Iraqi Odyssey


A family outing in the Iraq that was.

A family outing in the Iraq that was.

(2014) Documentary (Typecast) Jamal al Tahir, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Suhair Jamal Aldin, Samira Jamal Aldin, Tanya Uldin, Samir Jamal Aldin. Directed by Samir

documented

Generally, when people in the West think of Iraq, the impression isn’t very good. We find savage religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, an army that turned and ran at the first sign of ISIS, a democracy in chaos. Of course, the United States bears a great deal of responsibility on that score when we’re talking about that last item, but still most people have a very negative opinion about Iraq in general.

However, people tend to forget that once Iraq was one of the most modern of Middle East countries, one in which the middle class was strong and education was valued. Once having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, the monarchy in Iraq was actually relatively progressive compared to other countries in the region. Women in Baghdad dressed as they did in Los Angeles and the universities in Iraq produced some of the finest doctors and engineers in the world.

That’s all changed now, and with all the upheaval that has been suffered by that country, from Saddam Hussein and the Baathist party’s brutal repression through the unnecessary Iran-Iraq war to the bombing of the Gulf War and it’s sequel to the American occupation, many of the finest citizens of Iraq have spread to the four winds.

This documentary is the story of one family, well-to-do and middle class and progressive (the daughters, for example, were allowed to marry for love rather than by parental arrangement) who can trace back their lineage back to the prophet Mohammed (but are mainly secular now) and whose own family mirrors the chaos in Iraq. The family for various reasons has scattered across the globe and while director Samir mentions a good many of them, he focuses on Jamal who now lives in Moscow, Sabah who now lives in New Zealand, Suhair who lives in Buffalo, Samira who lives in London and Samir himself in Switzerland.

In doing so we get a fairly detailed crash course on Iraqi history of the 20th century. We see the communist party in postwar Iraq ready to assume leadership but abandoned by Moscow after the Cuban Missile crisis, leading the way for the Baathists – who were founded as an outgrowth of the Nazi party – to take over.

Through home video and archival footage we get a sense of the closeness of the clan, the activities they took part in and the anguish that has overtaken them all, scattered across the globe as they are. To put it in perspective, think of your own family and imagine that every last one of them lived in a different corner of the globe. How would that affect your own happiness?

The film is amazingly informative and gives us a good deal of insight into the issues of the Middle East from a perspective most of us haven’t really been exposed to. The major problem here however is that the film is nearly three hours long and after awhile it’s like a university lecture that has gone on much too long. The interviews with the family members tend to take place against black backgrounds and are often in English, although they are also in German and Arabic and I believe, Kurdish as well, which doesn’t help audiences with attention span issues, i.e. Americans.

The use of graphics is nicely integrated into the film, with charts and graphs indicating the relationships between the various family members (very much appreciated) and the distance between family members geographically (not so much). The music, mainly comprised of traditional instruments of the region, from time to time playfully uses regional music of the region where the interviews are taking place (the Marseilles in France or the Star-Spangled Banner in the United States) and one gets a sense of the humor that these extraordinary people have had to have in order to stay relatively sane. We also get a sense of the loneliness and isolation many of them feel.

In many ways this may end up being the definitive work of the Iraqi Diaspora and academics may well want to study it. However for the casual viewer, this is quite a momentous undertaking and while chock full of admirable material, may be a little bit much for those who are easily bored. However, those who don’t mind binge watching 13 hours of their favorite Netflix show might benefit from putting that kind of discipline to work here.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely informative. Clever use of graphics and music.
REASONS TO STAY: Way, way, way too long. Very much like watching home movies.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over four million Iraqis live in Diaspora as of this writing..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outside the Law (2010)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Stink!

Timeline


The aforementioned nifty battle scene.

The aforementioned nifty battle scene.

(2003) Science Fiction (Paramount) Paul Walker, Billy Connolly, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Matt Craven, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, Anna Friel, Ethan Embry, Michael Sheen, Lambert Wilson, Marton Csokas, Rossif Sutherland, Steve Kahan, David La Haye, Richard Zeman, Patrick Sabongui, Mike Chute, Lois Dellar. Directed by Richard Donner

The late Michael Crichton’s novel have always translated  well to the silver screen; Timeline  is one of his best novels and with director Richard Donner at the helm, it should be a recipe for success, no?

No. Young Chris Johnston (Walker), the son of a renowned archaeologist (Connolly) is visiting his dad on the site of a medieval French castle. Chris is not much for history; he’s watched it consume his father. Chris is more interested in Kate (O’Connor), one of his dad’s students. Although Chris finds a sympathetic ear in Andre Marek (Butler), one of his father’s colleagues, there is a gulf between father and son that neither man quite knows how to bridge.

That all has to wait however as Professor Johnston has been summoned back to ITC, the high-tech corporation that funded the digs that has helped in leading the researchers to different finds with almost uncanny precision. Professor Johnston intends to find out why.

Kate is seeking a rumored tunnel that led from the castle to the monastery below. Marek relates the story of the castle’s fall: How when the English lord who held the French castle hung the Lady Claire from the battlements; rather than demoralizing the French, this spurred the Gallic troops to greater fury and they overwhelmed the castle.

Meanwhile back at the monastery, a hidden room has been discovered. And in that hidden room, which has not been seen by human eyes since the 14th Century, an even more amazing find: an eyeglass spectacle, and a note, in the Professor’s handwriting, with a date and the words “Help me.”

This causes all sorts of consternation among the dig team. And when they are unable to contact the professor, they become considerably upset. Finally, they force a face-to-face meeting with Robert Doniger (Thewlis), the CEO of ITC, and his top scientist, Dr. Kramer (Craven).

It turns out that ITC’s big project is a teleportation device, something that will send physical objects from one location to another, which Kramer likens to “faxing.” Except that it doesn’t work exactly the way they intended. They inadvertently opened a wormhole to the past. However, they are only able to go to a specific time and place; you guessed it, 14th-century France — and the very castle which is doomed to be overrun by the French. It turns out that Professor Johnston was sent there and then, but is unable to return. A rescue team is needed, and who better than the experts on the area where the Professor is trapped?

Most of the group agrees to go, and Doniger insists on sending three security men with them, including head of security Gordon (McDonough). The team is warned not to bring any modern items with them, especially weapons; but they must keep electronic markers with them at all times, so they will be able to return to the 21st century.

Things go wrong immediately, when the team is attacked by English knights who mistake them for French spies. One of the security team panics and returns back to the future, with a loaded grenade he incomprehensibly smuggled. The grenade predictably goes off, destroying the time machine and stranding the rest of the team in the past. While ITC’s technicians frantically work to repair the time machine, Marek, Kate, Francois (Sutherland), Chris and Gordon work on finding the professor while staying alive.

They are aided by a plucky French girl (Friel), but eventually are captured by an evil English lord (Sheen) who immediately kills Francois, the only one of them who speaks French (fortunately, nearly everyone in the movie speaks English — modern English at that).

Soon after, they anti-climactically find the Professor, but are unable to return to the future (where is Christopher Lloyd when you really need him?) and spend most of the rest of the movie believing that one or another of them is dead, evading dastardly English knights and discovering Doniger’s real treachery. All this on the eve of the big blow-out battle. And, if you haven’t already seen it coming a mile away, the plucky French girl turns out to be the ill-fated Lady Claire — and Marek has fallen head over heels in love with her.

The novel Timeline is a taut, thrilling and well-researched book. Crichton paid special attention to the details of the time. How the characters in the book were able to handle things such as communicating with people who don’t speak any language we currently understand, for example, is part of the book’s charm. That’s all jettisoned in favor of dumbing down the plot to its lowest common denominator.

Therein lies the major flaw of Timeline. Crichton never talked down to his readers, but screenwriter Jeff Maguire finds it easier to just gloss over whatever obstacles you would think time travelers would face in favor of setting up nifty battle sequences. And nifty they are; flaming arrows rise into the night sky, balls of fire are launched by ballistae, exploding against the castle walls. The battle sequences are visually inspiring, and it’s amazing they were accomplished without CGI, which is rare even in 2003.

Butler and O’Connor are quite good in their roles, as is Wilson as a French knight. But there are plenty of big, big holes. For example, the time travelers in this film kill people with abandon, without thought as to how what they are doing might affect the future to which they hope to return. These are themes being explored in movies like A Sound of Thunder and The Butterfly Effect far more effectively and logically and when someone says that A Sound of Thunder is far more logical than your movie, you should cringe.

While there are some cool moments (such as when Marek realizes that the grave he discovered in the 21st century is his own), the time travel here is mainly the means to set up the big action sequences. And if that’s all that you’re going to use time-travel for, why not just set the movie in 14th century France?

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty battle scenes. Butler, O’Connor, Connolly and Wilson all perform admirably.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The screenwriters are talking down to you. Lapses in logic and consequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Brief foul language and some fairly intense battle sequences that while not terribly gory still might give the more sensitive a bit of trouble.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the French knights carried shields emblazoned with the flag of Quebec; some of the film was shot in the Canadian province.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.9M on an $80M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Captain Phillips

The Patriot


The Patriot

Mel Gibson leads the charge against the Brits, disappointed he can’t paint his face blue here.

