Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ajami: Middle East Pulp That Isn't Just Fiction

This story set in the Ajami neighborhood of Yaffa - a cultural clash of Arab Israelis, illegal Palestinians, Christian Arabs, Muslims and Jews - is remarkable not only for the story it tells, but the story of its making, both of which are worth notice.

Ajami relates the travails of a series of young people - a Muslim Israeli teenager and his younger brother, an illegal Palestinian restaurant worker, the Christian Arab benefactor he works for, an Arab Israeli cook and his Jewish girlfriend, and a Jewish cop with a missing brother. Their stories, involving drugs, assassinations, spontaneous violence, repayment of debts, and dangerous romances, are told in five separate non-sequential sequences that all eventually come together at the end...much like an Arab-Israeli Pulp Fiction.

But the movie is even more remarkable when you consider how it was made: by two filmmakers, one Arab and one Jewish, who decided to become friends in order to join their stories and collaborate over a period of two years. And who enlisted all the actors in the film from actual young people - non-actors - living in the neighborhood, who were given characters and situations and asked to essentially improvise their lines.

What results is a film that is remarkably fresh...with hugely appealing characters and emotionally charged realistic dialogue. I guess you might call this Arab/Israeli mumblecore, but whatever it is, it's fascinatingly great filmmaking.

The main character is Omar, an open-faced, charming young Muslim Israeli who has the unfortunate luck to have an uncle who unthinkingly killed a criminal Bedouin who was trying to shake down his restaurant. The Bedouin gang took the shooting personally, and is out for revenge: first shooting Omar's uncle, then going after Omar himself. Omar's only way to get the death sentence lifted is to appeal to a local restaurant owner, a Christian Arab who can negotiate a truce...and who also happens to have an eligible daughter who likes herself a little bit of that illicit Omar (without her father's knowing, of course).

The story takes off from there, eventually intersecting the lives of the other characters: the illegal Palestinian, whose mother has bone cancer; the Jewish cop, whose brother has gone missing; and the Arab cook who just wants to hang loose with his Israeli chick.

Even though the stories are all deeply specific to the Ajami neighborhood, and suffused with the tensions between Arab and Jew, Muslim and Christian, and so on, they stay focused on everyday life - that is, if gangs, drugs, and teenage romance are your everyday life - rather than the Palestinian/Israeli conflict itself...which remains in the background, merely the permanent environment against which these lives play out. One could easily imagine similar stories of young people taking place in the barrios of L.A. or the streets of Miami, only the religious and ethnic conflicts here are certainly more complicated.

Yet Scandar Copti and Yaron Shandi - our two writer/directors - manage to let us understand the cultural context as well as the deep tragedies and exuberance for life that comprise this neighborhood of permanent conflict and violence. Each character in our story is appealing: a young person of good intention just trying to survive in the world. Yet each character gets ineluctably caught up in the violence of the neighborhood. The scenes where families mourn the sudden violence and news of death on all sides of this conflict are each authentically moving; no doubt such authenticity from these non-actors comes from their own real-life experience of such tragedies.

This movie, to me, represents a real step forward from our Middle-Eastern filmmakers. Not just atmospheric, and not just exploring a subject of political or human interest - the film also has its own internal filmic life, the camera always capturing a fascinating interaction of character, the writing always taking us in fresh direction, but never forgetting the ultimate thread of the story. Copti and Shandi deliver something, I fear, that Tarrantino has never quite. Not just snappy dialogue and entertaining storytelling that references the gangland filmmaking tradition, but a movie about something real as well. Unlike Tarrantino's films, the violence in Ajami is really felt, politically relevant...and deeply mourned.

Shutter Island: Scorsese Makes Psychology Thrilling

Before you even walk into Shutter Island, you know it has all the elements of a good Scorsese drama: New England cops, stern guards, weird weather, period atmospherics, classical references, and Leonardo diCaprio. The only question is...what kind of movie is it? A police procedural, where two marshals from the mainland are invited to an isolated island of the criminally insane to track down an inmate who's gone missing? Or is it something else?

Scorsese doesn't answer this question until nearly the end of the film, and it's his ability to keep this question in suspense throughout that really elevates this material. This is, if you haven't learned already, a movie with a twist - and though I've only seen it once so far, I suspect that it really requires two viewings to fully appreciate all the intricate detail. It's hard to even talk about a movie like this without suggesting, perhaps, more than you should know going in - so those who wish to discover this movie completely for themselves should perhaps stop reading now.

As DiCaprio (playing Teddy Daniels, a World War Two veteran who's now a Federal Marshal) and his new partner, Chuck (played by Mark Ruffalo) first approach the island, they're in a boat, and Teddy is throwing up. He gets seasick, apparently, and as he and Chuck meet each other and talk, Teddy tells him he's not married - his wife passed away in a fire in his apartment. So Teddy is thoroughly devoted to his work.

That work, at first, seems to be to come to Shutter Island and interrogate the good doctors (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow), along with the orderlies and nurses, about the apparently impossible disappearance of a patient - Rachel - from her cell. Rachel has vanished from the guarded cell without her shoes, and without any way off the cliff-strewn island. As Teddy and Chuck interview patients and explore the island, however, the patients warn Teddy to get away: and Teddy becomes increasingly suspicious that something more sinister is going on.

Teddy's suspicions are heightened by a few factors: first, there are the dreams...disturbing images of his dead wife, bloody, wet, and on fire. Dreams as well of his time in Germany, at the Dachau concentration camp, where the bodies of dead prisoners were stacked like sacks of grain, and the German guard committed suicide, but ineffectually, leaving Teddy to watch him slowly die. Could the doctors have some reason to keep Teddy off his guard, to maybe even slip something in his food that would cause these disturbing dreams? Then there's that doctor played by von Sydow - Dr. Naehring - he's a German himself, and Teddy becomes suspicious he may be importing some of the most notorious Nazi techniques here to America.

There's also another ward of patients - Ward C - where the most dangerous of the insane are kept. As the weather on the island gets worse, and they hide together in a cemetery, Teddy confesses to his partner Chuck that he really has an ulterior motive for coming to the island. He believes that his wife's death wasn't just an accident. A pyromaniac who lived in their apartment, a man named Laeddis, was held accountable for the fire. Teddy believes that Laeddis is here, on this island, being held in that notorious Ward C, and Teddy is here to find him.

As Teddy intensifies his hunt, he apparently starts gathering the evidence he needs: evidence of another missing patient being held in the asylum. Of the missing Rachel. Of experiments on the inmates. Of Laeddis himself. And all this evidence is leading Teddy to an ultimate confrontation with Kingsley's Dr. Cawley: if Cawley even intends to ever let Teddy and Chuck off the island with what they've learned.

When that confrontation comes, along with the revelations (the "twist" if you will), the movie asks us to reconsider everything that's come before. When one does, one sees that all the clues were there all along - not just in the atmospherics of Shutter Island, in the creaky castles and windblown crags, but also in the visuals (the streaming of thousands of mice from a cave, the bisected wound on Laeddis's face), the music (which punctuates certain scenes, giving them an odd hyperreality), and the careful choice of metaphoric dialogue.

To some, the heightened music and atmospherics may seem a cheap horror gimmick a la that used in another recent release, Wolfman. But there is a clear purpose (it serves intentionally to delineate the different levels of reality in the film), and perhaps a second viewing might make it all seem, in fact, more essentially clever and thematic.

Dr. Naehring introduces one of the movie's most powerful themes: that the etymology for the word "dream" in German comes from "trauma" or "wound." He leaps from there to the idea of "monster" but there is also an etymological connection to "lie" and "deceive": both of which are decidedly relevant. In a world just emerging from war, murder, and the atrocities of the Nazis, we are asked to confront some of man's most inner evil: there indeed is a great wound to uncover here, lies being told, and monsters that lurk. In the end, Teddy faces a choice. His final words to us suggest that the choice he does make is both deliberate...and monstrous.

Personally, I love movies like this - those that become more than what they seem, and ask us to go back and puzzle the pieces together. The movie can also be read on many different levels: as a psychological thriller, yes, but perhaps also as a political allegory, not only for the 1950's, but also for our own time, so faced as we are with our own atrocities, our own violent nature, our own deep denials. My only quibble is how late into the film Scorsese springs his twist, and how little time that leaves us to assemble the pieces and contemplate the connections. Some people might even feel a little big conned by the film. I would have preferred that a little more doubt had crept in a bit earlier - but then, I suppose, that wouldn't have been a cinematically dramatic. The scene leading up to the big reveal has Teddy running up a metal, spiral staircase in a tall lighthouse - shot with camera angles reminiscent of another 1950's story of a detective facing a psychological moment of truth, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The reference is at once both clever and a little bit trite, the type of gesture reminiscent of Brian de Palma, which in fact may be the style Scorsese is going for here.

Like de Palma, Scorsese has created not a movie so much as a series of fever dreams and cinematic gestures; unlike dePalma, Scorsese wraps it up with a master story-teller's touch...though perhaps he does so a bit too quickly, and with a bit too much exposition. The techniques employed by the good Dr. Crawly do seem to come straight out of the B movie psychoanalysis handbook. But however it is we find ourselves getting to Teddy's final words, they certainly are chilling.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Wolfman: All Bark and No Bite

Given the commercial success the vampire classes have been having lately (with everything from Showtime's "True Blood" to teenage Twilight), it's only natural the the lycanthropes would wish to get in on the action. Thus the effort to remake the 1941 classic Wolf Man by Jurassic Park III director Joe Johnston seems a logical, if disappointing, development.

Despite the largely well-done casting (Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving especially have fun chewing the scenery as the Elder Sir. John Talbot and the erstwhile inspector Abberline, respectively), this remake of the story is largely lackluster, relying mostly on an overly loud soundtrack of crashing booms and high-pitched violins to create any purely artificial thrills. Benicio del Toro also makes a too stolid Wolfman - playing it humorously straight and making the 1 hour and 42 minute flick seem interminably long.

Part of the disappointment is the way in which the story has been changed from the original to make this Wolfman more a obviously predicable tale about family dynasty dynamics than a psychological exploration of male rage and aggression: as if thrills can be derived from only the most obvious plot developments, when quite the opposite is true (as Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island so ably shows). del Toro, as prodigal son Lawrence Talbot, returns to Talbot castle after his brother has been mutilated by a lunging lycanthrope. Naturally, Sr. Talbot isn't saying much, but wolfishly protects his brood, until Lawrence inherits the wound himself, and slowly turns. Watching Hopkins and del Toro go at it at the end in their big furry costumes seemed more like some kind of weird Sesame Street Wrestling match than a climax to a serious thriller, and by this time I was more than happy to see either of them bite the dust.

Johnston stages this as a straight-on remake trying to masquerade as a modern horror flick, with painstaking details on Victorian settings but little budget left over for creative Foley (the loud horror-movie crash he uses every time Talbot gets startled by a dog or a...wolf? always the same, and quickly become tiresome). But with little inspiration in the story or the direction, the long stretches of bloody mutilations - besides being needlessly over the top - actually become a bit, well, boring.

There were so many other ways he could have played this film. He could have really delved into the creative psychology of the man/ Scorcese does in Shutter Island, delivering an intelligent as well as involving thriller. Or just given it a bit of camp, a la Van Helsing, at least injecting some popcorn munching fun.

Perhaps most disappointingly, he could have also tried to explore what makes wolf men sexy. We've got sexy vampires steaming up screens both large and small lately, but these pale vampish creatures have nothing on Wolfman potential. A beefed up Michael Sheen in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans suggested what a bit of wolf-sex-appeal could add to the Sylvan folklore. Here we have an entire film devoted to the subject.

I happen believe that if wolf men were really given their full predatory sexual due, they'd make "True Blood" seem like a Sunday school program. Unfortunately, what Johnston offers us are big overstuffed Ewoks with little brains and even less romantic bravura. I just hope he hasn't killed the Wolfman cinematic ethos forever.



Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Lovely Bones: Afterlife Murder Mystery

Why did director Peter Jackson take on directing the Alice Sebold story of a fourteen year old teenage girl, Susie Salmon, who’s murdered by a sexual predator and must learn to let go of her attachment to the world in a protracted “in between” existence in the afterlife? Probably because at first, this would seem a complete departure from Jackson’s earlier work, Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

Susie is a typical teenage girl living in the mundane 1970’s: she makes ships in a bottle with her father, hangs out at the mall, has a zany, chain-smoking grandmother (Susan Sarandon), writes in her diary, and has a first crush on a boy – Ray, a lithe and elegant Indian Brit who adds an air of foreign romance to Susie’s Midwestern suburban life. She finally meets Ray one day in the hall at school, and he invites her to a date under the gazebo at the mall, where she intends to have her first kiss.

But Susie's innocuous teenage world is cut short when she's intercepted on her walk home by sinister neighbor, George Harvey. Stanley Tucci just received a best supporting actor nomination for this role, and clearly it's the star turn (along with Sarandon) in the film, though I felt that most of George's sinisterness comes from a single Tucci gesture: a kind of coughing inflection that turns involuntarily into a momentary hungry smile every time he speaks of Susie. It's a pretty dead-on illustration of a super-creep, but he does keep you on the edge of your seat waiting for that lustful grin to once again erupt.

Jackson goes to great pains to fully place us into the 1970's style, and this, for me, is where the movie is its most successful, because the style itself becomes a kind of character, as once Susie leaves this mortal coil and enters her imagined dream world, it's populated with heavy symbolism from that 1970's life she once inhabited: the flights of wooden birds in her father's study become a flight of tree leaves turning into birds; the ships in bottles become real ship-size bottle ships that crash into shore when her father's grief drives him to bust up his prize collection. Even that mall gazebo takes a symbolic turn as Susie's center of gravity and symbolic self.

Here, then, one might begin to see the similarities to Jackson's earlier work. The teenage Susie's 1970's world of Partridge family and shopping malls is not too dissimilar from the idealized home of the Hobbits, and the existential threat to this world posed by creepy George is no less distressing than Mordor itself. And if one looks at The Lovely Bones as a kind of Lord of the Rings for our times, then I think the incoherent mythology of the afterlife it portrays starts to make a bit more sense.

This interpretation of Susie as a kind of floating spirit that needs to learn to accept her own death is startling and wonderful, at first: the moment when Susie is killed and only hours later realizes what's happening is handled with enough originality and grace to take your breath away (she breezes past another young girl, running to escape George's clutches, and eventually finds her family, and then her killer). But I say "incoherent" because thereafter, it's not quite clear if Susie's incarnation follows the traditional ghostly rules of something like Ghost, if she's more in a momentary psychological fantasy land (like the cloyingly awful What Dreams May Come), or if this is some kind of Catholic interpretation of purgatory. It seems to be a bit of each and none of these - if anything, the vast beautiful psychological landscapes Susie inhabits most closely resemble the cosmic journey taken by Jody Foster in Contact.

However, what rules I think this afterlife does follow are simply mythological - like they were in Lord of the Rings. Like the dead kings who fight the battle of Helms Deep, Susie is obligated to the world, and cannot leave it until she accomplishes one final task: to identify her killer to her family (and also, it seems, to find a way to have that first kiss she was robbed of). All this strikes me as too much like the EST program of a living Californian, rather than the spiritual journey of a dead 1970's Midwesterner. But then this, I suppose, is what most people have now instead of traditional religion: a kind of gauzy, three-act view of the afterlife in which unresolved conflicts must be resolved, and romantic entanglements must be satisfied, even if one must invent old-Hollywood supernatural ways to do it. Jackson does it here, like he does in his other lost worlds.

It just doesn't work as well for me here, however, since the first half of the movie is so grounded in the modern realism of the 1970's. Sarandon's character of the zany, smoking grandmother does add a pleasant irreality...and I wanted more of that. I wanted Sarandon to come back at the end. I wanted more than an icy dose of random fate for George. I wanted more from Jack and Abigail Salmon, Susie's earnest and intense parents, than Mark Wahlberg (terribly cast) and Rachel Weisz could deliver.

That being said, the movie does leave you with a profound sense of sadness and feeling for life: Sebold's poetry breaths enough, and Jackson is elegant enough with his visual metaphors, that one is fully transported by the experience of this movie, even if, like many Hollywood attempts at the afterlife, it illustrates a world designed more to gently sooth than to really understand. There really is no sense to make out of what George does, in this movie, and the movie seems to want to say, that's not the point. That Susie gets a first kiss, finally, isn't the point for me either - since such a kiss is impossible. The movie, then, has no point...other than, that's life. In a way, that's enough by itself to be haunting.