Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?)


Where Do We Go Now?

The Lebanese team voguing competition is underway.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Leyla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julian Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostafa Al Sakka, Sasseen Kawzally, Anjo Rihane. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

It is sometimes mystifying why men fight and kill over religious belief. It’s not like our religions vary to so much degree that they are completely incompatible; at the end of the day, they’re more like than unalike.

A small village in an unnamed country (but thee and me can call it Lebanon, where the movie was filmed) has been cut off from the rest of the world by land mines, leaving the only way in and out a tiny road over a terrifying bridge. In some ways this has benefitted the village; the Muslims and Christians who make up equal parts of the population live in relative harmony, the mosque and church alongside each other and the priest and imam both in agreement that peace between their flocks would be beneficial to all.

That doesn’t mean they achieved it without cost; the town’s cemetery is littered with graves of men and boys taken well before their time over religious violence. The women of the town have grown tired of endless funerals and mourning their husbands, sons and fathers. They all get along famously; why can’t the men?

When Roukoz (Haidar), whose scooter trips to neighboring towns for supplies represent the only contact with the rest of the world, brings in an antenna, the town once again is blessed with television reception – albeit on a single television set. With it comes news of strife between Muslims and Christians elsewhere in the country. This sets the men to muttering amongst themselves.

Some have no time for this. Beautiful Amale (Labaki), a Christian, is having her cafe repainted by the handsome handyman Rabih (Farhat) and she dreams of a relationship with him. He also finds himself attracted to her but neither know how to breach the subject of actually dating.

However, little incidents begin to inflame the men of the town. The holy water in the Church is substituted by chicken blood. A herd of goats is let into the mosque. The women do whatever they can to defuse the situation; Takla (Moussawbaa), the mayor’s wife, fakes a miracle. Ukrainian strippers are brought in to distract the men. When that fails, the women host a party in which treats laced with hashish are served to mellow out the boys.

However, things get a great deal more serious when Roukoz, on one of his trips to town, is caught in the crossfire between Christian and Muslim militia and is killed. Nassim (Abboud), his cousin, mournfully brings back the body, unable to tell even which side shot the fatal bullet. Realizing that this incident could set off the powder keg, the women resolve to keep the incident quiet until tempers cool down. But can they be successful, or will more bodies be joining Nassim in the graveyard?

This is a story that in many ways is close to Labaki’s heart. Obviously she’s passionate about it, having co-written, starred in and directed the material. She grew up in Lebanon where, as she put it, time was equally divided between home and shelter. There were many days, she said in a studio interview, when it was too dangerous for her to go outside. She got a front row seat to religious conflict.

A significant number of the cast were locals with no acting experience and yet they perform well as an ensemble here. Labaki and Farhat by necessity take much of the attention, having a romantic attraction but even the Ukrainian actresses who plaid the strippers have a naturalistic feel to them. The people here seem comfortable in their roles; one wonders how much of it is what they are used to in their real lives.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy, a what-if women were in charge in that region. When given the more subordinate role women play in that part of the world, it’s a legitimate question and I’m sure one that many women in that war-weary region must ask themselves as they attend another funeral, or read in the newspapers of another atrocity.

My issue with the movie is the attempt to juxtapose levity and pathos. When it’s done right, it’s seamless and natural but here it’s kind of jarring. On the one hand, there’s a fairly comic scene of the men high on hashish, but prior to that the mother of the slain Roukoz is comforted by the women of the village. It’s an extremely emotional scene whose effectiveness is cut off at the knees by the blissed-out men thereafter. The movie could have been that much more powerful had it been more successful at balancing the two elements.

The village life depicted here is endearing and comforting in its own way; even big city dwellers long for the familiarity of small town life (although not necessarily the insular attitudes which are largely absent here). While there is an element of the fantastic here (there are musical numbers here which also serve to jar the audience out of the movie a bit, although they are admittedly well-staged), it is the realism of the village life that I found stayed with me most, although I admired the subject matter a great deal. It’s not as effective as it might have been in addressing it but the movie is still one I can give a strong recommendation to without hesitating.

REASONS TO GO: Moving in places and amusing in others. Fascinating subject matter and canvas.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks focus.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, some images of violence and thematic drug use in one scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where Do We Go Now? is the highest grossing Arabic language film in Lebanese history and the third-highest overall.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lysistrada

VOGUE LOVERS: In the opening scene, a group of women walk in to the town cemetery. Along the way the walk evolves into a bit of a dance which looks very much like Madonna’s old Vogue thing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Eclipse

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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

12


12

Twelve angry Russian men.

(Sony Classics) Sergei Markovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Garmash, Alexei Petrenko, Valentin Graft, Yuri Stoyanov, Mikhail Efremov, Sergei Gazarov, Alexander Abadashan, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Alexei Gorbunov, Roman Madianov, Sergei Artsybashov, Apti Magamaev. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov

A trial of our peers, twelve good and true. Our justice system is based on it, as is the justice systems of other countries as well. We entrust the fate of accused criminals to twelve jurors and expect that they will make their decision impartially and fairly. Of course, any jury is made of twelve human beings and any human being is a slave to their own preconceptions.

In Moscow, the murder trial of a Chechen teen (Magamaev) accused of killing his adopted Russian father has concluded and the jury has been sent off to deliberate. Because of renovations being done at the courthouse, the jury has been sent to a neighboring school to use their gymnasium for that purpose. Nobody expects them to be gone long; after all, the evidence is pretty cut and dried.

With no working phones (this is Russia, after all), the bailiff hands them a homemade walkie talkie in case they need anything (unlikely) or reach a verdict (more likely). After a bit of bantering and electing a foreman, they cast their first vote, expecting a unanimous guilty verdict. When the votes are counted up, they are astonished to find that one of their number has voted “not guilty.”

So begins the odyssey of twelve Russian men, some angry, some not so much. This is a disparate group; one is a Harvard-educated mama’s boy, another a flinty anti-Semite; one is a bit of a clown and another is an intellectual. All are linked by the events they have been only described to them. What it all means and what will happen to a young Chechen boy is up to them.

The movie is ostensibly a remake of the classic courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men but it is more accurate to call it a movie based on the original. The writer of the original movie, Reginald Rose, is given screen credit but little more than the concept remains. While the original was something of an indictment of McCarthyism, this one is far more Russian and carries additional layers. While not as tense as the original movie, it nonetheless has a great deal of power of its own.

The movie is extremely well-acted, although in Russian so we miss a lot of nuances by having to read subtitles constantly. It unfolds like a Russian epic, Dostoyevsky gone Hollywood, and in some ways it feels like “Crime and Punishment” with an edge.

Each of the characters is fleshed out nicely, never coming off as a caricature or a cliché but curiously, none of the characters are given names. They are all identified as juror numbers or as some sort of title and yet they all like real people walking the streets of Moscow. As they are called upon to defend their positions, they reveal something about themselves, which in turn reveals to us something about modern Russia. There is some very powerful stuff here.

Russian attitudes also come into play. There is a palpable hatred of the Chechens by the Muskovites; it permeates their reasoning, particularly when it comes to this particular crime. Does it compare to white American attitudes towards the African-American in the 1950s? Probably not, but its pretty close.

This is the kind of movie that transcends language. Even if you aren’t Russian and don’t understand the Russian mentality, you’ll be moved by what you see here. It shows in clear, distinct detail that we are more alike than unalike, and that the same things that trouble folks in Moscow trouble folks in Montana. Those things need no translation.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare look inside the Russian legal system, as well as insight into the modern Russia and modern Russians. At times this is very powerful and very moving.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We miss many nuances due to the translation and watching of subtitles. Russians are very fond of irony so we miss facial expressions while reading subtitles that give us further clarity.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent scenes, as well as some drug references and sexual references but it’s the tension and overall mature theme of the movie that makes it unsuitable for younger audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Mikhalkov, only the third Russian director to win an Oscar, is the son of the man who wrote the lyrics to the national anthem of the Soviet Union.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Titanic