In Theaters

Survival can be a challenging proposition. The more difficult the circumstances, the harder it can be to get out from under. However, the more we can call upon our powers of creativity to come up with innovative solutions, the better our chances of succeeding – which can be critical when we have our very existence on the line. So it is for a young man up against trying conditions in the new, award-winning Lebanese drama, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ) (web site, trailer).

Growing up as a poor child in Beirut is tough enough. But growing up as a poor child in Beirut to parents who are pathologically neglectful and have had more kids than they can possibly afford is a challenge just to stay alive, let alone to hold on to even the slightest shred of personal dignity. Such is the life that Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) faces every day. His parents, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Yousef), have birthed so many children that they don’t even know how old their son is (estimates are that he’s 12 to 13). In fact, there are times when it seems like they don’t even know how many kids they have.

Conditions like these force young ones to grow up fast. Zain, for instance, has developed a sharp streetwise sensibility at a tender age, much sooner than most other youngsters usually do. He’s learned how to protect himself, how to call things as he sees them, how to swear like a sailor and how not to take any guff from anyone. But, while it’s fortunate that he’s become savvy enough to deal with these circumstances, it’s a shame that he’s being left out of many of childhood’s joys.

Lebanese street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) struggles to survive against incredible odds in the heart-tugging new drama, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Christopher Aoun, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

To make matters worse, when Beirut’s street kids are deemed old enough, they’re expected to go to work to help support the household, even if they have to forgo school. For Zain and his 11-year-old sister, Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), this means helping out a local store owner, Assaad (Nour El Hosseini), son of the family’s landlord (Tamer Ibrahim). Zain does odd jobs around the shop and delivers groceries to neighborhood residents. But, as for Sahar, Assaad has other plans in mind. He’s lecherously smitten with her, routinely plying her with little indulgences like ramen and licorice.

Zain is incensed with Assaad’s leering ways. So it comes as no surprise that he loses it when he learns that his parents are looking to trade Sahar’s hand in marriage to Assaad in exchange for rent concessions from his landlord father, a questionable practice but one that’s not unknown in the community. In a fit of anger, Zain lashes out, incurring the ire of his parents in return. He now knows these circumstances are intolerable, so he leaves home without notice to chart a new path for himself.

Beirut street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, left) does his best to protect his younger sister, Sahar (Haita ‟Cedra“ Izzam, right), against their unscrupulous parents and a lecherous store owner in the award-winning new Lebanese drama, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Christopher Aoun, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Zain initially plans to relocate to his grandmother’s home. But, while traveling there, he changes his mind when he comes upon an amusement park. The colorful, lively attractions captivate him, given that they’re so different from what’s he accustomed to. He decides to explore what it has to offer, abandoning his original plan. He lives by his wits and begins looking for work from the local vendors, but no one is willing to hire him.

But all is not lost: Zain captures the attention of Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal alien from Ethiopia who works at the park under an alias using falsified immigration papers that are about to expire. Rahil has her hands full as the single mother of a toddler, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), so she’s limited in terms of how much support she can provide. However, given that she now has access to a potential babysitter, she can leave Yonas at home while she works, an option preferable to dragging him to her job and hiding him in a bathroom stall during her shift. And, in exchange for Zain’s child care services, Rahil provides him with food and a place to stay. It’s an arrangement that works relatively well, too – that is, until Rahil is picked up and incarcerated by authorities for immigration violations. To make matters worse, her arrest takes place without Zain’s knowledge. Suddenly the adolescent youngster is left to care for himself and a toddler all on his own.

Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a single mother and illegal alien from Ethiopia working in Lebanon, does what she can to make ends meet for a growing toddler in director Nadine Labaki’s ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Fares Sokhon, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that Zain’s circumstances grow progressively more challenging, particularly when he’s forced into dealing with assorted shady characters, such as a crooked flea market vendor (Alaa Chouchnieh), to get by. His survival skills serve him well under these conditions, but eventually even they get pushed to the limit. A course of events is set in motion that require him to make hard choices and take drastic measures that have the potential to land him in trouble. But, with courage and some inventive thinking, he’s determined to have his say – even if it means doing so in court and against unlikely opponents.

Capernaum,ˮ which translates as “Chaos,ˮ couldn’t be a more fitting title for this film. The deplorable conditions depicted here are something no one should have to endure, especially someone as young as Zain. Between the irresponsibility of his parents, the street life of Beirut and the circumstances of being thrust into becoming a caretaker for a young child who isn’t even his own, Zain has his hands full coping with the chaos around him. Yet somehow he manages to survive, because he believes he can. The film thus demonstrates what it means to carry on even in the face of incredible odds. It’s that belief in himself that Zain staunchly holds onto that he needs to stay afloat. He possesses an unshakable faith in his abilities to somehow find a way to contend with the challenges facing him. And, with each new obstacle, he must continually steel his resolve to do so, especially since the stakes get upped every time.

