CAPERNIUM – movie review

CAPERNAUM (Chaos) سافرنام

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Nadine Labaki
Screenwriter:  Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeilly, Michelle Keserwany, in collaboration with Georges Khabbaz and with the participation of Khaled Mouzanar
Cast:  Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/28/18
Opens: December 14, 2018

Capernaum Poster #1


Next time a “homeless Vietnam veteran” enters your car in the New York City Metro asking for “a dollar, a quarter, even a penny to feed my three hungry kids,” are you tempted to say “If you’re too poor to take care of yourself, why the hell did you have three hungry kids?”  (Ironically, Trump would not be tempted to say this, given that he opposes requiring health insurance companies to cover birth control.)  The rich make money, the poor make children.

Homelessness and poverty are in no way intrinsic to New York or the U.S. but are more prevalent in what Trump might call sh*thole countries.  Doubtless he’d include Muslim Lebanon, since that Middle Eastern state is no Norway, but while Beirut has a thriving middle class, others live in slums that make a tourist wonder how anyone can bear living there—without water, electricity, indoor plumbing, and everything else.  Nadine Labaki, who directs and co-wrote “Capernaum,” took hundreds of hours of film in a hell-hole Beirut slum to capture children who are not likely to become the next slumlord millionaires.  What emerges is a three-hanky movie about the tragic lives of people who live there, some without papers, without money, without hope, including children whose occupations are more likely selling chiclets than running a hedge fund.

Director and co-writer Nadine Labaski, whose “Where Do We Go Now” is about how some Lebanese women try to moderate the tensions between Christian and Muslims, is in her métier, writing what she knows about the Beirut of her birthplace.  Evoking incredibly subtle performances from non-professional actors especially the young boys and girls who are likely to be acting out their own slum lives, she delves particularly into the life of 12-year-old central character Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), serving a five-year sentence for stabbing “a sonofabitch” and sues his parents for giving birth to him.  This kid apparently knows more than the parents the world-over who have no concept of family planning and whose large brood will keep them in poverty.  In fact the adults in “Capernaum” make do by selling their offspring, including one eleven-year-old girl who is married off and who dies bleeding to death in childbirth. 

Zain is a Lebanese boy who wants to pass himself off as a Syrian refugee to allow him to emigrate to Turkey or Sweden, while probably knowing nothing about those two states except for thinking that Sweden is prettier.  In many scenes this street kid is taking care of an Ethiopian baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and the infant’s mother Rahil (Yordanos Chiferaw). The baby is too young to talk but ready to cry and feel abandoned like an anxious puppy if his would-be baby sitter leaves him on the sidewalk to run an errand.  This responsible young lad takes better care of the Ethiopian refugee than his own mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Eadi Kamel Youssef), which explains the unusual lawsuit.  The parents’ lack of care comes principally from their poverty as they are unable even to give Zain the modest sum to allow him to get a passport, nor would a hospital take him in if he needs medical care as he has no ID.   He scrapes by as a delivery boy for a grocer who has his eye on Zain’s kid sister Sahar (Cedra Izam).  He trusts Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) to forge an ID.  As though their poverty were not enough to bear, these slum dwellers are exploited by miscreants who run a black market adoption scheme.  Yet there are moments of humor as when Zain is asked why “his brother” is darker than he pipes up that his mother drank a lot of coffee. 

Most Americans with the wherewithal to travel stick to our own country or to other well-off regions in Canada and Western Europe. Those who prefer more exotic excursions and go to poor countries—and there are a lot more of them than the other kind—will observe the same problems that we see hear—the rusty tin, corrugated boxes that slum dwellers call home, the sending our of their small fry to sell gum on the street, even encouraging some to do as Zair did by selling drugs like the opiate Tramadol (which Zair gets from a suspicious pharmacist.)

“Capernaum” (pronounced cap AIR nay um), meaning “a place with a disorderly accumulation of objects,”  is Lebanon’s entry to the 91st Academy awards and commands your attention for its authentic acting, its visuals, its humanism. In Arabic with English subtitles.  The film got a 15-minute standing ovation at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

123 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical –  A-
Overall – B+

BEIRUT – movie review

BEIRUT

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenwriter:  Tony Gilroy
Cast:  Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Larry Pine, Shea Whigham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/13/18
Opens: April 11, 2018
Beirut Movie Poster
Jon Hamm is a painfully handsome middle-aged actor who was perfectly cast in “Mad Men.”  He fits in handily as a Madison Avenue executive and was born to smoke and drink while selling expensive advertising to major clients. He should be considered to be the next 007 provided that he can imitate the king’s English.  He is well cast in “Beirut.”  He still drinks and smokes, occasionally raises his voice.  He is a negotiator as he was in the brilliant TV episodes, so adept that even the bad guys in the Middle East insisted that they would talk only to him to arrange an exchange of prisoners.  Tony Gilroy’s story for this new release is as confusing as Brad Anderson’s direction.  From time to time a bomb goes off in Lebanon’s capital, and occasionally there is the rapid fire of AK-47 as bad guys in the usual headgear and mouth coverings do what they do for reasons that are not always clear to Americans—who think that the only reason that people take risks is for money.

As Mason Skiles, Jon Hamm is shown in Beirut in 1982 with flashbacks to his time in Lebanon’s capital ten years earlier.   In 1972 things were looking up for Skiles, then a diplomat.  He enjoys the company of his lovely wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti).  The couple even adopted Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), a Palestinian refugee who is now a cute kid of 13.  But Karim has a secret: his brother Abu (Hicham Ouraqa) was a bad guy responsible for the murder of Jews during the Munich Olympics. Just as Karim and Skiles are having a nice chat, a deadly terrorist attack during a diplomatic party leaves Nadia dead.  Skiles, now in no mood ever to return to the middle east, takes on a job at home as a labor negotiator but is called back in 1982 because Cal Riley (MarkPellegrino), a good friend, is being held prisioner.  The terrorists want to trade him for Abu Rajal.

It’s no wonder that they want only Skiles.  His adopted son Karim (Idir Chender) is now grown up, a fighter for the Palestinian cause, and feels certain he can trust his stepdad to pull of the trade, but the sinister U.S. diplomats are divided in motives leaving only Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) to support the negotiations.

What could have been a film to break new ground as did the filmmakers for the superb “Mad Men” series instead create a same ol’ retread of spy stories, which in itself would not be so bad if the story did not plod along with boatloads of banter which do nothing more than confuse the viewer further.  This is a surprise coming from the screenwriter, Gilroy, whose “Argo” in 2012 presented an ingenious ruse to get six people who had escaped from Iranian clutches out of the country by setting up a fake Canadian film company. “Argo” was not confusing, was full of original ideas, and with excitement that flowed organically from the plot.  This one’s a dud.

Rated R.  109 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – D
Acting – B
Technical –  B
Overall – C

THE INSULT (L’insulte) – movie review

THE INSULT    (L’insulte)

Cohen Media Group
Director:  Ziad Doueiri
Written by: Ziad Doueiri, Joëlle Touma
Cast:  Adel Karam, Rita Hayek, Kamel El Basha, Christine Choueiri, Camille Salamé, Diamand Bou Abboud, Georges Daou
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/7/18
Opens: January 26, 2018
L'insulte Movie Poster
Sometimes a judicial case causes repercussions well beyond the courtroom.  Consider how the extradition by Mexico of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán for trial in a New York court must have helped to influence President Trump to push for an $18 billion wall on our border with Mexico to keep out (as he put it) their rapists and criminals that illegally enter our country.  Though fictional, the judicial proceedings that involve two warring sides in Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” inflame all of Lebanon and bring up memories from that country’s recent past, including the horrendous civil war 1975-1990 that resulted in the death of 120,000 Lebanese and a massive exodus as in Syria today.  Partly as a result of people’s memories, hostilities remain between Christians and Muslims that have been partly resolved by a power-sharing agreement.

