December 18, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive: You’re Settin’ Me Free

Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the year's most vibrant films.

Jim Jarmusch’s characters move slower than most people we see on screen. They spend time obsessing over Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You” or discussing the use of nicotine as an insecticide. They love music and books but not with a glossy pop-culture fandom. They ride around in taxis and old cars at a time of night when few others are awake. Cigarette smoke fills their homes while blues and old rock ‘n’ roll plays in the background. They’re content to lounge on the couch and play records while the world zooms into nothingness. Jarmusch is the right filmmaker to depict vampires who’ve been observing humanity for centuries. The beings in Only Lovers Left Alive recognize cycles of life and won’t exert that much energy. It’s best to just enjoy the ride while the human “zombies” destroy the Earth.

A prime example is Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who lives alone in an abandoned part of Detroit. He’s surrounded by old photographs of figures like Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, Billie Holiday, and Johann Sebastian Bach. These former contemporaries are gone while Adam’s life is static. His house includes assorted musical instruments and outdated devices retrofitted to stay functional. His FaceTime with Eve (Tilda Swinton) involves an old cordless phone and an antiquated color TV. Adam’s a genius but avoids society. Music brings solace, yet even that can’t solve his loneliness. The only savior is Eve — his wife across multiple centuries. Her rampant curiosity offsets his dreary perspective, and they just work. Living amid a mass of books in Tangier, Eve grabs her favorites and journeys to Detroit. Once the pair re-connects, it’s difficult to consider them anywhere but right beside each other’s side.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive
Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) visit the remnants of the Michigan Theatre.

It’s intriguing to watch the quiet comfort that Swinton and Hiddleston bring to their characters. She’s several decades older, yet they feel like equals. There’s no hesitation or nervousness between the pair. Eve and Adam are so familiar with each other after centuries that it’s easy to re-connect no matter how long it’s been. The actors sell this connection with little dialogue, and that’s where Jarmusch’s confidence in the languid style really works. He gives the characters room to breathe, and spending time with them is refreshing. The film’s best sequence has Eve and Adam driving around Detroit and visiting the sights. There’s a wonderful moment at the house where Jack White grew up that epitomizes Jarmusch’s humor. It’s a quick scene yet totally fits with the type of guy the characters would love. The gorgeous Michigan Theatre (now a parking lot) provides a striking setting for pondering what’s been lost. We get the sense that the vampires recognize the impending doom of our decadent society.

Even a Jarmusch film sometimes has conflict, and that arrives with the tumultuous Ava (Mia Wasikowska). She’s more like a five-year-old than the wise veterans and acts without thinking. While part of me would have preferred just hanging with Adam and Eve, there’s a clear function to Ava. She reminds them that being a vampire isn’t always so glamourous. Without a supplier of pure blood, it’s difficult to avoid getting contaminated on the streets. It’s clever for Jarmusch to show a different side of the ways we’ve poisoned ourselves and the Earth. Even the vampires don’t want us! Their night out at the rock club shows how cool these night owls remain in that world. Adam is an underground music sensation and barely realizes it, and the trio presents a striking image of hipness to the young club patrons. Those fans are embodied by poor Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam’s dim-witted connection to the outside world.

Eve and Marlowe (John Hurt) don't mind relaxing after living for so many years. 

Ava leaves while deriding Adam and Eve as “condescending snobs”, and that description is partially accurate. He only drinks the good stuff through his supplier Dr. Watson (an offbeat Jeffrey Wright). She prefers to hang with her pal Marlowe (John Hurt), who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. They’re upper-class vampires that are very particular about their associates. The final act breaks down this façade and reminds Adam and Eve about their true nature. They may prefer to live away from society, but it doesn’t take much to push them back to the streets. The good stuff is gone, and what’s left isn’t so clean. Hints of this real nature come with something as simple as a cut finger by a nearby passenger on the plane. They’re a different type of old-school creature, but the lust for blood still draws them closer to Ava’s approach.

What keeps Only Lovers Left Alive from becoming too static are Jarmusch’s stylistic touches, particularly the use of music. The opening credits appear in front of stars as the image spins in circles and morphs into a record album. Wanda Jackson sings “my head is spinning around and around” and the rooms spin right with it. Shots of Adam and Eve sprawled on their couches are our first looks at them while the circling continues. It’s an evocative way to begin the story that immediately grabs you, and it’s hardly the only example. Another great scene has them listening to Charlie Feathers’ distinctive voice in “Can’t Hardly Stand It” at Adam’s house, and it’s a quintessential Jarmusch moment. His confidence about these characters shines through right to the final shot and delivers one of his best films.

