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New films: He Named Me Malala, 99 Homes and Pan

He Named Me Malala

He Named Me Malala
Directed by David Guggenheim

I feel like I might be the negligent poster child for appreciating “He Named Me Malala.” As most of you probably know, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the forehead, at close range, by a member of the Taliban as their punishment for her advocacy of education for girls. As it turns out, I knew that and actually somewhat more about her backstory, but I had forgotten most of the details.

In the last couple of years, she’s been in such a swirl of travel and publicity, appearing on numerous talk shows and world stages, that she’s taken on this new identity as an international celebrity and proponent for equal rights. Amidst all of this, it has been easy to forget two key things – that she’s still a teenager and exactly how it all started.

“He Named Me Malala” opens in an interesting and, in my opinion, important way. After initially telling us the origin of her name, based on an Aghani story about a young girl who rallied local troops in an earlier war against the British, and showing us how frenzied her travel and speaking schedule is, the film spends time lingering in the family’s new home in Birmingham, England and introducing us to her parents and siblings. As this unfolds, it seems a little incongruous and it runs the risk of making this film about this celebrated individual seem a little lightweight. But it does something quite brilliant, by completely deconstructing her status, history and celebrity.

At home she’s just Malala – a kid struggling with schoolwork, teaching her father how to Tweet, and caught between two brothers. Indeed, her younger brother gleefully tells the filmmakers that although she has this worldwide reputation as an advocate for education and peace, she routinely hits him.

This gives Academy Award winning director Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” “An Inconvenient Truth”) an opportunity to rebuild the backstory from the ground up, almost as though having cleansed our intellectual palates. And much of this is done through a series of simple animations, showing us her parents’ background and Malala’s childhood as either Malala or her father recount those details.

One of the most important things to remember or realize about Malala is that her father was a teacher who operated his own school in their home town. So she grew up, always surrounded by and immersed in education. She also grew up surrounded by the ever increasingly ominous presence of the Taliban, a group who initially didn’t seem especially threatening. However, as the Taliban steadily grew in their extremist interpretations of Islam including, ultimately, closing schools to girls, many people spoke out against their restrictions – including both Malala and her father.

There’s clearly concern being expressed in the film that people might think that Malala was being used or that she was a puppet of her father, but it’s also quite clear that she was a bright, opinionated, and outspoken advocate for the rights of girls at a young age. She maintained a blog for the BBC starting at age 11 and later spoke quite openly at rallies.

In short, it’s easy to forget these details as I found I had done (mea culpa). It’s also easy for people to draw the conclusion that she’s a symbol and advocate because she was so brutally attacked and wounded. But it would be fairer to say that she’s not a hero because she was shot in the face, she was shot in the face because she’s a hero. At a time when people were being killed or disappearing she, and also her father, took on that issue and those risks, knowing what might happen as a result.

It’s a hard film to really evaluate as the story itself is so compelling that it’s easy to walk out of the film wondering if the film itself has impressed you or if the story even needed the film to be good. But, as time has passed, I have found myself appreciating more and more the structure of the film and what seemed like a conscious choice to take this extraordinary young woman, make her seem quite ordinary (especially away from the limelight), and then build up the narrative again from that fresh beginning.

It is a compelling story and it’s a film that manages to tell that story very effectively, without getting sidetracked into what could have been very easy and distracting tangents. “He named Me Malala” is an inside look at Malala and her family, not an outside analysis of her and her impact, as seen by others. There’s room for that also, but that’s another story entirely.

Moviebriefs

In “99 Homes,” co-writer and director Ramin Bahrani shows us a different side of the recent housing crisis. This isn’t predatory lending, it’s predatory foreclosure and eviction as realtors and developers reaped financial rewards by removing homeowners and gaming the system. This is told narratively with Andrew Garfield (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) as a struggling single father and Michael Shannon (“Take Shelter,” “Man of Steel”) as the unscrupulous realtor, certain that he’s justified in playing a game that’s so clearly rigged in favor of those willing to play the hardest and meanest. It’s a tough film to watch at times as you remember that for all of the fact that you’re watching fictionalized characters, these aren’t fictional circumstances or dynamics. “99 Homes” is one of those films I tend to find more horrific than horror films purely because of how real it all seems – helped by those two strong lead performances. Bahrani’s last film, which he also co-wrote, was “At Any Price,” about a long-time farmer and the practices of agricultural giants such as Monsanto, in restricting the re-use of seeds in subsequent seasons. There appears to be a theme of social injustice in his work and he’s good at delivering these tough issues in easily absorbed narrative form for audiences who might not have watched a documentary on the same topic. I look forward to seeing what subject he tackles next.

The latest Peter Pan film is the origin story “Pan,” essentially an alternate prequel to the more commonly known tale. Here, Peter grows up in an orphanage before being kidnapped by flying pirates and whisked away to Neverland on a journey that feels like it’s made up of outtakes from “Avatar.” Upon his arrival, he’s put to work in a fairy dust mine overseen by Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) before escaping and being re-captured by a tribe of natives who don’t look like they could be native to any one place. Sadly, the whole enterprise is a mess and feels like a musical that had most, but not quite all, of its music stripped away. It also seems like a film aimed at young children but quite likely to scare them along the way, with pirates who descend through the orphanage ceiling, some made up like clowns, in some of the creepiest child-stealing scenes since “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It’s visually intense but otherwise largely unsatisfying and does little to add to the established characters and story. Young newcomer Levi Miller does well enough as Peter to make one hope he finds better material in the near future, before scrubbing “Pan” from his resume, but there’s little else here to recommend. This trip to Neverland should have Neverstarted.

New films: He Named Me Malala, 99 Homes and Pan via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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