In a year where glamour and entertainment in the region were forced to take a backseat to the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) emerges strongly from the storm with one of its most interesting line-ups yet.
The extravagant tone of this year’s edition was set with the opening film, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” the latest installment of the highly successful action-adventure series directed by two-time Oscar winning animation director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) in his first live-action outing.
The opening ceremony — held on Wednesday evening — was attended by Bird and the film’s stars: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton.
In the fourth part of the series, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his teammates Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) are assigned to break into the Kremlin to retrieve documents containing perilous nuclear codes that could lead to a third World War. Unlike past missions, not everything goes smoothly. Hunt and co. are manipulated by an unknown terrorist, and the failure of the operation leads to the exposition of the Kremlin. As a consequence, Hunt and co. are outlawed, yet, at the same time, are instructed to find the culprit.
Fingers of accusation point to Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a shady politician with a hidden agenda. Chasing Nyqvist around the globe, the team is joined by Brandt (Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner of “The Hurt Locker” fame), an analyst with a mysterious past.
The new “Mission: Impossible” is partially shot in Dubai, which also co-financed the $140 million production, thus, it was no surprise that the film chose to host its world premiere in the Emirati city.
The film represents a major improvement over the past two sequels. Bird injects new blood in the series, steering away from the indulgencies of John Woo, who helmed the second part, and keeping the gratuitous schmaltz of the third, directed by JJ Abrams, to a minimum.
The high-octane action sequences are among the most thrilling of the series; inventive, exciting and smartly executed. The pace is relentless, pausing briefly every so often to explain the logic behind every set piece. Dubai proves to be an ideal location for the glossy espionage world of the franchise; a virgin metropolis that remains unexploited by cinema. The sandstorm scene is electrifying while the extended sequence that sees Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world — is simply breathless.
Alas, the action is built around a weak, familiar story that rarely rises up to the visuals. There are no surprises, no jolting revelations, no diversions from the course established at the beginning of the story. The plot remains static, and so do the flat characters. The flashes of inner conflicts Bird sprinkles the film with feel rather forced. The profound humanity of the director’s debut feature “The Iron Giant” and the thematic originality of “Ratatouille” are completely swallowed by a stale tale of teamwork. Performances, as in these types of films, are hammy, overblown in parts. Simon Pegg is the sole exception, bringing a fresh air of effortless humor and naturalism in an exceedingly artificial setting.
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big, fun, old-fashioned actioner that does exactly what you expect, and want, from it. With Bird’s great credentials and high caliber of involved talents, one certainly expected, and hoped for, something more.
At the festival
DIFF’s humongous line-up dwarfs the selections of all neighboring fests held this year, featuring 171 films from 56 nations, 46 world premieres, 25 international premieres and 78 Middle East premieres. A total of 89 films will vie for the Muhr Awards with total prize money of over $600,000.
Dubai’s programmers have dubbed this year’s round as the edition of discoveries, and it certainly shows in the choice of lesser-known titles in the various sections of the festival.
Headlining the World Film program is Alexander Payne’s tragic comedy “The Descendants” starring George Clooney. Payne’s long-awaited follow-up to 2004’s Oscar winning “Sideways” centers on a middle-aged father assuming the responsibility of his daughters after his wife suffers a crippling accident.
The rich American selection also includes Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” a biopic of the notorious former head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Watts; Madonna’s highly divisive sophomore directorial effort “W.E,” a period piece about the scandalous romance between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson; Simon Curtis’s “My Week With My Marilyn,“ a behind-the-scenes drama of the Marilyn Monroe/Laurence Olivier ill-fated picture “The Prince and the Showgirl” starring Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh.
A number of American and British documentaries are also featured in the same section, including Werner Herzog’s acclaimed death row drama “Into the Abyss;” Mike Fleiss and Mike Piscitelli’s “Black Sabbath,” a biopic of the Black Sabbath front-man; Vincent Morisset’s “Inni,” a concert film of celebrated Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós and Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young Journeys,” an intimate recording of the American rock legend’s 2010 “Le Noise” tour.
The festival also hosts Mark Cousins’ mammoth “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” a 15-part series tracing the history of the film from the late 1800s until present day.
The section also boasts an exciting collection of award-winning European and Latin-American films. The highest-profile of the bunch is “Le Havre,” veteran Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s winsome ode to classic French films.
Italian director Emanuele Crialese “Respiro” presents his Venice Jury Prize winner “Terraferma,” an immigrant drama about a Sicilian island transformed by the new realities of globalization. Argentinean filmmaker Pablo Giorgelli directs a tender road movie centering on a truck driver and an eight-month-old baby in “Las Acacias,” winner of this year’s Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Asian and African section has provided some of the biggest highlights of past editions, and this year is no exception. Fronting the Asia/Africa Muhr program is Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Grand Prix winner “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” a slow-burning police procedural set in Anatolian steppes.
