Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back

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Broken City


Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Michael Beach, Kyle Chandler, James Ransone, Griffin Dunne, Odessa Sykes, Britney Theriot, Luis Tolentino, Tony Bentley, Andrea Frankle, William Ragsdale, Dana Gourrier, Teri Wyble. Directed by Allen Hughes

Honesty and politics don’t mix in modern America. The rule is that most politicians will do just about anything to win, stopping short of murder. Some don’t even stop there.

Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is a New York City cop but one with anger issues. When a lowlife who raped and murdered a teen is released on a technicality, he snaps and murders the scumbag in cold blood. Police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Wright) wants to throw his detective to the woods but then New York City Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) buries the evidence and tells Taggart he’s a hero. However, while Billy won’t be going to jail even the Mayor can’t protect his job under those circumstances.

Seven years later, Billy is working as a private investigator but his business is failing. While his loyal assistant Katy Bradshaw (Tal) hangs in there, Billy knows he can’t survive much longer. However apparently coming to his rescue, Mayor Hostetler comes to Billy with an assignment; to follow Hizzonor’s wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones) and find out if she’s having an affair or not. The Mayor is in the middle of a vicious campaign for re-election and he can’t afford the hint of a scandal to get out; it’s something his opponent Jack Valliant (Pepper) and his canny manager Paul Andrews (Chandler) would make a great deal of hay from.

Billy is more than happy and grateful to take a paying job, even when it leads to Cathleen’s lover – none other than Paul Andrews himself. But when Andrews turns up dead, Billy realizes he’s in way over his head and that someone in this equation is hiding something, something they’re willing to kill to keep hidden. Not knowing who to trust and fighting his own demons – alcohol and jealousy of his girlfriend (Martinez), an aspiring actress – it’s going to be no easy thing to fix this broken city.

This originally saw the light of day on the Black List of unproduced scripts. Hughes snapped it up and sent it out to some Hollywood A-listers and both Wahlberg and Crowe jumped at the chance to work on the project. The first clue though that things didn’t turn out so well was when the studio scheduled the film to premiere in January 2013. January is the graveyard for movies; few films of any quality surface during the first month of the year when Oscar contenders and Holiday blockbusters take up most of the screens at the multiplex.

But seeing this made me wonder how the script could have wound up on the Black List considering just how poorly written the movie is. Plot points are explored and then abandoned. Holes in logic abound. Dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. And lest we forget, a ludicrous ending.

Fortunately the movie has some pretty good actors who are playing this (mostly) with straight faces. Wahlberg can play this kind of part without working up much of a sweat and yet he gives it his earnest best. Billy is far from lovable but at his core he has a sense of justice – not always an accurate one – that just can’t be denied. For example, when he sees a sex scene his girlfriend filmed for an indie film at the premiere, he is horrified. He simply can’t get past seeing her do those things where everyone can see them. He’s a rumpled knight in dented, rusting armor but he’s also the sort you’d want at your side if you were fighting for a hopeless but just cause.

Crowe also gives the Mayor easy charm and smile on the surface with a crocodile’s teeth just under the facade. It’s a mesmerizing performance and would ordinarily overwhelm someone as blue collar as Wahlberg but the two make a good point/counterpoint sort of chemistry for themselves. Zeta-Jones remains one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, but she didn’t win that Oscar in a Cracker Jack box; the lady’s got chops and she shows them here in a character study that’s as complex as any in the movie. However, the Israeli actress Tal seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the movie and she is a delight with a future in Hollywood if she keeps getting these sorts of roles.

The action scenes are for the most part forgettable although there are a couple of nifty little set pieces here. This is the kind of mindless fluff that is forgotten as soon as the popcorn is gone but there’s nothing wrong with that sort of movie. I just get the sense that isn’t what the filmmakers had in mind when they undertook this project to begin with.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances from terrific cast. Some gritty action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot holes and dangling plot points a-plenty. Falls flat overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, violent content and a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Hughes directed a film solo; normally he works with his twin brother Albert.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $35M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

The Campaign


 

The Campaign

Zach Galifianakis isn’t sure he’s going to get the top billing Will Ferrell promised him.

(2012) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Katherine LaNasa, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox, P.J. Byrne, Sarah Baker, Karen Maruyama, Grant Goodman, Kya Haywood, Randall Cunningham. Directed by Jay Roach

 

In an American presidential election year, politics tend to move towards the shameless side. Outrageous lies and half-truths are spoken; candidates are smeared, rumors are mongered and dirty tricks are perpetrated.

In a North Carolina congressional district, Cam Brady (Ferrell) prepares to run unopposed for his fourth term in office. He’s always been more interested in being called “Congressman Brady” rather than in doing anything with the office but his popularity takes a huge hit after accidentally sending a racy voice message on the answering machine of a devout Christian family who didn’t appreciate it so much.

This brings a bit of unease to the Motch brothers (Lithgow, Aykroyd), a pair of billionaire industrialist siblings who have outsourced millions of jobs to China. However, they’ve come up with a brilliant scheme to save millions on shipping their products back to the U.S. – it’s called “insourcing” and involves having the Chinese buy huge….tracts of land…and putting up factories, then staffing them with Chinese workers who continue to make pennies an hour. To make it happen, they need a Congressman who can insure they get exemptions on the minimum wage and it doesn’t look like Brady, whose district the Motches have designs on, will have enough political capital after this latest escapade, to help them much.

