Free Trip to Egypt


One great stone face and another.

(2019) Documentary (Kindness) Tarek Mounib, Brian Kopilec, Ellen Decker, Adam Saleh, Terry Decker, Katie Appledorn, Jenna Day, Jason Reynolds, Marc Spalding, Amr Madkor, Ahmed Hassan, Salma Salem, Mohammed Ragab, Asmaa Gamal, Tom Appeldorn, Mark Decker, Nevine Madkor. Directed by Ingrid Serban

 

We live in a deeply divided country that has in many ways become hard right and hard left. There is a segment of our society which was deeply affected by 9/11 and continues to bear the scars of that terrible day even now. Their belief about Muslims, spurred by right-leaning news sources, is that most of the Muslim population of the rest of the world are largely terrorists and those who aren’t are terrorist sympathizers. They believe in President Trump’s agenda of excluding immigration from Muslim countries and maybe, to a certain extent, of deporting Muslims living here back to the Middle East.

Tarek Mounib, a Canadian entrepreneur of Egyptian descent, found himself very disturbed by this attitude. While working in Switzerland, he had an epiphany; why not take some Americans who have this mindset to Egypt, have them hang out with real Egyptians and see if it changes their world view. He thought if he paid for all expenses for such a trip, that he could maybe get a few people to go.

At first, he went directly to what he thought would be the motherlode; a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky. There he met Brian, an ex-Marine with a yen for travel who agreed to go for the experience. Two of his friends, Jason and Jenna, both evangelical Christians, also agreed to go – in Jason’s case, hoping he could use the opportunity to make a few Egyptians see the light. Mounib also got Mark, an African-American police officer working at the rally to agree to go although of all those who ended up taking the trip he seemed to be the least prejudiced of them all.

Other means of recruiting others didn’t work so well. It wasn’t until Mounib appeared on a nationally syndicated radio talk show that he finalized his line-up; single mom Katie who had deep-seeded issues with the way women are treated in the Islamic faith, and elderly couple Eileen and Terry, both of whom had become xenophobic after 9/11. Eileen, who confessed she had marched in the Sixties for racial equality, had realized that she was a racist and hated herself for it but couldn’t find a way out of the vicious circle, especially when their only son Mark took a job in Saudi Arabia.

Mounib paired the travelers with Egyptians who would spend the day with him and in addition to taking them to the usual tourist sights like the Cairo Museum and the Pyramids, also had meals with them and introduced them to friends and family. Most of them are well-paired; for example, Jenna and Jason are paired with a large Egyptian family; Mark with a jovial overweight Egyptian who is more pro-Trump than most of the Americans; Eileen and Terry are paired with a cinematographer and Kate with a female activist. Sadly, we don’t get to know the Egyptians nearly as well as the Americans. I think that might have helped the movie make its point more powerfully.

There are some awkward moments; the group including their Egyptian hosts are taken to a Zar healing ritual, both the evangelicals and their host family are greatly disturbed at what they see on the Muslim side as a perversion of Islam and on the Evangelical side as paganism. An odd place to find common ground, but these are odd times.

This is the kind of movie that we all need to see but especially those who feel, as many of the travelers initially do, that the world is an us versus them type of place and that there is an unconquerable divide between the Muslim world and ours. Not everyone is transformed by this experience who goes – Jason ends up trying to convert Mounib which I found a bit amusing – but there are at least some interesting discussions. Jenna ends up admitting that if heaven turned out to be a place without Christ, she would rather go to Hell. That’s pretty powerful when you think about the ramifications of it.

There is a coda as the filmmakers follow some of the participants well after the trip is over. Two of the participants were truly transformed by their experience (and you can probably guess who just by reading this review) and when a momentous event occurs, we truly see how completely that person had changed. It’s the kind of tug on the heartstrings moment that will leave even the most jaded moviegoer a bit misty-eyed.

Too often we emphasize the differences between cultures while ignoring the similarities. At the end of the day we are all just people, making the best of things in a world that is impossibly hard to navigate at times. We are all just fellow travelers on the same road and maybe when we boil it down that way, then little details like how we worship God or where we live or what we eat or the color of our skin ceases to matter much. The quickest way to heaven’s gates is through an open heart.

REASONS TO SEE: A strong and vital project with some truly powerful moments. There’s an unexpected coda. Transformative in many ways. Love that it emphasizes the similarities of cultures rather than the differences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t spend enough time letting us get to know the Egyptians.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American History X
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
For the Birds

Raiders of the Lost Ark


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford is having a ball.

(1981) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Fred Sorenson, Anthony Chinn. Directed by Steven Spielberg

When news came that Spielberg and George Lucas were joining forces back in 1980, movie fans couldn’t help but rub their hands together in anticipation. After all, these guys were two of the brightest flames in Hollywood; Lucas with two Star Wars movies (to that point), Spielberg with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What nobody anticipated was that these two men, along with star Harrison Ford, would rewrite the book on adventure movies. An homage to the great serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones, trusty whip on the hip and battered fedora on his head, took the world by storm. The first Indiana Jones movie was the box office champ of 1981 and spawned numerous imitators, clones and wanna-bes which persist to this day (Tomb Raider for instance).

But nobody has even come close to the entertainment delivered by the Indiana Jones series. The first movie of the series, set in the 1930s, introduces Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology and “how should I put it? — obtainer of rare antiquities.” An expedition to South America to retrieve a golden idol puts the tattered archaeologist through fiendish traps and less-than-loyal associates (Molina, in one of his first movie roles, meets a particularly gruesome end) to emerge from the cursed temple, idol in hand – only to have it snatched away by his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Freeman), a French archaeologist with fewer scruples than Indy.

Jones returns home to find Army intelligence waiting for him; they’ve intercepted a Nazi communiqué that is puzzling to them, but makes sense to Jones and his sponsor, museum curator Marcus Brody (Elliot); they realize that Hitler’s minions may be close to finding the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which held the actual Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Realizing that this was something they had to prevent Hitler from obtaining, the Army sends Jones to go retrieve it.

In order to find the actual location of the Ark itself, Jones needs a staff headpiece that former flame Marion Ravenswood (Allen) has. After going to her bar in Tibet to try to retrieve it, he foils a Nazi attempt to take it by force.

The two head down to Egypt, where they are aided by Indy’s close friend Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who helps Indy divine the correct location. However, Belloq (who is working with the Nazis), manages to steal the Ark that Indy found and takes it and the girl to a remote island, with Indy close behind. There he will learn the secret of the Lost Ark, one that is beautiful and terrifying at once.

Raiders sets the tone as a virtual roller-coaster ride, putting Indy in one perilous situation after another, with little let-up. Spielberg proves himself to be an absolute master of pacing — editors Michael Kahn and George Lucas deserve a lot of credit here as well — knowing when to ratchet up the thrills and knowing when to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. Using devices common to serials and adventure movies from the ’30s and ’40s, Spielberg creates a wonderful sense of the era without forgetting the modern sensibilities of his audience.

The result is a movie that can legitimately be called a classic, one that has lost none of its luster in the 30 years since its release. While Star Wars made a star out of Ford, Raiders cemented him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His screen charisma is never put to as good use as it is here; Jones is both a traditional adventure hero but also a fallible one – he hates snakes and he has a penchant for getting beaten up. Unlike the heroes of past serials, Indy rarely fights fair – the scene of him shooting an expert swordsman who tries to intimidate him with a series of elaborate moves was both improvised and classic. The ability of the film and its actors to poke fun at traditional adventure movie clichés is part of what makes the movie great.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Karen Allen’s performance although I understand why people adore her. She was supposed to be a strong, bold woman of her era, able to drink big ol’ Nepalese under the table and a woman willing to stand up to the Nazis but at the end of the day she was just a heroine in jeopardy, waiting to be rescued by the hero while whining “Indyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as she does. The part was a little too schizophrenic for my liking, although it did set the tone for heroines for the rest of the series, for good or for ill.

Freeman made Belloq smooth, suave and pretty much forgettable. He was the more “reasonable” of the heroes, the dark side of Indiana Jones who allowed his own greed to become his driving force. It was the money that motivated Belloq, not the actual artifacts that he was after. Jones wanted the items that he found to be displayed in museums for everyone to enjoy; Belloq only wanted the payday. He makes an interesting contrast to Jones, but Freeman doesn’t have the charisma to really compete against Ford.

It is Lacey who is the villain most everyone remembers. As the eager Gestapo agent, he is both dangerous and disarming. He can torture a young woman with a red-hot poker, or lead a group of thugs to beat up a single aging archaeologist.

This remains to this day one of my favorite movies and I’m not alone in that regard – Raiders has everything that makes going to the movies fun. Even 30 years after the fact, it remains as fresh and fun as it did the day it came out. It is currently only available as part of a four-disc DVD set of the original trilogy which is kind of a shame because this deserves to be part of everyone’s home video collection and the prohibitive price of the multi-movie set may be out of reach for some. I don’t think Indiana Jones would approve of that kind of thinking, although Belloq might.

WHY RENT THIS: The perfect adventure movie. Harrison Ford shows why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars. A roller coaster ride from beginning to end, brilliantly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenswood is a bit whiney.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some fairly scary images and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name of the lead character was originally Indiana Smith, which was an homage to the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. The surname was changed to Jones on the first day of production.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a massive global blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Footnote

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions)


OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of spies

Jean Dujardin is stirred, not shaken.

(2006) Period Spy Spoof (Music Box) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Aure Atika, Philippe Lefebvre, Constantin Alexandrov, Said Amadis, Laurent Bateau, Claude Brosset, Francois Damiens, Youssef Hamid, Khalid Maadour, Arsene Mosca. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

You may wonder what spy novels looked like before Ian Fleming set pen to paper and came up with James Bond. If you have such thoughts, best check out the novel of agent OSS 117 by Jean Bruce; he wrote his first adventure featuring debonair spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath in 1949, predating Fleming’s “Casino Royale” by three years. Although I don’t know for certain if Fleming read the Bruce novels, certainly the similarities between 007 and 117 can’t be overlooked.

Cairo, 1955 – a crack agent of the OSS (the French version of MI-6 and the CIA) named Jack Jefferson (Lefebvre) has been murdered. The French government opts to send their best agent and Jefferson’s close friend Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, a.k.a. agent 117, to “make the Middle East safe” and solve his friend’s murder.

He is given the cover of a chicken importer and Jack’s former secretary Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bejo) to assist him, as he wades through American and Soviet spies, Nazi splinter cells, the supersexy Egyptian Princess Al Tarouk (Atika) and ghosts from his own past in order to get to the truth. In the meantime, he will demonstrate the French colonialist attitudes of the time, not to mention sexism on an epic scale. The joke is, of course, that those attitudes were standard at the time but looking back now, they are completely cringe-worthy.

Dujardin gets the look and mannerisms of Sean Connery-era Bond just right in this strange mixture of Clousseau, Bond and Austin Powers. Although the novels that Bruce wrote were straight-forward spy thrillers, this film is far from that ethos; instead, it makes merry fun of the genre, taking every cliché from the Bond series and throwing it back without mocking it so much. It is Hubert who is the most ridiculous, displaying an abysmal ignorance of local culture and customs but he is just so dang charming you don’t really resent him for it. One of the film’s funniest sequences is when a sleeping Hubert is awakened by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, he yells at him to “shut the **** up” and eventually climbs the minaret and pounds him into silence. It sounds horrible on paper and I’m sure many Muslims might take offense as written but it made me chuckle nonetheless.

The overall mood is enhanced by Hazanavicius’s use of period camera and optical techniques (such as rear projection during scenes in which the actors are in cars driving in the streets of Cairo, or the use of Technicolor that brings out the colors while giving the whole movie a kind of faded quality), as well as opening titles that recall the great Saul Bass.

Some of the jokes fell a little flat to me – that might have been a case of the humor losing something in the translation. Although the movie was only an hour and a half long, it felt like it had been stretched a bit. The movie’s climax also seemed a bit drawn out. However, if you like your spoofs over-the-top and Airplane-like, this might well be a hidden gem for you. Be aware this isn’t a Bond with all the gadgets and the Q Division; this is the Bond that was a suave, charming lady-killer one moment and a ruthless, rough killer the next. This is the Bond of From Russia with Love more than the Bond of Goldfinger. Well, technically, this isn’t Bond at all.

Yes, Bond and Hubert share the same pedigree in many ways but they are different animals. Hubert has a Gallic joie de vivre that no British actor could ever hope to duplicate. Part of me wonders how the movie would have fared if they had played it straight and cut out the outrageous aspects. Is the world ready for a truly international spy? We will have to wait for the answer.

WHY RENT THIS: Very reminiscent of the spy films of the 60s, with a Gallic twist. Some of the humor here is over the top and universal.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels too much like something else at times. I wonder how much better it would have been as a film if it had been played straight.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a bit of sexuality, a few bad words and a whole lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of OSS 117 appeared in 265 novels and seven feature films in France between 1956 and 1970.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel but everything else is pretty generic.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Cars 2

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