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Picturesque, memorable, surprising, tense and mysterious
The story begins with a will, which Nawal (Lubna Azzabal), a Canadian expat with Middle Eastern origins, leaves behind for twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudet). The will consists of two sealed envelopes with instructions for delivery listing Jeanne and Simon's supposedly late father, and their recently discovered older brother. From that point forward, the twins embark upon an adventure in a war-torn country, with the sole purpose of unlocking the mystery left behind by their mother; a mystery providing a gateway to their homeland and origins.
The magnificent prologue of the film speaks volumes, with a beautiful, seemingly serene hilly landscape tricking the audience into a false sense of security. The camera then slowly sweeps across a room full of young boys either with clippers shaving their heads to a military standard, or receiving terrifying looking arms. The camera pauses on one boy with piercing eyes, looking at us in a moving combination of fear, anger and resentment as his hair falls on his shoulders, rendering him bald and ready. In the background, Radiohead's 'You and Whose Army' hypnotises us, imprinting the powerful image in our memory – one which will strongly be recalled later on in this film. This scene alone is worth sturdy artistic praise.
Face down, naked and without a memorial is the burial instruction left behind by the apparently tortured Nawal, with a haunting quote noting that, " childhood is a knife in the throat that you can't easily take off". The children realise that a gravestone can only be added when the puzzles of their mother's past are unlocked with the delivery of the letters within the cryptic will.
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad,'Scorched' which I am not familiar with, but one could feel tell that the screenplay adaptation turned Mouawad's work into a respected and admired, multi award winning picture. The film garnered international attention, with twenty wins in total at various festivals, including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. 'Incendies' was also one of the most highly praised films screened during the second edition of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), encouraging further exploration into its appeal.
Can war be poetic? With Villeneuve, this is possible. It is also romantic and ruthless, combining the most extreme of human emotions, leading to radical choices like the Christian Nawal's recruitment by Muslim militia. The poetic narrative exposes idyllic sceneries that the director focuses on often, revealing shortly after the truths of a raw, harsh and poignant reality. .
From the moment Jeanne lands in the Middle East we are transported to stories from her mother's history. Although the country's name is fictional, the historical details fail to belie the nation in question is in fact Lebanon. Every location she visits is alternated with a parallel memory from her mother's past, featuring ferocious battles, both as just a woman and also as a political activist. As soon as Jeanne infiltrates her Nawal's hometown, she is exposed to the complex hatred that society continues to struggle with, even years after the war has ended. The villagers blatantly refuse Jeanne assistance upon discovering she is Nawal's daughter, without any mention of her mother treated like a taboo.
While Simon is resisting his mother's enforced wishes, it is Jeanne who initially takes the solo initiative to seek closure. Throughout her adventures, we learn that this same, unfriendly village appears to be the basis of Nawal's struggles upon falling pregnant with a Palestinian man who was brutally murdered by her own brothers. Drowned in the shadow of disgrace by everybody in the village due to falling pregnant, Nawal delivers a boy who is taken away from her upon birth. With a tattoo marking his shin, Nawal had vowed to find her child at any cost, only to be driven out of the village for fear of persecution and even death. This is when she takes drastic decisions out of anger, resentment and fear, just like the boy at the opening of the film.
The war is not just the context but explains – regardless of one's political stance – that there's more to what people choose to practice and preach than mere ideals. Nawal's decision to join the militia was primarily born out of despair and the injustices she suffered. In the style of a mythological Greek tragedy, the plot then cleverly reveals key information within every step the twins' detective efforts reaped. After years of absence, it becomes obvious to them that war had never really left all of their mother's past protagonists, but lived on and festered within them.
Although the children had considered their mother as nothing more than a neurotic, unstable character, the journey they embark on honours what is in fact a valiant woman, also known as "the woman who sings". The past was too painful to be easily forgotten, and it seemed they had never really understood their mother.
The film is picturesque, memorable in every scene, surprising, tense and mysterious in parts. Villeneuve portrays a vulnerable and curious vision from Nawal's viewpoint, one that is applicable to any person regardless of religion and political parties, but sharing the same circumstances. For someone who is unaware of the conflict of the Middle East, the narration carries no judgment as to innocence and guilt, or what may be considered right or wrong. As with war in general it is a personal perspective which highlights how one's worst enemy can also be a precious part of oneself. It is the story of struggling women, star-crossed lovers and suffering mothers and the personal journey of a life, and family legend, tainted by war and society.
Attack the Block (2011)
Revenge of the ASBOs
From the producers of "Shaun of the Dead" comes "Attack the Block", a science fiction comedy that pits savage alien monsters against the Earth's best line of defense, a group of hoody wearing, knife wielding, teenaged youths from the mean streets of South London.
The story for this dark British comedy unfolds in the unlikely setting of a deprived and foreboding council estate, where we meet the anti-hero Moses (John Boyega) and his gang as they rob an innocent woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) at knife point. There is no hiding the fact that these teenagers are the stuff of nightmares as they prey upon fragile victims, but it is they who soon become the prey when aliens start dropping out of the sky in the form of dark, vicious dog-like monsters. As one of the teenagers exclaims, the aliens are "blacker than my cousin Femi!" Joe Cornish, the writer/director, took inspiration from his own personal experience of a mugging in Brixton, London. Having an understanding of the nature of disenfranchised youth gave weight to the character development of these teenagers, who, if they were to meet the kids from the 1985 film, "The Goonies", would most likely beat them up, steal their bikes, and eat all of Chunk's chocolate bars. The use of street slang and popular culture is a means to win the audience over – "I just want to go home, lock my door and play Fifa" has a universal appeal to PlayStation addicted urbanites across the globe. You soon forget that Moses and his gang would sell their own grandmother for loose change if they weren't being pursued by the devilish monsters from outer space.
There is no doubt that Cornish has attempted to create a film with a social conscious, setting it in a deprived area of broken Britain which remarks on a society not giving the disenfranchised a chance at life. Interestingly, the film was released in the UK a few months before riots broke out in London – almost telegraphing a message of discontent felt by the young. Although not standing behind a banner of justice, the riots were a sharp reminder to politicians and community groups that there exist deep rooted problems in certain sections of British society.
By no means an essay for social reform, "Attack the Block" keeps the laughs coming. There are plenty of nods to teenage sci-fi films, with clear references to "Gremlins" and "Critters". But where in those American films, we saw well behaved kids rallying together, here we see young terrors yelling, "killing 'em, killing 'em straight".
The cast of mainly inexperienced actors give real authenticity to the group. Mainly discovered through their schools and online auditions, we are given a raw performances of real street kids – all of whom would be expelled from Hogwarts if they even bothered to turn up. Jodie Whittaker is a convincing underpaid overworked nurse who the gang first robs, before reuniting with her to take on the aliens. Nick Frost adds hilarity as a lazy drug dealer who never leaves his flat.
The CGI aliens are probably the most silly aspect of "Attack the Block". They look like black blobs with glowing teeth, which is meant for a minimal effect. I couldn't but help think it may have been a budget constraint. Still this film is about delivering comedic set pieces over its brisk 88 minutes. "Attack the Block" is a film teenagers will adore, as well as adults with misspent youths. You may wish to be warned that some of the comedy may fly over the heads of a non-British audience, but "Shaun of the Dead" worked as an export and if that's the kind of film you like then you are sure to enjoy Attack the Block – just as long as you can decode the street jargon.
Le premier homme (2011)
Staying true to a legend
Based on an autobiographical book by Albert Camus, "Le Premier Homme" film follows Jean Cormery (Jacques Gamblin) the alter ego of the famed philosopher and journalist, on his return to Algeria in the late 1950s. He is back to visit his mother (Catherine Sola) to whom he is attached, reconnect with his past and trace stories of his father.
The film is relayed in the past and present. We visit the writer's tender childhood through flashbacks, while the present carries the struggles of a man torn between the warmth of the Algerian sun, the weight of the colonialism stamp as pied-noir and the bitter relations between both continents.
