Creed III(3/1/2023)

In 1984 that famed parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic wrote a parody of the song “Eye of the Tiger” called “Theme to Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser).”  At the time there were only three Rocky films that had been made with a fourth one due out the next year and yet that still seemed crassly commercial enough for someone to make a joke song premised around this property being milked beyond all reason with endless sequels.  Obviously the idea that they would end up making thirteen of these movies was meant to be an outrageous exaggeration when he wrote that song but… at this point it’s looking like it might be possible because this third film in the Creed spinoff series marks the ninth film in the Rocky series, which is pretty wild if you think about it.  And what’s even wilder is that in the film environment of 2022 this actually feels like one of the more dignified and restrained of the film franchises out there in that it just feels like they’re making traditional sequels with numbers at the end of the titles instead of planning out extended cinematic universes or coming up with weird spinoffs of spinoffs with elaborate titles after colons.  Of course I’d say that going into this third installment I was pretty skeptical about the long term prospects of the Creed movies.  Creed II wasn’t “bad” exactly but it seemed like a pretty significant step down from the “original” legasequel and it wouldn’t have surprised me if they just left it there, but they have come back for a third chapter in the life of Adonis Creed and this time star Michael B. Jordan followed in Sylvester Stallone’s footsteps once again by stepping behind the camera of the series he’s spearheading for this installment.

We pick up our story a few years after the events of Creed II with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) fighting what is billed as his final heavyweight bout, a rematch with Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) from the first film.  He comes away from that fight victorious and announces his retirement in order to focus on his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).  Additionally he plans to focus on the gym he owns and together with trainer Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris) intends to help manage the next generation of ring champions.  Currently they’re training a prospect named Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.), who’s lined up to fight Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) when a person from Creed’s past suddenly shows up outside the gym.  This guy, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Johnathan Majors), was a promising amateur fighter that Creed knew from the foster home he grew up in and the two had been close friends before they found themselves in some trouble that Creed escaped from but which landed Anderson in prison.  He’s out of prison now but feels like a successful boxing career was stolen from him and he wants Creed to help him get into the ring again.  Creed is skeptical that this will work out but Anderson clearly still has some chops and a will to win, but also perhaps a hidden agenda.

Creed III opens with a flashback to 2002 where we see the start of a pivotal night in the life of Adonis Creed and Dame Anderson.  The start of this flashback is set to the Dr. Dre song “The Watcher,” which proved to be something of a resonant choice to foreground in this movie as it was a song about Dre trying to reconcile his “street” image with his status as a comfortable millionaire when he came out with that second album.  That is not unlike Creed’s own thematic situation in this movie where he’s now a reigning champion with seemingly nothing to prove and at the same time everything to prove as in the eyes of Anderson he’s gotten soft and has also essentially abandoned “the hood” to live a pampered life of luxury.  In the parlance of Rocky III, he’s allegedly lost “the eye of the tiger.”  That is, however, the film’s only real link to Rocky III or any of the other Rocky movies for that matter outside a couple of stray references and the basic formula.  It was announced after Creed II that Sylvester Stallone would be retiring the Rocky character with that movie and he does keep to that promise with Creed III, which is the only Rocky-less Rocky movie to date.  The film also doesn’t go back to the well with the opponent Creed fights either like they did in the last film and its links to Rocky IV.  There were rumors early on that Creed would fight the son of Clubber Lang in this movie but they wisely abandoned that and decided to make this the first Creed movie that would firmly establish this as Michael B. Jordan’s franchise now and would get out of the Italian Stallion’s shadow.

