March 25, 2011 Morality in Movies. Films Reviewed: Limitless, Outside the Law, West is West

When people are looking for discussions on morality, the last place they’ll look for answers is at the movies — they’re just entertainment, right? Well… not exactly. Actually, traditional Hollywood movies — be they dramas, comedies, westerns, romances, adventures, or even horror movies – always follow a strict moral code: The bad guys are punished or killed, the good guys rewarded in the end. It’s almost puritanical: in a slasher movie, the ones who smoke pot or get drunk or make out are always the first ones killed by the serial killer. In the recent comedy, Hall Pass, the characters who have extramarital sex get physically hurt, while the ones who stay pure are spared.

But occasionally you get movies where the characters themselves face a moral dilemma, and have to decide for themselves whether or not they are doing the right thing, when both options seem terrible. So today I’m going to talk about three movies – one takes place in Pakistan and England, one in Algeria and France, and one in the US – with potential moral dilemmas at their core.

Limitless

Dir: Neil Burger

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a novelist with writer’s block. He hasn’t written a word of his first book yet, but he’s already spent his cash advance (I’d love to meet his agent!); he can’t pay his rent, and his girlfriend Lindy has dumped him.

But then he meets a low-life drug dealer from his past who offers him a new type of little, clear pill, an unnamed pharmaceutical, a sort of a super-Ritalin — that will solve all his problems, and he’ll be the only one on these drugs. Suddenly, everything’s as clear as the pill. He knows the answers to all his problems. He can seduce any woman, instantly learn any language, stop any punch before it hits him. He immediately writes his novel, but now he’s forced to consider what to do with his new powers. (Sort of a moral dillema). Will he find the cure for cancer or an HIV vaccine? Will he bring about world peace? Will he be able to save the world from Earthquakes and tsunamis?

Naaah. He goes for money fame and power instead. He borrows cash from a Russian gangster to invest on wall street and meets up with the great financier Van Loon. (The trillionaire is played by Robert de Niro, who is also just in it for the money.) And then there’s a mysterious old guy in a cheap suit who pops up all over the place and who is obviously up to no good.

What’s going to happen to Eddie? Will he make tons of money? Will he get back his girlfriend? And what about the drugs – what happens if they run out? And what about the gangster? And what about Van Loon – will he beat him at his own game? And who’s that creepy guy who’s spying on him?

Limitless is the kind of so-so popcorn movie that’s fun to watch, but crumbles apart immediately afterwards when you try to make sense of it. (Maybe it’s because I’m not on the little clear pill, but I doubt it.) I liked the semi-psychedelic scenes in this movie where he has strange out-of-body experiences in a constant forward movement, speeding through time and space. Cool special effects. And there are some good dramatic moments, but the rest of is pretty stupid. Bradley Cooper plays the same douche-y prick he did in The Hangover, Abbie Cornish is forgettable as his girlfriend, and De Niro is just killing time – he doesn’t even try.

Outside the Law (Hors-la-Loi)

Written and Directed by

Rachid Bouchareb

In 1925, a family gets kicked off its farm in Algeria because he has no written deed, and some French colonist wants the land. The defiant mother and her three young sons are each affected by this, in their own way, but all of them just want back what’s rightfully theirs. Soon the three brothers are all grown up – it’s the 50s and a demonstration is building in the city streets. Abdelkader is an activist marching in the demo, Said is an entrepreneur trying to make money through boxing; and Messaoud is the tough boxer he’s promoting. But once again the French military and police are messing things up, massacring both the political activists and the people just living their lives.

So the movie follows the three sons and the paths they take – after being jailed for demonstrating, Abdelkhader becomes a real revolutionary, Said turns to organized crime, prostitution, gambling and nightclubs, and Messaoud who joins the French army becomes a POW in Hanoi.

Algeria is now a part of France – it’s been completely annexed. So they all eventually end up living as second-class citizens in the slums and shantytowns of Paris, and become involved in the increasing tension and growing political storm In Algeria, and the rise of the FLN, (the Algerian Liberation Front) in which they all end up playing a crucial role.

Abdelkader has to decide his priorities as he’s faced with difficult moral dilemmas. Is it the revolution above all? Or family ties? And does the end justify the means? And what does it mean if he’s behaving as violently as the French he’s revolting against, or resorting to terrorist actions? While politics always makes for strange bedfellows, Abdelkader’s strict puritanism is contrasted with Said the gangster’s devil-may-care attitude. But he also forces his Messaoud to be his muscle and do the dirty deeds that he decides on.

This is a neat movie that combines, using the three brothers, different movie types – it’s a combination historical, political drama, a police thriller (they’re being chased by a cop who was in the left-wing resistance during WWII), a boxing movie, and a Godfather-type family saga. Great acting by the three brothers – Jamal Debbouze as the funny, street hood, Roschdy Zem as the strong and silent bruiser, and Sami Boujila as the troubled, heroic revolutionary – who switch from Arabic to French and back again – in this really well-made movie. I think anyone who saw Gods and Men (the gentle movie about the French monks massacred in Algeria) should also see this one if they want to really understand the politics and history of the two nations.

West is West

Dir: Andy DeEmmony

Sajid is a British schoolkid in Manchester in the 1970’s, whose parents have a chip shop. His father George is Pakistani, his mother’s English, and he’s an irascible foulmouthed brat who is picked on by racist bullies at his school. The headmaster, having spent time in Punjab when it was part of the British Empire, shows his sympathy to Sajid by telling him about Kipling. “Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab” he says, but Sajid wants nothing to do with that. And when, in a fight with his father, he uses the P-word, things really look bad. So the next thing you know, he’s being shipped off with his dad to the family homestead in Punjabi Pakistan.

And there’s a whole family there – George hasn’t seen his first wife and daughters since he emigrated thirty years before – he just periodically sent them money to support them. Sajid, who only knows “Salaam aleikum” and a few dirty words in Urdu, begins to study not in a classroom but by following a staff-carrying wise man who claims to be a fool and a local kid he dismissively calls Mowgli.

But he makes a friend, learns about life, and gradually loses his English uniform and ways. West is West wonders if ever the twain shall meet. Will his older brother, who is obsessed with Nana Mouskouri, ever find a bride that lives up to his image? Will Sajid find a culture to call his own? And what will George do to solve his impossible moral dilemma? The movie has more stories than you can shake a stick at, but it carefully and thoughtfully deals with each one inside the bigger East vs West story. It’s especially touching in the way it deals with the two wives, neither of whom planned their strange predicament.

Superficially, you can compare this to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but it’s everything that movie is not.

It’s hilarious, but without reverting to camp or slapstick; it deals with cultural differences but not with cheap ethnic stereotypes; it’s adorable, but foul-mouthed enough to never seem cutesie; and above all, it was just a really good movie. It’s not a movie only for South Asians, it’s a lovely and delightful movie for everyone.

Limitless is now playing, and opening today, March 25, in Toronto are Outside the Law, West is West, and A Matter of Size (a movie about people embracing their body-size by becoming sumo wrestlers, which I reviewed last week). Check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.

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