Runaway street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, background) becomes an impromptu babysitter for Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, foreground) when the toddler’s mother goes to work in ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Christopher Aoun, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It’s a rare feat that a film is able to simultaneously warm and break your heart at the same time, but this intense, involving offering does just that. Director Nadine Labaki’s heart-tugging saga of children being left to fend for themselves by unfeeling parents and an unfeeling bureaucracy evokes genuine emotion through a story that’s presented with stark realism and not narrative manipulation. The performances of the two children are indeed impressive, making you feel as though you’re right alongside them in their harrowing odysseys. Because of that, you’ll want to keep the hankie handy for this one; you’ll need it for when the film touches your heart and for when it nearly rips it out of your chest.

Capernaum” has been widely recognized in awards competitions – and deservedly so. The film captured three honors at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, including the Jury Prize, the Ecumenical Jury Prize and the Prix de la citoyenneté (Social Responsibility Award), along with a Palme d’Or nomination, the event’s highest award. More recently, the picture was named a nominee in the foreign language film category in the upcoming Academy Award and BAFTA Award contests. Comparable nods were also bestowed on the film in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions, though it took home no statues in either contest.

To address past transgressions, runaway street kid Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, left), represented by his attorney (Nadine Labaki, right), takes on unlikely opponents in court in the award-winning new release, ‟Capernaumˮ (“Chaosˮ). Photo by Fares Sokhon, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It’s tragic that anyone should have to experience the kinds of circumstances that kids like Zain endure. Thankfully, though, we should be grateful for the creative resources that are available to us all to overcome such situations. They’re there when we need them, and all we need do is avail ourselves of them. The outcomes that result from doing so may truly surprise us, enabling us to ultimately turn things around in the end.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

In Search of Redemption

In an age when it’s become all too easy to abandon responsibility, especially among those in positions of authority, it’s refreshing to see those who are willing to own up to their mistakes and even seek to redeem themselves for their oversights and misdeeds. But even those who genuinely attempt to make up for these shortcomings may face a difficult time of it and through no fault of their own. So what is one to do under such circumstances? That’s one of the central questions raised in the intense new political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss” (web site, trailer).

Former National Security Advisor Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), once a powerful and influential counselor to the President, has become something of a reclusive enigma since her resignation four years ago. Even though she had attained an enviable status with the former chief executive (Rex Linn) and the current commander-in-chief, former VP Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis), Libby has a cloud hanging over her head. She rarely makes public appearances, and, when she does, she’s usually met with derisive looks or outright hostility. Because of that, she tends to keep to herself. She’s even cut herself off from most outside means of contact, having no cell phone, email address or social media connections. Why the secrecy?

Libby’s efforts at keeping an intentionally low profile become more difficult, however, when she accepts a teaching position at a major university in Chicago. Suddenly she’s in the spotlight again, perhaps not as much as before, but any visibility is more than what she’s experienced for quite some time, and it makes her conspicuously uncomfortable. Libby’s department chairman (Deanna Dunagan) tries to make the new arrival feel as welcome as possible, but the pall hanging over Dr. Lamm always seems to cause embarrassment, difficulty or distress. Libby’s newly assigned personal assistant (Ali Burch) is anything but hospitable, and, at a faculty reception in her honor, Libby encounters loud and spiteful criticism from a fellow professor (David Eigenberg). Life in her new profession isn’t going to be easy.

Former National Security Advisor Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter, right) confers with her onetime boss, President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis, left), regarding matters of global importance in the taut new political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

About the only person in Libby’s corner is her father, Phillip (Clarke Peters), a newspaper publisher. He does his best to offer support, but even his reassurances aren’t enough to silence the whispers and stifle the pointed fingers directed squarely at his daughter. She’s even concerned about how much contact he should have with her for fear that guilt by association may harm his reputation.

So, under these circumstances, Libby quietly goes to her job every day, followed by a neighborhood jog and then a return home to work on a lengthy document that she writes out in long hand on legal pads. She’s exceedingly intent in working on the document, sometimes spending hours on end at it. And, upon finishing her writing each day, she locks up her papers in a sturdy antique safe. Whatever it is she’s writing, it must be pretty important if she’s willing to go to such lengths as composing it without the aid of a computer and then securing it so secretively.

As all of this unfolds, another issue arises. Unbeknownst to Libby, she’s being followed by a mysterious stalker who turns out to be one of her pupils, Martin Salhi (Ben Tavassoli), a foreign exchange grad student. What exactly does he want? Is he a would-be romantic interest? An obsessive fetishist? Or is he something else entirely? His methods and motives are unclear, but, as his actions grow progressively more cryptic and questionable, he begins raising suspicions among others, most notably his roommate, Jordan (Alex Weisman). What’s Martin up to?