The mother and son conversations are some of the powerful scenes in "Le Premier Homme". She is overwhelmingly proud of what her son has become; he worries about her living alone in her advancing years. It is a unique bond, often charming in its silences. One can't be indifferent to the magnificent performances by both Gamblin and Sola.
Then comes the Algerian land that Cormery insists on visiting, triggering his vivid reminiscence of childhood. We are shown how this young boy with innocent features showed, at a very early age, a remarkable gift for perception while excelling in his academic performances. This combination will define him as an adult as he tries to fight the effects of colonialism and pays a price for taking a stand on the dilemma.
"Le Premier Homme" is adapted from the book with the same name, which was discovered after the tragic death of Camus in a car accident. The unfinished manuscript was published intact with Camus' notes and mistakes years later. The incomplete autobiography combines the passions inherited from his Algerian birthplace with the probing intellect of a revolutionary existentialistic and genuine thinker. Camus's words are translated into images allowing us to follow the development of his on-screen persona. The omnipresence of the sun and sea captures the hospitality of the Algerian landscape as he's always described it.
Winner of the Prize of the International Critics for Special Presentation at the Toronto Film Festival 2011, "Le Premier Homme" manages to stay loyal to Camus' spirit. As co-producer Bruno Pésery explained at the Dubai International Film Festival last year, the filmmakers filled the narrative gaps of the incomplete book using archival pictures and letters of the author, with the collaboration of Camus's daughter.
When I first learnt about this film at DIFF, I approached the screening with feelings of fear and excitement. The writings of Camus shaped my early thoughts. Fortunately, the film keeps the integrity of his beautiful descriptions intact: the cinematography, focusing on sunny panoramas and warm-colored flashbacks, offers an authentic view of Algeria.
This is no surprise as Italian director Gianni Amelio, winner of Canne's Grand Jury Award for his 1992 feature "The Stolen Children" has combined his interest in philosophy with a sympathy for Camus' upbringing; both were raised by their mothers and grandmothers and deeply affected by the absence of paternal figures. The results make for a meticulously crafted and emotional film. Fans of Camus will find "Le Premier Homme" both cathartic and heart-warming.
Omar m'a tuer (2011)
A haunting story, a last chance
On June 24 1991, Ghislaine Marshall, a wealthy widow, is found murdered in the basement of her villa in Mougins, near Nice. An inscription on her door written with her blood reads, "Omar killed me" and automatically directs investigators to Omar Raddad, her Moroccan gardener who barely speaks French and is eventually sentenced to 18 years in prison, despite no evidence.
Based on true events, the case of Omar Raddad outraged the media at the time and questioned the very integrity of the French juridical system against foreigners. Raddad was tried in 1996, partially pardoned by then President Jacques Chirac in 1996 and finally released in 1998. In France, Omar is still considered guilty by the law, and this film, based on his autobiography, might be his last attempt to clear his name.
The film tells two stories; the investigation by writer Pierre-Emmanuel (Denis Podalydès), and Omar's time in prison. At the same time, we learn of Omar himself, a simple but stoic man, who didn't go to school, but believes in the honor of his name and that of his family.
As the film demonstrates, there were no traces of blood on his clothes, no indication of his presence at the crime scene. Evidence also points to the fact that he was somewhere else at the time of Marshall's death. But in a classic case of corruption, Omar is left to fight against a whole system. Results are manipulated, and Marshall's body is burnt to avoid further investigation. The frustration of his situation pushes Omar to go on food strike in prison – and desperation eventually that leads him to attempt suicide.
Sami Bouajila has an impressive approach to Omar – he doesn't talk much, but uses his eyes to express his predicament. Consequently, his sparse use of dialogue is all the more effective. "I have no more life, the judge destroyed it," he cries. The portrayal granted Bouajila the Best Performance Award at the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film festival, alongside a Best Arab Narrative Filmmaker award for director Roschdy Zem.
This is not a film with outstanding cinematic techniques, but presents a story rooted in reality and Omar's injustice. Zem solicits powerful performances from his cast, without mining the material for pity. The director is an actor himself and this, his second feature, presents the cause of Omar as unfinished business – justice has yet to be delivered.
Similarly, the investigation at the heart of "Omar Killed Me", even as it sets out to prove his innocence, allows the audience to look for clues, make connections and judge for themselves. We follow the investigation of a police drama which is based on fact and where the judges play devil's advocate. There is little conflict over Omar's innocence, but a dawning realization that those in power are readily able to gather their facts and manipulate them in order to convince those who already suspect Omar of the crime. In the end, the film shines a spotlight on a long forgotten case. One can't but respect a filmmaker who sets out to try and make a change.
Kedach ethabni (2011)
A child's eyes
Adel (Racim Zemnadi), eight years old, is sent to stay at his grandparent's house for the weekend. Two days turn into a week. Things are not promising; his parents' quarrel is leading to an inevitable divorce. But his presence with a caring old couple Khadidja (Nadja Debahi-Laaraf) and Lounès (Abdelkader Tadjer) will transform his temporarily stay to a touching lesson about love.
"Kedash Ethabni" is the second feature for Algerian filmmaker Fatma Zohra Zamoum who's written, directed and produced the film. She adds a feminist twist to the subject of divorce and its effects on the modern family.
We don't see much of the divorce itself, but instead we see it through the eyes of the child and his grandparents. The child spends most of his time with Khadidja who is simple and uneducated. She tries everything to make Adel's stay a pleasant one. She cleans his room, takes him to the zoo and embraces him with love and trust. Their unique bond reflects her loneliness as a woman, wife and grandmother. She discovers through him, a part of her that needs to live again.
Adel is a raw subject of affection. He triggers Khadidja into experiencing new things without her husband's knowledge, such as going to the movies for the first time in her life. They become inseparable accomplices in their adventures, and a healthy way to escape from family tensions.
Adel's grandfather on the other hand, is a typical Algerian parent who shows little or no emotion. He doesn't mind his grandson but protects himself from revealing his feelings as not to weaken the child or worse, appear weak himself. He reacts with anger when Adel spends a lot of time with his grandmother in the kitchen because "boys shouldn't cook". But he is the one to introduce Adel to the world of animals by teaching him how to take care of the family pet sparrows.
The different reaction of the grandparents reflects the communication gaps that can be better sensed by women. This is a universal problem also described by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1960's "L'Avventura ", where women are the ones to predict when a relationship lacks understanding, or when something is going wrong.
The child's presence with this old couple plays a major role in assessing the past. When seeing Adel suffering from a strong fever after witnessing his parents fighting, Lounès drowning in worry asks, "Where did we go wrong?" Khaddidja answers, "You were a bit strict on the kids".
And there's Adel, who captures our heart with his performance. He has a natural on-screen chemistry with his grandmother. Wherever they are, there's joy, hope and an abundance of affection. One worries what will become of them if they are ever separated.
"Kedash Ethabni" which premiered at the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film Festival, caught my attention with its smooth narrative, attention to detail and magnificent acting. It's a film that portrays the basics sentiments of love, nature, children and the elderly in a realistic and poetic manner.
Zamoum who is a painter, meticulously frames her shots leaving nothing to random. "Kedash Ethabni" is a tender drama that could take place in any house and opens our eyes to the consequences of our actions and the effects of divorce on children.
Largely two-dimensional action/thriller fluff
When a film opens with Mark Wahlberg retiring from a life of jet-setting, high stakes international crime and setting up his own home security company, you can guess that he probably won't be spending the next 100 minutes installing CCTV and offering advice on which Yale locks are best for a garden conservatory. And you would be right. There are very few surprises in 'Contraband', the highly formulaic and forgettably entertaining action thriller from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, opening in Doha this week.
Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is living the good life: leaving behind a career of drugs, car and currency smuggling, he has decided to go straight, set up his own business and settle down with his beautiful wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two boys. Unfortunately for the Farradays, Kate's kid brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has got himself into a spot of bother during a botched smuggling job, and Andy has to replace the lost bounty or else drugs baron Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) will start going after his family. To pay off Andy's debts and save his loved ones from the death warrant hanging over their head, Chris must do one last job. And where better to go than Panama, currently the home of $10 million worth of fake bank notes waiting to be collected and smuggled into the US on an international cargo ship. Using his old connections in the underworld, Chris puts together a motley crew to sail to Panama and pick up the cash, while leaving his family under the protection of best bud Sebastian (Ben Foster).
