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Entries in Middle Eastern Films (34)

Wednesday
Apr272016

New Actor Obsession: Dominic Rains

Confession: I normally remember actresses names with their faces straightaway even if they've only had a bit role that impressed me. Sometimes actors take a few roles to reel me in as if I'm face blind. And so it was at Tribeca where Dominic Rains took the Best Actor prize for his strong sympathetic work as Osman, an Afghani journalist transplanted to rural California in Ian Old's The Fixer (2016). All throughout the picture I was like "who is this guy?" like I'd never seen him before only to discover thereafter that I'd already seen him AND loved him in two other movies. In my defense the Iranian-American actor, born in Tehran and raised in Texas, looks different in each of his key roles. But still! I'd never let this talent slip by me with an actress no matter what they did with their hair and costumes.

Rains was the mohawked punk rocker in the little-seen but high-energy Taqwacores (2010) and the sleazy drug-addled pimp in the stunning Iranian vampire picture A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014).

More after the jump...

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Thursday
Feb252016

Short Film Contenders Pt 1. Who Will Win?

Eric Blume reporting for duty. We hadn't yet reviewed the short film Oscar nominees so I binged all 15 of this week. Many minds and bladders wander away from the Oscar telecast during these three categories.  Even those of us who claim we’ve “seen everything” have rarely seen all of the entries in the three shorts fields. But pay attention because these winners can bring some of the best moments of the show:  remember the 1991 show when producer Debra Chasnoff won for Documentary Short Subject for the General Electric expose Deadly Deception?  She got to the podium and said “boycott GE!” with a cut to Barbra Streisand smiling and clapping with Kevin Costner right behind her decidedly smiling and not clapping.  We Oscar lovers live for moments like this.

There’s a lot of quality among the three categories this year.  Here’s a quick overview as well as thoughts on who might prevail and why on two of the categories.

Documentary Short Subject

Body Team 12 follows the only female Liberian Red Cross member of a team which comes to remove dead bodies during the Ebola outbreak.  It’s the shortest of the five nominees at only 13 minutes, and therefore it doesn’t have a strong driving narrative, nor does it culminate in a larger meaning.  It simply follows the team while they gear up and remove the bodies, interspersed with an interview from its main subject.  It’s focused and lovely in its simplicity, but it suffers from its brevity. 

Pro:  Ebola.  Con: Uncomplicated.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness follows Saba, a Pakastani girl who is shot and left for dead by her father and uncle in an “honor killing” once she marries the young man she loves.  It’d be hard for anyone with a feminist bone or beating heart in them to not get riled up by this story, and it’s told with restraint and intelligence. 

Pro:  Angry.  Con: Angry.

Eight more shorts after the jump

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Wednesday
Sep302015

HBO’s LGBT History: Be Like Others (2008)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we looked at Bernard and Doris, which gave us a chance to wax on about two underrated actors, Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes. This week, we look abroad as we pause to think about Tanaz Eshaghian’s documentary Be Like Others (also known as Transsexual in Iran). More...

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Thursday
Sep242015

TIFF: Baba Joon, Dégradé, Much Loved

on the set of Baba JoonAmir files our last TIFF report on three films, one of them hoping for Oscar...

Baba Joon (Israel)
Israel’s Oscar submission is quite a unique experience: the lives of Iranian Jews who have left their homeland to live in Israel—and are consequently not allowed to re-enter Iran because of the two countries’ bitter relationship has never been portrayed on screen. In Yuval Delshad’s debut feature, the titular character and his clan—a son, his wife and their son—all live on a small turkey farm in rural Israel and live with very modest means. The tensions between multiple generations of the family, and the melancholia of living at once at home and away from home are the film’s central themes.

Baba Joon’s storytelling and the emotional beats are familiar. There is nothing in the strained father-son dynamics, troubled by decades of repression, that we haven’t previously seen on the big screen. The film’s abrupt but rather predictable ending lends it a saccharine flavour that might sit well with the Academy, but undermines the film. When the story’s resolution is presented so neatly with a gift wrap, very little is left for the audience to ponder. Still, this is a heartfelt film of genuinely well intentions, with a sizable novelty factor, whose fresh look at ethnic minorities in the Middle East is quietly delightful.

Dégradé (Palestine/France/Qatar)
This debut film from eccentrically named brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser, shows similar irreverence in depicting ethnic tensions with Israel. Part Almodovar-esque comedy of women on the verge of nervous breakdowns, part a thriller revolving a hostage situation, their film, which stars Hiam Abbas and Maisa Abd Elhadi, is based in a hair salon in Gaza, where the clientele hail from different social, religious and political backgrounds. As they wait their turns to be beautified, the salon becomes increasingly like a microcosm of Gaza’s society, and the world beyond the confines of the building is engulfed in violence.

Dégradé is an interesting look at life in the occupied territories because it broadens the conversation beyond the Israel-Palestine binary. In the film’s view, the community is rife with tensions and chasms, all exacerbated by the atrocious limitations of living in occupation. Yet, the image is much richer and layered than normally shown on screen, breaking the monolithic view of Palestinians in favour of a more complex perspective. That the film manages to convey these intricacies while remaining consistently entertaining is a significant accomplishment, and one that promises much more from the filmmaking duo.

Much Loved (Morocco/France)
The most daring film among the bunch comes from the more experienced hands of Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch. Ayouch surveys the night club scene in Marrakech, a world filled with sex, drugs and rampant decadence. Home to tourists from Saudi Arabia and Europe, the city’s nightlife is bustling and its sex industry is ever active, almost completely removed from the crisis-ridden country that surrounds it. Almost.  Following Noha (Loubna Abidar) and her entourage of less experienced escorts, Much Loved is as intimate a film as it is provocative.

Ayouch has had to field a lot of controversy, mostly due to the explicit displays of sex in his film; and while the murky release prospects of the film in the Arab world are understandable, it’s unfortunate if sex becomes the only talking point. This is the rare film that intertwines the lives of sex workers with socio-economic issues without becoming patronizing. Morocco’s complicated relationships with Europe and other Arab countries, and its tenuous political situation are subtly worked into the plot of the film. It’s intimate and superbly acted—mostly by amateur performers— and a film that's heartbreaking, humorous and evocative in equal measure. In a festival that is never short on big films from big directors, Much Loved was a true discovery.

Thursday
Sep172015

TIFF: Mustang, 3000 Nights

Amir continues our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival with a duo of middle eastern films directed by women, the first of which is one of five films shortlisted for Oscar submission selection by France.

Mustang (Turkey/France)
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s first feature is an astonishingly assured debut. The story of five orphaned sisters who live with their grandmother and uncle in rural Turkey is at once a joyous celebration of youth and a rage-inducing depiction of young girls’ lives in religious, conservative societies. Locked inside their house after they are found innocuously playing with male classmates at the beach, the girls are forced to stay away from school and spend their days getting primed to be housewives.

The first half takes on a mostly comic tone, as the girls defiantly rebel against increasingly harsh measures by finding inventive ways to step out of the house or sneak off with their boyfriends. One forced marriage and an unfortunate disaster later, however, the film takes a sharp turn for the serious. [More...]

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Friday
Jul172015

Omar Sharif in Egypt

Having already honored Omar Sharif's passing through a Hollywood lens, please welcome new contributor Murtada Elfadl with a look at Sharif's relationship to Egyptian cinema and his leading lady there - Editor.

 

Faten and Omar in 1955The first thought I had when I heard of Omar Sharif’s passing last week was “Oh, he’s joining Faten!”. Faten Hamama was arguably the biggest female movie star in the Arab World and enjoyed a 50+ year career. She was also Sharif’s leading lady in the 1950s and 1960s. It was through the prism of his relationship with Hamama that I came to know and love Sharif. By the time I was growing up in Sudan in the 1980s her output had shrunk to only a movie every few years but at our house we spent many a night watching her old movies on TV. And watching Faten meant watching Omar.

Sharif’s relationship with Hamama defined his early roles. He was plucked from obscurity and chosen to star with her - the biggest Arab movie star and #1 box office draw - in 1954’s Struggle in the Valley. Their chemistry was combustible on and off screen. It was quite a scandal of the time as Hamama was a married woman and it was the 1950s in a conservative Eastern society. They were of different religions, she’s Muslim, he was Christian. Their love affair had all the ingredients of a soap opera. She got divorced! He converted!  They were the Taylor / Burton of Egypt or the Angelina / Brad of the 1950s Middle East. It speaks to their popularity that they were not shunned by the public and the industry a la Ingrid Bergman whose own love affair / scandal happened just a few years before theirs. [More...]

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Friday
Jul102015

Omar Sharif (1932-2015)

Sharif Photographed by Andrew Walker in 2011Hollywood's first and still only Egyptian movie star passed away at 83 today of a heart attack. It had recently been announced that he was suffering from Alzheimers and after such a full life this may feel like a mercy to some, though his loved one are surely grieving and our hearts go out to them.

Though moviegoers roughly 35 and up surely remember him, here's the gist of it for younger budding cinephiles: Sharif began and ended his career in Arabic language cinema but in the vast middle (1960s-1990s) he achieved global stardom via Hollywood and British cinema. His English language debut Lawrence of Arabia (1962) brought him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and he became a genuine superstar in short order, headlining one of the all time biggest box office smashes (Doctor Zhivago, 1965). In his third enduring classic from that decade he helped Barbra Streisand ascend into the pantheon in her film debut Funny Girl (1968). 

In fact, his performances in those three hits are rather fine illustrations of what was so special about his onscreen persona: his generosity and a certain intangible 'eye of the beholder' transference. He was one of the greatest romantic leading men precisely because he seemed so believably in thrall to the particular charismas of his co-stars. And he had great ones: Sophia Loren, Barbra Streisand, Julie Christie, Peter O'Toole, Julie Andrews and more. 

And while he drank in their inimitable beauty, he looked like this:

Dr Zhivago (1965)a portrait from the 1950s when he starred regularly in Egyptian cinema
The Tamarind Seed (1974) and More Than a Miracle (1967)

Double the pleasure, then, for moviegoers who were ready to swoon. And swoon they did, all over the world. 

What's your favorite Omar Sharif performance?