December 16, 2014

Ida: What Happened, Happened

Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida
Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida.

There’s a grim uncertainty to the Poland People’s Republic of the 1960s that pervades through Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida. After experiencing the horrors of Nazi occupation, the country fell under Stalinist rule until the late ‘50s when Gomulka took hold. The generations that remember the war and its aftermath still struggle to grasp what happened. Meanwhile, the young adults can live without the emotional turmoil of that experience. They’re becoming artists and musicians inspired more by John Coltrane than painful losses. Living on the sidelines is Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young woman preparing to take her vows as a nun. She travels to meet her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) to understand her family’s background. Anna was orphaned at a young age, and her Mother Superior requires that she learn about it before the vows. What she discovers connects back to Poland’s darkest times during World War II.

The story begins at a solemn convent as nuns place a statue of Jesus in front of the building. Back inside, they eat their bowls of soup in silence, with only the clanking of utensils piercing the quiet. Shot in striking black and white by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, the cinematography revels in the snowy bleakness. You can feel the cold air coming through the screen. It’s a striking contrast to the life of Wanda, a judge who spends her days smoking, drinking, and sleeping with random guys. Despite the comfortable accommodations, Wanda’s existence feels much drearier than the convent. She joins Anna on a road trip where both learn plenty about their family history. Anna’s parents were Jewish and forced to hide from the Nazis during the war. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and the quest to discover her parents’ resting place won’t be uplifting. On the other hand, it also reveals a side of life she hardly knew.

Pawel Pawlikowski places Anna on the edge of the frame in Ida.
Paweł Pawlikowski often places Anna on the edges of the frame.

Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) uses a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and conveys a classic feel of the time period. The black-and-white format and static camera focus our attention on the composition of each image. The camera doesn’t move until a key moment, so only the cuts change our perspective. There’s no music beyond the sounds in the story, and this choice enhances the impact of each new shot. Anna frequently stands on the edges of the frame and appears uncomfortable taking up space. She lingers away from attention and hides behind her nun’s habit. Close-ups of her face reveal beauty yet little emotion, at least for a time. Anna’s an observer who moves slowly through life and barely injects her own feelings. You can already see the ways that she’s drifting towards the quiet lives of the older nuns.

Much of the on-screen vitality comes from Agata Kulesza’s sharp performance as Wanda. She’s trying desperately to push aside terrible regret while digging into events that caused the loss. Wanda was a prosecutor in the Stalinist regime and now works as a judge. Her distant look during the courtroom proceedings reveals how little her work means. Despite pushing Anna to experience life, Wanda can barely stomach it. She’s an imposing force during their search, yet it’s often bluster. They pick up a young saxophonist named Lis who’s performing at a nearby hotel, and he brings a different vision of Poland. Anna reads the Bible in her room, yet the music downstairs is too alluring. Her quiet interest in this guy and his different world starts to reveal the young woman beneath the nun’s garb. When Anna finally removes the habit, she looks so much younger than the serious girl we’ve seen to that point.

Agata Trzebuchowska's Anna discovers the wonders of jazz in Ida.
Agata Trzebuchowska's Anna discovers the wonders of jazz in Ida.

Ida is Agata Trzebuchowska’s first role, and it’s easy to see why Pawlikowski chose her. There’s a tranquil beauty to her face that fits a girl who hasn’t been worn down by sadness. Her parents connect Anna with her past, yet she has no physical memories. On the other hand, there are few positive emotions of love and happiness. The final act gives Trzebuchowska a chance to show more from Anna than her quiet demeanor. When she lets her hair down and visits a jazz club, it’s like her first day of adulthood. Dancing to Coltraine with Lis is a perfect moment, yet it’s fleeting. We see a rare smile from Anna in bed that shows forward movement, but the next steps aren’t clear. She talks of having been nowhere, and Lis gives her an opportunity. The shots of this scene are gorgeous and showcase her newfound beauty. The challenge is discovering how Anna feels about the whole experience. Is this a brief phase or an eye-opening event? The final scenes reveal her likely choice yet feel a little hollow because it’s all so sudden. Keeping her mysterious is okay, but a few more clues would have been more impactful.