While Chris stomps around Central America, he goes through pretty much every 'one last job' cliché that Hollywood has to offer. From the mustachioed crime lord (Diego Luna) to the gun happy local police force, everything that happens south of the Panama Canal is enjoyable fun, if you're a fan of the genre, but will feel tired and derivative to audiences hoping for a bit more than action/thriller fluff.
The best scenes that the film has to offer occur between the fantastic supporting cast assembled around Wahlberg, most of whom stay back in the US. Giovanni Ribisi (still probably best known as Phoebe's brother in 'Friends') is all ticks and twitches as a criminal middle-man trying to get his slice of the smuggling-cartel pie while still trying to raise his young daughter and protect her from the dangerous lifestyle that surrounds him. Ben Foster (a highly watchable actor who deserves much better roles than he gets) gives the strongest performance as the duplicitous Sebastian, struggling with a sidekick complex as his best friend gets the beautiful wife and saves the day. Their subplots almost make you wish the screenplay had cut out Wahlberg's two-dimensional character and spent its time exploring the relationships of those around him. But this is Hollywood, after all.
'Contraband' has already gone to the top of the box office stateside, and I'm sure will continue to find financial success around the world. January is a notoriously weak month for cinema releases, hanging in the shadows of the awards baiting films of November and December, so Contraband might be the best that the multiplexes have to offer this week. Just don't expect to remember a thing about it after you leave the cinema.
The Descendants (2011)
Despair in Paradise
There is little that tempts the viewer to book a Hawaiian holiday after watching "The Descendants". In Alexander Payne's first film since 2004's Oscar winning "Sideways", sun-kissed beaches, blue skies and carefree watersports make way for leaden clouds and choppy ocean swells. It rains often, forcing characters to awkwardly run for cover in their flip-flops. At home, George Clooney, his hair greying with worry, sits up at nights, working on legal papers. There's not a slice of guava to be seen and pineapples are extinct. In short, this is all a far cry from the reverie of Elvis Presley's "Paradise Hawaiian Style".
Clooney plays Matt King, father to a ten-year-old tearaway Scottie (Amara Miller) and her equally rebellious sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The Kings, and by that I mean the extended family of cousins and aunts living across a number of islands, are preparing to sell a large parcel of land which has been in the family for generations. Resort developers promise the clan untold millions. Matt, however, has other preoccupations. His wife, recently injured in a boating accident, lies in a coma. She will never recover, doctors tell him. Matt has to break the news to his wayward breed and, in the process, assume the role of parent.
None of this is new territory for Clooney who, at various times in his career, has taken delight in portraying misguided zealots ("The Men Who Stare at Goats"), soulless suits ("Up In The Air") and dandyish egotists ("O' Brother, Where Art Thou?"). In truth, he is more restrained here. We can't imagine the Clooney of "Ocean's Eleven" as anything other than a fussy, if suave, lothario. In contrast, when his daughter asks him what he'd like to eat in a restaurant, he waves her away with "Order me anything". His clothing, for the most part, consists of half-sleeved shirts, shorts and flip-flops. Yet as storms close around his family, Matt takes stock of the situation and steers the King clan away from looming danger. Clooney's is a subtle performance, free of histrionics.
"The Descendants" also bookends a series of four films about men in crisis, which started with Matthew Broderick fraying at the seams in "Election". In that film, Broderick's middle aged angst, expressed through his all-or-nothing hatred of a high school over-achiever, was a comic exaggeration which sealed the character's fall from grace. In "Sideways", Paul Giamatti showed us that men stop living when they too eagerly embrace their obsessions. In "The Descendants", Clooney isn't looking to upend his life: he wants to make up for his previous absenteeism. When he learns of his dying wife's affair and travels with his eldest daughter to confront the object of her unfaithfulness – a property dealer called Brian Speer – Matt doesn't resort to threats, abuse or violence. The scene is quietly played out in Speer's holiday home, at an island in the kitchen. He even agrees not to inform the salesman's wife of his transgressions.
In the end, death marks the end of the whole affair. After his wife passes away, the family scatters her ashes at sea. And in the most peaceful moment of an otherwise blustery film, Matt later settles down to eat ice cream and watch television with his children. The scene, which runs for nearly 90 seconds, is near silent and has the Kings watching a TV set in front of them. For the first time in a while, it seems, the bad weather has vanished.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
A thriller for adults
In a world of James Bonds and Jason Bournes, George Smiley and his lot are hardly the most outwardly provocative offering in the spy genre, but that is not the game here. The character previously of John Le Carre novels, then television series is a spy for adults. So is this movie.
Everything about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is measured. Director Tomas Alfredson has painted his film with bleak London scenes and flat 1970s tones. He shoots through the bars of fences and the frames of windows, immediately entrapping us in the dark, claustrophobic world that was the Secret Intelligence Service during the height of the Cold War.
When Control (John Hurt), the head of the ironically referred-to "Circus", is forced to retire in response to an operation gone wrong, he takes his right hand man, George Smiley, with him. We find George (Gary Oldman) a slightly sad man who continues a routine of swimming and leaving his estranged wife's mail on the table, keeping track of the sort of little details a man who has spent his life in the spy trade would come to value. But while he was forced out, he is compelled back into action to pick up the trail of a mole in the organization. As someone on the outside, Smiley is uniquely to look in.
Given an agent, Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch), to assist his investigation, one of the first things Smiley discovers is that an old colleague, Connie, was forced out as well. As they look through photos of the old days, she remembers fondly the old days, before the secrecy and dealings of the cold war.
As Connie seems so keen to do, we bounce back to the past, and from England to Hungary and beyond. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a young spy who is accused of being a deserter, appears suddenly in George's home with a fantastic story that opens our investigators to another world of treacherous possibilities.
The film is filled with brief scene-setting shots—some mundane, but others filled with detail and plot. The viewer is left trying to put together these sporadic glimmers of story as more involved scenes roll on. The result is an occasionally frenzied attempt at thought in a film otherwise as austere with pace as it is with revelations. And, while these two hours are packed with well-cultivated tension, there is little relief. There are many twists and turns, but very few bring with them as much intensity as may be expected for such a high-stakes game.
The acting is superb from a cast of British elites—most especially Oldman, who is convincing in both his advanced age and quiet desperation. We see that no one is innocent of treason. We watch as friendships, relationships and solemn oaths fall victim to the pursuit of the greater good. And everyone, even the ultimately-revealed mole, believes what they do to be the right thing.
After two hours of restrained acting, music and even colors, the ending comes together laced heavily with scenes of a past holiday party, smiles and laughs and overwhelmingly cheerful music. Resolutions for all and such an upbeat finale seem to break somewhat from the tone and delivery of the bulk of the film. After being snubbed of a true dramatic climax, it seems a bit dishonest.
Walking out of the theater, however, what lingers about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the meticulousness of it all: the acting, the attention to detail and the use of metaphoric imagery. Despite this being his first international foray, director Alfredson's confidence shows in every minute. He has created a film that will linger with the viewer long after the credits stop rolling.
The Grey (2011)
Stunning in many ways
A plane crashes in Alaska; the survivors find themselves hunted by a pack of wolves. It's a fierce battle against harsh nature and angry predators. Ottway's (Liam Neeson) work consists of shooting wolves for the protection of workers assembling pipelines. He describes them as "men unfit for mankind". He carries himself with a lot of mystery and darkness and is detached from the rest of his colleagues.
The prologue of the film gives us a thorough introduction to the world of Ottway. Through flashbacks, we understand that he has lost his one true love. He is dragging his life in slow steps with the bitter attitude of a man who has nothing more to lose and attempts to commit suicide. At the last minute he doesn't pull the trigger; the sight of a wolf he just shot dying in front of eyes gives him a breath of hope and a philosophical statement on the absurdity of life and death.
