22 April 2010

Spiritually Speaking

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Britain, Britain, Britain, as a good old Doctor intoned on a not-as-good comedy show. With the election currently rattling Britain up and down and all over the place, and multiculturalism still proving a thorny issue in some quarters, it's better to just go to the cinema and forget about politics. You can find a satire of religious and political differences with that bloke off the moneysupermarket.com ads in The Infidel, or a scathing and thinly-veiled look at Tony Blair's premiership in Roman Polanski's The Ghost.
The Infidel centres around Mahmud Nasir, a British Muslim who is frequently agitated by the coverage of religious extremists in the media. The more moderate Mahmud just wants to clear his late mother's house out as his son asks him to be a good Muslim for a visit by his fiancée's new stepfather, a fundamentalist cleric. Mahmud resolves to muddle through, until he finds adoption papers in his mother's effects. Apparently his birth name was Solly Shimshillewitz, and he was born Jewish.

It's not the most conventional premise for a comedy, but I should say from the off that this won't upset nearly as many people as Chris Morris' upcoming Four Lions. That said, I don't think The Infidel is necessarily destined to be overshadowed by that film. It's an endearing comedy drama that doesn't skimp on laughs or more dramatic beats throughout its 1 hour and 45 minutes.

David Baddiel's script is witty and actually kind of profound, with Omid Djalili playing a role it's actually really difficult to imagine anyone else playing. When a performance makes an actor seem indispensable, it should really be applauded. The straight man to his loud antics is Richard Schiff, who's nicely sardonic as a Jew who decides to help Mahmud discover his identity with videos of Fiddler on the Roof and lectures on different types of Jew. Look out also for turns by the gorgeous Tracy Ann Oberman and the brilliant Matt Lucas.

Along the way, the hypocrisies and disputes of both Islam and Judaism are played up, but it's never disrespectful or offensive. Certain caricatures are brought into view, like a hook-handed right-hand man to a Muslim cleric or Jews having an in-built angst that entirely sums them up, but these are ultimately dispelled. The Infidel is not a film concerned with poking fun at religion, but rather in exploring its role in personal identity.

It's not going to set the world alight as Four Lions is expected to, but it is a warm and hilarious film that deserves to be more broadly seen. I even forgave it for its indulgence in the closing credits by finally having Mahmud do a funny dance, seeing as how Djalili seems to be known largely in Britain as "the bloke who does funny dances." And hey, it is still funny when they acquiesce to it- it is, after all, a funny dance!

It nearly outstays its welcome at a running time only a little longer than average for a comedy film, but it's an oddly strategic film. Baddiel's voice translates to the screen very well, and it feels like he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how it would unfold. The Infidel strikes at how ludicrous extremism is without forsaking righteousness, and it's a fine comedy drama that you should seek out if you get the chance.

The Infidel is now playing in selected cinemas across the UK.
The Ghost refers to the nameless protagonist, played by Ewan McGregor, who is recruited to ghost write the memoirs of former Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. The previous manuscript is a crock of shit, but with Lang under investigation by the UN for war crimes, his rivals circle around the writer to try and get hold of its secrets. As he digs deeper, it transpires that Lang may have handed terrorist suspects over to the CIA for torture, and even his predecessor may have been murdered in the scramble to cover up the truth.

To begin, I'd like to quickly say a massive FUCK YOU to any self-righteous tits who've dropped by to accuse me of funding and/or endorsing statutory rape by seeing and reviewing a film by Roman Polanski, as they have elsewhere. It's possible to enjoy this film and still want Polanski to go to jail for his crime, and I don't need moralising from Mail-reading tossers like you. Ahem.

The director's real-life controversy has obvious effects from the opening seconds of The Ghost. He finished editing the film from a Swiss prison, but the name change in foreign markets from The Ghost Writer to The Ghost has left Optimum tacking a poor graphic from the end of the international trailers onto the beginning of the film. It's blunt and poorly implemented, and I can't be the only one who thinks The Ghost Writer sounds better anyway.
What follows though is rather consummately realised, given the circumstances of its post-production. It's a taut thriller, maintaining a strong air of political paranoia and conspiracy theory without ever being any less than exhilarating. The only lull I can remember is somewhere around the last half hour, and it comes right before a glorious peak in the intrigue. The parallels with Tony Blair are there to be read into, as was intended in the Robert Harris novel the film is based on, but it still stands up entirely on its own merits.

Pierce Brosnan is making a fine showing at the multiplex this week, and I've been dazzled by him in both this and Remember Me. Maybe he's finally casting off the shadow of Bond as a character that captures all of Blair's charisma and self-importance while still feeling unique. I was surprised how little he's in the film- we're fully half an hour in before his first appearance and his appearances are intermittent thereafter, but his presence is always felt. Ewan McGregor seems to have got a comparative drubbing for what many have called a poor Mockney accent, but I heard nothing wrong with the offending dialect. Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson shine too where many others might fade into the background to McGregor and Brosnan, and it's worth watching everyone in the sprawling narrative.

Sprawling would ultimately be the key word to describe The Ghost. It's come through the problems of its production admirably to stand as one of the better films of the year so far. With its acknowledgement of Hitchcock's similarly paranoid thrillers and occasional echoes of Polanski's earlier horror film The Tenant, it almost feels out of its time in 2010, despite all contemporary parallels. Although the plot becomes ever so slightly inscrutable after the big twist, the impact of that twist is enough to leave a strong impression on the audience, along with a truly haunting final shot. Exciting, entertaining, and if this is the end to Polanski's somewhat eclectic career, it's a very fine swansong indeed.

The Ghost is playing in cinemas now.
If you've seen either of these films and want to comment on them, on my reviews, or to congratulate me on not celebrating my 50th post in any way whatsoever, why not share you comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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