These days World War I is a forgotten war, living in the shadow of its offspring World War II, even though it was really the first world war that, in many ways, began to shape warfare into something like its modern form. It was a conflict that left its mark on a generation and then some — the War to End All Wars, as it was thought then — and though that prediction has turned out to be sadly incorrect, it certainly managed to affect the wars that came after it. I’m always surprised there aren’t more movies made in this setting, since it requires no exaggeration to create a powerfully dramatic tale.
In Their War, a short film from writer / director Max Mason, the bare facts are more than enough to entice you into the story. Two men, on opposite sides of this vast conflict, do their duty and enlist when their respective countries need them. Nikolaus Seifert (Des Carney), a skilled sniper, hopes to return home to his wife Anna (Elif Knight) with his honor intact despite having fought in a most dishonorable war. Arthur Jefferies (Hamish Riddle) is an ordinary foot soldier who just wants to see his wife Mary (Katharine Orchard) again and their newborn daughter for the first time.
Neither is especially well-suited to life in the trenches — though really, who is? — with one not nearly blindly patriotic enough for his fellow soldiers and the other more than half lost in thoughts of his family. As their lonely paths inevitably converge, the vastness of the war marches on, far beyond the reach of these smaller dramas.
The ending is pitch perfect and unforgettable, not least because this story is only one small example of the many cruelties of war. The immersion into the time period is excellent and the performances absolutely realistic. And beneath it all is the quietly terrible knowledge that no matter what, two families — and the world — will never be the same again.
Recently I was offered the opportunity to see some test footage from a movie still in production, called Redisplacement. Since I’m all for new movie experiences, I immediately said yes even though I had no idea what to expect. In this case, at least, it turns out that ‘test footage’ is a lot like ‘teaser trailer’, meaning that if you’re hoping for a lot of information about the plot you’re not going to get it.
But as with most teaser trailers it was intriguing to watch, not to mention an interesting challenge to try to work out more about what’s going on. I watched it first before reading anything about the film, and guessed at once that it was something to do with not being quite sure of what’s real and what isn’t, and happily the imdb teaser summary backs me up on that.
Since I’m not in the business of spoiling plots, however, let me talk more generally about the feel of the footage. There’s a quietly disjointed atmosphere about the scenes, and the main character certainly seems lost, in more ways than one. There’s also a lot of shots involving water — in glasses, flowing over a dam, sitting placidly in a swimming pool — which would be appropriate. The mind can be capricious, and trying to catch hold of a memory can be like trying to grab a fistful of water.
The important point is that as a teaser trailer it’s certainly done its job and I’m now looking forward to the finished product from writer / director Lewis Coates, who was gracious enough to invite me to see the footage. It seems as though it should be an intriguing look at what will always be the final frontier for all of humanity.
It’s human nature to ponder sometimes about how the other half lives, and maybe even get a little jealous. However much we might already have, once in a while seeing the things that someone else has makes us think that we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere. After all, there’s nothing wrong with trying to have it all, right? That’s what our current society encourages, at least, in this era of instant, total gratification. And when your best friend leads a very different life then your own, it’s hard not to think how unfair it is that the other person has this or that really cool aspect to their life and you just… don’t. This is what happens to best friends Alex (Alex Magaña) and Matt (Matt Lowe) in Slapped!, where few things are what they seem and there’s no such thing as a clean joke.
First of all, Magic Mike (Rodney Mason) seems to be an unfortunate homeless person like so many others, but he can do things you’d never expect, and when he hears the friends complaining about how the other seems to have things so much better, he decides to let both of them find out about the others’ life first hand, by switching their minds. Alex, the physical fitness nut who’s training for a triathlon suddenly finds his consciousness inside the notably more flabby body of his stoner friend who thinks video games are sometimes a little too tiring. Despite this, however, it’s Matt who has a gorgeous, devoted girlfriend named Holly (Alysse Fozmark), whereas Alex is too self-conscious to get anywhere with women. Matt’s very blunt approach works shockingly well, with various women handing over their phone numbers, but I have to say it seems to me much more likely to get him actually slapped out in the real world. It’s probably not something you’re meant to think about too much anyway, as with Magic Mike’s abilities.