And in keeping with this being Michael B. Jordan’s franchise, the actor is now in the director’s chair and while he’s no Ryan Coogler I do think he handles himself a little better than Creed II director Steven Caple Jr. did.  He does occasionally try a little too hard to go for some flashy tricks, including a couple of misguided CGI shots of punches going into flesh that kind of reminded me of that one funky looking punch shot from The Matrix Revolutions.  Jordan does, however, have an ace in the hole in the form of Johnathan Majors, who has some really strong screen presence as the film’s villain who is a clear improvement over Drago Jr. in the last movie and the British dude from the first Creed.  At the end of the day though Anderson is mostly elevated by having an interesting motive and by Majors’ performance, in practice he doesn’t really do much of anything that a Clubber Lang or another more generic opponent wouldn’t do and basically just fits into the formula.  Additionally I do think this series is at long last kind of struggling to find new ways to re-invent certain series hallmarks like training montages and opening fights, both of which feel kind of recycled here from what we got in the last couple of movies.  If I were Michael B. Jordan I would maybe take a hard look at how off the rails the first Rocky series went in its fourth and fifth installments and maybe opt not to go down the same road of over-extension with his own series.  That having been said, the movie he has given us is solid workmanlike entertainment that will probably leave fans of the previous two films plenty satisfied.
*** out of Five



On February 6th 2004 I went to see a small independent film that had recently opened at a multiplex I tended to go to because I could easily get to it by bus.  I would have been about fifteen or sixteen at the time and had been a film buff for a while but wasn’t really regularly going to the local arthouses at the time and mostly only went to smaller movies when they crossed over to “regular” theaters.  That movie was called The Station Agent, and it was something of a “little movie that could” and had gotten some nominations from the guilds and the Independent Spirit Awards, which was probably why it was playing at this theater.  In retrospect this movie was a starting point for a lot of people who would become big talents.  It was Todd McCarthy’s debut film and was also a prominent early role for Bobby Cannavale but the person it most prominently introduced me to was of course its star Peter Dinklage.  I wouldn’t say The Station Agent was one of my favorite movies but I did like it a lot and every time Dinklage would show up with something like Find Me Guilty I’d think “whoa, it’s the dude from The Station Agent, good for him.”  Then in 2011 Dinklage got the role that would bring him to the attention not just of film buffs who pay attention to small movies and bit players and to the masses at large: that of Tyrion Lannister on the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”  His work on that show would win him four Emmys and make him close to a household name and give him work in some pretty prominent films, but still, usually just as a supporting  actor or co-star.  But now, in 2021 he’s finally been given a starring role in a big awards contender: a new musical adaptation of a classic tale called simply Cyrano.

The story of “Cyrano” should be familiar… or then again maybe it isn’t.  Like most version of the story this is an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play about the life of the 17th Century warrior poet Cyrano de Bergerac, who is of course played here by Dinklage.  Traditionally de Bergerac is depicted as a confident swordsman who is nonetheless self-conscious about his large nose and his looks in general and is thus unwilling to confess his love for his childhood friend Roxane (Haley Bennett).  Here of course that central body issue has been switched from a long nose to dwarfism.  So, perhaps out of a desire to selflessly make her happy or perhaps out of a desire to catch her on the rebound he decides to help the man Roxane does have a crush on after “falling in love” with him on first sight, a younger soldier in de Bergerac’s military division named Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who is good hearted and attractive but is clumsy with his words by writing some love letters for him to sign his own name to and send to Roxane.  However, both are going to compete for her affection with a nobleman named De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who is a possessive asshole but who is very rich and who would be the “match” made for her under the traditional strictures of semi-arranged marriages of the day.