Chinese filmmaker Ann Hui directs a tender relationship drama between an actor and his devoted family servant in “A Simple Life,” winner of the best actress prize at the Venice Film Fest and best film at the Golden Horse Awards. Action master Johnnie To switches gear for “Life without Principles,” a multi-character drama set tackling the recent global financial crisis. Prolific Filipino wunderkind Adolfo Alix Jr. unleashes his 18th feature in five years “Fable of the Fish,” an offbeat fantasy about a woman who gives birth to a fish.
Two of the most anticipated Iranian movies of the year make their regional debut in Dubai: “Goodbye” and “This is Not a Film” by imprisoned filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi. Rasoulof’s narrative feature follows a young pregnant activist as she struggles to find a way out of Iran while Panahi’s documentary, co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, turns the camera on himself as he documents a day of his life in house arrest.
DIFF is wildly regarded as the largest showcase of Arab films. The lack of stability in the region has led to a drop in film production this year. Competing festivals like Abu Dhai and Doha have scurried over the past few months to attract the most prominent names in the Arab world, resulting in patchy editions in terms of the Arab offerings.
While it’s too early to predict how the sprawling Arab films — which have always been hits or misses in previous editions — will play out in the next week, the selection from the outset looks quite impressive.
Egypt is represented by three films including Hady El-Bagoory’s debut feature “Wahed Sahih” (A Whole One), a romantic drama about a man searching for his ideal partner starring Hani Salama, Basma, Kinda Alloush and penned by Tamer Habib. Heba Youssry’s documentary “Settouzad Awel ‘Eshk” (Settouzad, My First Passion), a nostalgic account of the director’s singer grandmother is featured along with Ahmed Rashwan’s “Born on the 25th of January,” an Emirate co-production set between January 25 and May 27, 2011.
The January 25 Revolution is the subject of two other pictures: Omar Shargawi and Karim El-Hakim’s Danish production “1/2 Revolution” and Dutch filmmaker Stefano Savona’s French production “Tahrir Liberation Square.”
Nearly all Arab countries are represented in this year’s installment. Lebanon takes the lion’s share, participating with various narrative features and documentaries. Among these picks are Danielle (“Un homme perdu”) Arbid’s romantic drama “Beirut Hotel,” Youcef Joe Bou Eid’s wartime drama “Tannoura Maxi” (Heels of War) and Daniel Joseph’s debut feature “Taxi Ballad.”
Other Lebanese entries include Wissam Charaf’s documentary “It’s All in Lebanon,” a study of contemporary Lebanon as seen via political campaigns, advertisement and pop culture; Tarek El-Bacha and Rodrigue Sleiman’s “Nice to Meet You,” a quirky look at everyday life in Beirut; and Hady Zaccak’s “Mercedes,” a chronicle of Lebanon’s modern history from the point of view of a car and its owners.
Morocco, which dominated the last edition of Abu Dhabi in October, makes a strong presence at DIFF as well, albeit with new talent. Abdelhai Laraki explores the clash of values and religion with sex and modernity in the Casablanca-set “Love in the Medina.” Hakim Belabbes’s second narrative feature “Boiling Dreams” tells the story of a young father who leaves his family behind to find work in Spain. Sami Mermer and Hind Benchekroun break the soci-political boundaries informing Moroccan cinema in “Turtles Do Not Die of Old Age,” a thoughtful meditation on friendship and mortality.
After a year-long absence from fest circuits, Palestine makes a comeback with a number of offerings, the most buzzed about being Susan Youssef’s “Habibi,” a modern take on the classical Arab fable “Qays and Layla.” The film is the first fiction feature set in Gaza in over 15 years.
Two films take on the Arab Spring: Mourad Ben Cheikh’s “No More Fear,” a chronicle of the Jasmine Revolution through the eyes of activists, bloggers and leftist politicians; and Ammar Al-Beik’s short “The Sun’s Incubator,” a glimpse at the factors that sparked the ongoing Syrian uprising.
A galaxy of stars from across the globe is expected to grace Dubai’s red carpet in the coming days. American comedy star Owen Wilson will be receiving Variety’s International Star of the Year award while great German director Werner Herzog will be given the Lifetime Achievement prize along with great Egyptian actor Gamil Rateb and Indian music composer A. R. Rahman of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame.
Other DIFF guests include Alexander Payne and “The Descendants’” rising star Shailene Woodley, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, Palm d’Or winning German auteur Volker Schlöndorff and Indian idols Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra.
Oscar-nominated Australian director Peter Weir will preside over the Muhr Arab Features jury whose members include Egyptian film star Amr Waked and German filmmaker Emily Atef.
The Dubai International Film Festival concludes on Dec. 14. For more information, visit www.dubaifilmfest.com.
Egyptian actor Amr Waked flashes the peace sign. (AFP Photo/Marwan Naamani)
Egyptian actress Lebleba with veteran Egyptian actor Jamil Rateb. (AFP Photo/Marwan Naamani)