When laughing hurts
The premise that’s not just in the title but in every frame of Albert Brooks’ “Finding Humor in the Muslim World” is perfectly mediocre and outrageous. It’s a great match.
Brooks is an out-of-work actor who’s called for a State Department mission to India and Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh. His charge is to produce a 500-page report. Brooks is ridden with angst and fear of the daunting task — producing a 500-page report — and the delusion of President George Bush wringing his neck with the National Medal of Freedom. Brooks is in his most unappealing state of kvetchiness (he’s more kvetchy than Woody Allen).
That a Jew is making this report is hardly thought about, since the arrogance and absurdity of the mission overwhelms this fact. The mission is a commentary on the Bush administration’s Mideast policies, which are both brutal and inept. It makes the film agonizingly uncomfortable and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.
Brooks is shut out of every on-the-street-what’s-funny “interview.” That’s when Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” starts going off in your head: “He doesn’t speak the language, holds no currency, he’s a foreign man, cattle in the marketplace, gone, gone, gone…”
Is there a basis to connect this absurdity with current foreign policy? How many people have been convicted of 9/11 crimes during the four-year, costly War on Terror: 0?
What do people laugh at in the Muslim world? Things that are funny. Get it? See it.
“After Innocence,” a documentary by Jessica Sanders, tells the story of seven men who combined have spent about 100 years locked up for heinous crimes they didn’t commit. It also tells two other stories, one about The Innocence Project, which came to prominence because the DNA fingerprint could positively rule in or out a suspect. The other story looms large with serious consequences.
One of the innocent men is Wilton Dedge, who we meet handcuffed, legs chained and in an orange prison jumpsuit. He’s 5 feet 8 inches and thin. He was convicted of a rape. The victim had testified that the rapist was over 6 feet and weighed at least 200 pounds. There are two strands of hair and semen that survived the crime scene investigation. For at least three years, the state has known that neither the semen nor the hair belonged to Dedge. Yet the state argues against his release.
Once you see the stories, there’s a nagging, terrible question that we, the nation’s citizenry, must ask: What role do we play when state after state commits a criminal act in order to convict an innocent person, and then commits a second crime, lying to its citizens?
Around halfway through Denis Gansel’s “Before the Fall,” a German film with English subtitles, the bite and greatness of the movie knock the breath out of you.
It’s World War II. Two young men are at a palatial estate, the home of Albrecht (Tom Schilling). Albrecht’s father, a governor, is hosting a small birthday party for himself with fat, blond, red-faced SS generals as guests. They are drunk and getting drunker. At dinner, Albrecht stands to recite a poem he has written for his father. Before the first words come out, his father cuts him off, embarrassed.
After dinner, Albrecht and his friend Friedrich (Max Riemelt) are savagely served as dessert to the generals in a brutal boxing scene.
Friedrich is a working-class kid from Berlin. He’s been recruited to the SS against his parents’ wishes. The beautiful mountain estate school where food and heat are in abundance lure Friedrich.
During the vicious fight, Albrecht becomes livid — realizing the hypocrisy and coldness of his upbringing. Friedrich, intoxicated with “privilege,” is not sure how to respond. The tension of class, militarism, morality and homoeroticism keeps getting tighter. Its lessons are relevant for today.
The film premiered last year in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center and will play exclusively at Chicago’s Landmark Century starting Feb. 24.
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