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

Crossing Over


 

Crossing Over
Harrison Ford is getting tired of the “Didn’t you used to be Han Solo” jokes.

 

 

(MGM) Harrison Ford, Jim Sturgess, Alice Braga, Alice Eve, Cliff Curtis, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Justin Chon, Summer Bishil, Jacqueline Obradors, Melody Khazae. Directed by Wayne Kramer

 

 There are those in this country who want to build walls. Not decorative ones; ones that will keep illegal aliens from coming in, and by illegal aliens we mean Latin Americans. Immigration is a very emotional issue for many people; all of us are immigrants from somewhere back in our family tree. Even Native Americans crossed a land bridge to get here.  

Los Angeles may be the ultimate melting pot in that regard. It draws people from all over the world like moths to a flame. While most are aware of the Mexican population in Los Angeles (most of whom arrived here legally incidentally), there are immigrants from all over the world that live in the City of Angels, many awaiting their call to receive that Holy Grail – U.S. citizenship.

 

For those coming in using the other route, there are people like Max Brogan (Ford), an immigration agent. He is a good man with a conscience doing a job that requires none. During a raid of a garment factory, he comes face to face with Mireya Sanchez (Braga), an undocumented worker who begs Max to pick up her child from child care, which Max does, but even that feels inadequate so he escorts the kid back to Mexico to the grandparents.

 

Max’s partner Hamid Braheri (Curtis) comes from an Iranian family whose patriarch is about to get American citizenship, but a tragedy strikes the family when Hamid’s sister is murdered along with the married man she’d been having an affair with.

 

In the meantime, a young Bangladeshi schoolgirl named Taslima (Bishil) presents a paper in her high school civics class that comes dangerously close to defending the 9-11 hijackers, but in reality is just asking for people to see things from their point of view. This creates a storm of controversy that starts from her being called names culminating with a by-the-book FBI agent (Obradors) knocking on her door, threatening to deport her family.

 

Taslima will be defended by immigration attorney Denise Frankel (Judd) while her husband, green card adjudicator Cole Frankel (Liotta) engages in a relationship with Australian actress Claire Sheperd (Eve) exchanging sex for a green card.

 

All of these stories entwine somewhat peripherally, but are told concurrently a la Crash or Babel. These types of movies need a firm hand to keep the stories separate but at the same time maintaining audience interest. There’s a tendency for people to get less invested in multiple story lines than they might in a single story line, so it behooves the filmmaker to make all of the story lines compelling.

 

That doesn’t happen here. That’s not to say that there are no compelling story lines here; certainly the Max Brogan character provides a moral center, and having Harrison Ford act as your movie’s moral center is an enviable position to be in for any filmmaker. Curtis is also a likable actor and his moral conflict between his ethnic culture and American law also makes for a compelling tale.

 

However, the Claire/Cole liaison seems out of place, almost as an excuse to get the very gorgeous Eve naked. Not that I’m against seeing a beautiful woman naked, but it seems gratuitous here. And while I like the debate stirred up in the Taslima sequence, there seems to be some preaching going on here, making Taslima the innocent victim of a goon squad of FBI storm troopers, which seems a bit cut and dried to me.

 

In the spirit of “let the buyer beware” you should be warned that this movie took two years from filming to release. The initial edit was over two hours long and the studio heads demanded that the final cut be trimmed down to an hour and a half, or the movie would go direct-to-video. The filmmakers made the cuts, but the studio essentially sent it direct-to-video anyway, giving it a very limited, unpublicized release. There is certainly evidence that this was filmmaking by committee in places.

 

There is certainly room for debate on the subject of immigration, and while I have a tendency to be sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant (both legal and otherwise), I can see that there are both sides to the story. Unfortunately, this is a movie that doesn’t really allow too much thought, settling instead for clichés. Still, at least its existence might encourage those who see it to think about the issue, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

 

WHY RENT THIS: A stellar cast in a movie that examines a hot-button issue that continues to plague our country even now.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Another case of too many threads and too many plots.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s the holy trinity of language, violence and sex; all present and all inappropriate for younger audiences. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn originally had a small role in the movie, but it was reportedly cut at his request due to the backlash from the Iranian-American community over an honor killing subplot, which they thought to be misleading and inflammatory. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)

Ladron Que Roba a Ladron


Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

Danny Ocean ain't got nothin' on us.

(Lionsgate) Fernando Colunga, Miguel Varoni, Julio Gonzalo, Oscar Torre, Gabriel Soto, Ivonne Montero, Saul Lisazo, Ruben Garifias, Sonya Smith. Directed by Joe Menendez

The best way to get away with something is to escape notice. The least likely suspects are the perfect cover for the perfect heist.

Alejandro Toledo (Colunga) and Emilio Lopez (Varoni) are con artists, and they’re pretty damn good. They’ve snuck into the United States to take on a target that has some particular meaning to them – Moctesuma Valdez (Lisazo), a Latino infomercial king who preys on his own community, advertising ludicrous products that purport to reverse hair loss, relieve arthritis and even cure cancer. None of them work, of course. He’s made millions but because he distrusts banks, has it all stored in a vault deep in his Los Angeles mansion. Toledo and Lopez want it all.

Part of their zeal is personal – Valdez used to be a member of their crew. However, the current members of their crew don’t want anything to do with this caper; it’s far too risky and their ploy of having the crew pose as day laborers doesn’t appeal to the professional villains. So, rather than throwing in the towel, they recruit actual day laborers with a particular set of skills; an unemployed actor and master of disguise (Torre), a sexy mechanic (Montero) and her valet father (Garifias), and a ditch digger and tunneling expert (Soto).

The two masterminds come up with a brilliant plan, but they need people who have never before committed a criminal act in their lives to be cool as cucumbers under pressure. The stakes are high, but the payoff is worth the risk.

Menendez is mostly known for his television work, both in the young adult and Latin genres but he shows a surprisingly deft touch here. The movie balances the heist elements with a light comedic touch and even a bit of social commentary, as the status of illegals and day workers as non-people in this country are aired.

This is a bit of Oceans 11 lite, albeit on a less ambitious scale – which I guess is what lite implies anyway. While Danny Ocean robbed casinos to open his ex-wife’s eyes about the man she was with (which I suppose is a cause), there is a kind of Robin Hood feel to this one as the crew are fighting to protect the exploitation of desperate Latinos.

The cast are mostly veterans of Latin American television, both here in the States and south of the border as well. Some of them are extremely well-known in the Latin community but are for the most part largely unknown to mainstream audiences. However, they acquit themselves well and several of them – particularly Montero and Colunga – could cross over to more mainstream movies very easily without missing a beat and find a lot of success in doing it.

I knew very little about the movie other than the translation of the title which is loosely “It takes a thief to steal from a thief” so I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s not a game-changer mind you – it’s a little bit too much of a niche film for that, but still in all it’s entertaining, packs a great deal of charm, is smartly written and well-acted. That’s the recipe for a good movie whatever the language.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly charming and well-written, you find yourself drawn into the story and the characters.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie suffers a little bit from Oceans 11 envy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality here and some course language but otherwise pretty well acceptable for almost every audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the crew was largely English-speaking, the movie is shot entirely in Spanish and no translated scripts were provided to the crew, so they were unaware what the plot and story points were; they were also unaware of how popular the cast, largely stars from Mexican telenovelas were and they would be dumbfounded when the shoot would have large crowds of Mexican housewives trying to get glimpses of the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mister Foe