(2000) Historical Drama (Columbia) Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Jay Arlen Jones, Logan Lerman, Mika Boorem. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

We often bandy about the term “patriotic” to imply our loyalty to our country. In reality, that has come to mean standing whenever the national anthem is played and making sure to cast our votes in each and every election. Most of us don’t even do that. There was a time, however, when being a patriot was dangerous; a man’s home, family and life were the collateral for his ideals.

Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has plenty of collateral. Although he mourns his recently deceased wife, he has seven wonderful children, a prosperous farm and as a hero of the French and Indian War, the respect and admiration of his community. However, the clouds of war brew on the horizon. The colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia are in full revolt against a tyrannical English king, and are soliciting support from the other colonies, many of whom have already given it. Martin’s South Carolina still debates the issue, but despite an impassioned plea by Martin to attempt other solutions (followed by a dire, Cassandra-esque warning that the war would be fought in the streets of their hometowns to be witnessed by their children), South Carolina chooses to fight for freedom. Martin chooses not to, but his passionate son Gabriel (Ledger) enlists in the Continental Army against his father’s wishes.

Two years pass. Lord Cornwallis (Wilkinson) has taken Charleston and as Martin predicted, the fighting is getting close to home. Following a skirmish in which Gabriel participates just outside the Martin farm, Martin and his household tend to the wounded on both sides. Into this scene of compassion canters the despicable Col. Tavington (Isaacs), who orders the wounded Colonials shot, Gabriel arrested and hung as a spy (for carrying dispatches on his person), the house torched and the livestock killed. In the ensuing pandemonium, Martin’s second-oldest son Thomas is shot before the horrified gaze of his family by Tavington, who sneers “Stupid boy!” in his best Snidely Whiplash fashion, and then gallops off, leaving Thomas to die in his father’s arms.

The despicable colonel forgets one of life’s basic rules (or at least one of the basic rules of 90s movies); don’t mess with Mel Gibson (you’d think the Brits would have learned that after Braveheart). He and his two remaining sons carry off a daring rescue of Gabriel, whereupon the elder Martin enlists himself and takes charge of a South Carolina militia whose job is to occupy Cornwallis and keep him from marching north to finish off George Washington. The militiamen do this at great cost, as Tavington carries out atrocity after atrocity.

This isn’t going to play very well in England, as the English here are portrayed as either sadistic, vain, arrogant and/or somewhat stupid. That’s OK, though; this is really our story, although ironically it’s being told by Roland Emmerich, the German director of Independence Day and Godzilla.

The battle scenes are terrifying, as armies get nose to nose and muzzle to muzzle, firing at point blank range at each other, standing in a line and praying that the volley of musket fire will pass them by, all the while cannonshot take the arms, legs and heads off of hapless soldiers in the front ranks. The violence and brutality are excessive at times, but the carnage is necessary to place in context the bravery of farmers, untrained in war, standing in the face of devastating British muskets firing with deadly accuracy into their ranks. Gibson is solid, though his performance is less compelling than in Braveheart, to which this will inevitably be compared. Here, he is a rough-hewn man with a dangerous temper boiling beneath the surface. Ledger is terrific – this was the performance that established him in Hollywood after success in his native Australia.

The Patriot is a bit over-the-top in places, and a bit predictable in others, leading to a half-star penalty. Be warned; this is a gut-wrenching, emotional movie. Da Queen rated it five hankies and there was a lot of snuffling going on in the packed theater in which we saw “The Patriot.” Da Queen was red-eyed hours after the movie was over.

The Patriot reminds us of the sacrifices that were made to give this country life. Men gave of life and limb, watched sons, fathers, brothers and friends perish, left their homes and families to exist in brutal conditions with the Continental army, and often watched their life’s work go up in smoke. Too often, we forget the commitment that created the liberty we cherish. That’s just the first step in losing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense battle sequences. Gibson is at his best here. Ledger makes a big splash in his debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turns the Redcoats into Storm Troopers. Fudges on the facts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of war violence here, some of it quite graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The house used as Aunt Charlotte’s (Richardson) plantation was the same one used as the residence of Forrest Gump. Benjamin Martin has seven children, the same number Mel Gibson had at the time of filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real people these fictional characters were based on and the lengths the movie went to for historical accuracy in terms of uniforms and so on (it’s a shame they couldn’t have been more accurate in terms in more important places).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.3M on a $110M production budget; the movie broke even in it’s theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Magic Mike

Amreeka


Amreeka

Nisreen Faour finds out about another American institution; the dinnertime sales solicitation call.

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Andrew Sannie. Directed by Cherien Dabis

While our economy has taken a nosedive and Americans are suffering through one of the worst recessions in history, we can at least take comfort that at least we are not an occupied nation. Palestinians don’t even have that.

Muna Farah (Faour) lives on the West Bank and, ironically enough, works in a bank. A bank on the West Bank…okay, I had to point it out. Anyway, she has to endure two military checkpoints in each direction going from her home to work and back. It is often humiliating, especially when her son Fadi (Muallem) loses patience and makes a smart remark to one of the soldiers, nearly getting detained in the process if nor for the begging and pleading of his mother.

Muna dreams of a better life in America (or Amreeka as it is pronounced in Arabic) where her sister Raghda (Abbass) escaped 15 years before. Although ostensibly Muslim, she isn’t particularly devout which makes her a bit of a pariah in her own land. However, she hits the jackpot when she gets a green card in the annual lottery for one of the coveted documents. Although she knows she will miss her family in Palestine, she looks forward to better things for her and her son in a new land, and quite frankly, Fadi is gung ho to get out of Dodge. Before they leave, Muna’s mom gives her some cookies and other food to bring to Raghda.

At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Muna and her son are detained for three hours. It is 2002, not long after 9/11 and tensions are running high, particularly with any Arabic sorts coming into the country. While Muna is arguing with one of the immigration officials, the cookies and other foods are confiscated by the customs agents.

Unfortunately, Muna foolishly put all her life savings into the cookie tin. Broke and too proud to accept help from her sister other than the lodging in their suburban home. Raghda’s husband Nabeel (Abu-Warda) is a prosperous dentist, but he is watching his practice disintegrate before his eyes as long-time patients, distrusting any Arab, are leaving for non-Arabic doctors.

Muna is unable to find work suitable for her banking experience and takes the only job she can find – working the counter at a White Castle. Once again her pride prevents her from informing her family that she has such a menial job, so she leads them to believe she is working in a neighboring bank, scurrying over to her real workplace after Raghda drops her off at the bank.

Fadi on the other hand is having enormous difficulty fitting in at the local high school, which is truly a staggering task even under the best of circumstances, but throwing in his ethnicity and his unfamiliarity with American high school culture and he is having a rough time. His cousin Salma (Shawkat) helps guide him through the minefields that are American high schools, but even so he manages to step on a few nonetheless.

There are a few other plot elements (such as a romance for Muna with the Jewish principal of Fadi’s school, played with gentle humor by Ziegler) but that’s essentially it. This is writer/director Dabis’ first feature and is heavily based on her own experiences growing up as an immigrant from Jordan in Ohio. There are some moments that are genuinely heartwarming as well as others that are wrenching.

Part of what makes this movie so watchable is a very likable cast, starting with Faour. She is not the lithe and lean starlet that most lead actresses are, but down-to-earth, charming and possessed of a smile that lights up entire cities. In that sense, she reminds me of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-era Nia Vardalos, albeit with less brass.

Abbass is one of my favorite actresses you’ve never heard of. She is best known for a small but pivotal role in The Visitor but was completely overshadowed by Richard Jenkins there; she has also appeared in such gems as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride and was superb in each. She has more of a supporting role, but lends dignity and world-weariness to the part of a woman desperately homesick, and watching her situation fall apart before her very eyes, with everything she values in jeopardy including her marriage. Abbass could have easily stolen the movie but wisely – and generously – toned things down, allowing Faour to take center stage. In the end, I think that was a better move for the film overall.

Most of the other roles aren’t as richly written as the two sisters, although Shawkat is compelling as the Americanized Salma and her conflict with her mother should resonate with anyone who has been privy to mother/daughter conflict. I would have liked to see Fadi, Nabeel and the principal get a bit more to work with, but this still remains a good first effort and serves notice that Dabis could be a director to keep an eye out for.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Faour and Abbass illustrate the difficulties Palestinian Muslims face in post-911 America as well as in their occupied homeland. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting characters seem to be very artificially drawn and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some teen drug use, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate to let mature teens check this out.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Winnipeg where there are no White Castle restaurants; the White Castle corporate offices shipped out the supplies for one there, creating a set so realistic that locals kept trying to order from it, even though no food was ever sold there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A short film by director Cherien Dabis, “Make a Wish” is present.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.2M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Smash His Camera