Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

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The Dead Survive


One foot in front of the other. Heavy, heavy feet in heavy, heavy shoes. Dust covers me. Dirt. The dirt of the grave. The dirt of death. I’m dead. Gone. Kaput. But the dead survive. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t care. I’m just…tired. Each step is agony. I want to lie down and go to sleep but my body doesn’t know how.

Once I was living. Once I slept. Ate. Fucked. I had friends. I was happy. Content. But that’s all faded away to nothing. There is nothing but hunger and the need to keep moving. One foot in front of the other. I can’t help myself.

I know that I have changed. A part of me mourns, the part of me that still feels but that shrinks by the day, a small light of humanity that has dimmed and almost gone out. I know this is Hell. It must be. Where else but Hell  could there be such cruelty, such torture? Hungry all the time but nothing to eat. Forced to move, to walk when all I want to do is sleep. Sleep is denied me. Oblivion is denied me. If I had tears, I might weep.

This isn’t what it was supposed to be. I thought that when we died, we’d sleep. We’d go to heaven. We’d be reincarnated. Not this. Not this agony of walking and hungering. I’ve walked…hundreds, maybe thousands of miles. My brain can no longer comprehend numbers and distance. It’s been years since I died. Years since I began walking.

Food was plentiful once. The living were everywhere, like ants. One small child was a meal, a small adult a feast. Their blood and brains gave us sustenance. Their still living tissue was sweet. But like everything else we did, we over-harvested the food supply. Like the fish in the ocean, the food grew less plentiful. We tried eating other living things – dogs, cats, squirrels, rabbits but it wouldn’t do. They walk with us now, no longer in fear although our scent disturbs them. They are not our food.

I haven’t seen a living human in a long, long time. They have gotten adept at hiding, maybe. Or maybe they’re all gone. This might be a dead planet with the reanimated corpses of the dead all that remains. How long can we live without food? Can we die, at last? Will our rest finally come when we all simply drop, too tired to walk,  no food to sate our hunger?

I no longer have the ability to answer such questions. I no longer have the ability to ask them. It is a thought, quick as lightning that passes through what was once my cortex and is gone. I shuffle my feet. One step. Another. Another. Moving forward, ever forward. Others of my kind are nearby but nothing living. Nothing human. We all walk, aimlessly. We are pointed in one direction and will walk until we can’t. What will happen when I reach the ocean? I have no need of breath; I will doubtlessly walk beneath the waves until I come to another beach, somewhere else.

It doesn’t matter. I’m merely a reanimated piece of meat, going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. My mind is flickering out and soon even these brief flashes of thought will cease. I don’t remember my name. I don’t remember my life, only a vague recollection that I was happy once. Now I don’t feel anything – not even pain. All is compulsion; compulsion to walk, compulsion to eat.

The dead don’t have lives. The idea is contradictory. We merely survive, one day into another and on and on it goes into infinity. The road stretches out before me. Grass grows through the pavement. The sun shines and butterflies flit across the landscape. Birds sing in the trees and a soft cool breeze rustles the leaves. It’s a beautiful day but I don’t notice it.

I must keep moving. One step. Another. Another. Walking, always walking. Never running. Never stopping either. Just an aimless, ceaseless journey on an empty stomach that has no meaning and no value. Reduced to bare functionality, sheer instinct the only motivation. I shuffle my feet. I stumble. I fall. I get up. My legs don’t work very well. My arm is broken but I don’t know it. I wouldn’t care if I did. The dead feel no pain. Only compulsion.

Hell. This is hell. One step. Another. Another. No bed at journey’s end. No soft pillow to lay my head on. No sheets to cover me in the night. No rest. No redemption. Just one step. Another. Another. My stomach growls. It doesn’t matter. I will walk until this planet is no more. I will walk until the end of time. I am dead and death is eternal. Death is walking. Hell is walking. One step. Another. Another. Another. Another.

The Lucky One


The Lucky One

Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling save the last dance for each other.

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart, Adam Lefevre Robert Terrell Hayes, Joe Chrest, Russ Comegys, Sharon Morris, Ann McKenzie, Kendal Tuttle, Courtney J. Clark, Jillian Batherson. Directed by Scott Hicks

 

The novels of Nicholas Sparks and the films that are based on them tend to sparkle with a certain patina of sentiment. They are filmed in rich autumnal colors, through hazy lenses smeared with Vaseline. They are the stuff of modern day fairy tales.

