La La Land
This is a beautiful film about love and dreams, and how the two impact each other.
Omer M. Mozaffar teaches at Loyola University Chicago, where he is the Muslim Chaplain, teaching courses in Theology and Literature. He has given thousands of talks on Islam since 9/11. He is also a Hollywood Technical Consultant for productions on matters related to Islam, Arabs, South Asians.
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.
There are some American suburbs that are notorious for their high concentration of high powered parents who excel in their high class careers, spare no expense in raising precisely crafted children, and in the process completely abandon themselves, their spouses, and their children. That is one level of Alexander Payne's "The Descendants." This is such a rich movie that I'll have to watch it a few times to fairly appreciate all of its layers.
Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful" was utter torture, and I loved it. Javier Bardem is Uxbal, a soft-spoken man living somewhere along the border between Here and There. He gently hides from life in some anonymous place in crowded, noisy Barcelona. He is a hustler, compassionately exploiting families of undocumented refugees from other lands, protecting them from deportation. He is a telepath, speaking to the newly deceased, helping free their crossing to the next world. He is a son who hardly knew his father, and a father seeking to nurture his own little daughter and son against the pull of an unpredictable ex-wife and an irresponsible brother. But, what does he seek?
Describing Steve James' "The Interrupters," I might sound like I'm talking about some dry public heath study. The centerpiece of the film is a profound theory on human nature. Science and philosophy aside, "The Interrupters" is the closest thing to a real-life superhero origins story that any of us might ever experience. This film is exactly that: a superhero origins documentary. It might be the most powerful movie I have ever seen.
On a personal level, the most surprising aspect of Rashid Ghazi's new documentary, "Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football," is that he managed to keep it a secret and even managed the time to make it. An old friend, he personally funded and directed this portrait of a week in the life of a tightly-knit Detroit community at the beginning of their 2009 school year. A husband, a father, and tireless executive, he kept quiet about the film, even keeping his name off the original publicity. Simply: he did not want to get attacked by rampaging anti-Muslim zealots who seek to fake scandal where there is none.
Sometimes, I just want to stare at beautiful people, even if they spend most of the movie just staring at each other. I think it's in the eyes, especially when the eyes are smiling. Sometimes, I just want to sigh, watching them longing for each other. Ashutosh Gowariker's 2008 film, "Jodhaa Akbar" let me do so, for three hours.
This Indian film is an unabashed epic that targets that greatest of all Indian epics, K. Asif's 1960 film, "Mughal-e-Azam" ("The Greatest of Mughals"). It is a prequel of sorts: "Jodhaa Akbar" tells us the story of the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his wife Jodhaa; "Mughal-e-Azam" is about their son, Jehangir. Like any other man of withering virility and receded hairline, I like beautiful things and beautiful people, and "Jodhaa Akbar" is loaded with carved reddish palaces, golden decorations, and silk scarves of every color. And beautiful people.
Nearly every frame in this movie is a low-angle shot, looking up in awe and curiosity. At times, we gasp at the complex beauty of galaxies and supernovas. At times we stare closely at expressions of children that seem no less complex, no less beautiful, and no less valuable. At times we look to the sky, hoping to see what our characters see. Terrence Malick's wondrously abstract "The Tree of Life" has very little dialogue, but is not at all a silent movie.
As the quiet, fragrant hickory quality of the American Small Town fades into disposable plastic franchises, we find ourselves longing. For some, the American small town is the home they have been handed, being the home that they have chosen to keep. For some, it is the refuge away from the complications of city into a new simple life of inconspicuous rebirth. For many of us, however, the small town is an idealized yesterday that we mourn, nostalgic for a return to a black and white television show with Opie and Andy. The strange thing about Victor Nunez's "Ulee's Gold," is that it made me long to return to a hometown, an American small town, that I never lived in.
I have long had trouble enjoying live sporting events, concerts, and stage shows for three reasons. First, I would tire from watching the show from one single angle. Conditioned by movies, I need the variety of angles, the intimacy of close-ups and the sweep of tracking shots. Second, live events will never have the polish of a polished movie. And, third, (more applicable to large stage shows) the dialogue is always too enunciated and thus distant, even when it is "realistic."
How long does it take for a good movie to convince you to watch it? Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men," announced itself in the first scene, presented its product in the second, introduced paperwork in the third, and closed the deal in the fourth. The two hour long "Matchstick Men" sold in me less than seven minutes.
Every semester, I ask my students this one simple question. "Can you honestly say that you are happy?" In a class of 40 students, maybe only six will raise their hands. And that is pretty sad.
Are they plagued by those uncertainties of youth? Are they wondering if they will find a career, love, or meaning? Are they terrified by the threats of terrorist attacks, financial collapse, climate change and, well, the Apocalypse? Or, have they decided that the "American Dream" was not Thomas Jefferson's vision, but is instead a sappy Hollywood fantasy? Or, maybe they just hate my class? Sure.
In answering this question, Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit of Happyness," takes many usual directions that Hollywood movies take. At first, he seems to answer the question the way we would expect a Hollywood filmmaker to answer: