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.

Escape! Movies Reviewed: Battle: Los Angeles Cosmonauta, I Saw the Devil, A Matter of Size

Posted in Sumo, Uncategorized, Weightloss by CulturalMining.com on March 17, 2011

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

I have a tendency, please forgive me, to link current news and events to what I’m seeing in the movie theatres, even though the movies were made long before the events of the last week happened. So when Saudi troops are invading Bahrain, or the Tepco Dai Ichi reactor is reaching a boiling point, I start to see parallels to what I’m watching on the screen with what’s going on… out there. And right now, the world in a fair bit of turmoil. So, to distract you from all that, here are four new films – an American action movie, an Italian historical coming-of-age drama, an Israeli comedy/drama with a Japanese twist, and violent horror and revenge movie from Korea.

First,

Battle: Los Angeles

Dir: Jonathan Liebesman

(or should I say BATTLE: LOS ANGELES!!!) is about a US marine troop sent out to save trapped civilians and invaders in Santa Monica before the city is flattened by American bombs. You see, the unexpected meteor shower that cropped up all around the world is actually a planned attack by scary, metallic, insect-like space invaders who want to kill everyone so they can suck up the world’s seawater.

Not sure why they have to kill everyone on shore, since they want the stuff in the water… but never mind, don’t ask about details in a war movie. Just go out there and KILL KILL KILL! The troop is led by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, who lost all his guys in his last battle, somewhere far away. So the guys he commands don’t completely trust him. They have to save any civilians who haven’t been evacuated, and get them to safety. And when Santos a woman from the air force joins them, they deduce how to fight the aliens and win back the world – but first they have to find their core command, and take them out.

I went to Battle Los Angeles for the catharsis of a disaster movie, in the theory that everyday, real-life stress and tension, including repeated footage of cars and people being washed out to see by last week’s Japanese tsunami that you see on TV, on youtube, and even on screens in bars and restaurants.

I wanted lots of collapsing buildings, huge train and highway accidents, and screaming hordes of people stampeding in one direction or another.

But watch out folks, it isn’t a disaster movie at all – it’s military porn. It’s basically just one long, extended orgy of weapons, shootouts, grenades, bullets and other ordnance fired between the two sides. I was having trouble paying attention in the beginning – it was like having to watch someone else playing a military video game – maybe it was fun for the director, but kinda dull for the viewers. The dialogue: I want you to be my little marine, Hector. Cause Marines don’t quit. Says Eckhart to a kid. – was atrocious, the story was stooopid, and the acting was so-so. (though I thought Michelle Rodrigues was good as Santos). Though the special effects and some of the screechy alien weapons were sort of cool. But all in all, this movie was more of a “meh” than a “wow”.

To balance these reviews, I’m now doing a complete U-turn from the right to the left with

Cosmonauta

Dir: Susanna Nicchiarelli

It’s the late 50’s in Rome, and the Soviet Union is having its “Sputnik moment.” The whole country is rapt in wonder at the first space ship, with a little dog. But the communists in Italy are especially elated, and the Soviets seem to be surpassing the Americans in a triumph of science and technology. The Communist party was no fringe in Italy – it was the official opposition. And Luciana and Arturo, whose father was a party member, grow up venerating all things communist and Soviet.

Luciana (Marianna Raschillà) is a stalwart, straightforward crusader for women’s rights, against bourgeois capitalism, and longing for the day when a woman might be a cosmonaut (the Soviet term for astronaut.) She lives with her mother, and her traditionalist stepfather, whom she considers a fascist. She rejects the church on the day of her first communion, and looks up only to her brother a science geek who is equally enamoured of the space race.

But despite her idealistic goals, and her anti-fashion dress and haircut, she is forced to face the realities life as a teenager. She has to watch out for her older brother (who has epilepsy); she is faced with as many sexist comments at the Communist Youth meetings as in normal school life; and she’s crushing on a boy in the party but he only has eyes for the girl who plays dumb, not the one who asserts herself. Her party’s enemies seem to be not the fascists, the liberals or the Christian Democrats, but the “socialist traitors” who gave up Communism after Stalin’s crimes were exposed. And she is confronted with unanticipated sexual double standards everywhere goes.