In one sense this is a typical disaster movie: Ottway finds himself traveling with his co-workers when they crash in the middle of nowhere, in the cold and hostile wilderness of Alaska. Ottway naturally takes charge of the survivors, and like an experienced boy scout gives directions and tips for survival. The others follow out of despair and fear. But what may seem like a classic battle between man vs nature, is upended when they stumble across another major obstacle – of a pack of wolves protecting their territory. They don't want to eat, they just kill to threaten. Ottway, the only wolf expert on board, suggests moving locations towards the trees. They are now exposed to the anger of brute mammals.
With nothing but grey and white color palette, and all colors dissimilated, Man and wolves become equal fighters in their endurance. It turns into a rivalry between two species. Action scenes take a conventional turn, and it's not hard to guess who the next victim will be, even if taken by surprise. What makes of the film watchable is the rise of human soul towards spirituality. Their introverted reflections and attitudes is not about survival, but the embrace of a fate they have no control over. It's just a matter of resistance.
The trailer of the film offers more blood and suspense to the viewers than we'd expect. Instead, the focal point is on the journey which brings these men closer together and penetrates the superficial persona that Ottway used to despise in them. The more we know about these men, the more similar they all become.
The snow and storm scenes were not a cinematic illusion triggered by special effects, the actors instead endured the harsh conditions of filming with -40°C in Smithers, British Colombia. The results showcase a natural and beautifully shot storm.
Many might not like the adventurous closure they were expecting from such an action thriller. But I must admit that it is a mature ending, similar to a spiritual revelation. It completes a circle of life and death mentioned in the beginning of the film, and this is clearly why the film might stand out from others similar in themes.
Les adieux à la reine (2012)
For the next few years, it must be assumed that any film featuring a popular uprising will attract lazy comparisons to the Arab Spring. The wild waters of revolution run swift in Benoit Jacquot's "Farewell, My Queen", set in the days of July, 1789. Over a wet week in France, starving Parisians storm the symbol of state tyranny, the Bastille, seizing guns and ammunition. Protesters issue a list of demands, calling for the beheadings of nearly 300 influential figures. The de facto signs of regime change are everywhere. Dead rats float in the Grand Canal in Versaille; mosquitoes terrorize the members of the Royal household. Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), the Queen of France, however, has escapism on her mind – she sits in bed, skim-reading the latest fashion pages.
In this task, she is aided by a number of ladies-in-waiting and her reader, Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux). The young woman is called to run to the palace library and return with books and plays she reads aloud to the queen. We learn she is a member of the queen's inner circle and somewhat infatuated with her employer. She performs her duties with a mixture of fear, envy and respect. When the stench of revolution is impossible to ignore, she is told she will be guided to safety. Understandably, she feels more than a little betrayed when the queen orders her to impersonate a fleeing aristocrat, Gabrielle de Polignac, who will accompany her, dressed as a servant. If she is captured, Laborde risks death, while Polignac will abscond to safety.
This could all be familiar territory – Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (2006) took a distinctly sweet-toothed approach to the French Revolution, imprisoning Kirsten Dunst behind tiers of artisan cakes. In Coppola's film, the French royals behaved like party-goers on an episode of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16". "Farewell, My Queen", which is based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, isn't confection of the same variety. This dimly lit and low budget film marks the end of the fantasy world of Versailles, its gilded halls, jeweled furniture and costumed courtiers. The Royal staff bow and curtsy at every available opportunity – in their spare time, they trade gossip about the private indiscretions of their employers and idly speculate the future of post-revolutionary France.
Unfortunately, the inner workings of the court of Versailles simply aren't any match for the layered politics that define teenage life on "My Super Sweet 16". While Coppola's film was candy floss masquerading as history, "Farewell, My Queen" succeeds in laboring every aspect of daily life at the Royal court. We are told, time and time again, there lurks intrigue behind every palace wall – most of it remains frustratingly off screen. At one point, I found myself thinking Laborde's chores were no different from the experiences of any gap year student – and considerably less hedonistic.
The end, when it arrives, is all too predictable. As members of the royal household are attacked on the streets of Paris, the occupants of Versaille decide to flee. As the royals leave for the last time, their carriages bursting with furniture and jewels, the staff is told "the King will now check the temperature of the throne room". Ice-cold, I would imagine. Not unlike Jacquot's French revolution.
Left wishing for more... and a bit less
In the decade since the events of September 11, 2001, American film-makers have struggled to dramatize the events of that day. A variety of approaches have been taken, ranging from Oliver Stone's clarion call to patriotism, "World Trade Center" to the documentary style re-enactment of "United 93". Like a number of films released about the war in Iraq, all have proved unpopular with the American public. It is easy to conclude why – footage from the day casts a long shadow across TV news and the online media. Viewers don't need reminding.
Based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", begins a year after the attacks on New York. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a lonely but gifted 11-year-old who may have Asperger's, is clinging to the memory of his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), a jeweler, who died in the World Trade Center. Hanks appears generously in flashback throughout the film, always disclosing a series of life lessons to the young boy. We learn that before he died, Thomas Schell also left six messages on the family answering machine. Oskar has kept the voicemails from his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) by switching machines.
Searching through his father's closet one day, Oskar accidentally breaks a blue vase and discovers an envelope marked "Black", containing a key. Taking a phone book, he decides to look up 472 individuals called "Black" in the New York area – if he can find a lock for the key, he presumes he can find answer to his father's death.
In less experienced hands, this could all prove to be dangerous territory, but Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot", "The Hours" and "The Reader"), is a confident director, working from a script by Eric Roth. He focuses on Oskar's mission to connect with his father one last time. The boy, wielding a tambourine and wearing a backpack, sets off to intrude on an array of New Yorkers. Along the way, he encounters a group of religious devotees, horse lovers, Abby Black (Viola Davis), and her soon to be ex-husband William (Jeffrey Wright). Most of them are surprisingly welcoming to a boy who turns up unannounced, bangs on a musical instrument, and proceeds to tell them, in a jumble of grown up sentences, about how he found the key, and how they might provide an answer to his father's death.
None of this is plausible, of course. And I found "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" took a manipulative approach to Oskar's grief, despite a moving performance by Horn. With all due respect, how can we feel sympathy for a precocious young boy who sees himself at the center of the universe? The film takes another wild turn when Oskar, depressed by the scale of the task ahead, looks to his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) and her live-in lodger (Max Von Sydow) for help. The latter, who may be Oskar's grandfather, refuses to talk and communicates by holding up his palms, on which he has written "Yes" and "No". For longer conversations, he uses a notepad. At this point, the audience may wish Tom Hanks had imparted one more valuable lesson to his son before he died: sometimes, children should be seen and not heard.
Enlightening view into the life of a legend and the birth of reggae
Several years in the making, and utilizing dozens of interviews with key figures, Kevin Macdonald's documentary about the late, great reggae figure represents something of an achievement for the British director of "The Last King of Scotland" and "One Day in September". While Bob Marley's life has been chronicled by biographers before, most notably in Timothy White's book "Catch a Fire" , Macdonald weaves in the political and the personal to present an enthralling archive of Jamaica and the birth of reggae in the early Seventies.
The result is an immensely detailed and satisfying chronology of Marley's life, from his humble beginnings in a poor Jamaican town, Saint Ann parish, his relocation to Trenchtown and then the more salubrious neighborhoods of Kingston, to his early and tragic death of cancer in Bavaria in 1981, aged 36. Marley's last few years prove to be the most fascinating here – as he grapples with his universal fame and the violence tearing through Kingston.
These days, Marley's career can often be summed up by a poster – the last king of reggae cuts a smiling, dread-locked figure who features widely in teenage bedrooms all over the world. The musician in "Marley", however, is a more complicated figure. Born to an elderly white British father, the young singer-songwriter was taunted from an early age for his mixed race heritage. He discovered music as a youngster– and eventually moved to Kingston, where he converted to Rastafarianism to combat his early experience of hatred.
"Marley" is most watchable when explaining the birth of reggae – and the surviving members of The Wailers, his backing group, particularly percussionist Bunny Wailer, carefully recall how some of their best work emerged. One highlight is an interview with notable reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry; now with his hair dyed pink, Perry was a formative figure in the sound of the Wailers.
Equally illuminating is Marley's personal life. By the time of his death, he had produced eleven children from seven mothers. His daily life was similarly chaotic; lines of people would queue up at his home in Kingston, looking for handouts. None went away empty handed. Even the tragedy of daily violence in Kingston did not deter him. Marley was shot in a botched assassination attempt in the city, but persevered to give two free concerts in an endeavor to end the bloodshed.
All of this, of course, is presented with some truly memorable archive footage. As one might expect, Marley's music looms large throughout, and Macdonald has mined dozens of resources to show the reggae star at work. There is a thrilling concert to commemorate the birth of Zimbabwe (featuring both Robert Mugabe and Prince Charles), as well as tours of Europe and the US. Most stirring, though, are those two concerts in his native Kingston. While his Rastafarianism beliefs no doubt encouraged Marley to spread a message of peace across the world, a solution to the political bloodshed in Kingston was a cause he never abandoned. It is a sequence which demystifies the musician, and the closing credits leave us in no doubt as to how his message continues to resonate today.
For dreamers and romantics
Madonna's second feature as director begins in 1998, where lonely Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) becomes obsessed with the story of King Edward's VIII's abdication of the British throne for a woman he loved, the American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). Wally's personal life is on the cusp of a dramatic change. On the surface, her marriage seems solid; her husband William is a successful therapist and the couple is envied by friends and relatives. But in reality, miscommunication takes the lead during our first encounter with the doctor at a dinner in his honor. Wally is not sitting beside him; and he either doesn't notice or acknowledge her presence. As she says, William is a smart manipulator, "he can use my words against me". He doesn't want her to work, but doesn't want children either. Wally tries to overcome her bitter reality by daydreaming about images from history.
Wally ends up spending her long and lonely days at a Sotheby's auction house, looking at objects from the royal estate in Windsor and researching the doomed affair between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. The parallel lives meet through the imagination of Willis triggered by an object, a letter or a photo and sometimes an accessory she wears herself. On many occasions, she becomes one with her idol, getting inspired by her strength against all odds.
The film cuts between Wally's self-discovery – which is noticed by a widowed Russian intellectual working as a security guard at the auction house – and the glamorous early days of King Edward and Wallis Simpson's relationship. The past and the present accentuate the similarities between the two women; one punished for being loved by a king, and the other punished by her insensitive husband.
Last year's Oscar winner "The King's Speech" gave us a glimpse of the relationship between King Edward VIII and Simpson, casting Guy Pearce as the beleaguered king. "W.E." develops this section. This is by no means a historical film, it's like a poem narrated against background music. One notable feature of the film is the omnipresence of music, but it certainly isn't harmful.
Andrea Riseborough's performance elevates her above the act of impersonation to reveal the character of a woman condemned by history. Her powerful acting is worth mentioning, making her one of the most promising rising actors in Britain today. Similarly, Madonna's directing shows a cinematic maturity previously unseen.
If you're a dreamer who is questioning why a king would give up his throne for a woman, or if you just want to let go with a memorable love story, then this film is your answer.
Safe House (2012)
Beautiful but lacks enough dimension
Denzel Washington, who turned 57 last December, has been leaping through explosions and returning gunfire for a number of years now. "Safe House" follows "Unstoppable", "The Book of Eli" and "The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3". Many of his friends might describe this turn of events as a career crisis. Yet he appears in rude health. In "Safe House", Washington, who plays a former CIA operative Tobin Frost, leaps from rooftops. He races from city to township in a 4X4. He runs and kicks and tackles any number of anonymous henchmen. It is exhausting just to see him.
"Safe House", directed by Swede Daniel Espinosa, is the latest addition in a series of conspiracy thrillers – "Wanted", "Shooter", "Knight and Day" – that could make for an interesting alternative to the traditional bankers away day. The story, or the glue which holds together a series of tense and sometimes rewarding action chases together, starts in Cape Town where Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), is charged with the security of a safe house. When we first meet Frost, members of the CIA are attempting to extract information through waterboarding. The film-makers have not sought to consult any real victims of water torture. Throughout the ordeal, Washington maintains a look of mild bemusement.
From then on, the story shifts into acceleration mode as the building is infiltrated by hordes of gun wielding mercenaries seeking Frost. CIA officials are killed and Weston escapes to deliver Frost to another secure location. We are treated to a quick tour of Capetown – Weston loses Frost during a shootout at a football match, only to find his quarry mired in another gun battle in a shanty town. The viewer barely has time to admire Cape Town's sparkling underground railway system. There is, of course, a point to all this aerobic exercise. Weston is concealing a microchip, implanted in his skin when we first see it, which contains the names of corrupt Mossad, CIA and MI6 agents. He plans to sell the information to the highest bidder.
If all this sounds like an appetizer for the next round of Jason Bourne films, it is worth noting that cinematographer Oliver Wood worked on the Matt Damon trilogy. Here, he and Espinosa use multiple cameras to duck and weave between shots, going in close for fight scenes, far and wide for chase sequences. The result isn't narrative bedlam: the timing of the action scenes is crisp and the chronology of each fight sequence, often seen through multiple views, is both coherent and rational. The film which looks as if it was sandblasted of color, looks visually beautiful.
Apart from an occasional pause, Washington has little chance to deliver a nuanced performance. We learn that he once survived a CIA-backed sabotaging of an airplane, in which his wife and children died. Their deaths have led to him becoming a rogue operative. This is an all too brief attempt at three dimensional rendering and we are quickly whisked away from Frost's grief when the film returns to a whiplash inducing sequence of hand-to-hand combat. In comparison, Ryan Reynolds plays rookie to Washington's seasoned veteran, both in character and as actor. He has little cause to extend his range beyond a worried, bloodied grimace. Many talented individuals were undoubtedly involved in the making of "Safe House"; as the credits rolled across the screen, I couldn't help but notice the long list of stuntmen and choreographers credited. In the end, the actors are merely props, arranged to be shot, stabbed and strangled.
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Learning about hope
In this amiable family drama, middle aged widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is unable to hold together his grieving family of two children, after the passing of his wife to cancer. In an attempt for a new adventure and fresh start, he falls in love with a house surrounded by a beautiful forest, but is told that the main condition of purchase is to maintain the zoo that comes attached to the property. He takes the risk and moves from the city to the menagerie which needs a major overhaul before it is to reopen to the public.
A journalist writing adventure columns, Benjamin is lacking stories to share and finds himself resigning from the newspaper. In part, this is to escape the sympathetic looks of his boss and colleagues. At the same time, his fourteen-year old son Dylan (Colin Ford) has just been expelled from school for theft while displaying introverted behavior, expressed through dark paintings of monsters colored in black and blood red.
Based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, moving to a dilapidated zoo was the last effort of a despairing widow looking for any means of happiness. His trigger to this big step is the look of joy on the face of his seven year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) at the sight of the zoo's animals. In their old neighborhood, the Mees are looking to escape the overwhelming memories of their deceased wife and mother.
But coming with no experience in the field of animals and zoo, he didn't expect all the expenditures that may be involved in the process, draining his financial savings and inheritance, while tensions with his son grow more intense. The moving in period is tougher than expected, especially now that a full time staff headed by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and featuring Elle Fanning, were hoping to find in Benjamin a rescuer who will save their jobs and the animals. So far, anyone who promised to open the zoo has ended up reselling it. The fear is that Benjamin will follow the same fate of previous owners as he develops more doubts and concerns.
From now on the premise seems predictable, conflict is here and Ben struggles with the challenge of restoring glory to the zoo. In Scarlett Johansson, he finds a new romance. Cameron Crowe, who previously directed the feel-good "Jerry Maguire" and the meditative "Vanilla Sky", doesn't pull out any of his usual box of tricks here. Instead, "We Bought a Zoo" has a rather simplistic narrative, but manages to create emotions and engages viewers with the fate of this grieving family, thanks to the performance of Matt Damon and the children.
If the film does provide gratification, it is due to the pure conversations between Benjamin and his daughter. But it is disappointing to have all these great elements of nature and animals and not to take advantage. The inhabitants of the zoo are filmed with an ordinariness which could have been spiced up with a touch of cinematographic magic.
