Alice Through the Looking Glass
There is no magic, no wonder, just junk rehashed from a movie that was itself a rehash of Lewis Carroll, tricked out with physically unpersuasive…
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.
Just a few months ago, our President signed the National Defense Authorization Act 2012 after almost unanimous bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, while the media almost unanimously ignored it. This is that same troubling act that permits indefinite detentions of American citizens without trial. There was a time in our recent history when we were debating over trials for so-called Enemy Combatants detained in Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo; the debate was over whether the trials should be military or civilian but the consensus was that prisoners should at least get some sort of a trial.
And, there was a time when we were surprised that the CIA held secret prisons all across the globe. Well, it seems that that time was so, so long ago and we've been so inoculated that now not even the media cares. Now, when we walk through X-Ray machines whose companies were represented by our former Head of Homeland Security, we do not think much about it anymore.
So it is with gratitude that I mention that Line Halvorsen, a filmmaker from Norway, chose to make the outstanding documentary "USA vs. Al-Arian," (2007) chronicling a short period in the life of a family that has been suffering what is nothing less than American political persecution right in our suburbs for over a decade. On the one hand, this is the story of America seeking to keep itself secure. On the other hand, it is the story of the impact these sometimes questionable efforts have on a family.
On Netflix and Amazon Instant.
Considering that we normally think of documentaries as some sort of academic discourse at the fringes of popular cinema, this relatively new genre of Celebrity-driven docs is something peculiar. That we now watch documentaries starring Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Bill Maher is something inevitable, I suppose. We already have that tradition of following on-screen directors as characters in their features, including Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen. But, the point here is that we watch some documentaries because of their host celebrities, more than the topic, even though the topics seem to be extensions of those same celebrities.
I suspect few people outside of his fan base will watch this movie: in Larry Charles' documentary "Religulous," (2008) popular Television talk show host Bill Maher is a playful microphone-toting cynic, roaming the landscapes of Christianity, with a few references to Judaism, Islam, and Scientology. The film is very strong and vastly entertaining in finding absurdities in absurd places, but fizzles when it attempts any serious commentary.
Streaming on Netflix Instant.
The movie starts out so beautifully. The great Indian actor Amrish Puri stands there with his dignity, dressed in a perfect mix of Western and native Indian attire, feeding a flock of pigeons in London's monochrome rain-soaked concrete Trafalgar Square, thinking fondly about the sunny, colorful, musical world he left behind in the bright green and yellow fields of his home country. Twenty years of life in England, he runs a generic convenience store, with the goals of giving his daughters the life he never had. In his daydreams, however, he is longingly feeding pigeons not here, but in India.
That very short moment provided a profound insight into the lives of a whole population of first generation immigrants. But, I'd say that the movie takes a nose dive from there, and it does temporarily, because Puri seems to spend the rest of the film with a frozen glare that is frightening enough to make Indiana Jones pull out his own heart. And, similarly, I just wish that that punk Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) would stop his giggling. This is Aditya Chopra's "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" (1995) and it is easily one of the most popular of all Bollywood films, at least for a certain demographic of women between the ages 15 and 45, in a way that "Sholay" is the most popular of all Bollywood films for whatever male demographic I belong to.
Have you ever been hit so hard that you've been left in a permanent daze? I'm speaking of a defining event that, in a matter of moments, changes everything for you, permanently. Maybe it's a collision. Maybe a life event like a tragedy or a divorce. You're at the epicenter of the calamity. The destruction hits you right between the eyes. And while you make sense of what hit you, if you ever do, your loved ones bear the brunt of the hurricane that you become. Like a set of ripples, it realigns everything you do. Peter Weir's "Fearless" 1993 shows us the effect of a plane crash, and tells us that when we get hit with such cataclysms, no single way resolves the trauma.
Streaming free on Amazon Prime.
When I watch Roger Donaldson's "The World's Fastest Indian," (2005) it makes my day. Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) is a contented New Zealand eccentric tinkering with a motorcycle that he dreams of racing in the Bonneville Salt Flats. It's the story of a man trying to be the fastest motorcyclist in history. He has had the fortitude to fiddle with his bike for over 40 years until it is finally ready. Forty years. More than that, it's a true story about a square peg poking his way through a world of circles and triangles, discovering all the different Americas. It's a romantic comedy, for monks. Like me.
One man. Three acts. Three stories. First, he is an aggressive corporate manager, racing against seconds and minutes to do his work and live his life. Second, he is a quiet man in a peaceful land, where time moves in seasons and years. Third, he is a bewildered man at home, where time has slipped passed him, making him miss the most important events of his life, including his own death. This is Robert Zemeckis' great "Cast Away" (2000). If this were a foreign language film or an independent film with a no-name cast, I am sure it would have received tremendous acclaim. As an American film by a major American director featuring two powerhouse actors (Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt), however, it has been left underrated.
Josh Trank's "Chronicle" is the kind of film that curious teenage boys dedicate their hopes and dreams to, before succumbing to thoughts about health insurance and car payments. It advertises itself as a small movie about a few giggling, frowning high schoolers. The movie starts out as a curious plastic toy. Along the way, however, it carefully reveals itself as a colossal amusement park of screams and shouts. Don't let anyone spoil this movie for you, because it is the cult film of its generation.
The Academy Award winners for the past thirty years have followed consistent molds, primarily in the categories of Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture. It is a very simple set of templates that I will explain with excessive evidence. This is not to say that the Academy Awards are a conspiracy run by some secret society, although that idea would be quite fun. Rather, at the very least, there is a subtext to American culture that plays out in the ideas and ideals in American cinema, and it plays out consistently. At the very least, I'm illustrating some unwritten ideals in American culture. Whether or not they are healthy or corrupt, they are there in us. So, "Best Picture" is not a great movie; rather, it is a great movie that fulfills the mold.
A few years ago, I set up an internet alert to inform me whenever Muhammad Ali was mentioned in the news. At the time, he wasn't doing anything newsworthy. It was years after the Michael Mann movie. A decade since his appearance in the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games. Nearly three decades since his last fight. But, for whatever reason, he was on my mind. The strange thing I discovered is that he was in the news, somewhere in the world, every single day. Every single day. That's his astonishing mystique. For whatever reason, he was and is on everyone's mind. The most popular of all basketball players, Michael Jordan, is in the news for shoe sales. The most popular of soccer players, Pele, is in the news for soccer. The most popular of all cricket players, Imran Khan, is in the news for politics. Muhammad Ali, however, is in the news for being Muhammad Ali. Rather, he is in the news for who Muhammad Ali was and is to us. And, in Pete McCormack's wonderful "Facing Ali," we learn who he is and was for the fighters he faced.
The sunglasses, scowls and black leather make it easy to forget that the Wachowski Brothers' mega-popular "The Matrix" (1999) is a dystopian superhero movie, if that makes any sense. The story is an exciting but familiar origins story. We experience and recognize its Frankenstein mythology telling us that our creations, the machines, have conquered us. We see its Orwell/Kafka environment, sometimes taken straight from Orson Welles' "The Trial." And we appreciate its fantastically choreographed martial arts (at least early on, paying homage to video games and Hong Kong movies). And, the philosopher will appreciate the conscious exercise in semiotics. Perhaps, the greatest fun of this movie is the popcorn entertainment. But, for me, even though the movie invests itself so much in its coolness, the overarching appeal of "The Matrix" is its mysticism.