And, if that weren’t enough, Libby starts receiving visits from ghosts of her past, most notably now-President Burke and her fiercely loyal Chief of Staff, Adrian Little (Jeff Hephner), Libby’s onetime romantic partner. The visits are contentious, to be sure. Libby is told that she’d be warmly welcomed back into the fold if she chose to return to the President’s service. But she’s also sternly cautioned that there would be serious consequences if she doesn’t toe the line in her expected conduct now that she’s returned to the public spotlight. She’s obviously carrying potentially explosive secrets around with her, but what could they be? And what consequences would their revelation involve, both for Libby personally and the country (and world) at large? What’s more, what role does the stalker play in all this? Indeed, why is everyone pursuing Libby?

President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis, left) knows she can count on the loyalty of her fiercely devoted Chief of Staff, Adrian Little (Jeff Hephner, right), in the taut new political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

To say more would reveal too much, but what lies ahead for all concerned – including the nation itself – carries implications of staggering proportions. How everyone fares will depend on how prepared they are to weather the storms coming their way – and whether those preparations are truly adequate.

As becomes apparent in the film, both through the main narrative and a series of flashbacks showing how these conditions arose, there are some very driven characters at work here. They’re quite singularly focused, determined to bring about the results they want at seemingly any cost. Such conviction can be a valuable asset, but it can also be a tremendous liability when it’s let loose without consideration for the ramifications. When we seek to elicit what we want without concern for the fallout that can accompany such outcomes, we engage in a dangerous practice that can yield far more than we bargain for, including any number of unpleasant side effects.

Such a practice also tends to show a disregard for responsibility. When unintended or unwanted outcomes result from our efforts, we must own up to them, regardless of their nature. For those who do, there may be feelings of regret or remorse that accompany the acknowledgment of these missteps. Yet, as difficult as accepting such circumstances may be, we can always make amends for the errors of our ways, and this film shows what it means to go about that process. We’re not perpetually saddled with an unchangeable fate; we can redeem ourselves, though we must be clear about our intents in doing so. And, as this story reveals, there’s certainly an effort being made to make that happen.

Of course, for redemption to occur, we must take certain steps first. For starters, we must overcome whatever fears or apprehensions that might hold us back. Then we must implement the actions required to make it possible. This may call upon us to think creatively in terms of the measures we take, sometimes instituting means that are outside the box. None of this may be easy, but it’s always possible. And, considering what’s at stake here, that’s an outcome everyone should hope for.

Tensions rise between Former National Security Advisor Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter, right) and her onetime boss, President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis, left), in director Joe Chappelle’s taut new political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

“An Acceptable Loss” positively blew me away. Filmmaker Joe Chappelle knocks this one out of the park, presenting us with a taut political thriller that dispenses its secrets in exactingly measured doses, careful not to expose too much all at once but always maintaining enough viewer interest to stay hooked. This technique, reminiscent of the work of director Roman Polanski, thus makes it possible for the big reveal to have maximum impact when it’s finally exposed, walloping the audience with a revelation that will easily leave one agasp, as is the case here. On top of this, the performances are all solid, though special recognition goes out to Curtis, who turns in what is arguably the best on-screen portrayal of her career, giving us a character who is a cleverly crafted fusion of Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney. The mileage that Curtis gets out of gestures as simple as her facial expressions is truly impressive.

All of these elements conspire to give us an unforgettable picture. It’s indeed unfortunate, though, that this film has received such unfairly negative reviews, assessments that have been downright criminal in my view. I’m shocked at the petty criticisms that have been leveled against this picture, including some that have come down on it for daring to have a point of view (what movie doesn’t have a point of view?). Pay no attention to the naysayers behind the curtain and see this one, whatever way you can (either in its limited theatrical release or via online streaming). It’s a well-made film, and it imparts an important message that every American should heed.

Given the prevailing social and political climate, finding those who behave honorably has become an increasingly challenging task. So when there are those who willingly step to the fore who exhibit such behavior these days, it’s almost inconceivable that they would do so. Thankfully, the examples set in this film provide us with anticipation that such individuals still exist. Let us hope that we see them on places other than the movie screen.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Celebrating a Comedy Legend

It’s hard to keep a good man – or a good team – down. Those who are determined to carry forward with their plans, no matter what they may be, are usually difficult to contain. And, when you add the power of a collaborative effort to the mix, the ability to hold them back may be nearly impossible. So it was for a comedy duo seeking to revive their career in their waning days as seen in the entertaining new biopic, “Stan & Ollie” (web site, trailer).

In 1937, Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) were the biggest comedy duo in the entertainment business. Their films were screened throughout the US and around the world, and virtually no one in Hollywood was bigger than they were. But, in the ensuing years, that all began to change.