There’s a telling moment after Anna returns to the convent where she simply says “I’m not ready” to the statue of Jesus. This scene makes sense given what she’s experienced, but I didn’t really feel it. The minimalist approach from Pawlikowski and Co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz brings charm to small touches like Anna’s brief smile during the quiet meals. It’s serene but keeps us at a distance from her. There’s no separation from Wanda, and Kulesza deserves awards consideration for her confident performance. It’s easy to see the growing burden in Wanda’s every move. Despite the title, we’re just as connected with Wanda as her niece. They form an interesting bond during the road trip, and there’s hope for a true friendship. Sadly, the trials of Wanda’s past remain despite the discoveries. Her terrible loss feels more present because it’s no longer repressed from her memories. When you hear about the killings from the murderer himself, it’s hard to forget them. Wanda has found closure, but a new future may be impossible.

December 15, 2014

How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Became Alias, and Why That’s Such a Good Thing

Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood join an expanded cast for the improved second season.

It’s been intriguing to watch the evolution of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D from passable entertainment into a thrilling genre series. The much-anticipated show premiered to great fanfare in the fall of 2013 but lost viewers by slipping into the “monster of the week” format. Comic book fans expecting fireworks on par with the Marvel films were disappointed by the formulaic start. Despite a solid mix of respected veterans and fresh faces in the cast, the scripts just weren’t that interesting. The turning point came during the crossover with Captain America: The Winter Solider this past spring. The events of the movie and show wound into each other and brought higher stakes for everyone involved. There were real surprises, particularly the team’s betrayal by Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and the mustache-twirling villainy of Bill Paxton’s John Garrett. The second season has built on this foundation and employed the formula that served a past great. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has become Alias, and I can’t think of a better model.

Premiering in September 2001 and created by J.J. Abrams, Alias depicted an intricate world of spies, betrayals, and supernatural phenomena. Jennifer Garner starred as Sydney Bristow, a brilliant agent who believed she worked for the CIA. She actually served a criminal organization named SD-6 and worked to thwart their plans after learning about the deception. What made the series work were the personal stakes in the middle of the spy thriller. Sydney’s father Jack (Victor Garber) was tied to the conspiracy, and her relationship with CIA handler Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) grew into romance. The ongoing arc was driven by the inventions of a 15th-century genius named Milo Rambaldi. His remarkable devices kept the story moving as both the heroes and villains battled to find them. While Rambaldi’s gadgets made fewer appearances in later seasons, his presence lingered all the way to the final episode. The formula worked thanks to a sharp cast that included Kevin Weisman as lovable Marshal Flinkman, Carl Lumbly as Marcus Dixon, plus Merrin Dungey and a young Bradley Cooper as Sydney’s pals Francie and Will. Her friends helped make the first two seasons about more than the adventure.

Alias thrived because of a breakneck pace that crammed so much plot and character into every story. The first season ended nearly every episode with a cliffhanger, and there was a real forward momentum that’s extremely rare. A similar pace has taken hold on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. starting with the 16th episode “End of the Beginning”. The Winter Soldier crossover initiated a stunning run that carried right through the season finale. That excitement has continued into season two and only grown with new characters added to the mix. Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) group feels like a real team that’s pushing back the forces of the villainous Hydra. They’ve grown stronger and more cohesive, and giving them a real mission has changed the entire tone. Making Coulson lead S.H.I.E.LD. and introducing formidable antagonists like the ageless Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond) has grounded the show by creating real stakes.

Brett Dalton as Grant Ward in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Brett Dalton's Grant Ward has become a lot more interesting since he betrayed the team.

Another reason for the success is characters with unclear motivations. The best example is Ward, who seemed like a bland soldier until his true colors appeared. Following Garrett’s demise, he’s a free agent playing both sides. A good comparison is Alias’ wonderful Julian Sark (David Anders), who flipped allegiances regularly. He recognized when the tide was turning and bolted at an opportune time. Sydney’s mom Irina Derevko (Lena Olin) also only served her own goals despite caring for her daughter. The family dynamic between Sydney, Jack, and Irina along with Ron Rifkin’s Arvin Sloane raised the emotional stakes to much greater heights. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. includes a growing father/daughter relationship between Coulson and Skye (Chloe Bennet) while she searches for her biological dad. He turns out to be a seriously unhinged Kyle MacLachlan, who transforms into a monstrous killer (Mr. Hyde) when he becomes angry. This family drama works a lot better than you might expect.

I’m certainly not the first person to make this comparison. Charlie Jane Anders described the parallels at io9 back in October 2013. The connections were present at the start, but they’ve grown a lot stronger this season. Co-executive Producers/Writers Jeffrey Bell and Monica Breen played similar roles on Alias during its later years, and it’s likely that their influence has pervaded this series. There are some major differences between the shows, however. Alias focused on the growing relationship between Sydney and Vaughn. The ups-and-downs of their romance often dominated and seemed forced at times. It worked during the first season because the love was beneath the surface. Once it became a focal point and the writers threw obstacles in their way, the results were inconsistent. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t spent much time on the romance, though the connection between Ward and Skye has received attention. The other major relationship is between Fitz (Iain De Caistecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). The science experts have a close friendship, but friction has arisen between the dynamic duo. Both actors are charming and sell the relationship, yet it’s still unclear whether the attention will pay off in the end.

Beyond the specific characters, it’s the tonal similarities that connect the two series. Both find time for humor despite the high stakes. Co-creators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen worked on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and know Joss Whedon’s voice. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t reached the heights of his best work, but it feels at home in the Whedonverse. There’s also a cool sleekness to “the bus” (their high-tech plane) that wouldn’t seem out of place in Sydney’s world, especially APO in the later seasons. The sets are designed more to look striking than serve a function. The production design combines with the music to raise the tension. Michael Giacchino and Bear McCreary rank among the best composers working today, and both understand the type of show they’re supporting. McCreary has found the right tone for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is emitting a lot more confidence this season.

Kyle MacLachlan as Skye's father Cal in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It's been great fun to watch Kyle MacLachan chew the scenery as Skye's mad father.

The mid-season finale “What They Become” was a telling example of the ways Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has thrived this fall. It culminated ongoing arcs like Skye’s search for her father and locating the underground city. Coulson’s and Whitehall’s forces converged on the pivotal spot, and not everyone survived. Comic book fans recognized clues to the identities of Skye and her dad plus connections to other Marvel properties. It’s a relief that the show doesn’t suffer if you miss these references. It deepens the story to learn more about the comics’ background, but it’s hardly necessary. Alias built a complex mythology with Rambaldi, but remembering every device wasn’t needed to enjoy the mayhem. This depth can reward longtime fans and introduce multiple layers that weren’t present at the start. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to surprise and has built the foundation to keep getting better.

December 10, 2014

I’m With the Band Marathon: God Help the Girl (2014)

Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, and Emily Browning in God Help the Girl
Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, and Emily Browning in God Help the Girl

Back in 2001, I worked as a writer for a travel company and was returning from a two-week cruise around Japan. As fate would have it, the date was September 11th. Our plane was diverted from L.A. to Vancouver that morning following the attacks, and I spent a week wandering the city. Escaping the horrifying news on TV, I visited a local record store and saw a flyer about a Belle and Sebastian concert that night. It felt a little odd to buy a ticket given the awful circumstances, but the opportunity was too great to skip. I wasn’t a huge fan at the time but knew their music pretty well from a few albums. It was a wise decision. The show at the gorgeous Orpheum Theatre remains one of my favorite all-time concerts. The setting was the perfect spot for Belle and Sebastian’s sound, and the beautiful melodies delivered a magic evening that I’ll never forget.

I mention this experience up front to explain my obvious bias towards Stuart Murdoch and his band. It’s impossible to separate my feelings about God Help the Girl from my love of Belle and Sebastian. Murdoch’s debut film creates a very similar sensation to experiencing the best parts of his music. It fits a particular taste and may send plenty scurrying for the exits, but I’m not one of those people. Emily Browning (Sleeping Beauty) stars as Eve, a young singer living in a psychiatric hospital. When she escapes and goes to Glasgow, she meets James (Olly Alexander) and moves into an unused bedroom in his flat. James is a singer and guitarist, so they’re kindred spirits. You could label them as hipsters, but that undervalues their talents. Eve has an incredible voice, and James' music style fits with her skills. They connect with his guitar student Cassie (Hannah Murray) and become fast friends. The next step is forming a band, and the trio quickly becomes a large ensemble.

What a vibrant film this is! I was hooked from the moment that Eve climbed out her window and belted out the first notes of “Act of the Apostle”. While the opening credits roll, she boards a train and even does an impromptu dance at the station. The songs function more like music videos than your typical movie musical. There's a definite Whit Stillman vibe to the setting, particularly when compared to Damsels in Distress. The characters perform for the camera more than each other, and everything in the frame conveys that glow. When James, Eve, and Cassie sing together for the first time with "If I Could Speak", their choreography is like a well-rehearsed performance. Despite the theatricality, it feels natural because the actors sell it. The clothes and set design are so colorful that it doesn’t feel out of place once the singing begins. When a old-school dance party happens during the joyous “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie”, it works despite the shift from reality. Murdoch conveys such joy for the music that it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement. It’s like a Belle and Sebastian show from the early 2000s broke out inside the movie.

Emily Browning's Eve leads the band in Stuart Murdoch's debut film God Help the Girl.
Emily Browning's Eve leads the band in Stuart Murdoch's debut film God Help the Girl.

There are definite connections between this story and Murdoch’s life, particularly when you consider the origins of Belle and Sebastian. He wrote their early songs while facing a serious illness and built a large group that sounds a lot like the film’s band. Even so, it’s too easy to just connect each moment with Murdoch’s past. It’s a personal project inspired by his life, but it’s a lot more than a thinly veiled retelling. There’s plenty to enjoy within this story apart from its ties to Murdoch. Watching Eve succumb to depression is difficult and such a contrast from the exuberant music. Her well-being hangs by a string, and the songs are an outlet to keep her afloat. Eve’s a force of nature in her best moments, but that excitement masks a real melancholy that could return quickly.

A Kickstarter campaign helped to finance God Help the Girl, and it feels like a love letter to fans. A joy to creating art permeates the film. Dramatic conflicts arise, but what sticks is the idea that we can do amazing things. When the right people connect, there’s no limit to what they can produce. This hyper reality is cute and precious, yet that’s hardly a bad thing. There’s plenty of dreariness in real life, so escaping through beautiful music is just the right remedy. On that note, a subplot with the self-absorbed rocker Anton (Pierre Boulanger) feels like a misstep because it doesn’t share the same mix. He generates romantic troubles, yet it’s clear from the start that he’s hardly worth Eve’s time. When your main personality traits are a haircut and a smile, it is not a good sign.

I’d only seen Browning in a few previous roles, so I had no idea about her singing talents. Her voice is magnetic and far removed from common standards of skill from conventional pop music. Hannah Murray's style is so different, and their voices have such great chemistry. When the band takes the stage for their showcase performance to play "Down and Dusky Blonde", we can believe the crowd’s thrilled reactions. The moment feels earned and culminates the ups and downs for Eve and the group. There’s a great callback to A Hard Day’s Night with the prospective members chasing James through the streets. It’s like everyone's been waiting to join this band, and they’re fulfilling a gap in the music world. Their initial goals of adding drums and a bass player are expanded into a much larger ensemble. How could they let down such excited musicians?

What makes God Help the Girl click is the genuine friendship behind the glowing music videos. James has feelings for Eve, but the love story never dominates. They’re friends that enjoy hanging out together, and the emotional bond is there without the romance. A canoeing trip by the trio is just a fun adventure for young souls enjoying each other’s company. Murdoch excels at showing the performances, but he gives the characters time to connect. There’s a lightness that shouldn’t be confused with a lack of substance. It’s the type of summer that will probably never happen again. They’re becoming adults and will have to decide where their lives are headed. James can’t work as a lifeguard forever. His idealistic view of pop songs is endearing, but it’s just a piece of the puzzle. Eve recognizes that the band is amazing but isn’t enough to prevent her demise. It’s a difficult choice with possible flaws, yet her move is understandable. They’ve created something magical, but even the best intentions have their limits. It’s a telling reminder that Eve can’t avoid her demons, even when so much enjoyment comes from their music.

December 6, 2014

Bethlehem: An Endless Cycle of Violence

Hitham Omari and Shadi Mar'i in Bethlehem

It’s difficult to understand daily life in a world filled with so much paranoia and anger. We’ve seen protests (justifiably so) here in Missouri surrounding the Michael Brown shooting, and there’s a next stage where sharp divides create a never-ending cycle. Violence is the primary method of communication, and each retaliation leads to more hatred. When you add religion to the mix, the chance for a positive solution becomes even lower. This toxic atmosphere pervades Israel in Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem, which depicts two guys on opposite sides of the conflict that have made a connection. Razi (Tsahi Halevi) is an Israeli secret service agent in Bethlehem, and he’s built a fatherly relationship with the teenage Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i). Razi’s primary goal is stopping the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, but he has a soft spot for the boy. His concern for Sanfur is an emotional blind spot that hinders Razi’s ability to bring down enemies.