Edmond Rostand’s play was in rhymed verse in its original French version, something that sometimes is and sometimes isn’t retained when it’s translated into English.  The dialogue here is primarily in prose and is calibrated to be very contemporary and understandable, almost to the point of being anachronistic.  In place of the verse however the film has added songs that were previously composed for a Broadway adaptation that Peter Dinklage also starred in.  Rather than being composed by a traditional musical writer they were written by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger, and Carin Besser, three of whom were members of the indie rock band The National and Besser has worked with them as well.  I’m not a huge fan of The National but I do know their sound, which is kind of a bar band blues with a touch of folk and punk and they aren’t necessarily the most obvious choice for a romantic musical set in 17th century France.  The music here doesn’t sound exactly like their usual work, it’s certainly not what I’d call rock and roll, rather it’s orchestrated in much the way you’d expect from a musical but the songwriting does not scream “Broadway” and is instead more of a series of ballads and you can kind of hear some of that The National songwriting beneath the surface.  Peter Dinklage is not primarily a singer but does keep up here and it probably helps that he sings with a very specific type of baritone that’s different from what you usually hear form the stars of musicals but is not dissimilar from Matt Berninger’s, which may well be why The National was brought in to write the songs in the first place.

The film was directed by Joe Wright, a filmmaker whose been fairly prominent in the last twenty years but who’s style I’ve never quite been able to put a finger on until now.  I guess he’s kind of a successor to Kenneth Branagh: a British filmmaker who has some interest in making commercial genre films but who’s at his best when he’s adapting classic and contemporary works of literature.  His early films like his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was fairly straightforward and so was his follow-up Atonement but that film had this stand-out long single shot (from before those became cliché) which pointed to things to come.  As he got bolder his trick for making period pieces was to go pretty maximalist; he won’t turn things all the way up to eleven like Baz Luhrmann would but he will turn it up to an eight or a nine while most people would only turn it up to a six or a seven and that’s certainly the case with Cyrano.  Wright certainly isn’t afraid of anachronism in his casting and is happy to let some theatrical elements of the original production stand on screen.  Obviously he’s also staging these musical numbers which are perhaps a little more restrained than in some other musicals but which do incorporate some mass dance sequences.

Of course it’s Dinklage’s performance that this film will likely be remembered for and he’s quite good.  I wouldn’t say it’s his absolute best work but he manages to have that signature “panache” during Cyrano’s more confident moments but also makes a believable transition into Cyrano the bumbling simp when Roxanne shows up.  I would say that the rest of the film’s cast, while good, is perhaps a bit undercooked.  Kelvin Harrison Jr. is cool as Christian but I must say that Haley Bennett does not quite have the star power to really feel like someone who’s going to have this many men absolutely losing their shit over her.  Don’t get me wrong, Bennett is a beautiful woman but a more familiar face in that role might have added that certain something to make this all gel a bit more.  I would also say that there’s a certain melodrama to Edmond Rostand’s original play that carries over to this which may strike some audiences as being a bit odd.  The villain played by Ben Mendelsohn is a bit over the top and the story’s ending plays a bit more like an idealized Catholic notion of romance than like something I expect actual humans to engage in.  Some of the contextual viewing that people bring to Shakespeare adaptations and the like may be needed to fully enjoy the film, but I did admire just how much Wright was able to bring this to life.

***1/2 out of Five

The Card Counter(9/12/2021)

Usually when a director has “lost it” they never come back to relevancy again but Paul Schrader somehow managed to do it with his 2017 film First Reformed, which reconnected with his roots as an appreciator of the European classics and which mostly avoided descending into some of Schrader’s more lurid instincts.  It won him some of his best reviews since 2002’s Auto Focus and sparked a new appreciation for his role in cinema since the late 70s and in the eyes of many put him back among the ranks of great veteran filmmakers working today.  Pretty impressive.  Of course the question that gets asked after a triumph like that is: “what’s next?”  Would Schrader use his newfound clout to make another film that would further explore that movie’s old school aesthetic?  Or would he return to some of the attempts at commerciality that often blew up in his face?  Or would the seventy five year old filmmaker simply quite while he was ahead?  Well, he certainly hasn’t taken that last route as he has now released his follow-up film, a drama starring Oscar Isaac called The Card Counter which is getting a decent if perhaps abrupt and poorly promoted release.

The film follows a man who travels under the alias William Tell (Oscar Isaac) and is already living a solitary life of routine as a card counter at various off brand casinos around the country.  As the film goes on you start to learn that his affect is the result of some extreme PTSD and deep guilt for his actions during the War in Iraq, where he was a prison guard at Abu Gharib and was one of the foot soldiers caught up in that scandal and even served time in prison because of it.  At one of his casino stops he notices there’s a national security convention going on at one of the resorts he’s frequenting and recognizes one of the speakers there, John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), as one of the architects of the torture that happened there and peaks in on one of his discussions and while their runs into a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) whose late father was also one of the guards there, leading him to have a great resentment of the leaders like Gordo who got away unpunished.  Seeing something of a mission in Cirk, Tell decides to take the young man under his wing and travel with him and strikes a deal with a sort of gambling agent named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) to stake him into playing in bigger tournaments so that he can make money to help this young man but this may not be as much of a road to redemption as it seems.

At its heart this is a movie about a tortured man with a rough past he regrets trying to find some measure of redemption by helping a younger person with their own demons in a world that is harsh to them… which is a story type we’ve seen a lot of especially lately.  I call it the “Shane” formula and we often see it play out in more literal and violent ways, frequently against post-apocalyptic landscapes and I’m a bit over it.  This one is at least aesthetically different from a lot of those by being a simple drama set in the modern world and the ending is slightly different from the usual formula.  Beyond that the movie is classic Schrader almost to the point of self-plagiarism; it’s about a self-loathing, often nocturnal man wrestling with demons who ultimately goes through a violent catharsis, seemingly only finding some semblance of peace in a coda (which, possible spoiler, involves the same Robert Bresson homage he’s used in two other films).  The difference is that this character, at least outwardly, has quite a bit more self-control than some of his other protagonists like Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta who are more openly tortured and self-destructive.  This guy has a certain military precision to his travels and his movements at the card table and to most outside observers would seem like a pretty normal guy at least until they learned more about his isolated lifestyle.

Visually the film is a bit more straightforward than First Reformed and is less of a outwardly obvious homage to other films.  It does become more adventurous in its flashback scenes which are shot with this super wide lens that reminded me a bit of the photography in Steven Soderbergh’s recent No Sudden Move but here it has more of a purpose as it’s trying to make his time as a guard at Abu Gharib look as nightmarish as possible.  Speaking of Abu Gharib, that aspect of the story is probably its closest linkage to First Reformed as both movies are trying to apply Shraderian meditation to very post-millennial political issues.  Abu Gharib is an event that feels oddly “old news” at this point which is partly the point here, the world has moved on but this character hasn’t and the scars of that recent dishonor are there whether people want them to be or not and there is something interesting about the fact that the film calls out that incident by name rather than dancing around it.  By and large it’s a pretty well made movie but hardly a revelatory career highlight for Schrader like his last film was and when all is said and done will probably fit in better with some of his more “average” projects like Light Sleeper or Adam Resurrected, but it will probably be more seen than those films were and there isn’t much “wrong” with it outside of redundancy and is certainly a lot better than some of Schrader’s occasional low points.

***1/2 out of Five

Captain Marvel(3/8/2019)

