07 June 2013

5 Minarets in New York

My friend Colleen is reviewing this movie for a journal, so we watched it together the other day. Having just read the draft of her (excellent) review, I started thinking about the movie again and figured I'd log my own responses (bonus: this being a blog rather than a respectable publication, I don't have to be nice). What makes the movie interesting is its attempt to be a Turkish-American blockbuster. The plot centers around a terrorism investigation that brings two Turkish cops to NYC, where they are to capture a local imam named Haci and bring him to Turkey to stand trial. One of the cops has tortured the crap out of some terr'rists and identified Haci as The Bad Guy. After a quick chat about American imperialism with a comically bigoted FBI agent (Robert Patrick, what happened to you??) they arrest their man, who is then rescued in a daring mission led by Danny Glover, his Muslim buddy, and Glover's army of Harlem thugs. In a wildly improbable sequence of events, the Turks end up hanging out with Haci (and his Christian wife, played by Gina Gershon, who as Colleen points out, is dressed like a Turkish mom for the entire movie, distressingly though impressively obliterating her considerable sex appeal) for a few days, where they are forced to confront the fact that he is clearly a saint. This puzzles them somewhat, but in the end, off to Turkey they go (where innocent men don't stand a chance!). I won't spoil the rest for you, because the surprise twists are half the ludicrous fun of it. But as Colleen aptly summarizes it, from that point on, the movie basically turns into a Turkish soap opera.

Let me be totally clear: this movie is terrible. The dialogue is appallingly bad (I suspect the English language bits were written in Turkish and fed into Google Translate), and the movie is basically a massive collection of worn out stereotypes. You might think that a cooperative effort between Turkish and US film folk would help avoid stereotype, but bizarrely, it seems to do the opposite - instead, all character types are pulled straight out of the stockpile of cliche, whether they be Turkish, Muslim, American, cops, WASPS, distressed daughters... there is nothing new under the cinematic sun, in this movie. I was, however, somewhat intrigued by the question of audience, namely - who is this movie made for? I think it must be Turks, because Americans a. don't like reading subtitles, ie will be turned off by all the Turkish dialogue, and b. won't get a lot of the cultural specificity of the Turkish segments. Not that they necessarily need to, but the underlying critique of juxtaposed scenes of fundamentalist groups chanting in a mosque and quasi-fascist training of the Turkish police force is going to be somewhat lost on them, and it might be one of the more interesting aspects of the film. I wonder, then, whether the problem is that this movie shouldn't be judged alongside American film at all, but rather, as a stock Turkish melodrama that has upped its ante by including American actors, similar to the way you occasionally see US film stars in Bollywood films (Kambakkht Ishq being particularly awesome in that regard. Seriously.). Not being a connoisseur of Turkish melodrama, I'm not really qualified to speak on that, but I think it's an interesting possibility.

Running the Books: Memoirs of a Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg

I learned about this book after reading a New Yorker article by the author, and immediately bought it. I'm really interested in prisons and what life there is like, and have long considered teaching a class in one or getting involved in some kind of program that helps former inmates adjust to life outside. So unsurprisingly, I found this book incredibly fascinating, albeit not as well written as I might have liked. Oftentimes I caught myself thinking "ok Avi, enough about you, tell me about the stuff I'm actually interested in." The episodic nature of the book is a mixed success; I liked the way some stories were left to sit for awhile, to be returned to later, but other times it seemed I was dealing with a collection of fragments that weren't woven together well. Actually, I'm somewhat inclined to blame the editor. To be honest, the book is WAY too long. A lot of the material could be cut (and potentially used for a different book). That said, to me at least, it was still very much a worthwhile read, and at moments, packed a real punch emotionally.

Ruby Sparks

I had exactly zero interest in watching this movie, because the previews made it look like a fairly obnoxious and precious love story about a guy who writes his dream girl and then has hipster montages with her. But I've been listening to a lot of back episodes of Pop Culture Happy Hour, and in one of them Linda Holmes said she expected to hate the movie but really liked it, and I have come to trust Holmesie pretty much blindly, so when it was available for watching on my flight, I gave it a whirl. And of course, Linda was right. What makes the movie great is that rather than being the manic pixie dream girl story you expect, it is a very smart critique of exactly those kinds of stories.

Calvin is a lonely writer looking for love, and after he has a few dreams about Ruby, he writes one down, and presto, she comes to life. Thankfully, the movie doesn't spend much time trying to make that real; it establishes the hypothetical premise, does the bare minimum to validate it, and then turns to an exploration of the moral/philosophical aspects of the issue. Namely, do you actually want your dream girl, and what are relationships between real people like. It turns out to be a very smart and interesting take on that (though poor Calvin ends up looking like an unbelievably self-absorbed jerk who is borderline sadistic). I particularly enjoyed the way the movie used an implicit contrast to two other relationships to reflect on the subject. I also really liked the character of the brother, who seems, at moments, like a crass frat boy type, but turns out, much like Homer Simpson, to be redeemed by the deep love he feels for his wife, and the very grounded perspective he has on it.

Interestingly, although the movie seems to be a critique of the way that women are constructed as fantasy objects rather than valued as the complex and imperfect people that they are, it doesn't actually spend much time with the female characters, which is kind of ironic. But then again, what else is new. Despite that, it's a smart and entertaining film, definitely worth watching.