Saturday, August 03, 2013

Five movie recommendations to save you from mindless summer monsters and superheroes

by Salman Hameed

Our usual Film Autopsy is on hiatus for the summer, so I thought I'll suggest a few films to save you from summer monsters and superheroes. Some of these films have a tengential connection to the blog but two are relevant for their connections to politics impacting the larger Muslim world.

So here we go:

Science Fiction
Europa Report:
At a time of big-budget but dumb science fiction films, Europa Report is a breath of fresh air. I have a review coming up later, but I should say that the filmmakers have done their work in terms of science and they present a (relatively) realistic scenario of a mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa and the potential of life there. Europa, of course, is one of the best (or perhaps the best) locations in our Solar system to find life. We know that there is a salty liquid water ocean under the ice sheet of this Jovian moon. Furthermore, there are underwater volcanoes that may provide the necessary energy for lifeforms to survive and thrive. Some of these  conditions mimic the underwater volcanoes here on Earth.

The film uses a mock-documentary format to present us with details of this mission to Europa. This is a low budget film but they have done a good of creating Europan landscapes and of utilizing images from the Galileo spacecraft. The tone of the film is a bit dour and some better developed characters would have helped. But these are small quibbles for a good science fiction film that embraces the spirit of scientific discovery. Here is the preview of the film:

Relevant for the current geopolitical debates:
Dirty Wars:
This is a documentary that follows accomplished journalist, Jeremy Scahill. The movie is centered on night raids in Afghanistan, missile and drone strikes in Yemen, and the mercenary war in Somalia. This is not a sensational demonization of the US government nor does it contain exaggerated claims. Instead, it shows how Scahill pieces his reports together and finds out about US military operations that are often not reported in the newspapers.

The film opens with a case in Afghanistan and it has a chilling conclusion. But worse, Scahill finds that such operations are taking place 30-40 times a night - with accompanying civilian casualties. In Yemen, he tracks down the damage of one of the first missile strikes - with casualties including mostly women and children. A Yemeni reporter who wrote about it, ended up in jail. Scahill also interviews the father of Anwar al-Awlaki - the first American citizen targetted and killed by a drone strike - both before and after the killing. Even more chillingly, Anwar al-Awlaki's 16-year old son was also killed in a drone strike soon after the killing of his father.

Dirty Wars is rich with information and avoids the pitfalls of being polemical. However, it is unnecessarily stylized by the director. I think the strength of the documentary is in its material and its stylization as a spy-thriller becomes somewhat a distraction. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic and important documentary. Here is the preview of the film:



We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
This is all the more relevant because of the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden and the recently concluded trial of Bradley Manning - the source behind the Wikileaks documents. Directed by Alex Gibney, the documentary focuses on the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning. While Assange comes off as a quirky anarchist (my favorite scene is with Assange talking in the phone while casually jumping on a trampoline at an estate outside of London), it is the story of Manning that is at the heart of the film. And what a story! Manning was not really meant for the military and never got adjusted to it. He also wanted to be a woman and was planning on a sex change operation in the future. And amidst all of that, he was anguished by the actions of the US government, and inspired by Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, he provided Wikileaks with top secret documents, starting with a video that showed the killing of a Reuters journalist in Iraq by a US gunship, and followed it up with US diplomatic cables. It is absolutely heartbreaking (and outrageous) to know that after his arrest, Manning was placed in a solitary confinement for almost a year and treated in a sub-human way.

Like Dirty Wars, this is also an important documentary for this time. Here is the preview of the film:



Fruitvale Station
This is not a documentary, but it is based on a tragic shooting of a 22-year old African-american by the police at a Bart station in San Francisco. The film traces the last day of the life of Oscar, and it does so in a delicate and nuanced way, without emotionally exploiting the subject. Race and class issues in the US, obviously, are at the heart of the film. This is a superb film with fantastic performances. Here is a preview for the film:




Just a great film from this summer:
Mud:
This is the best movie I have seen this summer. It is directed by Jeff Nichols, who also directed the superb 2011 film, Take Shelter (check out our Film Autopsy here). Set in Arkansas on the banks of the Mississippi river, this is one of the best coming-of-age films. But it also has abstract shades of religion, superstition, and mythology - and that combines to make this a powerful film. The director is only 35 years old. He has written and directed three films. I have not yet seen Shotgun Stories, but I absolutely loved Take Shelter and Mud. Perhaps more excitingly, Jeff's next project is a sci-fi film and I can't wait to see it.

In any case, here is the preview for Mud:

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