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

We Bought a Zoo


We Bought a Zoo

Matt Damon doesn't realize that tigers hate staring contests and so this will end very badly.

(2011) Family True Story (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, John Michael Higgins, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Carla Gallo, J.B. Smoove, Stephanie Szostak, Peter Riegert, Desi Lydic. Directed by Cameron Crowe

 

The thing about grief is that there isn’t a manual that tells you how to deal with it. That’s because everyone deals with it differently. Some push it aside and try to live life as normally as possible; others wear sackcloth and ashes and make it plain to the entire world that they are GRIEVING dammit. There is no right way and no wrong way to deal with grief; there’s just your way.

Benjamin Mee (Damon) is dealing with it, right now. He and his two kids teenaged Dylan (Ford) and youngster Rosie (Jones) are facing the loss of Mee’s wife Katherine (Szostak) to cancer. Mee, a photojournalist for an actual newspaper – a dying breed in and of itself – he decides that he’s had enough of being pitied and quits his job (a rather interesting way to deal with that problem) and since the acting-out Dylan has gotten himself expelled, figures it’s a perfect time to pull up stakes and find a new place to live somewhere that he isn’t constantly reminded of Katherine.

An enthusiastic realtor brings Benjamin to a dilapidated zoo. The state of California picked up ownership when the previous owners ran out of money. A skeleton crew cares for the animals there and there is a charming house on the property. Benjamin’s accountant brother Duncan (Church) advises him not to do it but Benjamin sees this as the kind of adventure that will heal his broken-hearted family.

Not everyone sees it that way. Dylan is angry he has been uprooted and separated from all his friends; his father is much harder on him than he is on the ultra-precious Rosie and Dylan resents that as well. In fact, Dylan resents just about everything and spends much of his time drawing dark and disturbing pictures that would be raising alarm bells in any reasonable child psychologist.

If Dylan has doubts about this venture, so does the zoo crew. Zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) is a no-nonsense sort who realizes that running a zoo isn’t just putting a bunch of animals in cages – excuse me, enclosures as she points out midway through the film. It takes dedication and above all, money. Bookkeeper Rhonda (Gallo) is skeptical that Benjamin will see the project through. Hard-drinking Peter MacCready (Macfadyen) is angry that his innovative enclosure designs were stolen by the very man who is in a position to grant the zoo it’s license, Walter Farris (Higgins) who will be making an inspection a week before opening day to see if the zoo meets California standards. About the only person who is happy that the Mees are there is Kelly’s cousin Lily (Fanning) who has a big-time crush on Dylan (God knows why).

This is based on a true story, although it has been transplanted to the San Diego area from England where it actually occurred (if you want to see the zoo where it actually happened, click here or better still donate to them so they can keep their gates open – I wasn’t kidding when I said it takes money to run a zoo). While a bit of Hollywood gloss has been added to make the story a bit more family-friendly, the basic facts are there but there are a few differences – it took the Mee family two years to actually buy the zoo, for example. Their initial offer was rejected due to their lack of zoological experience. Also, the real Mee children are much closer in age than they are in the film – the daughter was four when these events took place, her brother six. Also, the real Katherine Mee passed away while they were living at the zoo and after it had actually been purchased – in the film, her death is part of the reason they buy it to begin with.

Damon, who has met with success as the grifter in the Oceans films and as an action hero in the Bourne movies once again shows his versatility here. It’s been said – by me among others – that Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of his generation and I don’t think this movie will dissuade anyone of that notion. He plays a family man here but moreover a grieving husband – one of the movie’s most heartrending scenes is when Benjamin Mee looks at a photo slideshow on his laptop and sees a picture of his wife and kids dancing in the sun on an idyllic picnic and then suddenly the three of them are whirling around him in his kitchen. It is a bittersweet magic.

You would expect that the movie would create a romance between Benjamin and Kelly and while there’s attraction there, it’s also realistically tempered with the fact that Benjamin is not yet over his grief. There is near the end some indication that things might go there in the future but I think that Crowe makes a wise choice not to emphasize it.

Instead, the big romance is between Dylan and Lily. I get that Dylan is dealing with his own grief, but he comes off as really unlikable in a lot of ways and I don’t see how Lily would be attracted to him other than that he’s the only adolescent boy for miles. Fanning is also much taller than Ford which further makes the relationship awkward, despite the filmmakers obvious attempts to mitigate that by putting Ford on uneven planes with Fanning, or having them sitting down.

Still, Fanning’s cheer and ethereal beauty as well as her natural screen charisma make it clear that she’s destined for success. Like her sister Dakota, Elle is a fine actress (as we saw in Super 8) and she has some very nice moments here. Church is a  wonderful actor as we’ve seen in films like Sideways and he makes the most of a role that’s right in his wheelhouse.

It’s very clear that this movie is not so much about running a zoo as it is about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. That each of the main characters in the film deals with that grief in their own way is to be expected. While I felt that the movie sometimes got so saccharine sweet that it could induce a diabetic coma, there was at least an attempt to deal with the subject in a gentle yet realistic way. I won’t say that the movie didn’t pull any punches because it plainly does, but I do give it credit for tackling a subject that Hollywood tends to back away from.

A note about the soundtrack; it is written by Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Ros (one of my favorite bands) and as is typical with that band’s music is very atmospheric and makes a lovely background for the movie. The cinematography is uniformly excellent as well, so this is a good-looking as well as good-sounding film.