Human connections are the strongest bond within the family Mee. The relationships are sincere and profound. The rest of the characters, however, are underdeveloped, attempting to create a forced sense of humor. The only exception here, of course, is Scarlett Johansson, who is the basis of a new love angle.
After the flops of "Vanilla Sky" and "Elizabethtown", Cameron Crowe has managed to come back to mainstream cinema again. "We Bought a Zoo" is an enjoyable film that will see adults shed some tears while their children enjoy the hatching of eggs. Everyone will learn about hope and the will to go on.
Back to the Square (2012)
A look into life after Tahrir
"Back to the Square" is a documentary that follows five people, one year after the historical events of Tahrir Square and the fall of Hosni Mubarak. During this post-Mubarak period, thousands of protesters have been unjustifiably arrested and people are still suffering from a military state that seems to implement the a series of injustices against its citizens.
When Wally, a 15-year-old illiterate young teenager, rides his horse into Tahrir Square at the request of pro-Mubarak politicians, he doesn't know that this naïve act is about to cost him his life. The results are injuries that force his father to sell his goat to pay for his treatment and lose his horse, when the family is already struggling to live on less than $2 a day.
Mohamed, on the other hand, is an ex-convict who was released during the revolution in order to combat protesters. When he refuses to act against his own people, he is physically tortured by members of Mubarak's regime. Blogger Maikel Nabil, meanwhile, is sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting the ruling military" and "spreading false information".
Two women, Lamiz and Salwa, decided to break the silence and swim against the tide of ongoing humiliation. Lamiz is seeking the help of human rights associations to free her husband who has been arrested while she was physically harassed. Salwa wants to sue the military for ruining her reputation in front of her conservative village. The armed forces harassed her, tortured her and forced her to undergo a virginity test. It affected her family who is not welcome within the community anymore.
"Back to the Square" serves as a platform of expression for five, very interesting characters who symbolize the daily struggles of Egyptians. Director Petr Lom, who has a Ph.D in political philosophy from Harvard, dropped a promising academic career for a career in documentaries, specializing in human rights subjects. He is best known for his third film "Letters to the President" about the regime of Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
With "Back to the Square", he showcases a fresh and different perspective of the revolution's aftermath. The film's format is simple and direct, presenting each of the stories separately and relying on remarkable characters to narrate current events in Egypt.
The development of the narrative starts with the euphoric feeling of freedom at the dawn of the revolution. Each story progresses as bitter truths and fears are realized by the protesters. The documentary is also a tribute to the brave people who dared to challenge the oppressors. Along the way, they discover what they really want from their country. "Back to the Square" is a wake up call to those who think the revolution in Egypt has ended. It's only the beginning of a long and tedious battle.
El ataba el khadra (1959)
Part of Egyptian Cinema's Golden Age
In this black and white Egyptian classic, Youssef (Ahmad Mazhar) bumps into a beautiful singer Mona (Sabah) and Mabrook (Ismail Yasseen), a simple man from El-Said. Youssef tries to take advantage of the fact that one is seeking fame (Mona) and the other needs to make money.
Youssef meets Mabrook at the police station and notices he possesses a lot of money. He offers to give him a ride to the hotel, where he bumps into Mona, who is crying in the lobby. She has been kicked out from her room for not paying rent and Youssef offers to help her. He gets her a job singing in one of the largest clubs in Cairo. She climbs the ladder of success quickly but her fame causes ructions with the man she loves. In desperation, she finds herself obliged to become Youssef's partner in crime. He is trying to sell Mabrook a square parcel of land, the "Green Ataba", which is owned by the government.
The film is a black and white 1959 delight, combining a unique trio of actors: the handsome Ahmad Mazhar, the diva Sabah and the master of comedy, Ismail Yasseen. The results are often hilarious, with a touch of suspense.
The film is also unpretentious and enjoys a Hollywood ending, where good prevails over evil. The true stars of the film, of course, are Sabah's beautiful dresses, the grace of her movements and her songs, which still resonate to date. No Egyptian classic is complete without the humor of Ismail Yasseen, his exaggerated movements, his simplicity and clumsiness.
This film is not of one of Sabah's most memorable performance, but neatly conveys Egyptian cinema at the time. It clearly portrays Egypt's grandeur and some of the moral questions of the day. The glory of Egypt's golden ages of cinema is witnessed in every frame.
John Carter (2012)
Hollywood's blockbuster machine was stirring into life after a quiet winter. "John Carter" serves as an appetizer for the main banquet of 2012, which includes "The Avengers", "The Amazing Spiderman" and "The Dark Knight Rises". And Disney has spared no expense on its latest 3D epic – giving director Andrew Stanton ("Wall-E", "Finding Nemo") a reported budget of $250 million to play with; creating a brand-new franchise from one of science-fiction oldest properties. Introduced to readers of pulp-fiction literature in 1912, "John Carter" set the template for a whole century's worth of sci-fi cinema. Many of our favorite movies, including "Star Wars" and "Avatar" have borrowed heavily from Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter" novels. So if this new movie feels a little second-hand, you know why.
Our hero John Carter (played by rising star Taylor Kitsch, soon to be seen in "Battleship") is a rebellious confederate soldier from America's Old West. He is quickly established as a fearless hero, constantly escaping capture and outwitting his enemies. Following a thrilling prison-break, Carter stumbles upon an ancient alien star-portal, and is transported to the savage battlefields of Mars and straight into the middle of a civil war. As in "Avatar", Carter's adventure begins when he collides with alien natives – the Tharks (led by a gravel voiced Willem Dafoe, in computerized form), whose civilization is on the brink of destruction by sinister forces. These initial scenes on Mars (or Barsoom as its residents call it) are great fun, with our hero learning how to deal with a change in gravity and attempting to outwit the pursuing Tharks.
After a frosty start, the Tharks realize John Carter is actually quite a good guy to have around – handy with a sword, tasty in a fight, and able to jump great distances without the use of a trampoline. Elsewhere on Mars, two warring tribes – the Zodangans (led by Dominic West) and the Heliumites, led by Ciaran Hinds – battle for supremacy. One thing we must accept when watching a sci-fi or fantasy film is the mandatory use of silly names. There's nothing we can do about that.
As with all great myths, there's also a beautiful Princess for our hero to fall in love with – the intrepid Dejah Toris, played with muscular elegance by Lynn Collins ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine").To make things even more complicated, a shadowy puppet master called Matai Shang (Mark Strong) is generally causing a lot of bother in his attempts to drain the planet of energy.
Are we lost yet? Despite sounding overly complicated, "John Carter" actually cracks along with real pace and energy, and features some exhilarating battle sequences. Unfortunately we have to wait for the really good stuff for almost an hour, while the story is set up, which may lose many younger viewers (and those with short attention spans and busy Blackberries). I was also left slightly underwhelmed by the overall production design, which seemed to borrow "Stargate", "Return of the Jedi" and "Cowboys & Aliens".
My next complaint may not be entirely the fault of the filmmakers. A common gripe of the 3D experience is a noticeable darkness of image, caused by cinemas using projector bulbs that aren't nearly bright enough to compensate for the 3D glasses. This was painfully true for the screening I attended, where often felt I was squinting at the film through a heavy fog.
Despite my reservations, I came away from "John Carter" without the sense of disappointment I felt so strongly with last year's box-office flops "Sucker Punch", and "Green Lantern", all of which represent the filmic equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal.
It's just a pity we've seen it all before, despite "John Carter" being the original tale that gave "Star Wars" and "Avatar" their life-force. There is a lot to enjoy, and if it wasn't for the poor 3D presentation, I think I might have been swept away.
Find the rest of our film and festival coverage, as well as our events and education, at www.DohaFilmInstitute.com, and follow us on Twitter @DohaFilm.
Iron Sky (2012)
Out of This World
Finnish director Vuorensola's science fiction comedy, six years in the making, was crowd funded and sourced online. The results, on the whole, show an occasionally impressive labour of love. While the film's digital effects won't keep the owners of Weta Digital awake at night, Vuorensola's operatic space sequences are choreographed with style, and the film has a creaky charm from beginning to end.
The story has all the makings of a Mel Brooks spoof. In 2018, the Nazis, who have been hiding on the moon since the end of World War II, are discovered by astronauts aboard a US spaceship. Nazi leader Adler, played here by Gotz Otto, decides to bring forward his plan to invade Earth. He sets off to find the mobile phone or MP3 player which will help power the Gotterdammerung, a giant spaceship, into orbit. Along for the ride is Renate (Julia Dietze), a female officer, who is increasingly worried by Adler's violent theology.
"Iron Sky" has some funny set pieces – memorable jokes about North Korea and Adolf Hitler. The film also depicts Sarah Palin as the US President in 2018, which raises a few mild laughs. But these are all one note highlights. What the script really needs is a major injection of humour. In attempting to please everyone who helped fund his film, Vuorensola has overlooked one key ingredient, that comedy should both be cruel and somewhat straight faced. Apart from Otto, few of the actors have natural comic timing. And in the end, while the low budget special effects are sometimes truly impressive, I couldn't help but think what could have been achieved if more time and effort had been spent on the delivery of the punch lines.
Mirror Mirror (2012)
Snow White, Reimagined
Snow White's mother dies at birth and she is raised with love and care by her father, the king (Sean Bean). She is eventually to take charge of the kingdom. The old man is bewitched and has married the evil queen (Julia Roberts) who takes control of the realm after the king has mysteriously disappeared in the woods. The devilish queen's is obsessed with her beauty and plots to get rid of Snow White (Lily Collins) by sending her into exile.
This year is Snow White's come-back with two films being released back to back, "Mirror Mirror" and "Snow White and the Huntsman". Both feature two attractively malevolent queens: the radiant Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron, respectively.
With Tarsem Singh attached to "Mirror Mirror", we know that we are going to see some sort of visual spectacle. The Director of "The Fall" and "The Cell" drags us into scenes with lavish costumes, and the characters are hilarious at times in their big fluffy outfits. We meet a prince in rabbit clothing attending a ball, and a whole zoo of costumes transforms the party into a manifestation of Halloween.
Singh stresses the contrasts of colors, dominating the cinematography by black and white. The trick also works as a metaphor for good and evil as the queen and Snow White battle. Julia Roberts gives a magnificent performance as the queen. She combines beauty, psychosis, wit and charm in equal measure.
The reinvention of the 1937 classic fairytale breaks a lot of stereotypes in selling the image of a beautiful but helpless woman, waiting for the kiss of the prince to save her. This version has several memorable lines – including "Snow Waaaay" and a barking prince. Tarsem has used his own magic to create a refreshing look to the children's classic. Snow White now has an army to take matters into her own hands, and saves the prince on several occasions now that's a first for a female storybook character.
In this reimagining, the dwarfs are actually thieves who fall under the charm of Snow White and make her their leader. She is less of a follower and more of an independent woman. She breaks free from the prison she's been banished to by the evil Queen, and uses her beauty for a cause. A thief herself, her mission is to return tax money to a kingdom drained by poverty.
But what's even more important is that the film manages to talk to the whole family. Children will enjoy it because it keeps to the tradition of fairy tales. And instead of dressing in pink dresses and hair ribbons while dreaming Prince Charming, they'll be jumping around with a sword doing a funky dance.
Find the rest of our film and festival coverage, as well as our events and education at www.DohaFilmInstitute.com. Follow us on Twitter @DohaFilm.
Who Says Shakespeare Isn't Relevant?
Widespread civil unrest. Riots over food prices. Politicians banished. Who says Shakespeare isn't relevant?
Set in Rome (though the film was shot in Belgrade with a distinctly Eastern European look to it) Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut tells the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes), Rome's most prominent general, whose army is fighting fiercely in a war with neighboring state Volsces. With a passion spurred on by his burning hatred for the Volscian military leader, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Caius Martius is a great warrior for his country, but he has nothing but disdain for the poor of Rome who are suffering through famine and hardship. Following an important military victory, his ambitious mother Volumnnia (Vanessa Redgrave) sees an opportunity for her son to stand for Senator, though in order to do so he must act a little more diplomatically towards his own people. He tries, but not being a natural politician he is unable to hold his tongue and explodes into a contemptuous public rant, leading to a popular uprising and his banishment from Rome. Leaving his family behind, Coriolanus teams up with former rival Tullus Aufidius and returns to Rome, but this time as the leader of an invading army.
The decision to retain the original Shakespearean verse provides Fiennes with obstacles that would have challenged an experienced filmmaker, never mind a first time director. As Baz Lurhmann's "Romeo + Juliet" (against which all modern Shakespeare adaptations will be judged, seemingly forever) showed, 17th century dialogue can be extremely effective in a contemporary setting. But Coriolanus is not "Romeo + Juliet": the story is not known by almost everyone the world over, and the dialogue is nowhere near as accessible.
Fiennes' film more than rises to the challenge, and no doubt he has made a better film for keeping the dialogue unchanged. The cast's delivery of the script is, on the whole, superb: Butler has never been better as the fearless Gladiator-esque Aufidius, Ralph Fiennes impresses both behind the camera as well as in front as the hot-tempered, maniacal Coriolanus (a role he has played previously on the stage), and both Jessica Chastain, as the ever concerned wife Virgila, and Brian Cox as the effusive political adviser Menenius, make an impact in smaller roles. Only James Nesbitt, as the manipulative and underhand Sicinius, gives a slightly underwhelming performance.
But there are a few moments in the script where Fiennes simply can't rely on his actors' delivery of the dialogue to clearly convey the plot ('I converse more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning' is just one of the less intelligible lines). In these instances he lets the filmmaking do the storytelling: from grandiose speeches to intimate family scenes the bombastic score, dramatic cinematography, and bold camera-work make that the meaning and direction of every scene clear. This is a director who definitely knows his craft: I was in a cinema full of critics, for most of whom English is not their first language, and heard absolutely no complaints about not understanding the plot.
The final word, however, simply has to go to Vanessa Redgrave. Her portrayal of Volumnia is staggering. As a mother who risks seeing her own son bring down the city that her family has spent hundreds of years building, she brings out her character's pride, conflict and vulnerability with a subtlety and power that has to be seen to be believed. Truly breathtaking.
Find the rest of our film and festival coverage, as well as our events and education, at www.DohaFilmInstitute.com. Follow us on Twitter @DohaFilm.
The Star of the East
Oum Kalthoum, the "The Star of the East" is the most renowned and respected Arab singer to date. Decades after her death, her back catalogue still sells up to a million albums a year.
"Dananeer", set in Iraq during the Abbasid era, is the third film to star Oum Kolthoum. This 1940 picture is based on the true story of a poor Bedouin girl called Dananeer, an extraordinary singer, who makes it to the castle of Harun Al Rashid because of her wonderful voice and exquisite talent. She is the concubine of a minister, Yehya, but the film shows that she also accompanies his son Jaafar.
On her discovery, Dananeer is encouraged to appreciate the arts and music. She is trained by Ishak El Musalli, a famous artist of the time. In the midst of all this, however, the Caliph turns against his adviser Jaafar and executes him, bringing about the end of the powerful family. According to the film, one of the main reasons for the Caliph turning against Jaafar is because of the adviser's growing power in ruling the country.
Dananeer weeps for the man who nourished her talent and changed her life. She is asked to sing for the Caliph after Jaafar's execution and refuses, out of the loyalty to her former master. Her devotion gains the respect of the ruler and brings about her freedom. She becomes a symbol who is praised by poets. Artists are inspired to pay tribute her beauty and the power of her voice.
In "Dananeer", Kalthoum performs eight songs written by Ahmad Rami. During her career, he presented her with nearly 140 songs, composed by Mohamad Al-Qasabgui, Zakariya Ahmed and Riyadh Al-Sonbati. Kolthoum offers some of her best musical performances in this film. The strength and beauty of her voice in "Dananeer" partly inspired Najeeb Mahfouz's Nobel Prize winning novel "Khan Al Khalili" in which he describes her voice as "heavenly".
With this classical masterpiece, we are introduced to the early career of the "The Star of the East". The film also recounts the cultural glory of Baghdad, painted with Kalthoum's soaring voice: "May your blessings endure O Paradise on earth, heaven of security." Find the rest of our film and festival coverage, as well as our events and education at www.DohaFilmInstitute.com. Follow us on Twitter @DohaFilm.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Something that Knits Us All Together
Based on the first part of a trilogy of books with the same name by Suzanne Collins, "The Hunger Games" is set in an unspecified post-apocalyptic and peaceful future. The price of food is rocketing. The citizens of the Capitol, the fortress city of the rich and powerful, annually select, through a lottery, a young boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each of the twelve districts to fight with each other to death. This is done live on television, leaving only one winner. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers instead of her younger sister to lead this fierce battle.
16 year-old Katniss hails from the distinctly poor district 12, and area known for its rich supply of coal. She shows a rebellious streak and is the breadwinner who feeds her mother and younger sister. She has a talent for illegally hunting to sell goods on the black market with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
'The Hunger Game' is introduced in the film as "something that knits us all together" from the creator of this bloody live show. The poorer districts ask for food from the government; their names appear in the lottery. It's a life defined by day-to-day survival.
The two selected protagonists of district 12, Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are moved to the Capitol, where the conglomeration of technology and money are based. Like gladiators, they are treated like stars with big banquets and fancy clothes before they're sent off to their deaths in an outdoor arena.
They meet their drunken trainer and previous winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who introduces them to the manipulative nature of the game. Basically they have to please the audience in order to get more sponsors who will provide them with gifts of food and crucial items when they're out there fighting for their lives.
Katniss understands she's nothing but mere entertainment for the rich living in Capitol. Her bravery in standing up for her sister has already given her more points, but she has to keep it up by employing her talents in order to shift public opinion in her favor while audiences anticipating death.
The film is an analogy of the manipulation of media in our modern times, and how end-users are at the service of darker powers. I was reminded of Noam Chomsky, who has revealed the mass media schemes through the "manufacture of fear" in order to reach control.
Media manipulation is not new to Hollywood, from "Wag the Dog", "1984" and "The Truman Show", all hint in different ways, the power of the media industry in shifting people's opinions towards war. But this is probably the first time this argument has been pitched at a younger generation.
Oscar nominated Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone") has proved once more that she's a formidable presence. The film, on the other hand, sometimes lacks details that would have moved it closer to perfection. There are some irrelevant futuristic costumes, and an under-developed storyline about the father-like daughter relationship between Lenny Kravitz and Katniss. The film is open for analogy with the current uprisings in the Middle East. As the film says, hope is "the only thing stronger than fear".
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The Sacred and the Profane
There are few films that delve into the Japanese art of beautifying the dead. Nonetheless, Yōjirō Takita's 2008 film "Departures (Okuribito)", which took home the best Foreign Language prize at the 2009 Academy Awards, does exactly that.
The film is loosely adapted from Aoki' Simmon's 2002 autobiography, "Coffinman: the Journal of a Buddhist Mortician". Hero Diago (played by former boy band heartthrob Masahiro Motoki) is a down-on-his- luck Tokyo cellist who loses his job when his orchestra disbands.
He returns to his remote hometown with his meek, adoring wife Mika (Riyoki Hurosue) and takes residence in his late mother's house in an effort to reinvent himself. He discovers a newspaper advertisement for what he thinks is a travel agency helping out with "departures", only to learn that the position is for a firm that specializes in departures of a very different kind. A departure from which no traveler returns: death. This fosters his initiation into the subtle art of "encoffinment". The story that follows is a moving portrait of living with death as our protagonist must overcome his revulsion at his new line of work, while confronting some personal demons.
The ensemble is appropriately dramatic. Particularly notable is the leading man as well as his mentor Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who hires him and Yuriko Uemura (Kimiko Yo), a fellow employee at the funeral agency.
"Departures" follows in the path of other distinguished Japanese cinema such as Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and Juzo's "The Funeral". But while "Ikuru" and "The Funeral", focus more on the repercussions of death, "Departures" centers on the ceremony, the rituals of encoffinment and the passing into the afterlife. The film looks at abandonment, both in life and death as a cruel certainty. The film's greatest asset is its shimmering and poignant cinematography. A wind-tossed cherry blossom tree in such a film is inevitable, coming to life in spring to remind the Japanese that life is renewed after winter, only to die quickly after. In appreciating that transience, the Japanese seek to define themselves.
By framing the harshness of death with the gentle treatment of the dead at the hands of Diago, the audience sees how the caring preparation of the body allows it to be softly ushered towards the final stop. This juxtaposition simultaneously confronts the taboo role of a figure who continually faces death, but creates an art form; one which is imbued with kindness and beauty.
Aided by the use of classical music that decorates the soundtrack, Takita juxtaposes the sacred and the profane in a soft, pretty film lined with enough perversity to arrest the viewer. The film's alignment of the sublime and ridiculous is sparing, but enriches the tale.
In 2009, this film beat out the critically acclaimed, "Waltz with Bashir" and "The Class", to win the Best Foreign Film prize at the Oscars. Beneath its pretty, emotional façade lie many layers that touch on the grizzly yet entirely normal nature of mortality. It's all there if you scratch beneath the surface.
El motamarreda (1963)
A Fantastic Piece of Classic Egyptian Cinema
Mahmoud Zulfikar's film is a light-hearted romantic comedy set in Egypt during the early 1960s. The story follows Sawsan Nashaat (played by Lebanese actress and singer Sabah), the daughter of a multi-millionaire owner of a renowned textiles company producing luxury fabrics and dresses.
The opening scene sees Sawsan speeding through Cairo in a sports car towards her father's company, reiterating her extravagant lifestyle – flash cars, parties, and glamorous dresses. Sawsan is the apple of her father's eye – having been born with not so much a silver spoon in her mouth as the whole cutlery set. We soon discover – as a young child – her mother died, cementing her closeness to a father who dotes on and spoils his daughter. Employed at her father's business is a talented painter called Samy (Ahmed Mazhar), who creates all the fabric prints. A frustrated artist – he yearns for his work to be exhibited for all the public to see. As he dwells over his disappointing career a colleague offers him counsel. He's told while paintings only hang ignored on the "walls inside houses" his designs decorate "the bodies of millions of women." Samy is unable to pursue his ambitions because he must care for his poorly, bed-ridden mother who he lives with and cares for.
Sawsan admires Samy's work and meets him in his studio where he falls hopelessly, helplessly, hilariously in love with her at first sight. We later discover his home is festooned with paintings of Sawsan – the object of his unrequited affections – in shrine-like devotion. A clever inclusion by the director, implying Sawsan lives in a world of fantasy more akin to the paintings she's rendered in: pretty, vacuous and superficial. In one painting Sawsan is depicted Cleopatra-like as a pharaoh queen: an apt portrayal of the heiress: imperious, demanding and utterly self-involved. She takes no notice of her love-sick admirer belittling him as an instrument to indulge her every whim and fancy.
Fittingly – for a woman immersed in glossy facades – she meets and falls in love with a famous theatre star Kamel. They become romantically involved in a farcical relationship but he is merely using her for the substantial fortune she stands to inherit. He cunningly plots to marry and promptly divorce her within three months. Kamel intends to pursue his own projects with this money. Sawsan's world is thrown into chaos when her father dies unexpectedly leaving her a recorded message. His dying wish is that she finds happiness in a husband that loves and cares for her as he would. Sawson continues to be involved with Kamel and seeks to test his affections, flattered by the jealousy of a chivalrous lover. To trick Kamel and fire his protectiveness, she tries to pay Samy to pose as her paramour over a hoax dinner in front of Kamel. Samy refuses and is hurt by her disregard of his feelings. But can Sawsan purchase his pride or is destiny aligning their stars for a different fate? Like much Egyptian cinema of this period, the film has aged surprisingly well, with many comic moments typical of its era. The 1950s and 1960s introduced a new wave of Western-educated Egyptian filmmakers who combined Western technical sheen with classic Arab storytelling. Meticulously directed and styled, the cast are immaculately costumed and the cinematography is executed with flair in a film sure to please everyone.