Her crises come to a head in this gentle, historical drama when her dreams seem to come crashing down. Will she find love? Will her brother overcome his disability? Will her family get along? And will the soviets triumph in outer space?

Cosmonauta is a delightful, historically accurate coming-of-age story about a girl’s life within the cold war in Italy in the early sixties’s space race. A very enjoyable movie…

A Matter of Size

Dir: Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmore

Hertzl (Itzik Cohen) is a man in his thirties who still lives with his mother. He works as a chef, but when his boss moves him to the back of the restaurant so the diners don’t see him, he is offended and quits. He’s overweight, and gets derisive comments and abuse from all sides – his work, his mother, and especially his one social event, the support group at weight-loss clinic he attends religiously.

But when he gets a job at a sushi bar, he has a revelation he glimpses on a TV screen: Sumo! He decides he’s had enough of the battle against weight and instead to embrace his fatness, to stay heavy, and to celebrate the strength in his size, not to starve it down to submission.

With the grudging help of a strict Sumo coach (the restaurant owner) he gathers together friends from his weight loss club to join his team – a bigoted plumber, a guy who runs a donair stand, a young cameraman and his new girlfriend, a social worker. Will they get to Japan for the championships? Will he learn to become one with nature? Will he be the champion wrestler?

A matter of size is an OK comedy, that despite its topic, relies, for too many of its laughs, on fat jokes like collapsing chairs and being too big. Being a non-Japanese, it also depends a lot on the novelty and strangeness of the world of sumo. So the wrestlers have long scenes where they’re forced to run around in populated areas wearing only their mawashi loin cloths. (Incidentally, the only times I ever saw sumo wrestlers in public in Japan, they were always elegantly dressed in crisp white and blue cotton kimonos). But in the end, A Matter of Size is a sweet comedy that shows the positive aspects of being big.

I Saw the Devil

Dir: Kim Jee-woon

Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) is a secret agent in a prestigious job, who’s in love with a beautiful woman, the daughter of a police chief. Then something terrible happens: a non-descript looking middle-aged guy driving a school minibus offers to help her change a flat tire on a snowy night. But soon we see him in his cave-life home, brutally attacking, torturing, murdering, and dismembering her in an especially gruesome way. Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is a depraved serial killer who glories in getting revenge on beautiful young women merely for looking down on him or even rejecting.

Kim is mortified so, with the help of his associate, takes time off of his job to avenge his dead love. He will hunt him down, and in an eye-for-an-eye style punishment, do to him what he had done to her (and all of the other women he killed). He becomes a sort of a Dexter, only attacking bad guys. But although he finds the killer early on, they begin a long extended battle between the two, to see who will win, who will triumph, and whose morality (if indeed there is a difference between the two) will win out.

I Saw the Devil is an extremely violent, gory and bloody pic, but, still, it is not as awful as the Saw series. It’s an aesthetically amazing movie, with stunning camera work that looks like a 1970’s American sleuth pic like Klute, with window reflections, blurring lights, views through windows. Sort of like the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, it’s way beyond the quality you’d expect in a cheap exploitation or horror movie. It’s also really well written with a good soundtrack, great acting, appropriate special effects, and a plot that keeps you going. It’s also a great director, (the guy who did A Tale of Two Sisters, among others)

It is, though, only for people who like horror movies, because that’s what it is, and it glories in torture and violence, but thankfully, the camera cuts away from the worst parts. Well, at least for the good victims; when the bad guys are tortured, it just keeps going on and on and on…. I Saw the Devil will definitely take your mind off the rest of the word for an hour and twenty minutes.

Battle: Los Angeles is now playing, and opening today (March 18) in Toronto are Cosmonauta and I Saw the Devil. A Matter of Size opens next Friday (March 25th) in Toronto and Montreal. Check your local listings.

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