Up and Away (Hodja fra Pjort)


Big people should check for size limits when getting on the ride.

(2018) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Eoin McCormick, Lucy Carolan, Marcus Lamb, Dermot Magennis, Doireann Ni Chorragain, Gary Cooke, Paul Tylak, Susie Power. Directed by Karsten Kiilerich

 

I suppose in an age of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West that the adventurous tales of ancient Arabia don’t hold as much luster. Great heroes like Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad and Scheherazade were much more in vogue when I was growing up and I still remember being captivated by exotic cities with onion domes, minarets and flying carpets. That kind of magic is the sort the world can still use.

This Danish animated feature from an Oscar-nominated animated short director would seem to have more than a little interest for folks like me even if it is based on a more contemporary story. Hodja is a young boy, the son of a tailor in a small village, who dreams of going on great adventures. A carpet seller and neighbor who sells his father’s rugs happens to have a magic carpet and wants to help Hodja go on adventures with his best friend – a goat. The friendly but sad carpet seller wants only one thing in return – for Hodja to find “the diamond,” which turns out to be his granddaughter that he left behind when he fled from an evil Sultan who lives in the big city of Pjort.

Hodja and his goat fly off to Pjort to find their adventure but instead find a city on the brink of starvation, where street kids find whatever scraps they can in exchange for shelter. The miserly owner of the shelter, known as The Rat to one and all because of his rodent-like face, soon discovers that Hodja is in the possession of a magic carpet and knows the Sultan will make him a general in his army in exchange for the carpet. So he steals it from Hodja, leaving the boy stranded in the city. He must use his wits to get his borrowed carpet back or never see his family again.

The animation isn’t half-bad with some beautiful vistas of a city right out of Arabian Nights. It also isn’t half good, as many of the characters look like cartoons. Unfortunately, this is no Aladdin although the setting is similar. The characters are all given exaggerated features and look decidedly like cartoons. That might be fine for Saturday mornings, the 1980s or the Cartoon Network but kids today are a little bit more sophisticated except for maybe the very young.

Making things worse is that the story is very predictable (you’ll be able to figure out who the granddaughter is without breaking a sweat) and the characters very cliché – the disapproving dad, the headstrong girl, the greedy Sultan and the sneaky Rat – and none of them are developed much beyond that. I get that animated features intended for kids don’t necessarily have to meet high standards of character development but come on! I guess these cliché characters might be new to the very young.

I suspect in fact that this is meant for younger tykes – one gets a distinct impression that the filmmakers are dumbing down the proceedings which is a common failing with animated features. You certainly don’t get the impression that there is enough respect here to understand that kids actually appreciate a better quality story than one that just goes through the motions. Even the least discerning kids will likely get bored with this quickly.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice animated sequences. The music is nice.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is predictable and the characters are all cliché. This is pretty dumbed down for the kids. The ending is just awful.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kiilerich was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1997 for When Life Departs.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Under the Wire

This is Congo


In the Congo even amenities we take for granted are corrupted.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Mamadou Ndala, Joseph Kabila, Colonel Kasango, Matenga, Hakiza Nyantaba, Paul Kagame, Isaach de Bankolé (voice), Mama Romance. Directed by Daniel McCabe

 

One of the most beautiful places on Earth is Congo, the Republic formerly known as Zaire. It is the 11th largest nation on Earth and has mineral wealth that is absolutely staggering. Of course, none of that wealth filters down to the people of Congo. What does filter down is the nearly continuous state of Civil War that has been underway in that region for more than 20 years.

First-time feature filmmaker McCabe focuses on four people to tell his story; Mamadou Ndala, a charismatic colonel in the Congolese army who is idealistic and passionate. He loves his country genuinely and defends it without hesitation. Colonel Kasango is another army officer who in order to protect himself and his family has taken on anonymity (he is photographed in silhouette, uses a false name and his interview is voiced by noted actor Isaach de Bankolé.

Then there are the civilians; Hakiza Nyantaba is a tailor who ekes out a living with a battered sewing machine. He has been forced to flee his village six times, taking only what he could carry. Finally Bibanne, known as Mama Romance, sells gems on the black market in Kenya. It is a highly risky move that could lead to arrest but she has to take care of her kids somehow.

McCabe intersperses their stories with the history of the Congo, from Emperor Leopold II of Belgium’s brutal and ruthless colonial reign to the hopeful prime ministry of Patrice Lumumba, the coup that led to strongman Joseph Mobuto that dominated the Congolese political landscape. It is a history of corruption, brutality and nonstop violence.