Leading up to the release of Captain Marvel I was jonesing for MCU content like I’d never jonesed for it before.  When the MCU was first starting I was kind of indifferent to it and didn’t see the big deal and during its “Phase 2” I went into each movie not really sure if I was going to get a winner like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or a underwhelming product like Thor: The Dark World.  But ever since the release of release of Captain America: Civil War (the official start of (Phase 3) they’ve been on a pretty unprecedented win streak.  They started to finally give their movies good villains, they managed to make the franchise crossovers feel genuinely fun rather than advertisements, and they seemed to have found the right formula to allow filmmakers to add their own signature styles to the films while functioning within the house style as well.  Even some of the lesser movies during this span like Doctor Strange still had clear saving graces like that film’s trippy visuals or and the brand clearly reached a zenith of success last year with the release of the Oscar nominated Black Panther and the worldwide blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War.  Oddly though despite releasing three movies last year they put out all of them in the first seven months and as such we haven’t gotten fresh product from Marvel in over half a year.  Any other franchise and that would seem normal but we’ve gotten pretty used to out MCU fix and after what feels like a long wait we’re finally getting it in the form of Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel is the first prequel in the MCU, being set in 1995, but that isn’t apparent right away because it begins lightyears away on the planet of Hala, the homeworld of an alien species called the Kree.  Our hero Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of a Kree taskforce being led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who are acting in a war against another alien species called the Skrull, who can disguise themselves as other people. When a mission goes wrong she finds herself on a Skrull ship being interrogated about visions in her head of someone she doesn’t recognize named Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), she escapes her captivity and in her escape she finds herself on Earth.  There she meets a young agent with two functional eyes named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and quickly learns that four Skrull agents also followed her to Earth.  She and Fury must find out the significance of Lawson before those Skrull agents do.

Give Captain Marvel this, it’s not structurally formulaic.  That’s not to say it’s doing something truly radical here but it doesn’t necessarily follow the same predictable superhero origin path, which might partly be owed to the fact that the Captain Marvel comic book character has kind of a weird and convoluted history in a way that someone like Doctor Strange (whose origin was basically a redo of Iron Man’s).  That isn’t to say that the things it does differently necessarily work for it.  The way the film opens in the middle of this science fiction world that’s never fully explained before dropping the audience in the middle of a weird alien war is pretty disorienting and the film takes a while to find its footing.  Once the film finally (literally) comes to earth things do improve but even then it still takes a while to really come to understand our main protagonist and what her deal is.  Things also improve when Samuel L Jackson shows up and a sort of buddy cop dynamic emerges between him and Captain Marvel.  Jackson is being digitally de-aged through the whole movie and the technology behind that is quite impressive.  Even more importantly, being de-aged seems to have somewhat invigorated Jackson and snapped him out of the usual “angry old man” shtick that he’s been indulging for a while and he becomes a rather pleasant presence in the film.

Given the discourse around this being the first Marvel film about a female protagonist I was a little surprised that the film didn’t do more to lean into the whole feminism angle.  In fact I kind of wish they’d either done more of that or less of it because female empowerment never really feels like a consistent theme in the film and the moments of it that are thrown in at times seem to come out of nowhere.  We’re told that as a human our hero did deal with some gender discrimination in the air force, but given her amnesiac status at the beginning of the film that’s not really a foundational aspect of her character and instead her status quo comes in the form of fighting on what appear to be a rather egalitarian Kree task force.  At times the film seems to sidestep this by making her status as a human among Kree stand in as an allegory for being a woman among men, but again, she doesn’t know she’s a human until the very late in the timeline of all this so positioning it as a lifelong struggle again seems a bit strange and the decision to play No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” over a climactic fight sequence feels rather unearned as a result.

I think what ails Captain Marvel is simply weak source material and a lack of vision of how to bring that source material to the screen.  Marvel has spun gold out of second rate comic book characters in the past but when they’ve done it they’ve had people like James Gunn or Edgar Wright via Peyton Reed to find interesting ways to make it happen.  Captain Marvel was made by the directorial duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are good filmmakers but their previous work like Half Nelson and Sugar were realist dramas and there isn’t much in their background to suggest an interest in this kind of comic book action movie.  In the past when Marvel has gotten unexpected talent like that to make these kind of movies they’ve done it by bringing in comedic directors like Jon Favreau or Taika Waititi to inject the movies with levity, and I’m not really sure what Boden and Fleck are bringing to the table.  The film they’ve made kind of feels like the other Marvel movies but without really much of its own twist on the form.  It’s funny at times, but never as funny as something like Thor: Ragnarok, it’s got some nice 90s needle drops, but nothing as impactful as anything in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.  And as a straightforward action movie it also comes in a little short, partly because its hero has kind of boring powers and partly just because they’re not particularly well edited.  None of this is to say the movie isn’t enjoyable though.  Looked at outside of the high standards that Marvel has set for itself lately the movie does have enough things going for it to be worth a watch.  It’s probably Marvel’s worst movie since… the first Ant-Man, or maybe Avengers: Age of Ultron, but even a second rate MCU movie is still going to mostly be decent.