As family entertainment goes, the holiday season has been responsible for some truly special family films this year and this movie is certainly one of the movies that stands out in that regard. While the execrable Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked might be garnering better box office numbers, this is actually a family movie that will appeal to both adults and kids and won’t have to be “endured” by either of them. Common ground is a pretty big deal when it comes to family films as it is in families.

REASONS TO GO: Heartfelt and heartwarming. Damon does a surprisingly fine job as a family man here. Fanning and Church do well in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids can be overly annoying and/or precocious at times. Too much eccentricity among zoo personnel.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few thematic elements a little too rough for the sensitive (children dealing with the loss of a parent) and a few mildly bad words here and there but kids will love the animals.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Benjamin Mee and his children appear in the scene where Matt Damon climbs over the fallen tree on opening day; they are the first family in line.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are solid but not spectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hotel New Hampshire

ANIMAL LOVERS: Definitely something you’re going to enjoy, with capuchin monkeys, tigers, lions, ostriches, hedgehogs, peacocks, snakes and grizzly bears among others on display.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: War Horse

MirrorMask


MirrorMask

You should never play charades with wooden penguins.

(Goldwyn) Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon, Dora Bryan, Stephen Fry, Simon Harvey, Robert Llewellyn, Eryl Maynard. Directed by Dave McKean

Some of the most amazing graphic novels ever have sprung from the fertile imaginations of writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Now, the two are teaming up for a movie of unparalleled visual sense.

Helena (Leonidas) has always dreamed of running away from the circus. Her mother (McKee) and father (Brydon) run a Cirque du Soleil-esque traveling show that manages to make ends meet – just – but it isn’t the life Helena really wants. She is an imaginative girl, who spends every moment she has drawing fantastic images of strange creatures inhabiting a vast city. Her teenage impulses for doing her own thing often bump up against her parents need for her help in the overwhelming job of The Show Must Go On. After a particularly nasty argument with her mother (are there any fights worse than those between mother and daughter?) she ends with the nasty wish that she would be the death of her mother.

A little later on, her mother collapses and Helena’s world is turned upside down. Without her mother’s vital contributions, from taking tickets to her role in the show, the upcoming tour is in jeopardy. The family has never been flush to begin with, and their dwindling savings are setting off alarm bells. While her father is sticking fingers in all sorts of dykes, trying to keep the business from going under, Helena visits her mother, who pops in and out of consciousness. At length, she is told that her mother is going to have a critical operation. Helena goes to sleep, feeling betrayed.

When she wakes, she is in a place that is familiar yet unfamiliar. She meets up with a juggler/con man named Valentine (Barry), but they are interrupted by the onset of shadows, which turns the other performers into crumbling dust. As they escape, Helena realizes that the place she is in is the city she has drawn. Before she can catch her breath, she is whisked away to the palace by a palace guard that travels on stilted legs. While on her way to the palace she realizes that she can see her bedroom through certain windows and, to her shock, herself in it.

A pompous prime minister (Brydon again) who, like all the citizens wears an elaborate mask, informs her that she resembles a young girl who passed herself off as a princess of the dark side of the city, but this young girl had abused the hospitality of the white queen (McKee) and had stolen a charm. Now the white queen sleeps without waking, the balance between the light and the dark has been thrown out of whack and the city on both sides is beginning to fall apart. What is worse is that the spoiled princess has assumed Helena’s place in the real world. Helena must recover the MirrorMask and restore balance to the city and return the princess to the Dark Queen (McKee) and not incidentally, return herself to the real world.

The filmmakers have been forthcoming about being inspired by the world of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth and the inspiration comes through markedly – in fact, Henson’s creature shop built many of the creatures that inhabit the City. Those who are familiar with McKean’s art will not find the imagery unfamiliar, particularly in the gothic nature of the city and its inhabitants, who sometimes look like a collage of images rather than a single solid idea.

 This is one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve seen, with stunning creations around every corner. The settings recall Victorian England as well as Wiemar Republic Germany with a hint of the worlds of Maurice Sendak and, of course, Jim Henson. This is the sort of movie you’ll want to see several times as there’s no way you can catch all the detail in a single sitting.

The English cast does a solid job but they mostly play second fiddle to the images and sets. The problem here is mainly a pedestrian story, which relies overly much on familiar concepts explored in Labyrinth and Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman whose story it rips off virtually note for note.

Still, one can forgive the “must save mom” maudlin-ness since the real reason for this movie’s existence is to excite your sense of wonder, and it does that in spades. There are times the surreal aspects of the visuals hop on the Dali highway and take off willy-nilly, but since I like Dali it doesn’t phase me much, but those who find surreality acceptable only in small doses, be warned that the dosage here is overwhelming.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling, imaginative visuals that are a feast for the eyes and food for the brain. You’ll want to see this more than once but even then you won’t be able to capture everything you see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit pedestrian and the plot creeps into the maudlin periodically.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images might be too unsettling for younger, more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: When Helena reaches for the book “The Complete History of Everything” in the library, the book directly beside it is entitled “Muppets in Space” with the title written in the Farscape font. Both are allusions to the Jim Henson Studios, which produced the film Muppets in Space and also the TV show Farscape.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is footage from a Q&A session McKean and Gaiman did about the film at the 2005 San Diego Comicon, as well as an intriguing feature called Day 16 which shows an entire day of filming in time lapse photography.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian