MDMA (Angie X, Cardinal X)


Annie Q knows you can never truly relax when you’re a drug kingpin.

(2017) Crime Drama (Shout! Factory) Annie Q, Francesca Eastwood, Pierson Fode, Scott Teiji Takeda, Joseph John Schirle, Ron Yuan, Noah Segan, Yetide Badaki, Henry Zaga, Elisa Donovan, Allyrah Caldwell, Angie Wang, Devon Libran, Kyle Zingler, Zoe Winter, Ed Moy, Shoyi Cheng, Dexter Masland, Cooper Chow, Jason J. Lai, Jackie Dallas. Directed by Angie Wang

 

In the mid-80s, “Just say no” was the kind of thing knowing club kids used as a kind of electronic irony. Just say no? Why on earth would anybody do that? Drugs were profitable (for dealers and their suppliers) and moreover, drugs felt amazing. And yeah, so long as you didn’t get hooked on something like heroin they were essentially harmless, right?

Angie Wang (Q) is a young sparkling-eyed freshman going off to college at an expensive private school in California (think: Stanford). Her father (Yuan), who works at a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, can’t afford the tuition, but lets his daughter go anyway. Once there she befriends her roommate Jeanine (Eastwood), a blonde and pretty debutante sort whose life is much more messed up than it appears to be on the surface, with an alcoholic and judgmental mother who seems hell-bent on putting down her daughter about as far as she can go. Angie’s mother left with her little brother when Angie was a little girl, enduring an abusive husband until she couldn’t.

It turns out that Angie is no stereotype, no prim and proper Asian princess. She parties hardy and has sex whenever and with whoever she chooses. A swimmer with Olympic aspirations turns her on to Ecstasy, then a legal recreational drug (the title is based on its scientific name which is abbreviated as MDMA). Supplies are extremely limited as its only manufactured by a single lab in Germany; chemistry major Angie thinks she can synthesize it in the chem. Lab all by herself. As a result she becomes the leading supplier of the drug on the West Coast, referred to in the clubs as “Cardinal X.”

The money allows her to pay her tuition and live a lifestyle more to her liking. She joins the big sister program and becomes a mentor to Bree (Caldwell), the daughter of a crack mom (Badaki) more concerned with having beer and smokes readily available than seeing that her daughter wasn’t hungry. Her lab partner Tommy (Takeda) urges her to get out of the drug dealing although he doesn’t report her; he’s crazy in love with her after all, and hopes that he can save her from herself. However, it’s already way too late for that and soon things spiral out of control.

Wang called this “a dramatic telling” of her life story, which means that likely some events were fudged, embellished and/or compressed somewhat. She recalls the club scene of the mid-80s (what I can remember of it) pretty accurately, other than if they were Bay Area clubs there should have been a larger presence of gay men than there are in the movie.

Annie Q is a former child actress whom readers might recognize from the TV show The Leftovers. She gives Angie a good deal of strength and sass without reverting to Hollywood Asian stereotypes. The movies definitely need more characters like Angie in them – not necessarily as role models for young Asian girls since Angie does a lot of really bad shit in the movie – but simply to show Asian women in a more realistic light.

Some of the plot points feel a bit overdone with the final third of the movie feeling like every one of the main characters are constantly in tears. The dialogue sometimes sounds a little awkward as well. Still as first efforts go, this is a mighty fine one. The soundtrack is full of 80s goodness and Wang wisely keeps things simple, not trying to show off unusual camera angles to attract attention to herself. She lets the story take center stage which some new directors forget to do. Wang may not necessarily be proud of her past but she can be proud of her movie.

REASONS TO GO: Annie Q gives the story a strong Asian woman lead, something not seen often.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little overwrought in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of drug use and references, violence, profanity, sex and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wang, who wrote and directed the film (and also appears in a cameo role), based the movie on her own life experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, ITunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Boy Rick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Greater Society

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Choosing Signs


An American tree-hugger teaches an Irish lad the joys of natural energy.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Random) Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremy Ocanas, Stephen Wyley, Cora Fenton, Alan Riordan, Claire Bermingham. Directed by Owen Dara

 

The universe is a great big place. Some folks believe that our lives are guided by it if you just notice the signs that the universe is sending you. Personally I think the universe has way too much to do to bother with individuals but that’s just me and I’m a heathen.

Jennifer (Lancaster) believes it though. When she has tried to make decisions on her own, they’ve been utter catastrophe. She figures that allowing the universe through flipped coins, throwing dice – i.e. random chance – probably couldn’t end up worse. This has brought Jennifer from the shores of the United States to Cork, Ireland along with her mentally ill brother Matty (Ocanas) whose institutionalization has been paid for by Marc (Wyley), with whom Jennifer is living. Matty is obsessed with cars and building one out of found items. Marc has an obsession of his own – building low cost housing for immigrants during an Irish economic boom known as the Irish Tiger – and Jennifer is kind of drifting through the world that has been laid out for her through the signs.

Eamon is the nurse for Matty at the institution. Matty likes him; the easy-going Eamon treats him like he’s not crazy. Matty is also fully aware that Eamon has it bad for his sister and seems to be okay with the idea. Jennifer is a bit of a new age nut – she’s a big believer in things like shakras, auras and the like – so at first the match with the down-to-earth Eamon looks doomed. The charming Irishman is persistent though and not even the knowledge that she’s living with another fella dampens his spirits much but when the inevitable happens, Jennifer finds herself left with a decision that she simply can’t leave to chance.

This is a movie with a ton of heart which can excuse a lot of sins. It is also an ultra-low budget affair (Dara made the movie for about $25K) which can excuse a lot of other sins. However, there are some issues here that one should bear in mind when choosing to watch this or not. The soundtrack, composed by Dara as well as all his other duties, is mainly made up of acoustic folk songs written by Dara and sung by Dara and Virginia Williams. Dara has a pleasant voice as does Williams but the songs are noticeably too similar and after awhile it really gets on one’s nerves. It should be said that getting the rights to songs to be included on a soundtrack can be prohibitively expensive even for performers who aren’t well-known so unless you happen to have friends in the local music community who are willing to contribute songs for nothing which is actually a loss if you count recording costs, then chances are the music will have to be DIY.

Dara is an engaging performer, using his Irish charm to full advantage. He seems to be a very strange mix for the flighty Jennifer but then, Lancaster and Dara are a couple in real life so assuming this isn’t autobiographical (which I’m told it isn’t) there’s probably much more in common between the two in real life than there is in reel life.

One thing you can say about the movie – it isn’t a typical rom-com. All four of the main characters have some sort of burden or mental issue and Marc’s Ukrainian housekeeper Svetlana (Douds) whose blunt tell-it-like-it-is style forces all of them sooner or later to take a good hard look at themselves. Even Matty gets a dose of Svetlana’s forthright tongue. In many ways, Svetlana is the most compelling character and despite being a supporting character who gets little screen time eventually becomes the one you’d want to spend time with in real life.

Not everyone will latch onto this. It is by-the-seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and at times the low budget is very evident. What remains with me after having seen this yesterday is that charm, heart and conviction can go a long way in indie filmmaking and Choosing Signs has plenty of all three. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that there are no stars, no Hollywood glitz and the fact that all of the characters are damaged in some way – even Eamon as we discover late in the film – then you might just fall under the sway of this charming Irish production.

REASONS TO GO: Dara gives the film a great deal of charm.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack has too many similar-sounding folk songs and needs way more variety.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to producing, writing, directing and starring in the movie, Dara also composed all the songs for the soundtrack and edited the film as well. He may also have swept the floor of the theater after the show.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Public Image is Rotten

Mercury 13


Even goofing around, these ladies all had the Right Stuff.

(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jim Hart, Bob Steadman, Ann Hart, Gene Nora Jessen, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, Eileen Collins, Jerrie Cooper, John Glenn, Jacqueline Cochrane, Gus Grissom, Gordo Cooper, Janey Hart, Bernice Steadman, Valentina Tereshkova, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh

 

There are some who think it is America’s most shining hour. Certainly in the annals of human achievement the American space program’s race to put a human on the surface of the moon has to rank right up there near the top and yet even that inspiring story had some less proud moments entwined in it.

Did you know that there were women who underwent the same rigorous testing that the male astronauts undertook and in some cases actually outscored the men? If you didn’t then join the club, one in which I’m a fellow member. It’s all true though; 25 female aviators were invited to take the astronaut tests of which 13 were able to pass. They became known as the Mercury 13 in reference to the original Mercury 7 astronauts who included Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper.

They were invited by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to take those tests. Lovelace had founded the Lovelace Clinic at the urging of outspoken aviation pioneer Jackie Cochrane who herself was eager to go into space. Lovelace believed that women were just as capable as men to be astronauts and thought that the prevailing attitude that women weren’t mentally or physically strong enough to handle the rigors of space flight was pure hooey.

The testing wasn’t sanctioned by NASA however and when they found out about it the powers-that-be at the space agency blew a figurative gasket. They ordered that the testing be stopped immediately and the women dismissed. The women weren’t about to take this lying down; they took their fight to Congress where they testified – often eloquently – about their right to explore, to do with their lives as they chose. In the end Lyndon Johnson quietly shut their program down without explanation.

The story is enough to hold your interest. Oddly, the filmmakers do some alternate history building by showing footage of the moon landing with a female voice coming from the astronauts, as if Mercury 13 member Janie Cobb had been the first person to set foot on the moon rather than Neil Armstrong; it comes off as a bit self-indulgent. It really doesn’t add anything to the narrative which I thought was better focused on what was rather than what might have been. The aerial sequences early on were well-filmed however.

Although not all of them are still with us, the interviews with the surviving Mercury 13 are a real pleasure. The ladies are still feisty although by now they’re in their 80s. One of their number, Janey Hart, would go on to become one of the co-founders of the National Organization of Women which would go on to lead the fight for women’s rights. As for the space program, it wasn’t until 1985 that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space (the Russians had sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963) and ten years later Eileen Cooper would become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

Fittingly, she invited all the surviving Mercury 13 to her launch and the footage of them exulting in the triumph not only of the shuttle but of women’s place in the space program speaks volumes about how necessary this documentary is in the age of #MeToo.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a fascinating one. There’s some nice aerial photography.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s depressing to think that things haven’t changed as much as they should have.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and depictions of sexism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sington and Walsh cut their Space Race teeth by making the acclaimed documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Choosing Signs

Rampage


George of the Urban Jungle and the Rock try to out-scary face one another.

(2018) Adventure (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne, Demetrius Grosse, Jack Quaid, Breanne Hill, Matt Gerald, Will Yun Lee, Urijah Faber, Bruce Blackshear, Jason Liles, Mat Wells, Stephen Dunleavy, Danny Le Boyer, Alan Boell, Alyssa Brooke. Directed by Brad Peyton

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that when you mess with mother nature it tends to come back and bite you in the ass eventually. That’s a lesson that seems lost on modern corporate America (and the regulatory agencies that are supposed to reign them in but that’s a different story).

When a space station explodes after a lab rat gets loose and tears the crew apart, the pathogen that caused the rat to mutate falls back to Earth, affecting a gator in the Everglades, a wolf in the Minnesota woods – and a gentle albino ape who dwells in the San Diego zoo. The primatologist who is studying George, Davis Okoye (Johnson) is understandably peeved but when government sorts led by the cheerful and shamefully Texan Harvey Russell (Morgan), the Rock’s biceps begin to twitch. When George, like the wolf and the alligator, begins to grow in size to something approaching a Japanese monster movie, behave aggressively and even savagely (they’re animals; who knew?) and for a fairly ludicrous plot reason decide to converge on Chicago and tear the city limb from limb, well the eyebrows arch and the people’s elbow start itching for a fight.

Based on an Atari-era videogame (the console box for which can be seen in the background of the office of the sibling corporate types (Akerman and Lacy) who are behind the pathogen, the movie seemed to have all the elements of a summer blockbuster, particularly Johnson whose easygoing charm and likability have propelled him onto the Hollywood A-list. However, Johnson is essentially on autopilot here. This is far from his finest hour and although he’s not the reason this movie fails to succeed (a painfully cliché script is largely to glame), he certainly doesn’t elevate it either.

Morgan as the federal agent who really wants to be a Texas Ranger and Akerman as a heartless corporate bitch are actually the actors who are the most watchable here. The CGI creations are also pretty nifty. However the mayhem – like many Transformers movies – is so overwhelming it becomes almost too much to take in; the mind becomes numbed to the carnage as buildings fall, helicopters are swatted from the sky and people are eaten like…well, energy pills in a videogame which in the original game, people were.

I’m not against mindless fun but the filmmakers ask us to take an awful lot on faith and after awhile the plot holes become too enormous to overcome. The human characters tend to be more like cartoons than the CGI which I find ironic in an amusing kind of way but I didn’t at the time I was watching this. There were a lot of things that could have been done with this premise to make this film better than it turned out to be but Peyton and perhaps the studio suits went the tried and true safe route and ended up making a cookie cutter movie that is neither satisfying or even more than barely recommendable.

REASONS TO GO: Morgan and Akerman acquit themselves well. The CGI is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie is dumb as a rock. Most of the characters are straight out of cartoons.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of video game-like violence, destruction and general mayhem. There’s also some brief mild profanity  and some crude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the tepid aggregate score, Rampage is currently the highest-scoring video game adaptation in the history of Rotten Tomatoes.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kong: Skull Island
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mercury 13

The Big Take


With Zoe Bell, axe and you will receive.

(2018) Crime Comedy (Archstone) Ebon Moss-Bachrach, James McCaffrey, Dan Hedaya, Oksana Lada, Bill Sage, Zoe Bell, Robert Forster, Slate Holmgren, Tara Westwood, John Enos III, Joslyn Jensen, Taylor Gildersleeve, Nick Daly, Matthew Kehoe, Sean David Morton, M.J. Rodriguez, Sandra Docherty, Sid O’Connell, Donna Mitchell. Directed by Justin Daly

 

It goes without saying that movies that go direct to video are generally of a lesser quality than those that do not. However there are exceptions and The Big Take, a crime comedy that is the first feature for writer-director Justin Daly, is one of those.

Faded movie star Douglas Brown (McCaffrey) is plotting his comeback, although a bitter divorce has led him to put all his assets into a bank in Panama to keep them from his vindictive ex. At an exclusive club in West Hollywood, he is accosted by barback Vic Venitos (Holmgren) who pushes a friend’s script called The Night of the Fire on the aging actor but Brown dismisses him in a manner that gives the impression that the movie star is quite the jerk.

Vic doctors one of Brown’s drinks and the actor is forced to make an exit but not before collapsing in a stairwell where an aggressive transgender (Rodriguez) apparently rapes him in a moment of transphobia that may cause those sensitive to such things to squirm (NB: although the incident is never shown, it is intimated that something sexual is happening and while it’s possible that the transgender in question was doing something else awful to Brown most audience members are going to think “rape”). Venitos then arranges to blackmail Brown into financing his film, but in typical neophyte fashion messes it up and writes the blackmail note on the back of the script which includes the writer’s name – Max O’Leary (Moss-Bachrach) – and address.

Brown’s hard-nosed agent Jack Girardi (Sage) puts ex-cop fixer Frank Manascalpo (Hedaya) on the case to retrieve the hard drive that Venitos stole from the club with the original security camera footage of Brown’s moment but the screenwriter’s Ukrainian wife Oksana (Lada) turns out to be pretty competent in hand-to-hand combat and gets the better of Manascalpo who then resorts to hiring nuclear deterrent Edie (Bell), who has a violent temper and a burning desire to be an astronaut and that’s when things get rapidly out of control.

I generally don’t have very high expectations for direct-to-video projects but the cast list should give you a clue as to the higher quality than normal of this one. I’m always happy to see Bell onscreen; not only is she a great action star, she also brings a certain sparkle to every role she inhabits. Forster is one of my favorite character actors as well and his world-weary cop here is a specialty of his. Hedaya is unfortunately far less visible than he was say 20 years ago but he still has the greasy screen presence he’s always had. Moss-Bachrach is essentially the star here; Max is blissfully ignorant of his producer’s machinations and doesn’t understand why his star is sending thugs to his house. Moss-Bachrach (who is credited here without the hyphen) has a bit of a nebbish quality to him but is likable enough to pull it off.

There is a bit of a noir-ish tone here but with a sly wink towards Robert Altman’s The Player and Elmore Leonard. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that this was based on a Leonard novel (it wasn’t) which is pretty high praise. One gets the sense that the same frustrations that Max and Vic feel are frustrations that Daly is no stranger to.

