Thursday, August 31, 2017

Asheyana (2009)

I'm always interested in seeing films from other countries, especially when I know nothing about their local cinema. It was a few months ago when I discovered a channel on Youtube devoted to movies of Afghanistan. Today I'll be looking at one such flick, Asheyana, which was released from anywhere between 2009, to 2013. Not quite sure when, as IMDb hasn't quite gotten a handle on new Afghani cinema.

Maihan is a young man returning to his home country of Aghanistan, arranged to marry the beautiful Hejran. Neither of the two wish to be married though, and hold candles for others. Meanwhile, Maihan discovers a shocking fact about his past, which could mean a great deal for his future.

Asheyana is a sweet story all about family, be they blood relations, good friends, or love interests. It takes clear inspiration from Bollywood features, down to a lengthy runtime (though under three hours, thank god), many different genres haphazardly crammed into the one movie to appeal to everyone in the audience, and random musical numbers.

Getting this out of the way first, this isn't a, uhm, *good* film in the traditional sense, but I'm willing to forgive that. If a movie came from America looking like this, it'd be laughable, but given Afghanistan's recent history, I'm not going to be overly critical if there's really fake CG effects, or if the acting's not the greatest. After all, there either probably isn't an acting school in the country, or they might be few and far between, so local performers would have to improve their skills by simply working in the industry gradually until they've got it down pat. Basically, as long as the movie tells a good story, I'll forgive a lot.

The cast is a varied assortment of characters. Maihan is a nice and understanding guy, and because of this there are never any awkward misunderstandings or love triangles. Hejran is in love with Fardin,   Given how quickly this situation was resolved, I did wonder how the rest of the movie was going to go. How indeed! Things take a soap-opera turn soon, and Maihan is given a needlessly tragic backstory. I guess I can't begrudge it too much. Yeah, it's annoying, but it does give this character more depth, and that's rarely a bad thing. I was less enthused by the hilarious rampage of revenge, when the proceedings take a five minute detour into gun-toting action, with explosions aplenty!

Hejran and Nargis are nice enough supporting characters/love interests, while Fardin is a likeable buddy and defender of the streets, and Abdul is amusing comic relief. One of the best things about this film are the strong female characters, and the respect given to them.

For a romance film, Asheyana certainly treads its feet into plenty of other genres. None of these previously mentioned examples sink the movie, but what does to an extent is the revelation about Maihan's past that completely takes centre stage, distracting completely from the main plot and romance. When he film does finally come back to that, it's too little too late. One last crazy plot detour to address is something very unexpected! I'm not gonna spoil it. All I'll say is that it's completely out of left field, but it made me grin.

At its worst, Asheyana can be accused of trying to do too much. If I can think of one positive to this, it's that come the end of the film, it definitely feels like a fleshed out world. The denouement is nice, too...until it's almost completely ruined by an abrupt revelation that I like to think is just a 'What if?...' fantasy the character is having.

The writing is overall not bad. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted (or at least, the translation might be), but it's mostly fine. It gets across a nice sense of communal spirit.

The acting here is pretty decent from what I can tell. Some performances are a bit overdone, or amateurish, especially the guy playing the shoemaker (but who knows, maybe if I knew Pashto or Dari, I'd think his performance is majestic. It's hard to tell). The lead actor, Fazal Hakimi, also doubles as the writer, and director! Sounds like a busy bee. Serious props to this guy for his part in revitalizing Afghani cinema!

The direction is good, with some moments being better than others. The fight scenes feel like something out of a video game though, from the soundwork, to the visual effects we sometimes see, and the earth shaking camerawork, all coupled with how every good guy is a master at hand-to-hand combat.

Asheyana has a nice score, replete with local music. There's also archive music, which is ill-fitting and amusingly overdramatic. One track (original or archive, I don't know) sounded like something from Castlevania, and yes, that is a good thing! The original songs are decent, even if the lyrics are a tad repetitive (they sound better when sung than I imagine it'd look on paper!). Given the lyrical content, I'm not sure if they could be considered completely random, but they do come totally out of nowhere!

One last thing. It was pretty cool seeing Afghan number plates! I know it's not exactly major, but it's a neat little thing to spot.

If you're expecting an A-list Hollywood romance, you may not be that into Asheyana, but if you're interested in seeing what Afghan cinema has been up to in recent years, this is a good place to start. And if you're already a fan of Bollywood cinema, them you'll be at least partially used to what kind of a film it is.

Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy (2009)

To this day, the Metal Gear Solid franchise remains one of the most popular and acclaimed video game series' in the world. Its stories have made lasting impressions with so many people, and was a particular inspiration for young Italian Giacomo Talamini, who sought to make his own fan-film based on the series for years. It was an on-and-off project, sometimes shifting gears entirely, but it eventually gained enough traction to finally see partial fruition, before a hiatus, then cancellation finished the movie prematurely...

Legendary soldier Solid Snake, now a member of the rogue organisation known as Philanthropy, has been sent to the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Philanthropy is solely devoted to the destruction of Metal Gears, sinister nuclear machines, and they might have found their last battle before victory is in sight. Strange things have been happening in what's been dubbed 'The Overnight Nation', a small patch of land in the middle of a hotly contested border, and it's up to Snake and two new compatriots to get to the bottom of what's happening, rescue a kidnapped U.S. senator, and finally put an end to the shady Armstech...

Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy was to be made and released in three parts, the first being subtitled The Overnight Nation. The prologue is set during the events following the original Metal Gear's conclusion, introducing Snake right after Outer Heaven has been destroyed. I'm not entirely sure if this scene was necessary. I suppose it's like those opening gambits you'd see on early episodes of MacGyver, which didn't have anything to do with the main plots, but quickly introduced the hero and his skills. This sort of does that, but I can't help but feel it's rather pointless and unnecessary, simply wasting time. It also makes Snake look like a dick, as he has no reason not to avoid a conflict with the two sympathetic soldiers we follow.

The main story kicks off quickly, and is intriguing right out of the gate. 'What's that unnatural storm?' you'll be thinking, along with 'Why have people been vanishing?', and 'How did this military complex get built in only a week?'. Lots of really cool stuff is set up, and my favourite scene is when the protagonists are camping when suddenly they spot a strange thermal signature rapidly approaching them, and quickly hide just in time before a bizarre...thing shows up. It's very much an eerie scene.

Where the plot kinda falls down is in the last third. I have no problem with there being an extended action scene with not a whole lot of story, as this is still pretty early into the overall events, but it's still pretty disappointing that everything takes a backseat for the fighting. I also didn't care for the 'war is hell' grenade moment.

The characters are quite an interesting bunch!   The least fleshed out is Solid Snake himself, but that's more down to him being an already established character. He's a somewhat well-rounded guy, likeable, and a disciplined badass, but at times he doesn't really feel like Solid Snake. His name is barely spoken in the movie, and his being Snake really plays into nothing. He's just some guy on a mission, and not once do we get a glimpse into his history, backstory*, or personal motivations.

Adding onto this problem is that the Metal Gear doesn't really play any role in the movie either, beyond less than a couple of minutes of superficial action. Now, all of this would really annoy me, but it doesn't. You know why? Because since Philanthropy can't legally continue its existence as a Metal Gear Solid title, it could easily be rewritten to accommodate an original plot. Just rename Snake, and the Metal Gear, and you've got yourself a unique property!

Next up is Pierre Leclerc, a goofy dude who's always joking around and playing on his DS, but when the moment calls for action, he's dead serious and a total badass! Elizabeth Laeken is possibly the most interesting of the three, possessing a mysterious and somewhat sinister backstory, which makes you wonder why she was assigned to this mission. Harrison Bishop is a fine support guy, though his dialogue when talking about his relationship with his father is a tad clunky. Also, I'm curious if he ends up betraying the team later on in the story! Based on the movie we have so far, he seems a loyal and trustworthy guy, but in this series, you learn pretty fast to never trust the people giving you orders. I like to think he's on the level.

As for the villains, we see almost nothing of anyone important, but they still look like a freaky bunch in the way that epitomizes the Metal Gear franchise, but unfortunately, as this is only Part 1, we only see brief introductions to these opponents, and we know nothing about them, nor the weirdness surrounding Elizabeth. This of course wouldn't be so much of an issue if not for the fact that we're never getting Parts 2 and 3.