The Motch brothers need a new pliable candidate, one they can control and they think they’ve found one in Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) who is a somewhat simple and somewhat effeminate tour guide operator in the county whose father (Cox) is the oily, rattlesnake-mean former campaign manager for Jesse Helms. Marty, who’s always wanted to run for office, wants to make his daddy proud. Daddy wants Marty not to embarrass him. And Marty’s brother Clay (Goodman) just wants to tickle Marty because Marty’s bowels tend to void when tickled.

Marty’s kind of a shlub but that all changes with the arrival of Tim Wattley (McDermott), a snake oil-slick campaign manager who proceeds to do a life makeover on the new candidate, much to the chagrin of Mitzi (Baker), Marty’s timid BBW of a wife.

Thus the campaign ensues, with each candidate smearing the other through attack ads, debates and innuendo. Things start to get messy; Cam’s hot but ambitious wife (LaNasa) moves out when it looks like Marty might win; Cam accidentally slugs a baby in the jaw with a closed fist.

However, when Marty finds out what the Motch Brothers, in collusion with his father, are up to, he grows himself a pair and stands up to them. This leads to Tim moving over to Cam’s moribund campaign…and resurrecting it. But which one of these two knuckleheads will win out in the end?

This is meant to be political satire which I suppose circa century 21 makes some sense. Still, when I think of political satire I think of classics like, for example, Dr. Strangelove. This doesn’t measure up to that nor should you go in expecting that it would.

This is more or less an Apatow-esque comedy masquerading as political satire. While the identity of the Motch brothers isn’t fooling anyone (Koch brothers anyone?) and Cam Baker shares some DNA with John Edwards, the movie studiously tries to avoid party mudslinging on the surface by making the Democrat (Brady) as objectionable as the Republican (Huggins). The reality though is that they’re both essentially Republicans – and the joke is that there really isn’t much of a difference between them, even to them both finding out they are good-hearted in the end (not that it’s much of a spoiler).

Ferrell has played this character dozens of times, a combination of Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby and George Bush. For Galifianakis, this is a character not unlike the one he played in Due Date. It’s not a bad mix, the two of them – but it ends up with a kind of Frank Capra-esque ending that belies the cynical tone most of the rest of the movie takes.

I could have used a bit more laugh-out-loud sequences, although there are a few moments which got me chortling but to me the movie seemed on the bland side and never really had the courage of its own convictions. Trying not to alienate the electorate? Don’t make a political satire then.

REASONS TO GO: Satirizes the current American political process without getting too party-specific.

REASONS TO STAY: Not nearly as funny as it should be. A bit more cynical than some might like.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of crude sexual content, a bit of nudity, some semi-foul language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd plays a wealthy brother like the type he bested in Trading Places. Life imitating art?

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100. The reviews are mixed but trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors

EASTBOUND AND DOWN LOVERS: Shawn Harwell, one of the co-writers of the movie, also is a writer for the quirky cable series.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Jack and Jill

Holy Wars


Holy Wars

Khalid Kelly tries on his best Jihadist pose.

(2010) Documentary (Smuggler) Aaron Taylor, Khalid Kelly, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad Fostok, Sam Harris, M. Shalid Alam, Dianne Kannady, Stephen Marshall, Don Taylor. Directed by Stephen Marshall

 

Extremism in any form is something to be avoided. When it is encountered in such hot button topics as religion, it can lead to bloodshed.

Aaron Taylor is an evangelical minister in Missouri who travels around the world to predominantly Muslim countries to convert the natives to Christianity. He believes in the rapture and the apocalypse and that both are right around the corner. His fundamentalism sees all non-Christians as evil and Muslims in particular as the enemy of America and thus of Christianity.

Khalid Kelly is a Muslim of Irish descent living in Britain. He is an Islamic fundamentalist, naming his son Osama after the Al Qaeda mastermind. He is vehemently anti-West, protesting the invasion of Iraq by Tony Blair, and touts the harsher aspects of Shariah law as means of controlling crime and dissent. His own personal transformation from a belligerent drunk to a sober family man he accredits to his conversion to Islam.

The two are as different as two people can be and yet they are flip sides of the same coin. When director Marshall brings the two together, something unexpected happens. While Kelly is articulate and clearly wins the debate, thereafter he slides further into fundamentalism and eventually leaves the UK for Pakistan, which turns out to be not radical enough for him and he is deeply disturbed to discover that his views are liable to get him arrested.

On the other hand Taylor takes a good hard look at his own views and finds that Kelly had made some valid points. He researches Khalid’s complaints and discovers that his own outlook needs some mending. He begins to preach understanding and reaching out, much to the puzzlement of his family who remain committed to their fundamentalism. The change of heart is unexpected and pleasantly surprising.

Taylor is far less charismatic than Kelly and yet he is the one who seems to have more understanding and a greater global view than his counterpart. Marshall wisely sits back and lets the two men tell their own stories. We do see their families and wives but only in a limited sense; for the most part, this is mano a mano, the two trying to espouse their faith and justify their narrow interpretations of them.

I’m not the most religious person on Earth, but I do consider myself to be spiritual. I am not a big fan of organized religion and to a lot of extent this movie tends to confirm my own objections to religion in general. However, it is comforting to know that someone seemingly so entrenched in such a narrow bandwidth can be inspired to open their eyes and see things from a different perspective. Maybe there’s some hope after all.

REASONS TO GO: Surprising look at fundamentalism and its effects on politics. Kelly is engaging and articulate while Taylor’s faith and outlook are impressive.

REASONS TO STAY: Religion and politics are two difficult items to discuss and they are both the focus here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and difficult subject matter.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marshall followed Taylor and Kelly for a total of three years.

HOME OR THEATER: While it will be difficult to find in a theater, it is worth seeking out at your local film festival if possible.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: This Narrow Space