Friday, 1 September 2017

IN THEATRES: The Hitman's Bodyguard & In Between

One weekend, two movies. One for the dudes, and one for the ladies.

The Hitman's Bodyguard
This movie was not on my radar. And then I saw the trailer. And this poster.

Ryan Reynolds plays disgraced bodyguard Michael Bryce. Roped in by his ex, Bryce has to transport world class hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) to the Hague where he is the star witness against a murderous dictator (Gary Oldman). Much shooting and shouting follows... 

The Hitman's Bodyguard is a dumb movie. It features stars you like doing things they have done before (Jackson plays a hyperbolic version of himself; Oldman plays a Eurtrash villain; perennial bad guy Joaquim de Almeida turns up as a turncoat) in an incredibly predictable script featuring one plot twist that you can see coming from the beginning.

But that does not mean it is not fun.

The stars may be operating in familiar gears, but the comedy beats are great: Jackson recalling how he met his wife; Reynolds fighting a henchman in a hardware store; The bit with Reynolds going through the windshield, which was in all the trailers but in the movie it acts as a terrific button to a longer set piece.

Oldman is pretty dull as the villain (weird considering his back catalogue), and Elodie Yung does not have a lot to do as Reynolds' former girlfriend (in a neat touch, he lists her as 'Pure Evil' on his cellphone). If the cast has a standout, it is Salma Hayek, as Kincaid's extremely irate wife, Sonya.

It is like her character from Fair Game dumped Stephen Baldwin, went to Honduras where she spent years punching and stabbing bar patrons, getting even more angry, until she met Jackson (about three people understood that reference but I refuse to rescind it).

Director Patrick Hughes moves the action at a good clip, even if he does resort to some incomprehensible over-cutting and shaky cam at points. The colour palette is extremely ugly - it makes the movie look like a VOD release. None of the action set pieces are that original, but they work fine as a spine for the stars' constant bickering.

The Hitman's Bodyguard defines junk food cinema. Honestly this one might be more of a rental, but if you are in the mood for something frivolous and fun, it is worth a look.

In Between (Maysaloun Hamoud, 2016)
This movie came out last week, and I finally got a chance to check it out.

As I get older, I find one of the types of movies that I look out for are movies based around female friendships, especially when they are united by some kind of shared pressure. Add to that the Palestinian context, and a female auteur (Maysaloun Hamoud), and it rocketed straight to the top of my must-see list (if I had one).

The story concerns three flatmates living in Tel Aviv: Leila (Mouna Hawa), a secular lawyer who loves to party and has little interest in being tied down; Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a lesbian who hides her true feelings from her conservative Christian family; and Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a university student who is trying to balance a degree of independence while upholding the expectations of her dogmatic fiance.

Man, I really wish I had a deeper knowledge/any knowledge of the cultural context these characters are navigating. There are probably some layers that this review is going to completely miss.

Laila (centre) during good times.
Not that In Between is niche. It is an extremely straightforward portrait of three women attempting to preserve a sense of self and agency in a diegesis that is filled with traps - some hidden and some not. The characters and their dilemmas are all sadly relatable: parental expectations; racial prejudice; religious hypocrisy and rape culture.

The performances are all terrific. As Leila, Mouna Hawa possesses an easy charisma and sense of humour that makes her easy to gravitate toward: ballsy, cynical and boasting an extremely powerful sense of self-worth, Hawa is the cool surrogate mum who is always ready to step in when her friends are in jam, probably wearing some ridiculous outfit and with a cigarette in hand. She's so tough and cool, I would love to see her play a burnt-out PI.

Leila has her own subplot involving Ziad (Mahmud Shalaby), a man whose worldly liberalism she finds attractive. Their romance is quickly hamstrung when he voices doubts about the way she dresses and other activities (smoking, drinking). A bloodhound for hypocritical bullshit, Leila immediately dumps him.

Salma juggles two identities, entertaining her parents desire for her to be married by taking part in a series of awkward dinners with potential suitors; and her life at the flat, where she feels free to pursue her interests in DJ-ing, and spend time with her new girlfriend. There is a quiet sadness to Sana Jammelieh's performance that is extremely affecting - Salma recognises the restrictions and barriers around her but unlike Leila, she is unable to navigate them with the same assurance.

Noor, ostensibly the 'good girl' of the trio, is punished the most for her modest attempts at independence. Kanboura is rather loveable in the role. Noor is no innocent to the world, and not afraid to try new things (she is studying computer science), but she is also struggling to find herself under the pressures of her family and fiance. It's a hard balancing act to do, but Kanboura manages it with dignity and humour.

While these characters were great, I was also really impressed with Maysaloun Hamoud's direction, particularly her use of blocking within the frame. It is an important, but underrated part of a director's work, and Hamoud displays an understanding of how the blocking and framing of characters works to delineate power shifts between characters within scenes.

Two examples stand out:

The first is the scene where the girls discover Noor in the bathroom after she has been raped. Hamoud  frames the scene in an extended, static, wide shot with Noor huddled against the wall in the mid ground, with the toilet visible behind her. Leila is introduced by a clatter of heels. At this point you would expect her to run to Noor's aid. Instead, she staggers into frame, past Noor and throws up into the toilet. She then turns and yells to Salma that Noor needs help. It is the first time that Leila has shown genuine compassion for her flatmate, and it is carried off in a fashion that feels real and organic to the character.

The other example is at the end of the scene where Noor and her fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes) tell her father that their engagement is off. At this point, we have been primed with moments of patriarchal violence - Noor's rape; Salma's father slapping her when he realises she is gay; and so the expectation is that this scene will go the same way.

Noor is framed in a mid-shot, at the right side of frame. Her father can be barely glimpsed at the left side of frame. As he lurches into frame, Noor flinches. His arms rise into frame - and he hugs her. It is a beautiful reversal of expectations.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is the way it threads the broader issues of the region throughout the story without being obvious or clunky. As well as patriarchal violence, racism is a recurrent theme: when Leila and Salma go shopping at a department store, a suspicious clerk watches them; Salma also loses her job for speaking Arabic. It is not as obvious as the misogyny, but it is layered through the movie as yet another conflict that they have to take on.

The climax of the film ends on the women at an impasse. Leila has rejected Ziad; Salma is going to Berlin; Noor is on her own. The movie ends on the shot above, as they silently contemplate the night sky.

It is a great ending which really captures the essence of the movie's title. This is the first moment where the women have either overcome or escaped their dilemmas, and are left bloodied, bruised but still standing. There is no definite sense of catharsis, just a sense of reprieve. Tomorrow their struggle will resume, but for now there is just a quiet moment to ponder.

I hope this movie's success will act as a catalyst for more movies about Palestinian women and Palestinian female filmmakers (and their exposure overseas). While it is dark, and has some extremely confrontational scenes, it is also very funny and offers an extremely empathetic portrait of its main characters. If you have a chance, check it out.

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