*** out of Five

Cold War(1/19/2018)

In the world of art cinema you sometimes get pleasant surprises and one of those pleasant surprises was the unexpected success of Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2014 film Ida.  That film was something of a sneak attack; its director was respected but not necessarily a huge name and while it got some buzz at festivals it was largely over-shadowed by other movies.  I didn’t even hear about it until I saw its rather striking trailer the week before it came out and new it was going to be something worth checking out.  Even more surprising was that the movie was a hit, at least by the modest standard of subtitled film in the 2010s.  Its $3 million take might not sound like a lot but if you exclude movies clearly marketed at immigrant communities rather than cinephiles its one of the twenty highest grossing foreign films of the decade, which is kind of awesome considering that it was a black and white movie about Polish nuns and kind of seemed to defy standard notions of commerciality.  When he accepted the Best Foreign Language film Oscar that year Pawlikowski gently quipped “how did I get here, made a film… about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation and here we are at this epicenter of noise and world attention.  Fantastic!  Life is full of surprises.”  With the clout he earned from that film Pawlikowski has come back with another black and white film about life in 20th Century Poland called Cold War which has arrive with much more fanfare and higher expectations.

Cold War begins in the Poland of 1949 where the post-war Polish People’s Republic has become firmly established as a Soviet puppet state.  One of the things this new communist government apparently did was establish an academy of sorts to create a song and dance troupe that would bring respect to the music if the downtrodden proletariat peasants, and this is where our characters come in.  Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) is the musical director and conductor for this troupe while Zuzanna Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) is a young woman who auditions for the troupe and immediately catches his eye.  Before long the two have started an affair and when the troupe finds itself touring to East Berlin Warski proposes that the two try to escape to the west.

First and foremost Cold War just looks really awesome.  Like Ida before it the film is in black and white and in the academy ratio so as to invoke the look of the European arthouse films of the era its set in.  Experiments to imitate previous filmmaking eras like The Good German or The Artist often come off a bit gimmicky but Pawlikowski has really managed to make something that looks like the genuine article and seems aesthetically pleasing beyond mere nostalgia.  Ida was of course a movie about spiritual exploration so it’s look perhaps invoked something more along the lines of a Bresson or Tarkovsky, but Cold War is more of an epic romance of sorts and takes the form of something like a European noir or some of Rossellini’s work in the 50s.  Helping this illusion is that Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig both manage to have a very classical look, which is admittedly probably helped by the fact that neither of them are terribly well known in the English speaking world.

The movie is, at its heart a film a relationship that’s rocky for both internal and external reasons.  Sometimes they’re kept apart by the repressive society they live in, sometimes they’re separated by national borders, sometimes they’re separated by relationships with other people or even by incarceration but often they’re also often separated by their own dysfunction.  At times this seems like a pair that are almost going out of their way not to be happy and I think part of the problem is that the movie feels a bit rushed at times.  This is after all a movie that’s set over the course of more than fifteen years but runs a scant 85 minutes and this means that certain stages in their relationship have to be summed up in just a scene or two and the last development in the film feels especially rushed through.  If you’re going to make an epic romance I don’t see why you wouldn’t want it to be a bit more epic in its length, Still the film’s style makes up for a lot and even if we’re only getting a taste of this romance it does still leave you with some of the emotion and when the film looks like it does that’s always just going to be catnip for film critics.