Logan Thibault (Efron) is a Marine serving in Iraq. While on his last tour he goes on a raid of a home and comes under heavy fire from snipers. He watches as men from his company and others are cut down by the insurgents.

The next morning he and his men are lounging around the now-secured area when he spies a photograph in the rubble. Curious, he walks over to it, bends over and picks it up to see a beautiful blonde  – when an explosion wipes out the men he’d just been standing with.

The rest of his tour he survives again and again, sometimes without rhyme or reason. One of his fellow Marines jokes that the girl in the picture is his guardian angel. Logan isn’t laughing though; he thinks she might just be.

After leaving the Marines he goes to visit his sister and her family in Colorado but it’s clear he has issues. He’s jumpy, morose and when startled reacts violently. He knows he can’t stay with his sister and her bratty sons; he decides to go find the woman in the photograph. By pure happenstance he stumbles on a picture of the lighthouse in the back of the photo with the woman and decides to hoof it from Colorado to Louisiana.

Six years later, he arrives in Louisiana with scarcely a bunion, his impossibly well-behaved German Shepard Zeus by his side. He shows the picture around town and is led to the local pet groomer’s where he finds the object of his search, Beth Clayton (Schilling). She is divorced from Keith (Ferguson), the town sheriff and son of the powerful Judge Clayton (LeFevre) and at the moment an uneasy peace exists between them, threatened by Keith’s alcohol abuse. Beth lives with her son Ben (Stewart) and her grandma Ellie (Danner) and their business is sorely in need of some help. Beth mistakes Logan for a respondent to her want ad but something about him – the fact that he confessed to having walked from Colorado to Louisiana made her a bit reluctant to hire him. However Ellie – who possesses a Sense About These Things – hires him on the spot, hoping he’ll re-ignite Beth’s spark.

Boy does he ever. It takes a few games of chess with Ben (who takes to the newcomer like a tick to a Golden Retriever), a fully clothed outdoor shower for the two of them together and a couple of beers and before you can say Logan’s Your Uncle, Ben the two of them are canoodling.

But the suspicious Sheriff doesn’t like having his ex hanging around another man and when he finds out that he has the Picture, he blabs it to Beth whom Logan neglected to mention that little tidbit of information to. Who had that picture and why will lead Beth to break things off with Logan, even though everyone and their cousin Moe knows that he’s The One for her. What will it take to get the two of them together? How about a freakish rainstorm?

Yup, this is Nicholas Sparks through and through, laden with coincidences and conveniences. In an interview, he talked about the book having a theme of destiny and fate, items he claims he doesn’t believe in himself. Me, I don’t buy it – most of Sparks’ books have an element of events conspiring to bring true love together by the final chapter, or tearing them apart.

Efron plays the taciturn Logan and we all know that he saw a lot of Bad Things over there because he’s supposed to be haunted. We can tell he’s haunted because his expression never changes. Ever. And his periwinkle blue eyes seem to look right through things. Efron may not be the most expressive actor on the planet but I know he can act. I’ve seen him do it in other movies. I think he either decided to play Logan as a soul-dead person, or he was told to by the director. Either way it was a poor choice. Even so, he has enough natural charisma that I actually liked his character. Go figure.

Schilling doesn’t generate a lot of heat with Efron and really doesn’t do much to make me think Beth is worth walking down the block for, let alone thousands of miles. Danner alone gives her role anything that can be qualified as memorable.

Yet despite all this I liked the movie much more than I thought I would and certainly much more than other critics did. I liked the story line and I liked Efron and I liked the dogs (there are LOTS of them) and I liked the Louisiana setting. I walked out with a good feeling and even though the movie is terribly flawed, I would still count it as a success just for that reason.

REASONS TO GO: Much better than I expected it to be. I liked Efron in this, although I would have liked a bit more expressiveness from him. Nicely photographed.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too over-reliant on coincidence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some war and domestic violence as well as a bit of sexuality and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers changed the location of the film to Louisiana from North Carolina where the book was set.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.The reviews are solidly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message in a Bottle

ARMED FORCES LOVERS: The studio screened the film in advance on military installations throughout the world as a way of saying thank you to the men and women in uniform.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Five-Year Engagement

The Way


The Way

Sometimes the little things we encounter in our journey have the most profound effect along the way.

(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.

Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.

Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.

It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.

Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.

Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?

This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.

Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.

There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.

This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.

This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.

REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.

HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness