300: Rise of an Empire
In comparison with "300", this insane film is more engaging by dint of being absolutely impossible to take even a little bit seriously.
Omer M. Mozaffar lectures across Chicago, teaching courses on religion, literature, history and film. He has given well over a thousand talks on Islam since 9/11.
In 2009, Roger Ebert named him as one of his “Far Flung Correspondents.” In 2011, the Graham School of the University of Chicago honored him with an “Excellence in Teaching Award” in Humanities, Arts and Sciences. He is a lifelong Chicagoan, involving himself in various educational, social service and charitable projects.
"Cloud Atlas" (2012), directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, is a thing of beauty, the likes of which I have not seen in American Cinema. While I regard Rian Johnson's "Looper" as easily the best film of the year thus far, this film might be the best film of the decade. Nevertheless, considering how many people walked out of the screening within the first hour, I suspect that this film will successfully alienate or confuse most of its viewers, earning more appreciation in the years to come, long after most of us have expired. If you have the patience, it might take forty minutes to begin to understand it, and to subsequently immerse yourself into it. In that way, it also reminded me of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011). It is that good. It is so good that I can tell you everything about this movie, and I will still have told you nothing.
Ben Affleck's "Argo" (2012) is a unique specimen. On the one hand, it is an exciting, suspenseful rescue story. It is his best film, though as a central character he seems to keep directing himself as a mostly expressionless central character. It is, without doubt, thrilling from start to finish. On the other hand, it is a crass cheerleading of ethnocentrism, recalling Menahem Golan's "Delta Force" (1986). As I watched "Argo," part of me was absorbed in the suspense, as though I was wide eyed, with my hand covering my open mouth. Another part of me was thinking that the timing of its release was a bit too perfect, as though I was scratching my head, thinking "Seriously? You're stooping that low?" Still, the film seems to even take that point as a subtle comment about global cinema culture.
We know that "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) is the best of all of the "Star Trek" movies. I am not stating anything new here. The rest of the series of films struggled to repeat the mastery of this film, and the reboot has also fallen short, thus far. I did, however, watch Star Trek 2 recently to see if the overlooked "Star Trek: First Contact" was able to take the helm as the Best of the Treks. In the process, however, I realized that Star Trek 2 is a much better movie than I remembered. I invite everyone to watch this movie again to appreciate how great it really is. This is a great movie. It is exciting. It is complex. It is emotional and philosophical. It is one of the great adventure movies.
Rian Johnson's hyperviolent "Looper" (2102) is the smartest movie I have seen in a long time. It has that fearless edge of an independent film, throwing out all the stops. Its masterful plot carefully hides its foreshadows as elements of its constructed universe. It is a science fiction movie with rudiments of mystery, thriller, horror, comedy and even eschatology. So many characters, young and old, were loaded with charisma, sometimes unexpectedly. My fellow critic Nick Allen was correct when he told me not to watch any trailers (too late) and not to let anyone tell me about this movie. Because of its hyperkinetic, volatile unpredictability, I cannot help but to call this movie "crazy." After watching it, you might have to go look at snails for a few hours to calm down. More than that, this movie is clearly one of the best of the year.
Movies usually present the life and religion of conservative masses as that of simple-minded, bigoted country bumpkins. Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" (2012) explores the life and religion of the liberal elite, presenting them as sophisticated frauds eagerly exploiting eagerly exploitable colleagues. If we spoke of "There Will Be Blood" (2007) as "madness," we might accurately speak of this film as "intoxication." And, as is the case with the previous film, "The Master" is amazing in its characterizations, sails us through its cinematography and faded colors, but its narrative confuses us. It is said to be a story about the development of Scientology, but it also recalls Byrne's "The Secret," as well as most every television healer on either side of the Atlantic or Pacific. I don't know that the story is about the religion or the cult leader, as much as it is about the rabid pit-bull he keeps on his leash.
As we race further and faster toward a global war between Christians and Muslims, and as we feel compelled to choose sides, I have to think back to my childhood. One of the blessings of my youth is that my parents raised me in the simple, small life of the South Suburbs of Chicago. When we landed, the overwhelming majority of South Asian immigrants took residence in the North and West sides. The blessing is not that I was raised away from most other Pakistanis and Indians. Rather, that I grew up in a town that boldly, humbly calls itself a "Community of Churches." It is a small town that banned all business on Sundays and prohibited any liquor sales any time of the day or week. And, what becomes more important is that when watching a film like Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), I remember my wonderful neighbors, childhood friends, and teachers far more than I remember the television and internet bigots who today masquerade as Christians, no matter how many of them there seem to be.
I love the Dark Knight Trilogy for one simple reason: it gave me the permission that I didn't know I was looking for to dislike all the rest of the Superhero movies. The high point of my dislike came in the highly ambitious "The Avengers" of this past summer. Don't get the wrong idea: as far as superhero movies go, it is one of the best, or at least it is one of the biggest. But something was wrong. It suffers from the same thing that the whole genre has suffered from. First and foremost, we are watching a bunch of costumed adults pretending that they're children in an expensive suburban Daycare. Second, the genre has otherwise exhausted itself to the point of exciting ritual. Third, the movies in the Dark Knight trilogy are solid and smart entertainment (though not without their flaws).
On Netflix Instant
Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" (1997) is the story of a preacher who believes he has unique permission to phone call the Divine. As is the case with such preachers, the rules of goodness and morality seem to apply to everyone else before they apply to him. Meaning, he is above the law until he gets frightened for breaking the law. So, his combination of impious exhilaration, impatient devotion, and self-righteous rage reveals a man in sunglasses, open palms, and fiery sermons, who plants trees while burning bridges. I love this movie as much as I despise its central character. This movie exists only because of its central character.
I've never been good with small talk. In those corporate conferences with high ceilings and manufactured friendships, I used to admire those high-speed networkers who spun small talk and smooth talk as they worked a room. I don't play golf. I don't drink booze. I'm a fair weather sports fan. If you were to stand alone in an elevator with me, you'd probably hear me breathe as I stared at the floor. Further, if you want to kill an otherwise lively conversation among a bunch of decreasingly sober corporate executives in ill-fitted khakis, sport coats, and crooked "Hi My Name is" name-tags, then make the mistake that I keep making: tell them that you're an expert on religion. The crowd in front of you will split apart faster than the Red Sea. And, perhaps that is why I was never invited by my colleagues to go on those weekend warrior trips, like the characters in John Boorman's forty year old "Deliverance" (1972). This is the story of four confident suburban businessmen looking to raft to the bottom of a river. Along the way, the experience pounds the hell out of them.
A few years ago, while sitting in the mosque during a Friday sermon, I noticed a man in the center of the second row. This is an octagonal mosque with bare white walls. On the outside, its bluish brick and yellow dome consciously invoke the Dome of the Rock, which itself, incidentally is not a mosque. This man was sitting on the blue carpet with the rest of us, about six feet away from the preaching Imam, yet interestingly, he was not looking at him. The Imam was dressed in a white thobe, white skull cap, and that contrasted his thick jet-black beard. Instead, the man of salt-and-pepper beard was staring at the giant projection of this Imam on a screen above. I don't remember what the Imam was speaking about that day, which might explain why I was probably staring curiously at this man as he stared at the live video projection of the preacher standing right in front of him. But, for reasons I will explain below, that moment comes to mind when I think of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" (2012).