The comedy duo of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan, left) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly, right) perform a series of stage shows to help generate interest in an upcoming new film production as seen in the entertaining new biopic, “Stan & Ollie.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Because Laurel and Hardy were under separate contacts with studio chief Hal Roach (Danny Huston), they weren’t operating on a level playing field, a source of frustration and consternation for Laurel individually (he wasn’t getting his due) and for the pair collectively (they didn’t have the creative clout they sought that a joint contract would afford). What’s more, during his contract dispute with Laurel, Roach paired up Hardy with comedian Harry Langdon for a film called “Zenobia” (1939), an incident that rubbed Laurel the wrong way. And, even though Laurel and Hardy resumed working thereafter, their career was strained – and waning.

In an attempt to revive their partnership in 1953, Laurel and Hardy began work on a comic film version of “Robin Hood” with a British production company, an organization somewhat shrouded in mystery. But, because Laurel and Hardy no longer captured widespread attention the way they once did, the producers believed that they needed to raise their visibility level. So, to renew interest in the duo and to help support fundraising for the picture, Stan and Ollie were asked to do a series of stage shows throughout Britain and Ireland, a tour organized by the producers’ representative, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones).

Working with British production company representative Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones, center), the comedy duo of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan, left) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly, right) organize a series of stage shows to help promote a comic version of “Robin Hood” as seen in the entertaining new biopic, “Stan & Ollie.” Photo by Aimee Spinks, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Laurel and Hardy gladly agreed to the tour, but, once they began, they found it to be less than what they hoped for. They were relegated to playing small theaters where the houses didn’t even sell out. On top of that, Ollie’s health was failing, making it difficult for him to perform as he used to, particularly when it came to a number of his more physically demanding routines, such as dancing and the duo’s signature slapstick gags. Things were not looking promising.

To make up for this, Laurel and Hardy were asked to do a number of public promotional appearances to generate interest in the shows, a move that was believed would help garner more attention for the upcoming film. They were now working harder than ever. But, at least where the stage shows were concerned, these little stunts helped earn them sold-out dates at bigger and more prestigious venues, such as a two-week stint at London’s Lyceum. Things were at last looking better.

With their wives Lucille (Shirley Henderson, left) and Ida (Nina Arianda, right), respectively, the comedy duo of Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel enjoy the good life while on a stage show tour of England and Ireland in “Stan & Ollie.” Photo by Nick Wall, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

With success now coming their way, Stan and Ollie were joined by their wives, Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson), respectively. They were experiencing what should have been the pinnacle of their careers, but such turned out not to be the case. Old resentments surfaced, Ollie’s health continued to worsen and shocking new surprises emerged, all of which conspired to potentially tear the duo apart.

But can an established, committed team like this one truly be split up by outside forces?  That’s hard to do, even in the face of the most formidable circumstances, especially when those opposing forces are up against the strength of the bond uniting the partners. In a professional context like this, it might indeed sound strange to call the element that binds the collaborators what it genuinely is – love – but that’s what it is nevertheless. “Stan & Ollie” thus shows us what it means to employ the power of love in a forum other than romance. Whether or not we’re aware of it, it ultimately makes all kinds of tremendous creations possible, be it everything from newborns to classic comedy routines. And, no matter what it’s used to produce, we should be forever grateful that we have it at our disposal for whatever creative purposes we choose to explore.

With his career fading and his health failing, comedian Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) does his best to carry on performing in the new biopic, “Stan & Ollie.” Photo by Aimee Spinks, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

While capably made, “Stan & Ollie” is nevertheless a somewhat “safe” and formulaic biopic that some might see as mediocre were it not for the positively outstanding performances of Reilly and Coogan, as well as several delightful supporting characters. The leads are so convincing that one might swear they’re channeling their historic characters. The period piece production values are also top notch across the board. However, in telling the story of this legendary duo, the film would have been more balanced had it included more about the pair’s rise to comedic greatness and not focused almost exclusively on their sunset years. All in all, this is a decent cinematic outing but one that probably could have (and should have) been better to do justice to the legacy of Laurel and Hardy.

The film has fared well in awards competitions, earning three BAFTA nominations as Outstanding British Film, for Coogan’s lead performance, and for achievements in hair and makeup. The film also earned a Golden Globe nod for Reilly as best actor in a comedy.

Comedian Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) does his best to hold his comedy duo together in the face of difficult odds in “Stan & Ollie.” Photo by Aimee Spinks, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Decades after their deaths, Laurel and Hardy still know how to make us laugh, as the re-creations of their routines show in this film. That illustrates the timelessness of their work, as well as the brilliance of those who created it. They truly loved their craft and the spirit of collaboration that they brought to it, an indomitable force that couldn’t be denied, even in the face of growing difficulties. Thank goodness they persevered so that their gift to the world can still be enjoyed to this day.

A complete review will be available in the near future by clicking here.

Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.