As I Open My Eyes (À peine j’ouvre les yeux)


Rocking out, Tunisian style.

Rocking out, Tunisian style.

(2015) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Baya Medhaffar, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari, Lassad Jamoussi, Aymen Omrani, Deena Abdelwahed, Youssef Soltana, Marwen Soltana, Najoua Malhouthi, Younes Ferhi, Fathi Akkeri, Saloua Mohamed, Kais Klaia, Touafik Hammami, Wajdi Cherif, Jamil Najjar, Walid Ben Khlifa, Mourad Garsali, Mhadheb Rmili, Nacib Barhoumi, Habib Ghzel. Directed by Leyla Bouzid

 

In the fire of youth we sometimes find the seeds of change. In 2010, Tunisia was ruled by the despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who controlled the citizenry through fear; secret police regularly seized citizens and police informants meant you never knew who to trust. Any sort of criticism of the regime was unthinkable.

Farah (Medhaffar) is an 18-year-old girl with a bright future. She had been accepted into medical school, which made her mother Hayet (Benali) extraordinarily proud as well as her father (Jamoussi) who works in the mines in Gafsa where those seeds of revolution are beginning to bloom.

But Farah has a voice and she’s a member of a band along with her boyfriend Borhéne (Ayari), a sensitive hipster sort who writes most of the lyrics and plays the lute – a Tunisian guitar. He encourages her to do her own thing, which in a repressive conservative culture like that of Tunisia is unheard of for women.

As Farah grows more independent, she and her mother become more at odds. Hayet is concerned that her daughter is throwing away her future for transitory pleasures, plus she hears from an ex-lover who now is a sleazy government functionary that her daughter is drinking in men-only bars and has been seen making out with her boyfriend. Hayet reacts as most mothers would, forbidding her daughter from continuing her music career. Like most daughters, Farah ignores her mother.

Borhéne has written some pretty subversive lyrics for Farah to sing and she sings them passionately; the music attracts the attention of the police who begin following the members of the band and engaging in subtle intimidation. The pressures begin to take their toll on Farah whose relationship with Borhéne begins to fray. As Tunisia inches closer to revolution, Farah treads on dangerous grounds but like a dancer on thin ice continues to pirouette even as the ice cracks beneath her.

Taking place a few months before the Jasmine Revolution would oust Ben Ali from power Bouzid has crafted an energetic, life-filled movie that carries with it the passions of the young and perhaps the naiveté of the young as well. Farah is willful, sometimes to a fault and her idealism clashes with the conservatism of her mother. As the film goes on, we begin to realize that Farah and Hayet are much more alike than not and it is their relationship that is surprisingly at the center of the film, not that of Borhéne and Farah.

There is some misogyny present here and Bouzid approaches it directly and without rancor; it is part of the culture that women don’t have the same rights and the same dreams as men. There is one point where at a party that Farah is dancing joyously with the male members of the band that Borhéne takes exception to; “You’re embarrassing me,” he growls before stalking off to flirt with another woman, perhaps to infuriate his girlfriend – which it does. These are the games of the young, are they not?

And yet Bouzid is not unsympathetic; the men here are mainly victims of their own upbringing but still, she doesn’t sugarcoat the hypocrisy of the attitudes towards women. She remembers well the fear-ridden society that was Tunisia in those days and recreates the furtive looks, the fearful glances, the body language of a population rigid with worry. It is something most of us can’t really understand because there is no understanding it if you haven’t lived it for yourself; consequently some of the actions of the characters here may seem confusing or difficult to understand to American viewers.

The music is important and I have to admit I dug it. It combines Arab Mezwed with rock, propelling the seductive sounds with a rock beat and a kind of club attitude. There are also the lyrics which while flowery in the style of Arab poetry but describe the frustration of those living under the boot of a tyrant. The one complaint I have is that there are too many musical interludes; the film might have benefitted from cutting one or two of them (the songs are largely played through to completion which might be a bit of a shock to impatient American audiences who are generally given just snippets of performances in movies).

However, it must also be said that Medhaffar lights up in the stage sequences. Her smile is energetic and contagious. Her curly hair flies up from her head like a grenade going off and her body writhes sensually onstage. She is pretty enough an actress; in these sequences she’s beautiful. Benali is better known in Tunisia as a singer but she delivers an emotionally charged performance that in many ways is more resonant than that of Medhaffar. There’s a sequence when Benali is distraught and looking for her daughter in a bus station; it captures the love and the despair of parenthood that is universal to anyone who has a kid.