**** out of Five


There are a lot of geographic blindspots in my film viewing and a pretty big one is the Middle East.  It maybe isn’t quite the blindspot that African cinema is, but with that continent I at least have the excuse of most of the rest of the film world being about as uneducated as I am.  I’m not completely unversed in cinema from that region, I have a reasonable knowledge of Iran’s unique brand of brainy experimentation and if you include movies from places like Turkey, Israel, and North Africa I’m sure seen a couple dozen or so movies from the area and obviously that’s more than most people but compared with the number of movies I’ve probably seen from individual countries like France or Japan it’s really nothing.  On top of that there isn’t really that much of a shortage of movies from the Middle East, like clockwork there tends to be at least one or two movies a year being imported in hopes of competing for that Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and that might actually be part of the problem.  The movies from the middle east that they try to import around award season are universally about these countries’ social and political problems and they almost always draw reviews that are respectful but not overwhelming in their praise.  This year’s contender for the “important movie from the middle east” award is the new Lebanese film Capernaum, and I’ve decided to give this one a go.

Capernaum begins in a Beirut courtroom where a child named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) who’s currently serving a prison sentence for stabbing someone has had his parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) brought in as defendants in a lawsuit.  We’re told that these parents are ostensibly being sued for bringing Zain into a world of suffering, which more literally seems to be a suit for abuse or neglect or something (the legal grounds for all of this are rather vague).  We learn that his parents had way more children than they can afford to support and never bothered to get any of them real birth certificates or papers.  When these plainly awful guardians marry off Zain’s eleven year old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) for dowry money Zain goes into a rage and run away from home.  While away he encounters an illegal Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who takes him in and gives him room and board in exchange for his watching her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) while she’s at work, which goes pretty well until one day Rahil is rounded up in an immigration raid and Zain is stuck having to find a way to keep this kid alive while alone on the streets.

On its most basic level Capernaum is a kind of neo-neorealist movie about the life of a street kid in the poorest sections of Beirut.  Zain is said to be about twelve in the movie (not knowing his actual age is something of a plot point) but he looks like he could be nine or ten and seeing him in this harsh environment is supposed to be a bit jarring.  He speaks in very vulgar street terminology and while he does clearly have conscience he doesn’t seem to think twice about petty theft.  This reminded me a bit of the Moroccan film Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, which came out about twenty years ago and also looked at the life of street kids in the Arab world, but where that really focused on a group of kids in this position this one really focuses in on Zain as a solitary figure alone in the city.  The idea of people being alone in this cruel world is a bit of a recurring theme: Rahil seems to be similarly without anyone to depend on as her neighbors seem to be needlessly hostile towards her and she doesn’t seem to have a single friend who can help Yonas once she’s put in jail and the few people who should be acting as a support system like Zain’s parents seem to completely fail him.

Where the film starts to go astray is in its framing story. The trial that is meant to be the catalyst for much of this reflection makes very little sense if taken literally.  I’m no expert on the Lebanese legal system but I doubt that there are any legal grounds for someone to actually sue their parents for choosing to bring them into the world and even if that is meant to be a stand-in for a more mundane charge like child neglect that would still be an unusual place to tell this whole story given that the parents aren’t even present for something like 60% of the story that Zain is telling.  Even if you look at the trial sequences purely as a sort of metaphoric soapbox I’m still not exactly sure I’m on board with what the movie is saying.  Zain’s final word on the matter is that he wants his parents to stop having so many damn kids they can’t afford, which is a message that rings a bit too close to the kind of “welfare queen” shaming that often characterizes discourse about poverty in this country.  The movie isn’t completely in the position of demonizing poor parents as Rahil is clearly held up as an example of the kind of “working poor” who doesn’t deserve the misery she receives, but all too often the movie seems more interested in blaming poor people for their problems rather than highlighting the societal ills that are really at the heart of these problems.  Ignore all that though and Nadine Labaki has still made a pretty compelling human story which seems to capture the environment it’s trying to shed light on pretty effectively.

*** out of Five