Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Peace Be Upon You

One of the reasons why I liked Ridley Scott's Body of Lies was that it showed Leonardo DiCaprio actually playing a sexual being, not just someone who has the obligatory romantic interest.

That the object of his desire was a Muslim woman was telling. His character had in fact been seduced by the Middle East, for all its complexities, which is a far cry from the usual American denial of showing how "our" boys are suffering in one of those wars instead of asking why they're actually there in the first place.

Films like The Hurt Locker.

In fact, a salient but understated point Scott makes is that the Middle East has an erotic charge about it, and it's worth investigating that, along with all the other geopolitical considerations.

Once people start falling in love across races, cultures and religions life becomes infinitely more interesting - and complex. On a micro-scale, you can't get more political than getting married.

But in the two films under discussion today there is no love lost, let alone glimpsed or even desired. In the first, A Prophet, which won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, a Bafta, the Golden Globe and has been rightly nominated for a foreign Oscar, there is a warning, a cautionary.

What makes it so powerful is that Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a nonentity when Jacques Audiard's film begins. The only thing that distinguishes him from other French people is that he speaks Arabic, but he comes from the streets. He has no parents, no political or religions affiliations.

But the first criminal and symbolic act he has to perform for the Corsican mob inside is kill an Arab - who might snitch on them - to ensure his own safety. This is virtually the only time we see him feeling anything, not because the man is an Arab, but because Malik is not a killer. So he does what has to be done, but then that man comes to "visit" him thereafter, to guide him, mentor him, praising God.

Though a very long movie, the shift from Malik's complete subservience to utter power in six years is almost imperceptible, his face showing very little again.

And if the implicitly Catholic mob, as represented by Niels Arestrup's obscenely brilliant prison don, are always violent towards Malik, then the Muslims offer him something that is central to their faith. Family. And I don't mean the family of man, or men, I mean his friend is dying of cancer and offers Malik his beautiful wife and child. What street urchin would say no?

So if ever there was an allegory on how Islam became radicalised, this is it. It's very scary, and very necessary.

On completely the other end of the scale is Chris Morris's scathing satire Four Lions. Note, it is not a comedy, it is a satire, which means it is there to highlight the absurdities of something. In this case it is a quartet of blithering, fundamentalist Muslims idiots with Sheffield accents.

Using all the techniques of farce and slapstick, Morris sends up some of their more ridiculous ideas, often using news-like camera zooms.

On a domestic level, when the imam comes to visit the leader of the revolutionaries, Waj (Kayvan Novak), he has to shield his eyes from seeing Waj's (very beautiful) wife, Sophia (Preeya Kalidas). The scene ends up in a suburban water-pistol fight between the married couple and their imam because he finds it repulsive to be in the same room as a woman, but otherwise he's a peaceful sort who doesn't intend blowing people up.

Sophia, however, discusses her husband's martyrdom as if they're planning a Sunday morning picnic.

Extremism takes a knock, literally, when Barry (Nigel Lindsay) suggests they should blow up a mosque so that they can radicalise and mobilise more Muslims. Waj says that is akin to hitting yourself and finally persuades Barry to do just that, giving himself a blood nose.

But always there is the reality that bombs are bombs and they can completely spoil your day and, even though Morris only half covers himself from a fatwa by showing just how stupidly dogmatic the English are as well, one wonders what Muslims would think of this film. Would they laugh as much as Westerners? It would be interesting.

On a purely formal level, this outrageous flick starts losing steam towards the end, but it has more laughs in it than most Hollywood comedies put together anyway.

And then there is the question of who has the last word. The satirist or the historian? It is quite conceivable that the latter might one day come to the disturbing conclusion that the man who almost single-handedly dragged Islam into the spotlit glare of global scrutiny, George W Bush, was also a blithering, fundamentalist idiot.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, October 15, 2010

Going to Town

Ben Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a revelation. It showed maturity, courage and intelligence. It also showed that he knows how to pull a performance, in that case from his brother, Casey.

Furthermore, he had a fine understanding of how menace works, and he was competing against another contemporaneous masterpiece of menace set in Boston: Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed.

All of that skill is still apparent in The Town, but it's kind of watered down.

This could be because he is rather self-consciously hauling his own, rather awkward tall frame through the lens, but he is still pulling those performances from others - notably Rebecca Hall as Claire, Blake Lively as a hard-done-by Krista and Jeremy Renner, fresh from his acclaimed showing in The Hurt Locker, as her brother, James.

Anyway, the titular town is Charlestown, a Boston suburb which apparently produces the most bank robbers anywhere. So it is not a very upmarket kind of place, yet Affleck (pardon the pun) goes to town with expensive aerial shots of the city and the titular suburb.

