Lebanese Ely Dagher’s Waves ’98 Wins Best Short Movie Award At Cannes 2015

Ely Makhoul Cannes 2015 Waves '98

About four weeks ago, I wrote about a very promising short movie by Lebanese director Ely Dagher which was nominated for Best Short Movie at this year’s Cannes Festival (link).

The short film is an attempt by Ely Dagher to come to terms with living and growing up in Beirut, while working out of Belgium: the movie is about his adolescence years as a Lebanese lost in his own capital.  As I said before, the trailer made it seem extremely promising: it was unlike any Lebanese movie or short film I had seen before, and I had high hopes.

Well, Cannes agrees with me.

Ely Dagher Waves '98 Cannes Win

Ely Dagher just became the first Lebanese to win a major award at Cannes. By having his movie win, Ely Dagher beat out seven other nominees from seven other countries that probably cared less about their production than the Lebanese government ever did.

By being nominated in the first place, Ely Dagher beat out 4550 other short films that were submitted from all across the world. And today, I feel proud and I suppose so should you.

Let Ely Dagher’s win be a testament to Lebanese talents everywhere who can make it big, like he did, when given the chance, the funds, the backing, when they are allowed to pursue their vision beyond the confines of a Lebanese society that is so comfortable in what it knows that it never ventures out of its comfort zone, a society that squashes its own arts as forever cliches and doesn’t let its own artists truly express what they can do in fear of not being commercial enough.

I congratulate Ely Dagher for winning. Here’s hoping Waves ’98 makes it big at next year’s Oscars as well. Hopefully it’ll become the first Lebanese production to win that golden statuette as well.

 

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Waves ’98: The Lebanese Short Film Nominated For A Palme D’Or At Cannes 2015

Ely Dagher Waves '98

4550 short films from across 100 countries were submitted to the Short Films category at Cannes this year. Only 8 made the selection to be in the running for the Palme D’Or. And a Lebanese short film, Waves ’98, by Ely Dagher is one of them.

It has been a long, long time that Lebanon has had any movies featured this prominently at Cannes – Nadine Labaki’s offerings were not given the same treatment. This is the first time in over 24 years that a Lebanese film made the selection at Cannes this way, not since 1991 when Maroun Baghdadi’s “Hors La Vie” was nominated, and ended up winning the Jury Prize..

Ely Dagher is a young Lebanese filmmaker living in Brussels. As someone who was torn between life in Belgium and life in Lebanon, he ended up writing Waves ’98 as a way to come to terms with what living and growing up in Beirut meant to him. The work took two years.

I haven’t seen the movie, but the trailer shows it to be very different from anything Lebanese that has been offered to us in the past few years. In fact, the feel of it reminded me a bit of the very, very good (and very traitorous?) movie “Waltz With Bashir,” albeit with a different subject matter I’d assume.

It doesn’t matter if Ely Dagher’s Waves ’98 wins on May 24th at Cannes or not. The fact that he managed to be nominated out of 4550 other submitted movies is triumphant enough for him and Lebanese talents everywhere, when given room to grow beyond the confines of cliches that they are required to be limited to while trying to make it in Lebanon.

The nomination of Waves ’98 shows that when not limited by subject matter, and when not restricted by local taboos, Lebanese talents can make a dent in fields that we’ve come to brush off as beyond us.

I contrast this with a play I watched recently in Beirut called “Venus,” which had a brilliant script, beyond brilliant acting and broke Lebanese taboos like no other play I had seen before. Venus worked because it didn’t care about sensibilities. Waves ’98 isn’t necessarily within the same context, but it being different puts it in the category of works of art pushing the boundaries of our Lebanese artistic repertoire.

Instead of talking on and on about movies such as Vitamin, and beyond subpar offerings by Lebanese cinema in recent years, we should at least give the ambitious and talented Ely Dagher and his movie the credit they deserve for making a dent, for showing that Lebanese filmmakers can accomplish such feats.

Congratulations, and my outmost respect.

Check out the trailer:

Her (2013) – Movie Review

Her Movie poster

Talk about hitting the ball out of the park. I am in awe.

Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, features Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly who, in the not-so-distant future, is depressed as he goes about his life post a break-up with his wife. He is your typical lonely guy, living alone in a spacious apartment, working from his cubicle until he clocks in his required hours then going home to play his 3D video game. On the surface, Theodore doesn’t look like someone who minds where he was: in limbo between the memory of the relationship he had with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and trying to move on with his life. He then finds himself purchasing a new operating system, meant to be the world’s first artificial intelligence OS, after seeing its ad while on his way to work. His OS is named Samantha and voiced by the amazing Scarlett Johansson.

Soon enough, Theodore finds his entire life and existence being organized by Samantha, not just his schedule and email. Through an earpiece and a phone, Theodore shows Samantha his world while she exposes him to different facets of the things he thought he knew. He’d close his eyes and let her guide him around a carnival. She’d ask him how he’d touch her. He’d feel comfortable with her. She’d help him break out of the break-up that was breaking him. But would a soothing voice be enough for him?