The judicial proceedings in Doueri’s film—from a director whose “The Attack” centered on a Tel Aviv Arab surgeon who learns a dark secret about his wife—bring to the surface the only mildly repressed antagonisms between the Christian population and the Palestinians living in Lebanon.  The Palestinians feel humiliated that they are treated like refugees with no avenue to citizenship, while the Christians who are four times more numerous, simply resent the influx of the people in the same way that Trump begrudges most immigration from the Middle East.

“The Attack,” one of my favorites from 2012, finding Doueri’s raising the tension until it reaches fever pitch, has resonance in his current work.  There is no wonder that Lebanon has entered “The Insult” into our Oscar competition where it will compete against such emotional stories as the remarkable German entry and my own favorite, “In the Fade.”

Part courtroom drama, “The Insult” allows the audience to go not only beyond the trial but into the broad, unfortunate ways that people can differ with one another, even justifying physical violence before considering peaceful settlements.   A fairly innocent quarrel leads to a case which, upon appeal, draws high dudgeon among the Lebanese people, even resulting in a conference arranged by Lebanon’s present not unlike the “beer summit” that Mr. Obama set up between an allegedly racist cop and an innocent African-American professor.

The two principals are Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian Muslim refugee who is foreman of a company that repairs building-code violations; and Tony (Adel Karam), a car mechanic seen early on watering his plants on his own balcony.  When Yasser explains to Tony that he must fix a leaky pipe, Tony, recognizing a Palestinian (“not one of us,” “the enemy,” “the devil”), slams the door in his face.  A confrontation follows—the kind of thing you expect from macho men but rarely from women—as Tony tells Yasser that he wishes Ariel Sharon would wipe out [all the Palestinians like you].  (Viewers unfamiliar with the conflict between Israel’s late Prime Minister and Palestinian refugees in a camp can find considerable information in Wikipedia.) Yasser, by all other standards the milder man, responds with a punch, breaking two of Tony’s ribs and ostensibly causing Toni’s pregnant wife Sharine (Rita Hayek) to deliver a baby that needs temporary life support.

The case itself revolves around a law that states no crime is involved if you use physical violence when under extreme stress. Yasser and Tony go court; first before a magistrate who throws it out, then in a nationally followed appellate division.  The case engages the entire country, right-wing Christians including members of the Christian party supporting Tony while Palestinian refugees in the court occasionally causing noisy protests.  Three magistrates hear Wajdi (Camille Salameh), a high-level lawyer supporting militant Christian politics, facing against his own daughter Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), a novice, though one more high-minded and supportive of the Palestinian cause.

The real principle, the overriding theme, is this:  what happens when two opposing sides each considers itself a victim of long-lasting injustice?  Israelis today point to the Holocaust as a prime factor for insisting on a homeland denied to them for 2,000 years.  Palestinians consider the land which was promised to them now occupied by Israeli Jews.  Two victims, two rights in conflict.  The educated viewer cannot help looking at “The Insult” and thinking of a huge array of oppressors and victims, sometimes each claiming to be both. The trial scenes and the rallies in Beirut largely by Christians point to the trial as a touchstone for renewed violence. That’s not all.  To its credit, director Ziad Doueiri, with co-writer Joëlle Touma, deliver a feminist message: that women are the caregivers of society with an overriding interest in stability having to face a tough fight against the male gender for whom honor and winning are paramount.

Tommaso Fiorilli behind the lenses gives us clear pictures of the trial and especially of the enthusiastic, partisan rallies outside.  There is enough drama in this film to warrant the subtler use of music. The look of the almost two-hour work, should have the Oscar voters’ work cut out.

Unrated.  113 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-