Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Few writers can subvert audience expectations to riveting effect. In this instance, The incomparable Billy Wilder adapts a stage play by The famed Agatha Christie for the screen. The pairing produces an impressive blend of humor and suspense. In fact, upon its release, many people mistook it for one of Hitchcock’s. I can see why– I was on the edge of my seat!

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that an American in England is charged with murder. He seeks the help of a solicitor, who in turn requests the counsel of a seasoned barrister, whose doctor has advised against taking on stressful cases. Together, with an entourage of protective staff urging rest, the legal defense team must dodge one bombshell after another before the stress from the case becomes more than the stubborn old barrister’s ticker can handle.

Leave No Trace (2018)

Appropriate to the title, little– other than award nominations and wins– was left in its wake. I can see why. The premise of a military vet raising his daughter in isolation from Society seems to promise a survivalist thriller. Though there is adventure, to expect heart-pounding chases through the woods and rural shootouts will only disappoint; this is purely a psychological exploration of PTSD, familial bonding, parenting and identity. Accordingly, the characters say little out loud; the communication and emotion is almost entirely visual. There is love and care and trust but as much as a daughter loves her father, she can’t hide from the world forever. I won’t wax poetic about the plethora of additional themes; you’ll explore them if you’re so inclined.

Ricky and the Flash (2015)

When a plot is a character study rather than a tale with a definitive moral, trivia will overshadow all other aspects. In this case, the fun facts (e.g. Meryl Streep learned to play the guitar and does her own singing alongside career musician, Rick Springfield and her real- life daughter plays the part onscreen) enhance the realism that keeps it from being overly simplistic. Any humor lies in relatable and/or ironic elements, which can only be disappointing when compared to a formulaic Dramedy, in which everyone learns their lesson far too easily.

The Mule (2018)

The prickly maverick we’re used to seeing in so many iconic Westerns is anything but stoic in his role as a cantankerous old man, whose family receives none of the tenderness reserved for his prized flowers. In fact, the horticultural circle where he’s found his niche brings out a charming side few others get to see. As it turns out, he’s also good at minding his own business and staying under the radar. His newfound value to a Mexican drug cartel provides a whole new source of pride, especially since it provides the means to buy his family’s admiration.

This film is a sincere sentiment about the true meaning of love in an unflinching glimpse into the world of drug running; disparate worlds are two sides of the same coin as they struggle to understand loyalty and affection.

(I feel it’s worth mentioning the bedroom scene at the mansion party, though not necessarily gratuitous, can be skipped to avoid the disparate element of nudity as it does nothing to advance the plot.)

Swing Kids (1993)

Pit any character against a Nazi and the audience will automatically know who to root for. It’s much harder to show how a reasonable person can become a cold-hearted monster. The zeal with which teenagers approach any popular interest makes them ideal recruits; it only takes a charismatic mentor to offer all the things the War has taken away, which no amount of Big Jazz, Swing dancing, and jive slang could provide. Friendships are strained as loyalties are tested. Could anyone/thing escape the grasp of the Reich?

Incidentally, (and thankfully) no one attempts a fake accent. They all speak American or British English and you don’t even notice.

Persepolis (2007)

I’m so glad the author of the autobiographical comic– the basis of this movie– was involved in making this version of her story. An Iranian expat, who came- of- age during the Islamic Revolution/ reign of the Shah describes her historical experiences– personal, cultural and political– in black and white. The bold stylistic choice serves […]

Hell or High Water (2016)

The Western genre, a long-standing movie staple, is characterized by a rough-around-the-edges hero, who musters his steely courage in order to exact vengeance. There’s always a small but hardy village standing tough in the middle of a harsh and desolate landscape. Despite its modern context, this movie does not disappoint; especially since, unlike traditional Westerns, the protagonists have realistic flaws. The stakes are high as two brothers, a divorcee and an ex-con start robbing banks out of desperation to save their family’s dying Texas ranch. Not far behind are a couple of old pros, a ranger and his partner assigned to what was expected to be a small time offense. As the lawbreaking escalates, everyone involved quickly realizes their lives are on the line.

The Pirates of Somalia (2017)

The title* of a book by (then still) wannabe journalist, Jay Bahadur, who planned to write an exposé based on a land he grew to love almost as much as his own. Most coming-of-age stories center around a young man’s sexual encounter with a seemingly exotic native from the country to which he has either been forced to travel or to where he escapes from stifling responsibilities. This film depicts a naively brave visit to a place few journalists dared to go at the time.   *“Deadly Waters” in UK/ Australia

Part of its charm is how the casting in no way caters to Hollywood’s distorted racial sensibilities by either rewriting the story to make Jay’s parents’ mixed-race marriage a Caucasian union or by hiring an unconvincing vaguely ethnic actor, who bears no resemblance to real-life, Jay Bahadur. Rather, the family dynamic is believable but casually presented as fact since it has no bearing on the plot. Another component of its charm is in capturing affection, both in actors’ natural chemistry and characters’ scripted interaction. Pay close attention, filmmakers; this is how it’s done. That it intrinsically avoids heavy-handed themes, canned/ preachy dialogue, contrived metaphors and overblown juxtapositions makes this film feel like a blast of fresh air on a steamy day in the desert.

I would be remiss to leave out any mention of countless profanities and blatant drug use that makes this unsuitable for classroom viewing and discussion. However, where home viewing is concerned, realism is lost the moment the camera flinches. Moreover, the goal is sympathy and consideration rather than pity, and certainly not stereotypes. To that end, many striking parallels can be made drawn between African Pirates and North American rappers. At the end of the day, Human Beings are more like than different, which should make international diplomatic relations less convoluted than they tend to be.

Mr. Bahadur returned home right before cargo ship, MV Maersk Alabama was taken hostage by the pirates about whom he wrote. This incident stimulated interest in his book, which took longer than expected to get published. But people soon realized his research challenged inaccurate perceptions about the pirates and their motives. Incidentally, trivia fans will appreciate how movie Jay’s host-turned-friend, who guides him through Somalia is the same actor, who portrayed the lead pirate of the aforementioned hijacking as portrayed in the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips.”