a curse in that it divides us more than unites us, causes suspicion and violence. Nowhere is that more true than in the middle east.

In that case, it is religion that divides – Muslim and Jew. Each suspicious of the other, each determined to protect themselves in the name of their religion, meaning that if the other one dies, so be it.

Mahmud Nasir (Djalili) is a Muslim living in London. He’s not one of the fundamentalist sorts, but more of a loose, moderate sort – he doesn’t always follow the ways of the Koran to the letter in other words. His son Rashid (Shah) is in love with Uzma (Radford) whose mother has just married Arshad El-Masri (Naor), a fundamentalist fireball whose politics Mahmud doesn’t particularly agree with. He’d much rather watch old videos of the deceased ’80s pop legend Gary Page (Floyd) but since his son needs him to be an ultra-Muslim to impress his prospective father-in-law, Mahmud is willing to do it.

Then, while cleaning out his late mother’s house, he finds some disturbing news. It turns out his mother wasn’t his birth mother – he was adopted. Some digging results in further distress – it turns out that Mahmud was born to a Jewish family and his real name is Solly Shimshillewitz.  I think finding out your name is Solly Shimshillewitz might be distressing to anyone.

A little bit ashamed and scared of what it would mean if his family found out, Mahmud at first hides his newfound background but curious about his heritage, he seeks a neighbor, an American Jewish cabdriver named Lenny (Schiff) to find out more about his Jewishness. Lenny teaches him a few things, like how to say “Oy vay!” and how to dance like Topol. I’m sure the JDL didn’t have any objections to any of those stereotypes.

In the meantime he gets caught up in trying to hide his new identity from his family and friends and to hide his old identity from his new friends. When he gets caught out as you know he has to, he stands to lose everything – including his identity.

This British film has gotten a fair amount of praise in both critical and film festival circles, although it got only a cursory release here in the States. One has to give the filmmakers props for tackling such a sensitive, hot-button issue in the way that they did.

However, good intentions aside, not everything works here. Some of the jokes are simply put, not that funny. The ending, which is a bit out of left field, weakens the movie overall and was a bit of a disappointment. However, the movie works a very good percentage of the time.

Djalili is best known to American audiences as the prison warden in The Mummy (who meets a pretty nasty end) but is better known in Britain as a stand-up comic (he performed for “Comic Relief” in 2004) and his act often contains bits about his life as an Anglo-Iranian, growing up in a Persian household in Britain. He is certainly well-suited for the role and is thoroughly likable in it.

It’s not a bad movie, but it isn’t as good as it might have been either. It’s got enough laughs to make it worth your while, but not enough to inspire a more than cursory search for it. It’s one of those in-between movies that has merit enough to recommend it, but not enough to really praise it. If you have the opportunity to see it, by all means do. I just wouldn’t make a lot of effort to seek it out.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting insights about cultural differences. Very funny when it works.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the humor is a bit broad and the ending is a little bit false.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few F bombs but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While BBC Films helped develop the script, they withdrew from further involvement after the Andrew Sachs/Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal made the Beeb somewhat sensitive to any material that might be even a little offensive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and what the filmmakers call “bonus jokes” which are essentially deleted scenes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information unavailable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: New Year’s Eve