There are some missteps. The soundtrack is less than scintillating with an over-reliance on Trojan ska (Oksana’s character loves to gyrate to the island riddim) and worse industrial club fare which actually detracts from the film. It’s a given that a low-budget film isn’t going to be able to afford the best soundtrack but I’ve seen plenty of films of comparable budgets that have managed to fill their soundtrack with wonderful songs. It’s a shame they didn’t put more time and effort into finding some for this film. Also, these type of caper comedies need to move at a breakneck pace to be effective; this one is a bit too laid-back and as a result doesn’t have the energy it really needs to be truly memorable.

Nonetheless this is a reasonably entertaining crime comedy that doesn’t waste the viewer’s time and while there is some room for improvement, I was pleasantly surprised and can give this a solid recommendation. I could only find a couple of outlets where it’s currently available but Sony’s home video arm is behind it so I wouldn’t be surprised to find it all over the place in the near future. New York City readers can also catch it at the Cinema Village for a brief theatrical run as well but I would suggest you get out to see it quickly; it’s not likely to remain in theaters long.

Editor’s note: The style of music on the soundtrack was misidentified as reggae and has been corrected. Also, at the director’s request, it is pointed out that whatever violation of Douglas Brown occurs is not explicitly shown so that it is possible that the incident is something other than sexual assault.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is surprisingly entertaining. The cast does a strong job.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is more than a little weak. The energy is a little too low-key for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity, some brief drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daly is the grandson of the legendary Ingrid Bergman and nephew of Isabella Rossellini.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Shorty
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rampage

Before I Wake


Kate Bosworth knows why the butterflies fly.

(2016) Horror (Netflix) Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols, Antonio Romero, Kyla Deaver, Hunter Wenzel, Scottie Thompson, Jason Alan Smith, Michael Polish, Brett Luciana Murray, Natalie Roers, Erika Hoveland, Avis-Marie Barnes, Courtney Bell. Directed by Mike Flanagan

 

Dangerous and even deadly children have long been a horror trope. There is something about angelic little moppets who gleefully cause mayhem and murder that is absolutely horrifying, reflecting our own fears of being bad parents or of being vulnerable to our kids.

Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark (Jane) have been through the worst nightmare any parent can conceive; their son Sean (Romero) died tragically in a bathtub drowning incident. Jessie is no longer able to conceive and there is an empty space in their lives that two years after the accident they are ready to fill with Cody (Tremblay) who has a tragic history of his own. The couple adopts him and their case worker Natalie (Gish) thinks that these two will give Cody a loving home. And they do for awhile.

They soon discover that Cody has a mysterious power, one that has caused him to be abandoned by would-be foster parents. His dreams become tangible. At first it is beautiful as colorful butterfly with internal lights flit about their house. Then, however, it becomes clear that Cody’s nightmares are also punching into the real world and his nightmares can kill people.

Flanagan is considered one of the most promising young horror directors at the moment for good reason. He’s had a string of movies that have been at least a cut above most films of the genre. This one, caught in the morass that was Relativity in 2015 (when the movie was originally supposed to be released) and 2016 has finally seen the light of day thanks to Netflix. Was this worth the wait?

Yes and no. The movie has some incredible visuals, from th butterflies of light to the terrifying Canker Man (Bousquet). It also has a strong performance from Jane who is superb and likable as Mark although his hair choice has to be questioned; his Fabio locks aren’t quite right for the character. However, Bosworth is dreadfully miscast as the heroine. She is pretty like a porcelain doll and she just looks out of place in the movie. To make matters worse, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard inexplicably make her exploit the young boy’s powers which really made me feel uncomfortable. To be fair, critics have pretty much universally praised her performance so take my criticism with a grain of salt; sometimes even a good performance doesn’t connect with everyone.

Tremblay, who went on to an Oscar nomination for Room is a bit wooden here but also to be fair he was about seven or eight years old when he filmed this. The concept though is pretty original and for the most part Flanagan gets it right until the ending which is a bit lame. This won’t go down as one of his better films but those who follow his career definitely should see it and those who like films like The Babadook will probably enjoy this one as well.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific premise with some nifty visuals. Thomas Jane is extremely likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Kate Bosworth isn’t convincing enough as a horror heroine. The ending is lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of terror and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be distributed theatrically by Relativity but their financial woes led to a constant shifting of release dates and finally the film was sold to Netflix where it was quietly released more than two years after the original premiere date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Big Take

It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake