Local cinemas this week

A heartbreaking but defiant look at a Beirut boy’s life, Liam Neeson turns the Colorado snow blood red and a feminist icon gets a Hollywood makeover.

Pick of the week: Capharnaüm

Nothing in Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s previous body of work (Caramel and Where Do We Go Now, both comedies) could prepare you for the ferocious power of her latest. The meaning of the title is ”chaos” or disorder, a generous understatement of the squalid, sad and disgraceful living conditions of its 12-year-old hero Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) in present-day Beirut. We first meet him and his grim, poverty worn-down parents (Fadi Kamel Yousef and Nour el Husseini) in a courtroom in what looks like it could be a custody dispute. But no one wants Zain, and he’s already in prison for an unspecified violent crime. The case being heard is sensational and the media are aghast: Zain is suing his parents for, in his words, “giving me life” – an astounding claim for any child. But then we see the life they gave him…

The film is told in one long flashback – so back we go a year or so when Zain is on the filthy back streets somewhere with his younger sister Sahar (Cedra Izam). She shows him a blood stain on her undies she doesn’t understand. Zain does, and he panics, instructing her to hide any evidence from his parents. Now that she is “of age” they will sell her – something that’s happened before with another sibling. Meanwhile inside their cluttered tiny apartment everyone is busy with the family business – crushing up opioid pills they’ve scammed from pharmacies to smuggle to their already incarcerated eldest son, who runs a prison drug ring. The family’s interactions are brutal and sharp, violence is always one misstep away, and Zain can’t stand it… Soon enough Sahar is sold to their predatorily creepy landlord. Zain makes his escape, but life on the mean streets of Beirut at the mercy of violent thieves, people smugglers and desperate refugees is hardly an improvement. He does find a room (a makeshift shack) to share with an illegal Ethiopian woman called Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and earns his keep by looking after her year-old son while she works a long exploitative shifts somewhere. But then she vanishes, leaving Zain with the baby.

The litany of his ongoing misfortunes (and yes, there’s more) is too painful to go on recounting. But incredibly, and this is why such a tough film is scooping up awards everywhere and stands such a good chance of picking up this years’ foreign language Oscar, it shows there is always hope, optimism and even some humour in Zain’s against-all-odds story of survival. Amazingly, there’s some light absurd touches too, especially when Zain enlists the help of a toothless decrepit fun-fair worker to pretend to be his legal guardian before an incredulous bureaucrat. All these performances, mostly from non-actors, are impressive – but the young Zain is just astounding. In real-life he’s a Syrian refugee too, adding a layer of authenticity to this furious but compassionate film. His plight may break your heart, but, as in real life, there will be joy behind those tears. Zain (the actor) now lives in Norway. M from Feb 7. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St and Dendy Newtown ★★★★

Cold Pursuit

I hadn’t read anything more than the synopsis for Liam Neeson’s latest thriller before going along to the preview, assuming it was another in the ageing Irishman’s now familiar revenge-rampage dramas like Taken. It took a while for Cold Pursuit’s jaunty and jarringly facetious tone to register, way after it should have… By then the rugged taciturn snowplow driver he plays, Nels Coxman, had seen his wife (Laura Dern) abandon him leaving a blank note by way of explanation, and son (Micheal Richardson, Neeson’s real-life offspring) killed by an apparent heroin overdose. Actually a vicious gang of drug dealers were responsible, so our hero responds by going on a murderously violent spree. Within the first 20 minutes or so he’s rid his resort town in the Colorado Rockies of pretty well all its scumbags with bone crunching, blood-gushing (the squeamish will say sickening) force, and thrown their corpses off an icy waterfall wrapped in wire mesh. Why the mesh? “So the fish can eat their bloated corpses,” he explains. “And they won’t float.” Clearly this man knew a thing or two. And clearly I’d figured this movie all wrong…

Eventually it twigged I’d seen it before too. In fact this is a note-by-note remake of a Norwegian film called In Order of Disappearance which screened at Palace Cinemas in 2014 and stared Stellan Skarsgard as the avenging snow angel. It’s by the same director Hans Petter Molan too, and it has the same cynical tick of marking each of the deaths with a headstone title card, offering us up a little knowing chuckle. It has the same basic plot and most of the same characters too, like the Mr Big of the drug ring – a tightly wound control freak called “Viking” (Tom Bateman, hamming it up) who is also a militant vegan. The main difference is that the rival drug lords (Serbian in the original) have been replaced by Native Americans. Though in the light of Colorado’s legalisation of cannabis,  cartel chief White Bull (Tom Jackson) wishes he’d “gone into casinos instead.”

This slick US remake’s darkly comic flourishes will probably work with its intended audience (not those who normally go to Palace for regular doses of Nordic Noir – be warned) and there was plenty of loud guffawing around me at the preview as the (truely prodigious) body count mounted. But this time the jokey Tarantino-knockoff tone and comic book violence left me (pardon the pun) cold. Scandinavian dead pan humour doesn’t always travel well, and apparently not to the US. Though there was one crack that did make me smile – between two cops lamenting Colorado’s liberal new drug laws. “I liked it better when we could tell who the bad guys were” one says. Now that their own employer, the State government, pays their wages with tax revenue raised from the drug trade, what could be more pitch black hilarious than that? MA15+ from Feb 7. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Broadway, Burwood, Rhodes and Auburn. ★★1/2

Also opening this week

The diminutive US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg (now nicknamed “the Notorious RBG”) has become an unlikely hero during the Age of Trump, and naturally Hollywood had to tell her story. Any good? Read our verdict of On the Basis of Sex here. And exclusive to Dendy Newtown, the Iranian farcical drama Pig is getting a welcome but limited run. It screened to great acclaim at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, and now lucky inner west cinephiles are getting one last chance…

Reviews – Russell Edwards