The acting is difficult to discuss. Partially to allow the movie be in English, and also to emulate a video game feel, the actors are all dubbed over. The physical performers are all great, but the vocalists? Errr, not so much. It's not that the acting is bad, and some of it's quite good, but some of the cast seem to be going for a deliberately exaggerated way of talking, and it's not entirely successful, feeling a bit off in a serious story like this. Philipp Sacramento is really good as Snake though, nailing David Hayter's distinctive voice.

The movie manages to translate the spirit of the exposition montage sections well to the movie format, although the occasional Codec ones don't as much. I probably wouldn't have a problem with the formatting going full Codec if not for the fact that the background with Snake freeze frames. Otherwise though, it's never overly intrusive, and the action doesn't stop every 5 minutes like it can in the games.

Philanthropy's soundtrack is rather lacking in the main feature itself, but most prominent in the ending credits. We get a riveting enough track during the latter part of the credits, and before it is a vocal track (Will There Be an End, by Aoife Ferry/NĂ­ Fhearraigh) so good I actually thought it was from one of the official MGS soundtracks! It seems equally surprising and cool that this Italian zero-budget film was able to hire the same Gaelic singer responsible for The Best is Yet To Come in MGS1!

The effects here in Philanthropy are marvelous! They look a bit unconvincing in some parts, but for the most part, Hive Division REALLY knows how to make a beautiful spectacle on a nothing budget. They also know how to make CGI look really good, too! The only place where they falter is in the destruction of the first Metal Gear. The grenade explosions look pretty unconvincing, especially since they leave no mark on the behemoth at all. Then there's the fake oil spurt when it 'dies'. The Metal Gears themselves are designed well, but...uhh...they kinda look know what, I'll just let you watch and see for yourself. Maybe you won't even notice.

Location is important in anymore, doubly so in a Metal Gear Solid title, and the one here is interesting. It's of course filmed in Italy, since actually filming on the Armenian/Azeri border would've been just a tad difficult back in the mid-2000s, as well as a considerable drive from Italy. The spots look convincing though, and when it came to the complex the characters visit, which looks suitably shabby and bombed out, the production team apparently shot in a building scheduled for demolition.

While the film as a whole never got completed, there is a preview to Part 2 that was uploaded shortly before the news of the entire project's cancellation. It's a bit awkward at first, due to an opening narration that implies the Patriots are all behind the goings-on in this story, which is boringly unoriginal, and would probably mean every weird and intriguing thing about the story could be easily explained with the annoying Nanomachines handwave. There's also a voiceover with so-so acting and a Russian accent that was odd enough for me to have at first thought it to be Irish or Scottish. There are also sudden new elements like the Solid Eye from MGS 4 which wasn't in The Overnight Nation. And finally, Giacomo Talamini, and some other actors, look a bit different, due to the five/six year gap between movies. However, once all that passes, we get an interesting prologue, with more great effects, and a neat setpiece, and by the end, it seques nicely into the action we were in the middle of, despite the first few minutes feeling a bit in media res. The Metal Gear franchise has always had different genres mesh together, from goofy comedy, to horror, going together with espionage action, and here, we get the horror aspect front and centre!

Finally, let's discuss the continuity this movie shares with its source material. It fits in well, and could take place either before or after the inciting events of MGS2, but I prefer thinking it takes place in its own separate continuity. That way the events can actually have an impact, whereas staying in strict continuity would mean this story would have no real payoff, as both Metal Gears and Philanthropy are still around in the later games, with no end in sight until MGS4 (and even then, not really).

It really is a shame that this film is officially dead in the water, because there was such promise! I'm not sure why it had to be cancelled, as since it's a non-profit fan-film, there'd be zero legal issues in the way of getting it made. Konami in recent years though has starting getting utterly lousy. They're a shady and underhanded bunch of bastards with as much regard for the fans as they have for their employees, or their vast gaming legacy. Read: None at all. Even then, Philanthropy was such a golden opportunity! It'd bring at least a little publicity to one of their biggest franchises, and is literally zero money from out their pockets. It's tantamount to an incredibly elaborate free advertisement. If there's still talk going on about a Metal Gear Solid movie in the works, they could even make this project official, as one whole third is out already, having been met with much praise from the series' fans, and regarded as a worthy companion to the series, even by Hideo Kojima himself.

While it may be incomplete, Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy is still well worth a watch, and is by no means long at only 69 minutes. It's an intriguing story, and a fantastic showcase of what just a few dedicated fans can do...