Miral


When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you're in trouble.

When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you’re in trouble.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Omar Metwally, Vanessa Redgrave, Willem Dafoe, Makram Khoury, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Al Massri, Rana Al Qawasmi, Ruba Blal, Stella Schnabel, Donald Liddawi, Shredi Jabarin, Dov Navon, Liron Levo, Yolanda El Karam, Rozeen Bisharat, Iman Aoun, Lana Zreik. Directed by Julian Schnabel

Woman Power

The West Bank conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on virtually since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. There seems to be no end to that fight and even today no compromise between the two seems within reach.

Shortly after Israel became a nation in 1948, Hind al-Husseini (Abbass) finds a group of 55 children, orphaned by the fighting, sitting in the street with nowhere to go. She takes them in, founding an orphanage and school that came to be called the Dar Al-Tifel Institute. Quickly, 55 refugee children grew to over 2,000.

Nadia (Al Massri) is a woman who has suffered brutal sexual abuse, eventually running away from home. She is eventually sent to prison for slapping an Israeli woman who called her a harlot and shares a cell with Fatima (Blal), a former nurse who set a pipe bomb in a crowded theater. The two women grow close and Fatima sets Nadia up with her brother Jamal (Siddig), a kind man who doesn’t hold with his sister’s terrorist beliefs. Nadia eventually gives birth to a daughter named Miral, named for a desert flower common in Palestine.

As a young girl (El Karam), Miral is sent to the Dar Al-Tifel Institute to study under Hind who sees something special in Miral. Hind preaches that education is the way to eventual peace and at first, Miral is inclined to agree with a woman she has grown to admire very much. However, as Miral (Pinto) grows into a young woman and sees that outside the walls of the Institute the Israelis are treating her people so poorly, she begins to have doubts. And when she is sent to teach children in a refugee camp, she falls in with Hani (Metwally), a young man part of a terrorist organization, her point of view begins to radicalize.

Schnabel who is an American of Jewish descent has received a good deal of critical adoration for his film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Here, he continues to apply his artistic sensibilities (Schnabel is also a noted painter) to the silver screen although here with mixed degrees of success. He and his cinematographer Eric Gautier pull forth some really beautiful images, but in order to make some of them more compelling there are a lot of over-exposed shots as well as extreme close-ups or oblique camera angles that make the image unidentifiable until the camera pulls back or changes angle. That’s okay as an occasional trick but it happens a bit too often for my taste.

He also employs the hand-held camera a bit too much. Shaky-cam as it’s popularly known can lend a sense of immediacy to a movie, giving the viewer the perspective of being amidst the action but too much of it can be vertigo-inducing. It’s like driving a dirt road for too long in a car with bad suspension.

Pinto, best known for her work in Slumdog Millionaire captures the essence of the Miral of the novel that the movie is based on. While some have criticized her casting (she is from India rather than Palestine and speaks with a pronounced accent), I find that kind of criticism invalid. Either she’s right for the part or she isn’t, and she clearly is.

Most of the first third of the film belongs to Abbass who is simply put one of the greatest actresses on the planet, although she is largely unknown in the United States because she works mostly in the Middle East. She plays Hind with compassion and gravitas, but always with a life that shines through. She swamps most of the actors here and there are some pretty darn good ones, like Siddig who in his post Deep Space Nine career has turned into a fine actor and is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film.

The middle third is Nadia’s and Al Massri captures her fragile nature nicely. She’s a woman whose life is pervaded by the terrible things that have happened to her and she can’t escape her demons, ultimately succumbing to them. She is a tragic figure who is a sympathetic one in the pages of the book but here we have a harder time sympathizing with her.

The story is told with lots of flashbacks and with seemingly random events that are without initial context until something in the film gives them that. It can be very confusing to the casual viewer and requires a great deal of focus to really follow it – reading the book beforehand was helpful to me, I have to say. I do like that Schnabel takes the Palestinian view which is so rarely seen in the United States, although that is changing as there have been more films shown from the Palestinian viewpoint as of late although mostly from independent distributors. I also found it unnecessary to make all the Israeli characters but one essentially monsters. You can show the Palestinian point of view without reducing it to a cartoon of good guys versus bad guys.

This is a movie about women coping with an impossible situation; two are strong, one damaged and all of them come out changed. While this received little critical love when it came out and was essentially given little support by the studio when it came out in limited release, it’s still a compelling film to watch if you have the patience to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully filmed.  Abbass is a force of nature. Unusual for Hollywood, presents Palestinian viewpoint.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit chaotic and occasionally confusing. Too much shaky-cam and image modification.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a sexual assault as well as some other violence and adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Journalist Rula Jebreal who wrote the screenplay based on her semi-autobiographical novel was dating Schnabel at the time (the director, not the actress).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a post-screening Q&A with Julian Schnabel as well as a tour of his production office.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900,647 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Woman Power concludes!

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Vertical Limit


If you're just going to hang around, I'm gonna leave.

If you’re just going to hang around, I’m gonna leave.

(2000) Action (Columbia) Chris O’Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn, Stuart Wilson, Temuera Morrison, Alexander Siddig, Izabella Scorupco, Ben Mendelsohn, David Hayman, Augie Davis, Roshan Seth, Nicholas Lea, Alejandro Valdes-Rochin, Rod Brown, Robert Taylor, Steve Le Marquand, Robert Mammone. Directed by Martin Campbell

Those who climb mountains are a different sort of breed. They risk life and limb, push themselves farther than even they themselves think they can go, for a reward of standing someplace few humans can visit.

For most of us, the mountain peaks of the Himalayas are farther away than the moon; someday, we may be able to take a shuttle to the moon. No matter what future, it will always take a special sort of human being to scale those heights.

Peter, Annie and Boyce Garrett are such human beings. Dedicated climbers, they push themselves up the highest peaks and they do it with joy. However, tragedy intervenes when Peter (O’Donnell) is forced to make an awful decision, one he must revisit later in the movie.

The results of this drive a rift between him and Annie (Tunney). Peter becomes a National Geographic nature photographer, whereas Annie continues climbing, becoming one of the world’s best. She signs onto an expedition funded by billionaire adventurer Elliot Vaughn (Paxton) to scale K2, one of the most fearsome, lethal peaks in existence.

Vaughn had been part of an ill-fated expedition that was caught by the weather just short of the summit, resulting in the loss of the entire team except for him. Vaughn wants to find his personal redemption on the peak, which is never a good thing when going up against K2.

Despite the warnings of veteran climber Montgomery Wick (Glenn), the well-outfitted team ascends and Vaughn promptly shows his true colors, making decisions based on ego and ignoring the expertise of his climbers. Caught by a storm and avalanche, three of his team members (including Annie) are buried in a crevasse.

Peter frantically mounts a rescue mission along with Wick (who has his own reasons for going along) and, among others, Monique (ex-Bond girl Scorupco) who’s in it for the money, Kareem (Siddig) who’s in it to save his cousin, and brothers Cyril (Le Marquand) and Malcolm Beach (Mendelsohn) who are in it as comedy relief.

They are in a race against time, as the survivors will suffer from fatal pulmonary edema (due to the altitude) if not pulled off the mountain in time. Did I forget to mention they are carting unstable nitro bombs to help dig the survivors out? Spectacular stunts and explosions to follow.

The stunts are spectacular, with a helicopter sequence having both Da Queen and I frozen to our seats.  Campbell (Goldeneye) keeps the pacing murderous, as the climbers go from peril to peril. Trying to keep the story as realistic as possible, the filmmakers used a lot of expertise from real climbers to give audiences a sense of being up there (some of the scenes were filmed at the actual K2 base camp).

The problem here is believability. There are a number of rather sizable holes I couldn’t really reconcile. The biggest one is this; after a perilous climb to reach the dying survivors that takes everything the rescue party has and then some, how are they supposed to cart down the crevasse-dwellers who are too sick to even move a leg out of the way of a rock outcropping? Don’t ask me It’s just Hollywood, right? Also, there are too many close calls. It’s almost rote that people wind up dangling in mortal danger of a rather long plummet only to be saved as they slip off the mountain, either by their sheer willpower, or by the intervention of another climber thought to be too far away to be of help. It gets old after a while, guys.

Nonetheless, this is exquisite eye candy, beautifully filmed. If there was an Oscar for best stunt performances (and by golly there should be), Vertical Limit would be a major contendah. As it is, it is disposable entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous vistas of mountain peaks. Some pretty spectacular stunts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly repetitive. Too many holes in logic and too many occasions when believability is stretched beyond the breaking point.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of intense peril as well as occasional bits of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The backdrop for the mountains was Mt. Cook in New Zealand standing in for K2 in Pakistan; this would mark the first time that director Kiwi-born Martin Campbell has filmed in his native country.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: While most behind-the-scenes featurettes are normally little more than puff pieces put together by the publicity department, the one here is actually fascinating, detailing the kind of training the actors went through and the challenges – often potentially life-threatening – the cast and crew faced in making the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.7M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cliffhanger

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: 47 Ronin

Cairo Time


Cairo Time

Love; as timeless as the pyramids.

(2009) Romance (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus, Amina Annabi, Andrew Cullen, Mona Hala, Fadia Nadda. Directed by Ruba Nadda

The allure of a foreign city, particularly one whose culture is very different from our own, beckons to many of us in an insistent way. Who hasn’t daydreamed of being adrift in an exotic city, swept away by romance?

Juliette (Clarkson) is a fashion magazine editor who arrives in Cairo expecting to meet her husband, a U.N. worker. Unfortunately, he’s been detained by trouble on the Gaza Strip and sends his friend Tariq (Siddig) to fetch her at the airport and look after her while he’s away.

Tariq does show Juliette around, although not to the pyramids which she is saving for Mark (McCamus), her husband. However she is made aware of the sweet intoxication that is Cairo – sunset boat rides on the Nile, shopping in open air bazaars, dancing at Egyptian weddings, playing chess in a coffee house – mostly with Tariq at her side.

As the day pile up and Mark is still a no-show, Juliette’s loneliness becomes palpable and she is drawn by the handsome and elegant Tariq. She becomes enamored of the music of Umm Kulthum which she runs into in several places in Cairo. This all leads her to the realization that she is attracted to a man who isn’t her husband. Is it her loneliness that drives her, or is it simply Cairo, seducing Juliette with its romance and charm?

At the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, this film won the award for Best Canadian Film at the event, which may surprise given its setting in Egypt. Director Ruba Nadda visited Cairo as a young girl and the impressions were indelible; she was moved to make this film years later, and it’s certainly very kind to the Egyptian capital. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier delivers breathtaking images of the capital with the Pyramids towering majestically in the distance, as well as intimate shots of crowded Cairo streets. I’m sure the Cairo Tourist Board has the warm fuzzies for this film.

Nadda’s smartest move was casting Clarkson and Siddig. Clarkson is an actress who often gets overlooked when the discussion of great actresses of our generation is underway, but she is certainly that. She is expressive without saying a word, relying on her face and her eyes to get across information pages of dialogue never could.

She plays Juliette with the courtliness and elegance of a Southern belle, minus the accent. One would say the performance is mannered, but Juliette is like many refined women of my age and older – possessed of an inner grace and charm that comes from manners and wisdom. Yet, she is lonely, the long hours separated from her husband taking their toll. Her children are grown, her job consumes her and she can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more to life.

Into this mix comes Tariq and Siddig is perfectly cast in the role. Handsome and elegant, he carries himself with the exotic romantic charm of Omar Sharif mixed with the honesty and directness of Gregory Peck. As you can tell by my comparisons, this is an old school performance of the highest order. The two make a wonderful couple, dancing around a growing attraction that to Nadda’s credit doesn’t happen suddenly, but subtly over a period of time. It grows organically and becomes realistic in that sense.

However, the plot is paper-thin and there isn’t much substance here. This is a romance novel on film in many ways, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, the pacing is so languid and the mood so gentle that the movie seems to lack passion, which I’m a bit ambivalent about. On the one hand, I think it works better that Juliette and Tariq are not leaping into bed and exchanging smoldering looks; on the other hand, the movie doesn’t affect you as strongly because of it. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but I think in the long run Nadda made the right choice; there are plenty of movies out there with all the passion you could want.

I loved the charm of this movie and the beauty of its cinematography. It’s all the more poignant now, given events in Cairo going on as this is being published. I’m not sure the Cairo of this movie will exist once events are played out but something tells me that it will; a city that has seen the rise and fall of Pharaohs, the coming and going of the British will be around long after all of us are gone. But even if Cairo is inevitably changed, a fleeting moment of its allure is captured here for all time.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautiful Egyptian vistas capture the romance of Cairo but also the traffic and noise of a major metropolis. Clarkson elevates every movie she does.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a film as wispy as gossamer with little substance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are elements of marital infidelity and some smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Siddig is playing an Egyptian, he is actually from the Sudan, born of an English mother. He is best known as Dr. Julian Bashir on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four short films by director Ruba Nadda, as well as a Q&A session from the film’s screening at the Toronto Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably broke even or thereabouts.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Black Swan

The Last Legion


The Last Legion

"This island of Capri - I can't imagine anyone else ever wanting to visit. Why are you looking at me that way?"

(2007) Swords and Sandals Action/Adventure (Weinstein) Sir Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth, Aishwarya Rai, Thomas Sangster, John Hannah, Alexander Siddig, Peter Mullan, Kevin McKidd, Iain Glen, Rupert Friend, Nonso Anozie, Owen Teale, Harry van Gorkum, Robert Pugh. Directed by Doug Lefler.

With the success of Gladiator and 300, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing more sword-and-sandal epics coming our way. Stacked up against the two movies previously mentioned, The Last Legion doesn’t really belong in that kind of company. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be relegated to the avoid-at-all-costs list.

Romulus (Sangster) is a young boy, the son of the last female descendent of Julius Caesar. His male relatives have ascended to the throne of Rome left and right and have been assassinated. Rome is beset from without by angry Goths, led by Odoacer (Mullan), who has been denied what he believed was his rightful due as defender of the Empire by Orestes (Glen), Romulus’ arrogant father and regent, and from within by greedy, weak-willed Romans.

Orestes gets one of his finest generals, Aurelius (Firth) to be the boy’s bodyguard. Aurelius is less than thrilled about the assignment, but has sworn an oath to defend the boy to his last breath – Aurelius, not the boy’s. Orestes also sends Romulus’ tutor Ambrosinus (Kingsley) packing for having the temerity to encourage the boy to think for himself. That’s simply not what emperors of the known world do.

On the night of his coronation, Rome is sacked by the Goths. Odoacer’s hyperactive second-in-command, Wulfila (McKidd) kills Romulus’ parents and captures the boy. He’s all for killing the last Caesar, but Ambrosinus shows up at the last moment and persuades Odoacer to keep the boy captive – on the isle of Capri. Tough gig.

Aurelius, with boyhood friend Nestor (Hannah) and Theodorus (Siddig), the ambassador of the Eastern Empire, plot to get the kid back. Only a few of Aurelius’ men survived the Goth attack, so Theodorus sends his best warrior to assist. The best warrior turns out to be a woman named Mira (Rai). Together, she and Aurelius rescue the boy and Ambrosinus only to discover that the boy has found ex caliburnus, the fabled sword of Julius Caesar. However, things have changed when they get back to Italy and it looks like Romulus is going to need an army just to survive in this hostile world. There is a legion that has not yet switched allegiance to Odoacer; the fabled Ninth, also known as the Dragon Legion. They, however, are all the way in Britannia, a long journey. Wulfila, having been maimed in the rescue of Romulus, is also hot on the chase and breathing fire of his own.

When you read the plot on paper, it sounds terribly cheesy and in many ways, it is. In all honesty, if you go in and try not to think about historical accuracy too much and accept this as a bit of a fantasy grounded in a few facts, it’s actually not a bad piece of entertainment. Much of the story will seem a bit familiar, and there are clichés up the yin yang but the story was entertaining enough to keep my interest, and the performances solid enough to not strain the bounds of credibility. Kingsley looks a bit like a hippie in his outfit here, but Firth makes a terrific Roman. Rai, one of the most beautiful women on Earth and one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, is pretty hot as a warrior and shows some skills with a sword. Director Lefler cut his teeth on the “Hercules” and “Xena” TV shows so he knows what he’s about in this genre.

In all honesty, I was surprised. Considering that the movie got almost zero publicity during its theatrical release and had its release date pushed back several times – usually the sign of a bad movie – it’s a pretty entertaining. Don’t kid yourself – The Last Legion didn’t make anybody’s top ten lists, but you won’t leave the couch feeling disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Entertainment value. Lots of swordplay. Colin Firth. Aishwarya Rai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Script riddled with clichés. Takes a few liberties with history. Cheap CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle sequences and swordfights, but nothing gruesome. Overall, I’d say this is suitable for the entire family despite the PG-13 rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Doug Lefler used Thomas Sangster’s entire family as extras at various points in the film.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.3M on an unreported  budget. I’m guessing the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bangkok Dangerous

Clash of the Titans (2010)


Clash of the Titans

Liam Neeson is all aglow as he releases the Kraken.

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Mads Mikkelsen, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas Hoult, Polly Walker, Elizabeth McGovern, Alexander Siddig, Danny Huston, Vincent Regan. Directed by Louis Leterrier

One should be grateful to those who gave us life, but if those who gave us life are then cruel and capricious towards us, should we not then rise against them?

Spyros (Postlethwaite) is a simple fisherman, his ship drifting in a storm when he comes across a coffin-like box. When he opens it, he finds a beautiful woman, dead and an infant, alive. He decides to raise the boy as his own with his wife Marmara (McGovern). The boy grows up to be a handsome, strong man named Perseus (Worthington). Perseus loves his parents, but still understandably has questions about who he is and who he is meant to be.

However, all is not perfect. The Gods of Ancient Greece, led by brothers Zeus (Neeson), the King of the Gods, Poseidon (Huston) the God of the Sea and Hades (Fiennes), the Lord of the Underworld, had overthrown their parents the Titans mostly due to Hades creating the Kraken, a fearsome beast, from his own flesh. Zeus created men to worship and love the Gods who are in turn made powerful and immortal by the prayers of men. Hades, tricked by Zeus, lives on the fear of men.

However, men are chafing at the often capricious and cruel behavior of the Gods. Kepheus (Regan), the King of Argos, has declared war on the Gods at the urging of his wife, Queen Cassiopeia (Walker). His troops pull down a gigantic statue of Zeus, which earns the notice and wrath of Hades, who wipes out most of the troops at the statue. Unfortunately, Hades notices Spyros’ ship floating by and in a moment of pique sinks it with all aboard drowning. All aboard, that is, save Perseus.

The survivors of Kepheus’ army pull Perseus from the water and take him back to Argos, where Kepheus is declaring victory. Draco (Mikkelsen), Kepheus’ general, is less sanguine about the loss of most of his men but in the midst of Cassiopeia’s boasting that they, the royalty of Argos, are the new gods and their daughter Andromeda (Davalos) is more beautiful than Aphrodite herself, Hades appears. He ages Cassiopeia to death and warns the assemblage that Argos will be destroyed ten days hence during an eclipse unless they sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken.

He also identifies Perseus as the son of Zeus. Perseus doesn’t believe it at first but Io (Arterton), a demigod herself, confirms it, telling him that he is the son of Zeus and the wife of King Acrisius (Flemyng), who also rebelled against the Gods. Driven mad by the despoiling of his wife, Acrisius orders the newborn and his mother thrown into the sea but Zeus disfigured Acrisius and sent Spyros’ ship to rescue Perseus.

Only the Stygian Witches have the knowledge to destroy the Kraken but only a demigod would have the strength and endurance to make the journey there and back in time to save Argos and Andromeda in particular. Draco and a few good men, including Eusebios (Hoult) and Io – okay, a few good men and a woman – accompany Perseus. Hades, aware of Perseus, enlists Acrisius (who now goes by the name of Calibos) to stop him, infusing the mad disfigured King with his essence.

Perseus is given a gift of a sword by the Gods, but he refuses, saying he wants to accomplish these feats as a man, not a God. Draco puts the sword in his pack, hoping Perseus will come to his senses. They then encounter Calibos, wounding him in the process but giant scorpions spring from his blood.

They make it to the Witches’ lair, but they inform Perseus that in order to destroy the Kraken they must get the head of Medusa (Natalia Vodianova) whose gaze turns any living flesh to stone, including that of a God. However to get to Medusa they must first cross into the Underworld and nobody has ever emerged from Medusa’s lair alive.

This is a remake of the 1981 film reviewed in this blog yesterday, and it is faithful only in that there is a Perseus and a Kraken in it (there is also a mechanical owl, Bubo, from the first film, a cameo only but done in a clever way as a nod to fans from the original). Director Louis Leterrier has amped up the special effects and made it far less comedic. This is strictly action and eye candy and both are of the highest order.

Sam Worthington is turning into a fine leading man. He carries the movie effectively, continuing his run of successful roles in Terminator Salvation and Avatar. He makes a more muscular and military Perseus than Harry Hamlin did in the original, Hamlin being a bit of a pretty boy. Worthington’s Perseus is less starry-eyed and more stubborn than the 1981 incarnation.

The special effects are what are worth the price of admission. The monsters are nightmare-inducing and all look realistic. Particularly in the case of the Medusa and the scorpions it was hard to tell that it was all CGI. Considering this is an action movie, there are some pretty fine performances, particularly from Mikkelsen and Postlethwaite.

This is solid, fun popcorn entertainment. It isn’t brain surgery and it isn’t rocket science but it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination to make a movie with the kind of intricate effects this one has. Director Leterrier, fresh off The Incredible Hulk, is proving to be a serious talent in that department. While there’s a little more cheese in the dish than I usually like, it is nonetheless all a lot of fun for the entire family except for those who are easily given to nightmares by the very realistic-looking monsters.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects and Worthington proves himself a solid leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Although in many ways a more serious film than the original, it still has a certain amount of cheese in the recipe.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of fantasy violence and some horrifically gory scenes but it is the monsters that make this not for small children or those given to nightmares. Fine for teens, though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Harryhausen, co-producer and special effects designer of the original film, was invited to participate in this one but declined, citing that he had retired in 1981 and intended to stay that way.

HOME OR THEATER: Theater definitely, preferably with a big tub of popcorn in your lap.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: How to Train Your Dragon