Adler presents multiple perspectives and wisely avoids setting up one character as the hero. Tsahi Halevi makes us sympathize with Razi, who wants to do the right thing. On the other hand, he risks his informants’ lives and looks for a weak spot to exploit and connect with them. He cares about Sanfur, but it isn’t just because he’s a nice guy. Razi has been pursuing Sanfur’s brother Ibrahim for a year, and this bond could pay dividends. Ibrahim is a leader responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks, so taking him out would be a major victory. On the other hand, there are plenty of lieutenants ready to step up and take their leader's place if he was taken off the game board. Ibrahim is the mouthpiece, and his face appears on a message following a suicide bombing that killed nine people. However, he needs a support network to keep attacking the Israeli system.

A telling moment occurs during Razi’s recovery at the hospital from a gunshot wound. He’s casually playing backgammon with an older Arabic man, but the tone changes when the guy recognizes him as an Israeli agent. The man tells a story of a neighbor who faced dire consequences after being discovered as Razi’s informant. This ugly tale reminds us that there are ramifications to Razi’s actions. He’s doing his job and taking down enemies, but there is collateral damage. The same fate could befall Sanfur, though the boy is hardly innocent. He isn’t a hardened fighter like Badawi (Hitham Omari), but he’s trying to prove his value. His dumb bet to take a bullet while wearing a vest puts Sanfur in the hospital with shrapnel in his side. Competing with his famous brother is impossible, and his dad believes he’s worthless. Despite informing to Razi, Sanfur’s still looking for an opportunity to escape his brother’s shadow.

The plot’s driving force is capturing Ibrahim, who doesn’t appear until 40 minutes into the film. The procedural aspects take over, and Razi and his associates devise a plan to stop the leader. The pursuit culminates in a tense standoff that goes sideways when a local crowd starts rioting. The camera moves inside the cramped attic while Ibrahim faces the hordes. It’s a claustrophobic moment that shows the lack of glory in Ibrahim’s fight. Even if the cops succeed, the anger towards them from local residents reminds us they’re losing the war of ideas. Killing Ibrahim will just make his partners even more dedicated. Badawi must do something big to respond, and there’s pressure from Hamas and his leaders on the next move. No one learns from a meaningless death. There’s always another enemy to capture, and there are an infinite number of targets for Al-Aqsa and Hamas.

Tsahi Halevi and Shadi Mar'i in Bethlehem

Despite the larger issues, Bethlehem is really about the relationship between Razi and Sanfur. There’s a true emotional connection that transcends the violence. Razi helps Sanfur recover from his injuries and sits by his bed like a family member. When the walls close on both of them, neither seems thrilled with betraying the other. Adler and Co-writer Ali Wakad give us multiple perspectives that expand the scope. It’s easy to sympathize with Razi or Sanfur while dreading the final outcome. Badawi’s hardened approach and frustration towards politicians like Abu Massa (Karem Shakur) also makes sense. There are no true villains, and the frustrating situation makes it difficult for residents not to join the fight. Characters stroll into diners with machine guns on their backs, and it doesn’t feel that strange. The film’s opening shot reveals teens using a town sign for target practice. They’re preparing to take their place in the conflict, and there’s little else to do at this point.

There’s a fresh perspective to this story that comes from debut filmmakers. Waked is a journalist who’s spent years reporting on the conflict. This insider’s outlook keeps the screenplay from drifting into typical dramatic conflicts. Set during the second intifada in 2004-2005, the story reflects Waked’s time covering the struggle. Shooting in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and nearby locations ensures the material feels relevant. It’s an Israeli-produced film but doesn’t convey a simplistic ideology. We can sympathize with the Palestinians’ anger towards the occupation. Adler and Waked take a procedural approach that avoids giving a one-sided view of the issues in the West Bank.

The three leads are non-professional actors, and that’s remarkable given the confident performances from Halevi and Omari. They bring a quiet composure to adults that have already seen too much carnage. Razi has a solid family life with a wife and two kids, but there’s intensity behind his warm demeanor that reveals his focus. Badawi shares this fierce perspective and barely raises his voice except when absolutely necessary. Trapped in the middle of this ideological struggle is the young Sanfur, and Mar’i’s lack of acting experience shows the young man's innocence. He’s transporting money from Hamas to his brother while informing Razi about other activities. A hardened veteran would recognize that his days were numbered in this role. There’s no end in sight for this conflict, and Sanfur must choose a side or fall prey to both of them.