The Hunting Ground
The Hunting Ground could have been a series of disturbing statistics and personal stories, but the directors know that it is the survivors who are…
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.
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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.
Thinking about this movie, I had to go to a thesaurus to find any synonyms for "underdog." Try it. The point is that I had little interest in watching another dark horse movie because they tend to follow the same unique long shot formula to such a degree that there are not many synonyms even for the word that describes them. Further, the admittedly exciting trailer for Gavin O'Connor's geometrically constructed "Warrior" (2011) seemed to give away all of the film's secrets, including the most preposterous plot points. More than that, all the villains in these Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) matches seemed too familiar and too cartoonish. But, a few friends recommended the movie; then, my fellow Far Flung Correspondent from Cairo, Wael Khairy, appreciated this movie somewhere in his list of the Best Films of 2011.
For the first time in a long time, she has breakfast with her husband. But now, nobody in her house will talk to her. She is Arati, wife of Subrata, and to help pay expenses she starts her first job outside of the home. In Satyajit Ray's tender "Mahanagar" (1963) aka: "Big City", we follow a quiet Indian family's struggles against the nearing claws of modernity.
I've seen scenes in this movie multiple times in multiple movies, yet I've never seen this movie before. Andrew Niccol's "Lord of War," is the story of the rise and decline of an arms trafficker (Nicholas Cage) and takes many predictable narrative steps. It is a list of cinematic clichés, from the personalities (even the names) of the characters, to the moments of suspense and surprise, to the preposterous ethnic stereotypes. It contains everything short of a protagonist dangling from a cliff or a racing bus driving through a fruit stand. Further, there is very little character development, very little revelation, and most of the characters are caricatures. Nevertheless, the final product is a thoroughly original, provocative satire that explores a violent decade of global peace and haunts you with an almost silent sinister laugh.
There is a 20 second moment in Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" that just floored me. Here is the story of a High School Prom Queen -- Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) - revisiting her hometown on a targeted mission to reclaim her old boyfriend. She walks through her parents' house and sees a large wedding photo. I thought it was a photo of her parents; her mother looks just like her? But, no, it is her own wedding. Not only do her parents keep the photo, but her father casually praises her ex-husband. I don't remember how long she's been divorced, but I was devastated just listening to his comments. Any normal parent would break his or her back to provide the child with every benefit; any child knows this. Still, the child also needs to hear the "I love you" and the "I value you" and the "I'm proud of you." But, when the child's ears hear, "I like your ex-spouse," from the two people she needs validation from, they are saying, "I like your ex-spouse, though he is worth nothing compared to you." What she instead hears is, "You're no good. You failed. I'm siding with him."