He Named Me Malala


Malala Yousafzai reflective.

Malala Yousafzai reflective.

(2015) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai, Mobin Khan. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Heroes are few and far-between in this age of self-centered me-first consumerism. We’re all so wrapped up in getting more likes on our posts, or having more YouTube followers that we lose track of the important things. These are First World problems admittedly, but when you think of the struggles of millions of young woman who are being prevented from receiving an education, our problems pale in significance.

Malala Yousafzai was named for Malalai of Pashtu, a folk hero who in 1880 at the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War rallied fleeing Afghan troops back onto the battlefield and towards eventual victory at the cost of her own life. She was 17 (or in some accounts 18) years old when she died. Some relatives urged her father to change her name because it augured an early death for the child but Ziauddin was resolute.

As most people are aware, the then-14 year old Pakistani girl spoke out against the Taliban’s edict preventing any female from attending any school in the Swat Valley. She felt this to be unfair and ridiculous but on October 9, 2013 she was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman. Her condition was so severe that she was flown to England for medical treatment on a specially outfitted Saudi jet.

She eventually recovered from her wounds but was disfigured slightly and has issues moving certain muscles in her face, leaving her with a somewhat crooked smile which is actually quite endearing. And she has lost none of her fire or passion as she continues to crusade for the rights of young girls to be educated, from Nigeria to the Middle East and beyond.

Along the way she meets with dignitaries (like President Obama), cultural icons (like Bono of U2) and media stars (like Jon Stewart). Her message never flags and her voice never wavers. She is committed to her cause which in itself is a minor miracle; how many teens do you know that are committed to anything?

&And she is very much a teenage girl, giggling and blushing as she views pictures of Roger Federer and Brad Pitt online, bantering with her brothers and trying to continue to do well with her studies. Ziauddin moved the entire family to England as it was no longer safe for them in Swat Valley as the Taliban has affirmed that they will kill her Malala the moment she sets foot there. What big strong men these are to threaten a teenage girl. They are ideologically bankrupt.

Ideology is important in the story of Malala; when asked if he would like to see the man responsible for shooting his daughter brought to justice, Ziauddin says no. “It wasn’t a man that shot Malala, it was an ideology.” Powerful words indeed, cloaked in truth as they are.

Guggenheim, auteur of An Uncomfortable Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman,’ gets access to the Yousafzai in England and his sequences of Malala at home and relaxed are the best in the movie. The more we see her as a person and the less we see her as an icon, the more powerful her message becomes.

But it’s hard not to see her as an icon, because her courage is so extraordinary and her voice so powerful and clear. If Guggenheim is guilty of hero worship – and he is – it is understandable. The girl’s natural force is like a tsunami hitting the shore but instead of causing damage it is sweeping away intolerance.

Guggenheim uses pastel animations to show the stories of both Malala and her namesake (although there is film footage available – and it is used – much of her young life was not documented and so cracks need to be filled) which can be intrusive at times because they are so stylized, but the animation itself is beautiful. The use of animation in documentaries is rapidly becoming a cliche and great care should be taken in its use for at least awhile.

We do see very little of Malala’s mother and that is on purpose. She is a rather shy and retiring woman, having not received the education that Malala and her father value. Instead, she is more of a traditional Pakistani wife and mother and prefers not to labor under the intense glare of the international spotlight that her daughter must now embrace. It is in no way denigrating her or her values, nor women in general as some ignorant critics have suggested; it is simply that some people don’t want to become famous.

This is one of those movies where the story trumps the technique. Malala Yousafzai is a profile in courage and is worthy of all the praise my inadequate talents can heap upon her, but this documentary is a little bit too by-the-book and too surface-oriented to really be truly remarkable. It’s serviceable and tells you the basic about Malala, who she is and what she has to say. You will come away admiring her but no more than you would from reading her Wikipedia entry and that’s the tragedy of this movie – if it had been half as compelling as its subject, this would have been a powerful experience indeed.

REASONS TO GO: The relationship between Malala and Ziauddin is touching. Her story is one that everyone should know.
REASONS TO STAY: Guilty of a little bit of hero-worship (and so am I).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and some thematic material that might be upsetting to young children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malala is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared it with Indian child rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi in 2014).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gandhi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Winter on Fire

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X2


Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu, Katie Stuart, Kea Wong, Cotter Smith, Chiara Zanni, Daniel Cudmore, Peter Wingfield, Shauna Cain. Directed by Bryan Singer

As I write, moonlight shines down blue as sapphires through my open window. I can see a four-leaf clover clearly in the grass of my front lawn. If a haystack were at hand, I could unerringly find the needle hidden therein. Actually, none of those things are happening, but it feels as if they could. After all, I’ve just witnessed the extremely improbable: a sequel better than the original. Hard to believe, but true.

When last we left the X-Men (in 2000), their greatest foe, Magneto (McKellan) was confined to a plastic prison, unable to use his powers to escape. Rogue (Paquin) was back among the students at Xavier School, sporting a cool white streak in her hair after her ordeal on Liberty Island. Wolverine (Jackman) was leaving for Alkali Lake, a facility in Canada where some clues to his past might be found. To get there, he liberated a motorcycle belonging to Cyclops (Marsden). And Senator Kelly (Davison) had come out against the mutant registration bill he had sponsored. Of course, we know that the good senator was really Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), but that’s just our little secret.

As this sequel opens, the White House is under attack from a single mutant; a blue-skinned, acrobatic guy with a long tail and the ability to teleport. He takes on the Secret Service and dispatches agents with nearly no trouble, threatens the President (Smith) with a knife before teleporting out of the Oval Office, leaving the commander-in-chief more susceptible to his Mutant Affairs advisor, Colonel. Styker’s (Cox) suggestion that he raid the Xavier School, which he described as a training facility for mutants. Of course, it sounded much more sinister when he said it.

About this time, Wolverine returned home to Xavier’s School, having found nothing but rubble and deserted buildings at Alkali Lake. The attack on the president, obviously carried out by a mutant, troubles Professor Xavier (Stewart). He decides to send two of his most capable X-Men, Storm (Berry) and Jean Grey (Janssen) to retrieve the President’s attacker. Professor X uses his neato-keeno computer Cerebro, through which he is able to connect with every living person on the planet, to find the blue teleporter. Professor X also decides to pay his old pal Magneto a visit, taking Cyclops with him.

While visiting Magneto, Professor X finds out something horrible; the secret of his school has been compromised by Magneto. Not willingly; Magneto would never betray his own kind to humans. Using an acid-like substance applied to the back of the mutant’s neck, Col. Stryker was able to control the powerful Magneto just enough to get him to reveal the information Stryker wanted; the exact location of Cerebro. Too late, Professor Xavier realizes he is caught in a trap and both he and Cyclops are gassed into unconsciousness.

At the same time, Storm and Jean Grey have found the mutant responsible for the attack on the White House, a pious German named Kurt Wagner, or as he was known in the Berlin Circus, Night Crawler (Cumming). Rather than being a dangerous villain, he’s actually rather sweet and endearing. Puzzled, Storm and Jean arrange to transport the German back to the Xavier School. It’s about here they lose contact with everybody.

Of course, things are not going too well at the School. Under attack from deadly commandos who menace shrieking children with what looks like Tasers, the soldiers find the mutant children to be a little harder to capture than they may have thought. Some, like Kitty Pryde (Stuart) are able to literally walk through walls to escape. Some, like Colossus (Cudmore) grow an impenetrable metal armor on their skin. Others, like Bobby Drake (Ashmore) can create walls of ice. And Wolverine? Well, he just kicks ass.

Wolverine escapes with Rogue, Bobby Drake, and a kid with attitude named Pyro (Stanford) who can manipulate fire. They go to Boston, where Storm and Jean Grey are and where Bobby Drake’s family lives. It leads to an awkward confrontation with Bobby’s parents, leading to one of the best lines of the movie; “Have you tried NOT being a mutant?” whines Bobby’s rather dense mother. Unfortunately, before any kind of understanding is reached, Bobby’s brother calls the police, which leads to a great deal of destruction and injury, most caused by Pyro. Things threaten to get WAY out of hand before Storm and Jean Grey arrive to whisk Wolverine and the kids away.

Now we find out what the reason for all this is. Col. Stryker doesn’t just fear mutants. He doesn’t just hate mutants. He wants to kill all of them. Permanently. And, using a second generation of Cerebro based on the components he’s stolen from the school, he has the means to do it in Professor Charles Xavier. Of course, the X-Men have no choice but to rescue their mentor, stop the genocide and save the day. And they have acquired a most unlikely ally: Magneto, who has escaped from prison in a rather clever (but gruesome) way. And, Mystique.