Much of the film takes place during the 2012-13 assault by the rebel group M-83 in the South Kivu region, one of the richest in minerals in the country. Ndala would defend the regional capital of Goma from rebel troops which brought him great popularity among the people of the Kivu – and the nervous eye of the army officers who were concerned about someone being so popular and renowned.

This is not a feel-good documentary; there are no quick fixes, no answers. Since the events shown here war has continued to drone on and their current president Joseph Kabila who is as corrupt and as ruthless as any dictator in the world (and who just suspended all presidential elections, essentially making him President for life). Life for the Congolese continues to be miserable with no end in sight and the world has essentially abandoned them. While I suppose one may say “well why bother watching this then” the reason is that the more people who see what’s happening the more people will start demanding action to protect the Congolese who are caught in the crossfire and to demand the removal of Kabila and his cronies. The depressing reality though is that in all likelihood the replacement would just be business as usual.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very compelling and very sad. It’s a very beautiful country.
REASONS TO STAY: 20 years of non-stop war; we can only imagine…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence as well as a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The genesis of the film came when McCabe was sent to Congo as a photojournalist in 2008 documenting the CNDP rebellion.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Enclave
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Coverage of the 17th New York Asian Film Festival begins!

Lipstick Under My Burkha


lipstick-under-my-burkha(2016) Dramedy (M-Appeal) Shshank Arora, Plabita Borthakur, Sonal Jha, Aahana Kumra, Vikrant Massey, Ratna Pathak, Korkona Sen Sharma, Jagat Singh, Sushant Singh, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi. Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava

miami-film-festival-2017

India is a modern democracy but in many ways they are still catching up. Women are certainly starting to demand freedoms and consideration they’d never dream of asking for even a decade ago. Indian women have always been considered to only aspire to happy homemaking. That’s not quite true anymore.

Four women leading separate lives in the rural city of Bhopal (yes, the same Bhopal where Union Carbide’s gas leak killed so many – it is referenced only briefly that the husband of one of the characters died in that tragedy) are all looking to break out of the molds they’ve been placed into. First there’s Usha (Pathak), known to everyone as Auntie; she’s a canny businesswoman who’s been a widow for most of her adult life. She spends most of her time with the children but she has a secret obsession nobody knows about; erotic romance novels, in particular one called Lipstick Dreams.

Leela (Kumra) is a beautician who is unwillingly engaged to an earnest but essentially colorless guy in an arranged marriage. She has a thing for her Muslim photographer whom she is having sex with at nearly every opportunity and wants to run away with him to the big city where they can start on their own fresh. Then there’s Shirin (Sharma) who is a married mother of three whose husband travels a lot for work. When he’s at home, the sex is almost painful for her and he seems to be utterly incapable of pleasing her or caring to. She has managed to build a sales career without his knowledge because she knows if he knew about it he would forbid it but there’s a promotion on the horizon and there would be no way to hide it from him then. Finally, there’s Rehana (Borthakur), the teenage daughter of strict Muslims who attends college, changing from her Burkha into Western clothes on her way to school and back into the Burkha on her way home where she works in the family business – ironically sewing Burkhas. However she wants to be a more typical teenage girl, hanging out in discos, flirting with boys and doing all the things forbidden her by her conservative parents. And of course, they find out all about it.

Usha gets involved with a swimming instructor who brings out her inner sensuality and she does something unthinkable for a woman her age – heck, for any Indian woman, while Leela is caught between the lover she wants and the wealthy young man who wants her. Shirin makes a discovery about her husband that could change everything and when Rehana gets arrested at a demonstration, the wheels get rolling on an arranged marriage for her. Will these women ever be free to lead the life they want?

Feminism is very nascent in India but it is slowly beginning to take hold. This isn’t the first feminist film to come out of the Sub-Continent, but it just might be the most potent. Shaking up societal norms is part of cinema’s function and this film fulfills that in about every way possible. Some in India have objected at the eroticism displayed in the film. While by American standards it’s fairly tame, it is surprising to see something from India that is this forthright about sex.

I’m not trying to condescend Indian society – certainly our own culture has plenty of problems, particularly now. It is somehow comforting to see Indian women – artists and ordinary women – rising up and demanding fair treatment. It reminds me a little bit of the years that NOW was a political force. I hope that this kind of movie is just a taste of things to come.

REASONS TO GO: A gutsy examination of the role of women in modern Indian society. There is a frank scene of female sexual desire in a 55 year old actress which some may find shocking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit more erotic than some might be used to from Indian cinema.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly frank sexual content and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: India’s Film Censor Board refused to certify the film, citing scenes of sexuality and female empowerment, sparking outrage throughout India.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Wolves

The White Helmets


A profile in courage.

A profile in courage.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Khaled Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar, Khaled Omar. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

 

The civil war that rages in Syria has become a political mess as the citizens of that country have to endure military bombings, the depredations inflicted upon them by their own government as well as the harsh occupation in some places by ISIS. It’s no wonder that refugees are pouring out of that country, trying to find safety and sanity.

But not everyone is leaving. Even in cities like Aleppo there are people still trying to cling to their homes in the hope that things will get better, but even so there are regular bombings and with bombings come people buried in rubble. That’s where the Syrian Civil Defense comes in. Nicknamed “the White Helmets” for their distinctive protective headgear, they go into terribly dangerous situations, into buildings that have been bombed and are structurally unsafe in order to pull out people who are injured or trapped.

We follow three members of that group in Aleppo (the SCD operates throughout Syria wherever they’re needed)  none of whom were trained professionals prior; one was a construction worker who built homes; another a tailor and the third a blacksmith. In fact, they are sent to Turkey to receive the training they desperately need to be more effective. They go unarmed and they fire no shots in anger at anyone – “I think it’s more important to rescue a soul than to take a soul,” says one laconically.

All three are family men who go to work desperately worried about their homes and loved ones, who are at risk every single day simply by virtue of the fact they live in Aleppo. While they are in Turkey they joke with one another, even occasionally playing practical jokes. They talk about their children and their hopes for them. To a man, they all believe that things will eventually get better.

But as the conflict approaches its seventh year with no end in sight, it’s hard not to admire these men who took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The group’s motto is a quote from the Koran; “save one life and you save humanity.” They are certainly putting that to good use.

In another era, these men would have qualified for John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. However, the organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In three years they have saved (as of the release of the film) more than 58,000 lives while 130 of their number have paid the ultimate price.

Do be warned that some of the footage is pretty intense. Most of it was filmed by the White Helmets themselves; the situations were far too dangerous to send camera crews in. Director von Einsiedel didn’t even come to Syria, although he did spend time with the subjects in Turkey. He had more than 70 hours of footage to go through, much of it unusable because it was too graphic. However even of what is shown some of it may be disturbing to the sensitive although when they pull the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble of an apartment building (a one-week old baby who survived a direct hit to her home) one can’t help but cry along with the rescuers who are also crying.

The documentary is only 40 minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. The downside is that it shows mankind at its worst – you can’t help but feel infuriated when you watch bombs hitting civilian targets with the knowledge that they were likely specifically targeted. The upside is that you also see mankind at its best – which makes you think that maybe this species might have a future after all.

REASONS TO GO: The message is uplifting and powerful. The three subjects are engaging and appealing in their ordinariness.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is not suitable for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are many disturbing images and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Khaled Omar, the White Helmet who is depicted here pulling the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble, died in an airstrike in August 2016.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Miss Sharon Jones!

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Jordan Long, Tobi Bakare, Nicholas Banks, Edward Holcroft, Morgan Watkins, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Hanna Alstrom, Fiona Hampton, Lily Travers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The spy movies of the late 60s and onward have a certain place in the cultural psyche. They represent a particular era, sure, but they also represent the fight between good and evil, our fascination with technology and a certain sense of humor about life in the modern age. Our attitudes towards women, patriotism, freedom and what constitutes a gentleman have been largely shaped by these films.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) is growing up aimlessly in a working class London neighborhood. His dad died when he was a baby and his mom (Womack) has taken up with a local thug (Bell) named Dean. Dean abuses his mom but Gary isn’t strong enough to stand up for her or for himself. Dean despises him and ridicules him for it.

But Eggsy has a good heart to go along with his Cockney accent and when he gets arrested for stealing the car of one of Dean’s underlings and leading the police on a merry chase, he knows he can’t call home. Therefore, he calls the number on the back of an amulet once given to his mother by a gentlemen who came to inform her of the death of Eggsy’s father, remembering that if he called that number and read a certain phrase, help of whatever nature was needed would be forthcoming.

It comes in the form of Harry Hart (Firth), a debonair and well-dressed gentleman who tells Eggsy that in fact, his father once saved Harry’s life and that Harry wanted to repay that debt by offering his son the opportunity to try out for a position in the same super secret organization that his father served in and that Harry in fact serves in now – the Kingsmen. No, not the “Louie, Louie” bunch.