It may be a small point, but it's wrong. These people don't see life from above, they see it from down below, like Scorsese's characters. They're too busy in their cesspool of survival to have a bird, God or Trump's eye view of the whole affair.

Those are the negatives, bar one.

On the positive side there is the rather engaging relationship between Doug (Affleck) and Claire, a bank manager who is briefly taken hostage by him during a robbery (he's behind a skeleton mask) but treated humanely.

If his effort to engage her afterwards is somewhat contrived, then one does get a sense of the tentativeness of a new affair. Initially, of course, he only wants to know whether she saw anything identifiable about the thieves, since she's been questioned by the cops.

The only thing she saw of the robbers was one of their tattoos, belonging to the always dangerous James, on the back of his neck. So along he comes, in broad daylight, and joins them at an open air restaurant, the tattoo quite visible.

It's masterly. Will she she see it or not? Has he been spying on his virtual blood brother or not?

Doug's history is economically referred to and made integral to the story, and the fact that the kingpin of these parts fronts as a florist, played by the prunish Pete Postlethwaite, is another excellent touch.

Moreover, Affleck the director has a wonderfully realistic streak to him in that some of his characters actually get hit in the crossfire; if someone gets smacked over the head with a rifle's butt they actually bleed; if Jon Hamm's FBI Agent Frawley blasts a getaway car's tyres with a shotgun they actually burst.

How refreshing.

So this is not the worst or most most mediocre heist film you'll ever see, far from it, but there is a danger that it could become a cult movie in the distant future for all the wrong reasons.

A bunch of aliens might worship its hidden message that, forsooth, we only see Affleck and new "it" actor Hamm every third day of this story, for both of them sport such a designer stubble virtually all the time, and that just ain't real.

Neil Sonnekus

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Soul Food

It's supposed to be an oxymoron, a German comedy, even though Oscar-nominated Oliver Schmitz assures me that he makes a living in Berlin as a director of TV comedies when he isn't making serious dramas about black South Africans.

But then Soul Kitchen goes a step further and turns out to be a romantic comedy. Could this be possible? Could it possibly work? Well, yes, actually. Rather well. And the reason why it works might well be the same as why the German national football team is so much more interesting these days.

That is, it no longer consists of only Schweinsteigers, Schillers and Schumachers. Not only are there a couple of Polish names in there now, but also quite a few Turkish ones, even an African. In other words, the team is no longer purely European. The old gene pool is being given a shake-up.

Hamburg-based director Fatih Akin is of Turkish extraction - his parents were probably so-called guest labourers (Gastarbeiter) - and his leading actor and fellow scriptwriter is clearly not echt Deutsch with a Greek name like Adam Bousdoukos.

So the latter as Zinos Kazantsakis has a restaurant that sells bad food to appreciative people. The only problem is that he has a brother, Illias, who's a criminal, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, who always has that air of Fassbinderian decadence and intelligence about him.

Zinos also has a purely Aryan girlfriend, Pheline Roggan, who is as precious (but okay) as the day is long; and he has an elderly tenant, Sokrates (Demir Gokgol), who verbally abuses him and never pays the rent. Such is life.

Everything seems to go wrong when Zinos slips a disc in his back and spends the rest of the movie walking like, as Illias says about someone else, he has a carrot up his arse. It's very funny because Zinos just happens to look a lot like Jim Morrison of The Doors - in other words, a god.

That is about the only thing the title of the movie and the song by that band has in common, nor does it really deliver on its promise of being a soul music-themed movie. It's way too inclusive for that. There's everything from the stuff you'll hear in elevators to the beats you'll get in an Istanbul disco.

And just to add to the tasty stew, there is Zinos's precious chef. Birol Unel as Shayn Weiss is every millilitre the kitchen dictator, stylish fringe, camp rage and all; and who wouldn't fall for Zinos's Turkish physio, Anna (Dorka Gryllus)?

If the film is predictable in its romance and plot - Aryan property developer wants to take over by means foul - and if the device as to how Zinos wins back his restaurant after brother Illias gambles it away is utterly contrived, then it scores in the areas that count.

That is, not only is it a celebration of the new world citizen, the migrant; it is also a reminder that some of us are - or once were - young, wild, beautiful and divinely cuckoo.

Neil Sonnekus

* Not to blow our Yamaha too much, but do note that we featured an interview of new Man Booker prizewinner Howard Jacobson a week before he won that hallowed prize for The Finkler Question. Now is that sharp or is it sharp?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Finkler Question

Furious. Acerbic. Unflinching.

Even the briefest glance at Howard Jacobson's face would seem to explain why these are the words often used to describe his work (the other one is "funny"). Surely those craggy, prophet-like features must never be more than a twitch away from a thunderous scowl? Journalist Allison Pearson once described him as looking like "God after a bad day at the bookmakers", and there's definitely something there that suggests grumpiness on an epic scale.

Luckily, Jacobson turns out to be an interviewer's delight - easy-going, open and brimful of bonhomie. This sunniness is at least partly a consequence of his latest novel, The Finkler Question, reaching the shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Literary gongs have been a bit of a sore point with him until now, even though his books get glowing reviews (Jonathan Safran Foer called him "a great, great writer") and he is often compared to Philip Roth. Yet come the awards ceremonies...nada.

"I've had this reputation as a good writer who is constantly overlooked, and I've been quite fed up with it," he tells me. "If you're identified with a certain kind of non-achievement, it counts against you in the end. So now I feel that particular spell has been broken, and I'm pleased about that."

Of course, there is no accounting for judges' tastes. But there is always the possibility that his novels trade in subjects still off-limits to some, like humour and the Holocaust - the main conceit behind Kalooki Nights (2006). Or perhaps it's because they deal with other issues that cut uncomfortably close to the bone, like British anti-Semitism.

"My father always said: 'Keep your head down, stay schtum.' In the UK, you must demonstrate your remove from Jewishness if you want to feel more English. That's not the case in America, where you often get the feeling that Jewish life is almost synonymous with general cultural life. But over here, while we're not disrespected or disregarded, the Jewish way of thinking and speaking has simply not shaped the culture in the same way and probably never will."

That aside, there is no doubt The Finkler Question is a triumph - funny, clever, and dark. Its protagonist, Julian Treslove, is a typical Jacobson creation: a middle-aged man much given to angst, falling heavily in love and regarding his male friends as rivals. He's also been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Or so he thinks. The problem is, he's not actually Jewish, though his two best friends are - Sam Finkler, philosopher and author, and Libor Secvik, his former teacher.

Sam and Libor are both newly widowed, and Julian's feeling left out - while the other two debate Zionism and mourn their wives, all he's got is an uninspiring job as a celebrity lookalike and a brace of sons he doesn't care to remember. So he decides to learn Hebrew, studies Jewish history, meets a Jewish woman and gets a job in a Jewish museum. But can all this satisfy the need to belong?

This is Jacobson's eleventh novel and, like all its predecessors, it uses humour to drive home his discursive, digressive but always thoughtful interrogations of what it means to be a Jew in England.

"I have always argued for the primacy of comedy in fiction. I don't mean jokes - I mean the illumination of another way of seeing, the sudden turning of an action on its head; not to make light of it but to enrich it."

Such as his depiction of one particularly woebegone character who keeps a blog recording his attempts to regrow a foreskin. Or the bitingly satirical scenes where Finkler spearheads a group called "Ashamed Jews", whose raison d'etre is their grievance towards Israel.

Jacobson's speaking to me from his converted loft in London's Soho, which he shares with his third wife, television producer Jenny de Yong. It's a seemingly natural habitat for a sophisticated, successful author - yet his roots are in working-class, Jewish Manchester. His late father was a "market trading, taxi-driving magician", his mother raised their children at home.

"We were Jewish in a very secular way. We were expected to have bar mitzvas, but we didn't know what it was, really. Our parents got a bit upset when we went out with non-Jewish girls - there was a feeling that you weren't meant to 'marry out'. There was no sense of the kind of Orthodoxy that is in the air at the moment."

Both his parents had an abiding love for culture: his father for opera, his mother for books, and that led Jacobson to pursue a degree at Cambridge. He later taught literature at various universities, but says that his academic career ran aground in the late Seventies. "I neglected it because I wanted to be a writer. I didn't do all the things you were supposed to do."

Yet his literary career took a while to get going. His first novel, Coming From Behind - often described as a Jewish Lucky Jim - was not published until 1983, when he was in his 40s. Once he'd got over the fact that he was no Tolstoy, he finally found his voice.

After that, all he wanted was success as a writer and it still matters to him more than anything, even though he's busier than ever. He's about to publish a collection of the columns he writes for The Independent, he's just made a film about British art for Channel Four, and he's also well into his next novel.

And, of course, there's the upcoming Man Booker. How does he stand the anticipation?

"My mother, who is in her late 80s and pessimistic - Jewishly pessimistic - gave me a piece of her mind on that. 'Don't hope for much. Enjoy it now! Let this be enough.' It's good advice, actually, because right now I do feel blessed."

Melissa de Villiers