Her may be science fiction but it also feels like a cross examination of a culture that is becoming very dependent on technology. It’s not far-fetched to imagine the events of this movie happening in the not-distant future. The idea is perhaps not new but it has probably never been handled this way and while the premise of a love affair with an OS may be off-putting for some, Spike Jonze handles it brilliantly, giving a movie in which you get absorbed, sinking in every single second of screen time you watch.

There are characters which spring on screen here and there, such as Amy Adams – a friend of Theodore’s, but Her is Joaquin Phoenix leading a one man show. He commands the many extended scenes in which he is almost always alone. His interaction with Samantha, who is never physically present, gives way to one of the most heart-warming relationships you’ll see in a movie this year. The biggest drawback of Theodore Twombly, however, is that his character feels to be stuck in some emotional development limbo post his break-up. Joaquin Phoenix works through that, anyway. It’s the work of an acting master, one who has been going unappreciated for way too long.

Scarlett Johansson’s voice as Samantha is so vital to what Her is. She is getting an entire movie to ride on her vocal appeal, who is building an entire relationship with her sighs, nuances, sultriness and, occasionally, songs. She is so good at what she does that you eventually stop noticing that Theodore is not actually having a relationship with a living person but with a voice that talks to him through an earpiece. It’s slightly unnerving but also excellently well-done.

Her is a delight to the ears as ear as well with its backdrop being an exquisite score by Arcade Fire. The music is excellent. It feels futuristic while still managing to be current, perfectly embodying the movie it serves.

Her is magic on screen. It’s science fiction without the blitz. It’s unlike most of the movie’s you’ve seen recently. It asks questions that as a culture we may be heading to without coming off as greeting-card cheesy or preachy. And it’s easy, I guess, to think of it as gimmicky or as another been-there-done-that movie. But it’s not. I may have found its premise odd at first and dismissed it way too easily. But I’m so glad I gave this movie a chance because it has turned out to be one the year’s absolute best. I really hope it wins some golden statuettes. It deserves every single one of them. Go watch it. Now.

4.5/5

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) – Movie Review

Hunger Games Catching Fire movie poster

It has become a Hollywood rule that sequels should suck. A few movies have escaped that sophomore slump. Add Catching Fire to that short list. Nay, have Catching Fire occupy an honorary spot on that list. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how sequels should be made.

I am a fan of The Hunger Games book series. I also thoroughly enjoyed the first movie. And let’s just say that the second movie makes my liking of the first seem mediocre, childish, fanboyish. I stand corrected – The Hunger Games was not the movie that brought this series to its potential. Catching Fire does that and so much more.

The events pick up where the previous movie ended: Katniss has to work with the consequences of her defiance at The Hunger Games that resulted in saving both Peeta Mellark and herself. Her act of defiance is seeding a revolution across the country. People are looking at her as their leader. And the Capitol wants her to do what she can to squash that revolution down, as they prepare for a very special edition of The Hunger Games, which have hit their 75th edition.

Saying anything more than that would be treading spoiler-zone worse than a minesweeper game. Catching Fire doesn’t let up. There’s no dull moment. There’s no frame that feels out of place. There’s no scene that makes you shrug at it being useless. It keeps you transfixed throughout its two and a half hour run. Just sit back and enjoy it. Special effects? Check. Riveting cast? Check. Twisted story? Check. Great directing? Check. Cinematography, art direction, costume design? Check, check and check.  Seriously, what more do you need?

Jennifer Lawrence, through her portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, is cementing herself as the actress of our generation. The sheer talent this creature has is simply spell-binding to watch. She captures the essence of Katniss perfectly, delivering one knockout scene after the next like it’s a piece of cake. It helps that she has multi-layered material to work with. But I highly doubt any other actress with less chops could have done the marvelous job she’s doing in this series.

If The Hunger Games series continues its upward trajectory, look for it to mark itself as this classic movie series down the line that we tell our grandchildren to watch as they shrug us off. Those movies? They’d ask. But they look so ancient. They’d add. Except they’re not. Catching Fire, despite it being fiction, feels extremely relevant in the world of today. It may not be the movie that would amass a ton of Oscars. It’s not because it’s not worthy. It’s because it’s just too easy to shrug this off as some silly young adult novel adaptation. Catching Fire, however, is one of the best book adaptations I’ve seen. There have been very few and there will be even fewer movies this year that are as entertaining.

Do yourself a favor and check in whatever you thought about the first movie at the door and head to your nearest cinema this weekend to get on this ride. You’re in for one hell of a treat. The Hunger Games have caught fire and I, for one, am still betting on them.

4.5/5

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” Is A Masterpiece

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Beirut’s Film Festival is peaking early this year, on its opening night to be precise, when Gravity lands onto its screens.