Matt and Alex have all the troubles you might expect trying to settle into each others’ bodies and routines, and then some. Suddenly having a physically fit body doesn’t help much when you don’t also have the mental focus that normally goes with it, and Alex simply doesn’t have the confidence that everyone expects Matt to have. Matt has a loving (if smothering) family — his mother (Aimée Binford) and her girlfriend Shaniqua (Erin Hagen) — while Alex was abandoned as a child and has often had feelings of being unworthy. But they learn a great deal about each other, and more importantly themselves, as they struggle to keep up appearances for the rest of the world. It’s a good buddy picture, with the main characters proving that you don’t have to be at all alike to stick together through good times and bad.
It’s also beyond raunchy, with most of the jokes involving bodily fluids. Admittedly this isn’t my usual preference in humor, but even so it still seems too much at times. Entire scenes exist solely to get in one more punch line about something sex-related, and several of the characters have no reason for being there beyond trying to get a laugh. In other words, it’s about twenty minutes too long because the film sometimes loses sight of what it’s doing. Now, sometimes those detours are pretty entertaining — for instance, there’s a very funny scene that could make a great short film in its own right where a stoned Matt, in Alex’s body, watches a cooking show on YouTube while hallucinating — but for the most part they aren’t detours that really belong in this film.
Overall, however, it’s a good watch and clearly a labor of love from Magaña and Lowe. When the film stays with its main plot it generally works well and makes some interesting points about what it might be like trying to lead a life that you’re completely unequipped for, sometimes in more ways than one. It even has some things to say about looking beyond the surface (something probably all of us should do more often), with the movie itself being a perfect example of that. It might seem like a relatively simple, raunchy comedy — and it is — but it also pauses to think once in a while, and that’s what makes it click. The humor may not be for everyone, but underneath that it’s also a film with heart and empathy, and those are certainly things all of us could use more of.
Every part of the world has its heroes, those whose deeds have become larger than life and whose stories are passed down through the years. But if you look beneath the stories, you generally find someone who’s less a hero and more a regular person, which only makes them that much more fascinating. The story of Bilal ibn Rabah is one such example, and the life of one of the earliest followers of Muhammed is brought to the big screen in Bilal: Another Kind of Hero, the first animated feature film from a Dubai studio.
And this is gorgeous animation, I can’t emphasize that enough. The characters’ faces do lean towards the cartoonish, faces still being notoriously difficult to animate, but they’re also individual and expressive. And every other detail is perfect, from the way the desert sun shines through a thin cloth canopy to the worn patches on a guard’s leather armor. This is a world that looks and feels as real as whatever is around you right now.
In this world, Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) suffers from nightmares about the death of his mother and his and his sister Ghufaira’s (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) subsequent fall into slavery. They grow up as the property of Umayya (Ian McShane), a wealthy and powerful man with a bully of a son called Safwan (Mick Wingert). Umayya isn’t all that great, either, but he does at least sometimes bother to learn the names of his slaves. Unable to forget the fact that he had once been free, Bilal doesn’t make the best slave — even aside from anything else, he’ll break any rule if it means helping keep his sister safe — but he forces himself to be resigned to his fate. Then he meets a mysterious man, who speaks casually but with authority about things like freedom and equality, and Bilal’s journey truly begins.
As fantastic as the animation is — in one scene you can see how drops of water have dampened Bilal’s shirt — it never overshadows the story or the characters. The tale is told simply, suitable for younger viewers, but that doesn’t mean the grownups will be bored. It’s an engrossing plot driven by believable people with strengths and weaknesses. Bilal isn’t perfect, but that just makes him more inspiring as he finds his way in the world while struggling to preserve what’s left of his family. As in many historical pieces there’s a lack of female characters, but though Ghufaira is unfortunately sometimes reduced to a damsel in distress she also does help keep Bilal focused when he needs it.
The battle scenes are well-done and intense though still PG, and Bilal’s transformation from rebellious teen to a man who at last knows his place in the world keeps the film grounded. With villains that hit just the right note of wickedness and a vivid supporting cast, Bilal is a vastly entertaining epic that illuminates an era not well known to many in the western world, and thoroughly charms its audience at the same time.