The movie takes place in places that aren’t found in the guidebooks of Tunis. It is seedy at times but in an unapologetic way, much like American movies that take place in bars and taverns. It is not a part of our culture that we’re proud of but it is part of our culture nonetheless. Bouzid is most certainly an appealing voice and while her debut feature film isn’t perfect, it is striking and leads me to look forward to her upcoming films. This is a director to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO GO: The film is full of life and energy. Medhaffar really sparkles on stage. It is gratifying to see a movie set in the day to day of Tunisia.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is on the slow side. Some of the subtleties of Tunisian culture are lost on American audiences which may lead to some confusion. Too many musical numbers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and brief partial nudity, a bit of profanity, some drug use and a ton of smoking and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was inspired by actual events in the life of Bouzid, who founded a cinema club during the Ben Ali era and discovered that one of her closest friends in it was a police informer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Juno
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Imperium

Mars Needs Moms


 

Mars Needs Moms

Ki, Gribble and Milo look at the box office bomb descending on their heads.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack, Elizabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling, Kevin Cahoon, Tom Everett Scott, Adam Jennings, Amber Gainey Meade, Julene Renee, Seth Dusky, Jo McGinley, Daniel James O’Connor. Directed by Simon Wells

 

Director Simon Wells has also done The Land Before Time and The Time Machine. This is significant because he’s the great-grandson of the legendary writer H.G. Wells who not only wrote The Time Machine but also War of the Worlds which depicted an attempted invasion of Earth by Martians. Here, they’re only after one specific Earthling.

Milo (Green, voiced by Dusky) is a stubborn, self-centered 11-year-old boy. That is, typical. He hates doing homework, won’t eat broccoli, lies to his mother (Cusack)  and says particularly cruel things to her. Dad (Scott) travels a lot so he’s not around much to help. When Milo voices the wish that his mother would not be around so that his life would be easier, his wish is granted – not by a kooky angel trying to earn his wings but by the Martians.

You see, they have a litter of hatchlings come to term every 25 years. Their mothers are far too busy to take care of the kids so they are entrusted to nanny-bots. Unfortunately the programming needs rebooting every 25 years or so, so an Earthling mom who shows the right stuff (the Martian culture is a rigid disciplinarian one) is kidnapped to download her memories into the nanny-bots. Unfortunately, the process destroys the mother forever.

Milo sees his mom being kidnapped and manages to stow away on the Martian spacecraft. On Mars, he meets Gribble (Fogler) whose mom was also kidnapped 25 years previously. He lets Milo know that he has until sunrise to save his mom or else poof. Unfortunately, Gribble was too late to save his mom, so he had to grow up all by himself without mom, dad or family, hiding out from the Martian police in a trash dump.

Aided by Ki (Harnois), a rebellious Martian girl that Gribble is sweet on, Milo sets out to rescue his mom from the clutches of the Supervisor (Sterling) but that is much easier said than done. He must overcome his somewhat less-than-reliable new friend and the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Martian police if he is going to save his mom – and even then, getting her back home may take even more doing.

This was badly mismarketed as a science fiction spoof rather than as a family adventure as it should have been. There are some truly poignant moments that work far better than the humorous ones, even though the film was based on a graphic novel by Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County” and other politically-oriented strips.

Part of the problem is the motion capture technology used to animate the film. While there have been some decent motion capture films, one of the problems is that they never really get facial expressions right, giving the humans a kind of robotic emotion-less look. The same holds true here; there is no sparkle of life in these characters so they look kind of like re-animated dolls. It’s a bit creepy and I’m not alone in thinking that.

Cusack holds her own but Fogler’s comic relief is a bit lame – he doesn’t have the personality to pull off the rather weak dialogue. This became a major bomb for Disney and in a lot of ways has killed the motion capture subgenre altogether (plans to make a motion capture remake of Yellow Submarine were quietly shelved by Disney after Mars Needs Moms tanked) which might be a good thing – I think the technology has to improve before it becomes a viable artform.

Critics were surprisingly easy on the film, given some of the wooden performances both onscreen and vocally. The movie certainly has its champions but I think the public got it right on this one. It really isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: At times very moving, a treatise on the importance of family.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Motion capture still doesn’t quite capture facial expressions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some minor sci-fi action and peril, nothing that’s too rough for most kids except for the very youngest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Disney’s worst box office loss ever and the fifth biggest bomb of all time (unadjusted for inflation).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a major financial bomb.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW:Hannibal