Yes, yes, I know I’m late. These titles came out earlier this week, but hey, I’m just getting caught up again after actually taking a vacation this holiday season. And I’m just getting around to some of these films. So without further ado…
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne return to the underclass of Belgian society in Lorna’s Silence (Sony), a drama of immigrants caught up in the mercenary underworld of paper marriages, criminal enterprise and the drug trade. Dardenne regulars Jeremy Renier and Olivier Gourmet co-star but the film belongs to Arta Dobroshi as Albanian immigrant Lorna, a young woman who married a junkie (Renier) to secure citizenship and now is obligated to extricate herself by the most efficient means possible. In this case, it involves a staged overdose meant to look like an accident, but his ill-timed recovery creates complications, notably in fanning Lorna’s conscience back to life. That creates an inevitable collision with the low-level criminal partner Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), who has already arranged her next marriage-for-cash deal with an impatient Russian mobster, and her immigrant boyfriend, who sides with expediency over morality.
Dobroshi plays Lorna with a glum hardness that only lights up when she and her boyfriend plan their dream future running a snack bar, but such dreams are doomed by her apprehensions and her new priorities when she discovers that she’s pregnant. That this pregnancy is in doubt (the doctors insist she’s not, Lorna persists that she is) only adds enigma to her moral quandary: has pregnancy changed her, or is it merely a metaphor for her awakening? It’s a classic Dardennes morality tale set in the grim, hard-scrabble world between working class hardship and black market hustle, an austere production with battered characters in an unforgiving world (Lorna works a manual labor job, her boyfriend scuttles across border to hustle illegal jobs and even would-be gangster Fabio has a day job driving a taxi) where it’s more convenient to murder an unwanted spouse than to divorce him. Their camera, always on the move to follow the characters through their circumscribed world, is typically close in, studying their faces as they make the hard decisions in situations where there aren’t many choices. The Dardennes make those confrontations provocative and moving. No supplements. In French and Albanian with English subtitles.
Laila’s Birthday (Kino) – Welcome to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestine Authority and a city in a perpetual state of chaos. Director Rashid Masharawi’s comic drama is a sketch, a day in the life of the a bustling city under occupation and at times under fire (explosions are a common occurrence and no less terrifying for it) as seen through the eyes of a judge (Mohammed Bakri) reduced to driving his brother-in-law’s cab to make ends meet. The government is in a state of disarray and perpetual flux and the city itself is just as unsettled. The tightly wound judge is polite but insistent when it comes to the law and frustrated that none of his passengers seem all that concerned about rules, whether it’s seatbelts or automotive weapons. Refreshingly, Masharawi avoid the kinds of political arguments and social debates we’re used to in such films, content to create a mosaic of snapshots of lives that pass through his cab and let the surreal events that play out in the streets around him speak for themselves: a government office to busy redecorating after each new appointment to actually govern, a donkey stuck in the air after bombing, a cop who pulls his taxi over, siren’s whirring, simply to make him an offer on the cab. Meanwhile, his efforts to pick up a cake and a present for his seven-year-old daughter are frustrated at every turn. It’s a portrait in frustration and exasperation yet the tone is always affectionate, a satire that confronts serious concerns with a gentle touch, and Masharawi ends the film on a note of hope and providence. It’s just another day in Ramallah. In Arabic with English subtitles.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Sony) – The children’s storybook tale of a town that gets a buffet line for a weather system gets supersized for the big screen treatment in this colorful animated feature. Director/writer team Phil Lord and Chris Miller cobble a story around the storybook’s premise but it’s the whimsical imagery of raining hamburgers, a Jell-O mold castle, an ice-cream winter wonderland and a spaghetti tornado that carries the film. Bill Hader voices the aspiring young scientist who has turned a boyhood treehouse into a high-tech lab and embarked on imaginative inventions without really thinking the consequences through and Anna Faris is perfectly bubbly as an aspiring reporter and closet science nerd who hides her smarts behind a goofy sweetness. Mr. T provides heart and humor as the overzealous town policeman while James Caan is dream casting, providing an understated tough-but-tender gruffness as the hero’s dad, a bait-and-tackle shop owner who speaks in fishing metaphors. The single-disc DVD includes both widescreen and full-frame presentations plus director’s commentary with actor Bill Hader. The two-disc edition adds a lot of supplements, including a couple of fun making-of featurettes hosted by the filmmakers (who appropriately describe making a film like making a hamburger) and a series of “Progression Reels,” which illustrate in simple yet direct terms how the animated image is constructed and layered, among other supplements. The Blu-ray features a bonus DVD copy (for the kids room, of course), a goofy exclusives “Splat Mode” mode (for a virtual food fight) and a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
Also new this week are Trucker (Monterey), a nicely-tuned American indie driven largely by its excellent cast—Michelle Monaghan as a big rig trucker who is suddenly saddled with the son she left behind in her divorce, Nathan Fillion as her drinking buddy who wants to be more, despite the fact that he’s a married man, Benjamin Bratt as the ex-husband battling cancer—and Fifty Dead Men Walking (Phase 4), a drama based on the true story of a small time Irish Catholic hustler (Jim Sturgess) recruited by the British to become an informant within the IRA. The title refers to the lives that his information has saved, even as he was putting his own mates and countrymen in prison.
For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.