The Kingsmen are a secret, non-government affiliated group of highly trained, highly skilled gentlemen. They aren’t spies particularly; what they do is prevent bad things from happening. They have a seemingly unlimited budget and there are only a set number of them; when one dies they are replaced. This is the group that Eggsy is about to join – if he can survive the process of selecting the winning applicant, that is and it is a brutal one, focusing on teamwork, thinking on one’s feet and assessing dangerous situations. Most of the applicants are upper class snobs, although Eggsy befriends Roxy (Cookson), a female applicant (who gets her share of grief from the snobs, as does Eggsy) and Merlin (Strong), the tech wizard of the Kingsmen and the right hand of Arthur (Caine), head of the organization.

In the meantime, a tech billionaire named Valentine has big, bad plans. See, he’s a little bit concerned about climate change. Okay, he’s a lot concerned about climate change. He’s given up on the government doing anything about it and has decided that to make humankind’s carbon footprint smaller he needs to make the population smaller. His plan is to use a special cell phone signal through special SIM cards in free cell phones he’s given away to nearly everyone trigger a violent, murderous rage in those who hear it. Only those wealthy, beautiful few who he’s personally approached and implanted a microchip that cancels out the signal in their heads will be immune to the carnage, especially after they all are safely ensconced in bunkers around the world.

It’s a mad plan, certainly but Valentine is deadly serious about it. He’s even hired himself a mercenary army and constructed a lair within a mountain. You know he’s got to be a villain with a mountain lair. In any case, with Valentine’s powerful connections, getting to him won’t be easy and preventing an anarchic Armageddon even less so but that’s what the Kingsmen are there for, after all – to save the day.

Vaughn has made films based on Mark Millar comic series before (as this film is) and the collaborations between the two have been fruitful, producing the fine superhero film Kick-Ass for example. Vaughn has become one of my favorite directors of late with some excellent genre films to his credit. He knows how to make a film visually spectacular and hit all the right buttons in the fanboy psyche while not taking the movies so seriously that they become ponderous. His movies are almost always deeply entertaining.

And this one is no exception. Colin Firth as an action hero seems like a pretty unlikely casting, but it works here. Firth actually performed a surprising amount of his own stunts, but handles the role well, keeping a Bond-like facade of cool while kicking the butts of a group of Dean’s thugs, or some of Valentine’s flunkies, or a church full of homicidal fundamentalists.

Samuel L. Jackson makes a fine villain. Given several personality quirks (he gets violently ill at the sight of blood for example) by the writers, Jackson gives the character a lisp that makes him all the more memorable which is in the grand tradition of Bond villains. While the lisp does occasionally fall off, Jackson gives the character the right amount of menace to make for a formidable foe but enough goofiness to give the film a lighter tone. He also gets a nifty assassin in Gazelle (Boutella), who has no legs but on her Pistorius-like artificial limbs is fast, graceful and deadly as she is able to unfold sword blades from those artificial legs while in mid-air. Tres cool.

There are a lot of asides to the spy movies and television series of history; a reference to the Get Smart! shoe phone for example, or the glasses worn by super-spy Harry Palmer in films like The Billion Dollar Baby and The Ipcress Files. Clearly there are several Bond references although many are turned on their ear; Valentine at one point has a speech in which he says “This is the part where I reveal to you all my plans, and then come up with a slow and convoluted way for you to die, and you come up with a convoluted way to escape and stop me. Except this isn’t that kind of movie” at which point he shoots his nemesis in the head, much like Indiana Jones once shot a swordsman making fancy moves before he could attack.

Egerton shows a lot of potential, although I can’t say he’s a slam-dunk future star. He’s got charisma but he wasn’t really asked to carry this movie (as well he shouldn’t have been) and so I’m not certain he can rise above the gimmicks and gadgets, of which there are plenty here. The jury is out on him for me, although I can see him eventually ascending to a leading man status.

The humor here is mostly dry although there are some broad physical jokes here from time to time. Those who find the English wit not to their liking may consider this not their cup of tea, although I enjoyed this a great deal. In fact, this is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen thus far this year (which isn’t saying much) and one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in the first quarter of any year (which is saying a lot) ever. For those looking for a fun time at the movies, this is your best bet at least until some of the more anticipated movies of the spring start appearing next month. I certainly wouldn’t complain if this became the start of a new Fox franchise.

REASONS TO GO: Highly entertaining. Great action sequences. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies a bit on gimmickry and gadgetry. May be too droll for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and mayhem, some pretty crude language and some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The menswear shop on Savile Row which is the entrance to the Kingsman headquarters is based on Huntsman, a real store in the area. Because shooting in the actual shop would have been impractical, a set was built copying many of the characteristics of the original although production designer Paul Kirby added his own touches to give the set its own personality.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hot Tub Time Machine 2