This uneasy alliance leaves you wondering about Magneto’s own agenda, which manifests itself in a spectacular way. The inevitable rescue attempt will lead to a surprise outcome in which one of the X-Men will defect to Magneto, and another will face the ultimate challenge. And when did this start sounding like a comic book?

The special effects are far more extensive here than in the first movie, and utilized more effectively. The fight scenes between Nightcrawler and the Secret Service, Wolferine and Lady Deathstrike (Hu) and Pyro and the Boston Police are done well, marrying expert fight choreography with special effects that bring to life the powers of the comic book heroes. Visually, the movie never lets up.

The X-Universe that Marvel Comics has created has a rich tapestry of characters from which to draw; many standbys, such as Gambit, Beast and Angel, have only been glimpsed so far in the movies.

What really sets X2 apart from its predecessor is the depth that is given to the characters. Jean Grey faces, in one of the movie’s better subplots, the increase of her own powers beyond her own abilities to handle them. Stryker is evil, but not in a cartoon-like manner. His hate is the man’s driving force, his fear the engine that powers his hate. His fear of mutants has hit his home in an impactful way, and drives him to exploit even those closest to him to meet his genocidal objectives.

Storm has always been one of the more enigmatic figures in the comic; she is aloof, distant and cold, but also loyal and fiercely determined. Berry plays her with all her vulnerabilities intact, quite a juxtaposition for a character able to create dozens of tornadoes with a thought.

That is, perhaps, why we relate to the X-Men so well; they are powerful, yet completely human, with all the vulnerability and frailty that implies. Even Magneto, the arrogant master of magnetism, is not all-powerful. Hugh Jackman captures Wolverine’s essence: feral and utterly devoid of conscience when fighting, but tormented by a past he cannot remember, held hostage to questions he can’t answer. Some of his questions are answered during the course of X2 but of course not all of them and several new ones arise in the process.

Wolverine’s defense of the Xavier School is one of the most vicious fight scenes ever filmed in a superhero movie and while it got cheers from the audience, it also left me a bit unsettled. There is something about stabbing a soldier with diamond-hard, razor-sharp claws that is more violent than beating him into unconsciousness with closed fists, or shooting him with a rifle. It made me wonder how far one can stretch the concept of “good guy” when the good guy is stabbing people. It’s all psychology; stabbing is a far more personal act than shooting someone. Dead is dead either way, but in our culture, heroes don’t stab.

Cumming portrays Nightcrawler as a tormented, but gentle soul whose faith is the rock that he clings to, even when his faith is sorely tested. He’s almost puppy dog eager to please his new friends so when the rubber hits the road he is there for them at great personal risk to himself. Cumming makes excellent use of his screen time, making his character one that you want to see more of.

Keep an eye out for Colossus, as well. The audience really reacted to his limited onscreen time; you can bet the filmmakers are taking notice of this for a future movie in the series although to this point that hasn’t happened yet.

The true test of a movie can be broken down to a single old saw: did the audience leave wanting more? X2 has got it all; eye candy, subtle undercurrents to which most of us can relate, characters who are not cartoons (another irony, given that this is based on comic books), big explosions, terrific fight scenes, everything for the summer movie Neanderthal in all of us. X2 is a perfect popcorn escape.

WHY RENT THIS: All the action you an ask for. Character depth and sophisticated story. Perfect summer popcorn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Still gives short shrift to some of the characters.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of comic book violence, a bit of sensuality and brief rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Entered the Guinness Book of World Records on its opening day by getting the most number of screens for a single movie on its opening day ever.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The special edition DVD release included a feature on Nightcrawler and rehearsal footage of the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike as well as a web-based Q&A session from the film’s release date. The Blu-Ray adds a history of the comic book X-Men as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $407.7M on a $110M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Wind Rises

Unknown


Unknown

Diane Krueger has the unpleasant task of informing Liam Neeson that the grunge look is dead.

(2011) Suspense (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Krueger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Lobau, Rainer Bock. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Who are we really? Are we who we are because we say who we are? And what if we are told that is not who we are, that someone else is who we thought we were? Would the sales of Excedrin go through the roof if that were true?

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a mild-mannered botanist speaking at a biotechnology conference in Berlin, accompanied by his beautiful, icy blonde wife Liz (Jones). It is snowing and the weather is awful when they arrive. In the haste to get into a warm cab, Martin leaves his briefcase behind at the airport. This briefcase contains his passport and all his other important documents, so he turns around at the posh Hotel Adlon and boards another cab to get back to the airport to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men…a dreadful accident sends the taxi plunging off a bridge and into the icy waters of the river. Gina (Krueger), the plucky driver, rescues an unconscious Martin (who had hit his head against the window) from the sinking car and while the paramedics work on the stricken man, slips quietly away.

Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of not only what happened to him but his entire wife. The sympathetic doctor (Markovics) tells him he has a head injury which can be tricky when it comes to memory, but the more Martin remembers the more frantic he gets regarding his wife, who has no idea what happened to him and must be going out of her mind by now. However, when he finally checks himself out of the hospital (against doctor’s orders) and heads back to the Adlon, Liz doesn’t remember him. Not only that, she is with another man (Quinn) whom she calls her husband and who seems to be…him.

This is awfully distressing to Martin. He is desperate to prove that he is him, but has no documentation, and very little cash. He visits a colleague, Dr. Bressler (Koch) who invited him to the conference only to find the other Dr. Harris there, who not only has proper documents but also family photographs. This so disturbs Martin that he faints.

The next thing he knows he is getting an MRI but when he comes out of it, an assassin (Schneider) has murdered his doctor and an even more sympathetic nurse (Lobau) and to Martin, that means that maybe he isn’t crazy. He goes to see Jurgen (Ganz), an ex-Stasi agent who the lately murdered nurse had recommended he sees. This sets into a chain of events involving the reluctantly recruited Gina, a Saudi prince (Hamada) and a covert team of murderers for hire.

Collet-Serra is better known for horror films and indeed, the movie is produced by Dark Castle, which specializes in horror but this is more Hitchcock than horror. It has a lot of the elements of a Hitchcock film – an ordinary man drawn into international intrigue that he doesn’t understand; a beautiful, icy-cold blonde, and an unlikely ally – also blonde.

Neeson has assumed the mantle, in his mid-50s, of an everyman action hero, one which Harrison Ford wore in the late 80s and 90s. Neeson’s perpetually gentle puppy dog aura can change into a ferocious fighter at a moment’s notice, and does so upon occasion here. He is so likable that he immediately resonates with the audience, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this.

Jones, who made her reputation in “Mad Men,” is given little more to do than look beautiful and, occasionally, sexy. Having seen her in a number of different roles, I believe she is one good part from being a major leading lady in Hollywood, but that hasn’t happened yet and this film doesn’t really provide her one. Still, she is very good at what she does.

Part of the problem here is that the movie relies on implausibility – considering the importance of what was in the original briefcase (which is more than the passports and is a critical plot point that I won’t reveal here) it’s hard to believe that Martin would leave it on the curb in a luggage cart, no matter how bad the weather. From the way his character is developed in flashback, it seems unlikely that he would let that particular bag leave his grasp but its disappearance is the fulcrum around which the plot is driven.

While based on a novel written by a French writer named Didier Van Caulweleart in 2003, there is a Cold War feel to the movie that would have been better served to be set in the same city but in 1963, with the Wall up and tensions high. As thrillers go, it’s a little bit on the old-fashioned side and some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable.

Still, there is a marvelous car chase, even though it seems a bit ludicrous that a botanist can drive a car like Remy Julienne, the famous French stunt driver although that is explained more or less by proxy by the film’s denouement. There are also some marvelous German actors in the film, not the least of which is Krueger (Inglourious Basterds) and Ganz (one of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mainstays and best known here for his work in Wings of Desire, as well as Bock, an unctuous security chief here but better as the schoolteacher in The White Ribbon.

What we have here is a moderately serviceable thriller that owes much of its appeal to its rather heavy-handed nods to the master, Alfred Hitchcock and much of the rest of it to its star, Liam Neeson. This isn’t going to re-write the book on the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but if you liked Neeson in Taken and loved basically anything the Master of Suspense directed with Jimmy Stewart in it, you’re going to enjoy Unknown very much.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson elevates the material. The car chase scene is nifty and the tension is elevated nicely throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the plot relies on implausibility and one gets the feel that this film would have been better served being set in the Cold War era.

FAMILY VALUES: As you probably figured out from the trailer, there is plenty of violence here but there’s also a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bridge that the taxi takes its plunge from is the Oberbaumbrucke in Berlin.  

HOME OR THEATER: Not a lot of really big screen-type of cinematography here; it will work just as well on your own home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stolen

Fifty Dead Men Walking


Fifty Dead Men Walking

Jim Sturgess can't believe the rug Ben Kingsley is wearing.

(IFC) Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Zegers, Natalie Press, Rose McGowan, Tom Collins, William Houston, Michael McElhatton, Gerard Jordan. Directed by Kari Skogland

It is said in any war that information is the most potent weapon. Make no mistake about it, the Irish Troubles were most certainly war, even if the British didn’t recognize it as such; in retrospect, in every other significant way they did treat it as war, nonetheless.

Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is a small-time petty criminal in Belfast, selling stolen brassieres door-to-door. He has a kind of elfin charm that others may possess but the Irish have perfected; a kind of roguish crooked charisma that is endearing, like a naughty child you can’t help but smile at even as they’re munching on the cookie they just pilfered.

He’s not particularly fond of the British but he likes the IRA even less after they break the legs of his mate Sean (Zegers). Still, he has no intention of getting involved until he gets nicked by the police. He is given into the hands of British Army intelligence officer Fergus (Kingsley) who recognizes McGartland’s innate talent to inspire trust. McGartland agrees to be an informant on the IRA, an incredibly dangerous thing to do. McGartland himself witnesses the torture and murder of an informant and knows that inevitably he will be found out, or will flee to live in hiding for the rest of his life.

He keeps his activities on both sides of the law secret from his wife Lara (Press) and even Sean. In the meantime, he infiltrates the IRA earning the trust of section chief Mickey (Collins) who becomes something of a father-figure to him. He also gets the attention of Grace (McGowan), a red-headed beauty who specializes in counter-espionage and “sleeping with the enemy” as it were to get their secrets. She develops an attraction for McGartland.

Although McGartland initially views his service as a bit of a lark (hey, he gets a brand new car out of the deal), he quickly comes to realize that this is no game. As the noose tightens around him and the date of a planned massacre at a pub approaches, McGartland wonders if he will be the hero or the victim in all of this.

The movie is loosely adapted from McGartland’s auto-biography (yes, there is a real Martin McGartland) although how loosely is subject to debate – there are those who question the facts in the autobiography itself. Canadian director Skogland has a nice eye for Ireland, settling the film into the rhythms of Irish life in the 1980s. The movie is loud, explosive and gut-grinding suspenseful.

It helps to have actors of the caliber of Ben Kingsley in your cast. Wearing a rather hideous rug, he still brings humanity to the British soldier who is ordered to use his assts, then becomes attached to them. When the British army turns its back on McGartland at the hour he needs them the most, Fergus takes it upon himself to make things as right as they can be.

The action is often brutal; IRA executions weren’t clean and antiseptic. They were sending a message, so the murders are pretty gruesome. The faint of heart may want to keep that in mind when they rent this disc.

The film rests on the shoulders of Sturgess, the young actor who was impressive in Across the Universe and 21. He is also impressive here, playing a cocky young hood who gradually changes into a frightened informant, one who knows that he is in a life-or-death struggle but yet his information saved by his own reckoning more than fifty lives, the dead men walking of the title. Sturgess not only gives McGartland depth, he also allows the character to grow and mature, something you don’t see a lot of in the movies.

While the pacing is a bit glacial in the first part of the movie, it slowly turns up the pressure as the movie progresses, until by the end of the movie you’re just about ready to scream. I wouldn’t say its masterful suspense direction, but it’s damn close. Certainly Skogland hits all the right notes for the most part.

The anger of the IRA towards McGartland is no joke; at least one attempt has been made on his life (the depiction of which bookends the movie) and he lives in hiding today; while the IRA is no longer the terrorist organization it once was, its memory is long and if McGartland were to emerge chances are they would at least try to kill him.

Some of the thick Irish brogues are difficult to understand so the filmmakers thoughtfully provided subtitles to allow you to decipher some of the dialogue which was much appreciated. That’s also a bit of a metaphor for the movie; the characters are speaking in plain English, but their meanings are in an entirely different language – the language of violence.

WHY RENT THIS: There’s a good deal of tension in the film, even though you know McGartland is going to survive. Sturgess and Kingsley give superb performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie drags at the beginning and is never that clear about McGartland’s motivations.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of brutal violence and torture, and as you might expect, plenty of foul language (nobody curses so eloquently as the Irish). There is also some sexuality as well, and plenty of adult themes. In short, not for the young ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kari Skogland’s last movie was The Stone Angel. The real Martin McGartland made a statement that he doesn’t endorse the film and that it was “inspired by” his story rather than is “based on.” He remains in hiding to this day.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Jennifer’s Body