Saturday, January 22, 2011

War Zones: Ajami, Harry Brown, and After Hours

Ajami (2009)

     Ajami, an Israeli movie that was nominated for best foreign film last year, is commendable for its fairness and its relevant and necessary message about violence in the middle east. Israeli Jews, Israeli and Palestinian muslims, and Israeli Christians all see their lives torn apart by violence that's so entrenched in their culture and their part of the world that it's inescapable. Try as they will to do the right thing, they're unable to avoid conflict. 
    The movie opens with gunfire as a teenager is killed in front of the car he just bought. Turns out his neighbor, Omar (Shahis Kabaha) had sold it to him and was the one who was supposed to die.  A local tribe actually wants Omar's whole family dead because his uncle killed one of their members, who tried to shoot up the restaurant where he worked. The uncle is dead, and the family has to pay a huge fine if they don't want to end up like him. Convoluted, yes, but that's the nature of violence in the middle east, where grudges are kept and where irrational hatred reigns. And Omar is just one of a large cast of characters in Ajami who are caught up in some sort of mess. The movie intertwines (a la Arriaga) his story with about half a dozen others, and they're all jumbled chronologically, which serves to heighten the sense of disorientation. Ajami occasionally trips over the narrative when it gets needlessly complicated, but for the most part, the movie builds methodically, and the pieces start to come together in illuminating ways (the ending is a little iffy).
     If Ajami's message demands that we pay attention to it (keep in mind that it was co-written and directed by Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, and Scandar Copti, an Israeli arab), it's the way the story is told that makes that the film all the more essential. It has the gritty intensity of the best of its genre, such as City of God, Gommora, or A Prophet (also a contender from 2009). "Ajami" is the name of a neighborhood in the city of Jaffa, and everything about the streets and the people in them feels alive and authentic. Many of the actors are non-professionals, but they all give excellent performances, and their characters come off as more sympathetic and relatable than I could have expected. Binj, Nasri, Malek, and Dando all play tough, but they're a vulnerable bunch, more scared than anything else. And when tragedy strikes, it's all the more appalling for feeling so real.


Harry Brown (2010)

      Harry Brown takes place in the dreary and run down housing projects of South London and somehow manages to make England look like far scarier place than that peaceful and scenic paradise we call the middle east. Most brits would probably be content to call the "chavs" (those errant British youths who are always up to no good) a nuisance, a bother, or an unfortunate consequence of Tatcher's destruction of the working class. But this movie declares full out war on the young. It's a call to arms for septugenarians who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. 
       Of course, you're much more willing to trust an old man with a gun when the man is played with effortless ease and gravitas by Sir Michael Caine. There are few actors more calm and reassuring than this distinguished gentleman, so naturally, we're willing to follow him anywhere. In fact, I was eagerly awaiting the movie to kick into its action gear so that Caine could start getting medieval on all of the hoodied gangs that have been making his life a living hell. He does, and the movie gets to be as violent as anyone could have asked, but it's hard to say that it's any fun. Harry Brown doesn't tread lightly: it's  not disingenuous or hypocritical, and doesn't offer half-hearted preachings about the moral degeneracy of violent youngsters while giving those same kids all the gunfire and blood they want.
     What it offers up instead is bleakness, melancholy, and righteous anger. This is best in the first hour or so when Caine/Brown is grieving the loss of his wife and his friend and building up to his decision to take the law into his own hands. Here, the direction (from first-timer Daniel Barber) is surprisingly heartfelt in it's willingness to focus at length on Brown's pain. Some of the later violent scenes are gripping as well, even if they go a little overboard. As Brown enters the lair of two druggies to buy himself a firearm, he is treated to the sight of two shirtless addicts, their emaciated bodies covered with scars, as they inject heroin, snort cocaine, and smoke crack through a gun. And that's not even mentioning the industrial sized weed farm, overdosing girl sprawled out on the couch, and hard core porn video playing in the background. Nice lurid detail there, even if we do get the point fairly quickly. Maybe they wanted to remind those of us who live in a more civilized country how lucky we are to be able to put the same goods Brown spent so much trouble looking for in our Walmart shopping carts.
      But eventually, the film simply loses control, staying all too serious while the events on screen become more and more ludicrous. And when a movie takes itself this seriously, you kind of have to take its message at face value, which in this case, gets you into a moral quandary. Do we really need vigilantes killing every single wayward youngster to make the world a better place?  A ridiculous notion, obviously, but the direction is assured enough and the movie is good enough to make you think that it actually means it.


After Hours (1985)

     If there's one thing that makes Scorsese's After Hours fit in with these two other movies, it's its distinct sense of place. The New York of the 80s (SOHO to be exact) is shown here in all it's dangerous, seedy, and completely crazy glory. Many people nowadays seem to miss the air of unpredictability that was in the city; as far as I know pre-Giuliani New York is the only thing that has ever gotten people nostalgic about higher crime rates. 
      If Scorsese's brooding Taxi Driver was a hidden love letter to the grime of the Big Apple, After Hours does little hiding, instead presenting all of the strangeness and scariness with a good deal of humor and affection. This movie is like Taxi Driver would be like if Travis Bickle was a sane man and it was the streets around him that were going hilariously mad. 
     The driving force behind the plot is conveniently summed up with a simple phrase from the owner of a coffee shop: "It's after hours... different rules apply." Soon after deciding to spice up his dull life with some spontaneous romance with a mysterious girl he meets in a different coffee shop, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dune) figures out that he wants nothing more than to return home. Only, the rules have changed--drastically--and there's no way of escaping the series of increasingly surreal and bizarre events that keep our hero from making the 80 block trip back to his warm bed and familiar corporate life. Paul's travails soon reach epic proportions, with a vigilante mob and an ice cream truck chasing him, dead and/or heartbroken women left in his wake, and ominous ceramic bagel paperweights popping up in unexpected places. Speaking of "epic," After Hours really is the Odyssey, albeit with a heavy Lynch influence and by way of Cheech and Chong. The similarities are endless, but suffice it to say it's the city itself--savage and untamable--that plays the role of Poseidon. 
       But if New York City is one of the most important characters of After Hours, the film makes no pretense of representing reality. The danger and tension may be real, but, like the Odyssey (and unlike Harry Brown) it uses myth and exaggeration to convey something fundamentally true. And where Homer was commenting on the nature storytelling while telling stories with great dexterity, Scorsese tells a great story by reveling in the language of cinema. His camera swoops and glides around with so much energy that there has to be some self-parody involved. In fact, he's more of a jokester than ever here, providing intrigue and clues that lead nowhere, refusing to give the audience anything to make sense of, and turning expectation on its head; when a woman sullenly tells Paul that she was raped for six hours, it's an inexplicably funny moment. After Hours may be morbid, but it has a joy to it that's contagious and deadly. If there's one thing that separates it from everything else I've seen recently, it's its enthusiasm in creating a world that can only exist on film.


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