Going with high expectations into a movie is almost always a recipe for disaster. More often than not, movies fail to satisfy that craving you had thought they would, leaving you feeling cheated. I had high expectations for Gravity, it blew them all out of the park with its opening scene alone.

Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space trip with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). A seemingly simple mission immediately goes awry, as is expected, when Russians destroy a satellite that was orbiting Earth, sending debris flying at bullet-speed towards the astronauts. As their space shuttle is destroyed, Stone and Kowalsky are left to drift in space as they try to find a way to go back home.

Gravity may seem like a typical science fiction movie at first sight but it’s nowhere near that. It’s a gut-wrenching tale of fear, despair, loneliness, friendship and survival. Gravity is spell-binding. Every minute of its 90 minute running time is irrevocably captivating. Everything its characters do is believable, adding to the overall effect of the movie. We had gotten so used to Hollywood blockbusters overwhelming us with special effects in order to turn their movie into a hit that I thought I reached a point where no movie could impress me from a technical viewpoint: hadn’t we seen them all?

What we hadn’t seen was Gravity. The use of special effects and 3D in this movie is not gimmicky, it helps to tell a story. The techniques employed to film the movie are masterful. There are shots there which are so brilliant I have no idea how they were filmed.There’s a reason why James Cameron said this was the best space movie ever made. There’ s also plenty of good reasons why Darren Aronofsky said this is the type of show movie-makers will learn from for years to come. They were both not lying.

Alfonso Cuaron is a visionary. After Gravity, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be on every movie fan’s favorite directors list. His movie makes you feel like you are one with the astronauts as they drift afloat, at the mercy of the gravity-less space they are in. His camera runs ever so smoothly, fluidly, giving the impression that the entire movie is one unbroken shot. His command over his work is so evident that the effect is near-hallucinatory: it draws you in, makes you believe you are one with Bullock as she strives to stay alive, as she fights for every breath she could take.

Bullock is terrific. This could very well be her best acting performance to date. I can definitely see a best actress nomination for her at this year’s Academy Awards, effectively telling her naysayers that her win for The Blind Side a few years ago was not a fluke. Bolstered by great work from Clooney and, at the beginning of the movie, Ed Harris’ voice guiding them all the way from Houston, Bullock takes in every fiber of her character and gives it back to the audience tenfolds. You can see every emotion on her face as it unravels. You can see her tears as they drift off her face (literally). You can feel her elation at times. You can feel her despair at other times. She helps the movie be as great as it is.

If there’s ever a movie that requires you to check in your movie genre stereotypes at the door, it’s this. I am blown away. Gravity is astonishing. It may pull on your heartstrings sometimes, but it’s never sappy. It’s a towering achievement in technique while also being a cinematic experience that is sure to trouble your senses, especially with its epic musical score. If the Oscar race is off to this start, other movies are at a terrible disadvantage. I am in awe.

5/5

Ghadi, An Upcoming Lebanese Movie

A friend of mine just sent my way the trailer for an upcoming Lebanese movie called Ghadi, written by Lebanese comedian George Khabbaz:

I found the trailer to be interesting and it looks like this movie will be different from other Lebanese movies we’ve had to endure. Of course, many of us say this about every Lebanese movie so here’s hoping our eternal optimism doesn’t turn out foolish this time around.

However, this is already awesome for being shot in Batroun. I’m biased like that.

The movie, according to their Facebook page, is a social comedy about the struggles of a Lebanese family. George Khabbaz’s previous works in such a theme were very witty. The movie is directed by Amin Dora. It will be out in theaters on September 26th.

We’re The Millers (2013) – Movie Review

We're-The-Millers-Poster

I’ve finally found a funny movie this year! While this isn’t absolute movie brilliance as I’m sure no one really expects it to be, it has enough hearty laughs and fun scenes to be worth a trip to a theatre near you if you want to watch something along such lines.

David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) is a drug dealer working in Denver who finds himself in trouble as his stash and money are stolen by a local gang. He is then coerced by his local drug lord Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms) to pick up a “little” marijuana from Mexico under the name of a Mexican drug lord for which he’ll get paid $100,000. In order to get past border control easily, David devises a plan that involves hiring a stripper named Sarah (Jennifer Aniston) and two local kids, a runaway teenage girl (Emma Roberts) and a virgin teenage boy (Will Poulter) to play a fake family called the “Millers.”

The movie’s greatest asset is the ease with which its cast work together. All four main actors play off each other with ease and charm. The movie may be a tinge too long but it’s carried by the cast and there are enough funny moments and memorable scenes here to keep you going. Make sure you stick through the credits for one of the movie’s best scenes though, especially for fans of the TV show Friends.

Of course, the way the plot unravels is predictable. Don’t get your hopes up for an out-of-the-box resolution. We’re The Millers may not be the risky comedy type that is expected out of comedies these days, but at least it’s funny – it is a typical Hollywood comedy but in a year that has not seen any decent comedies, it’s somewhat refreshing for the Millers to finally show up.

3.5/5