Thursday, September 15, 2005

Review: Protocols Of Zion (2005)

Protocols Of Zion
100 minutes

by Scott Mendelson

In the four years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there have been moderate increases in anti-Semitism around the globe. This is partially due to a rumor that the Jews were warned ahead of time and all stayed home that day, resulting in a Jewish causality rate of 0.00%. Oh, and modern anti-Semitism stems from a Russian book written in 1905 detailing a non-existent meeting of imaginary Jews as they discussed a scheme to eventually take over the world. This book, entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has experienced an upsurge in popularity due to various factions blaming the Jews for 9/11 and other geo-political ills.

Protocols Of Zion offers no more knowledge than stated in the above paragraph. It is a rambling, repetitive, contradictory and intellectually insulting movie that absolutely should not get a pass from critics and audiences on account of its subject matter. Director Marc Levin claims the film is his personal journey into the heart of this new anti-Semitism. It is nothing more than Marc Levin's narcissistic speechifying, where he draws broad conclusions, makes false statements, quotes out of context, and plays a version of Jay Leno's "Jay-Walking", finding the most inflammatory, brain-dead, and simplistic representations from a given community to represent various creeds, classes, and ethnicities.

The rare strong points of the film are the purely factual aspects, where Levin interviews various scholars about the history of anti- Jewish bias and discusses various stereotypes that have pervaded the Jewish existence for thousands of years. The Protocols themselves are amusingly general enough to be applied to any fascist regime in history.

But Levin is the sort of man who sees anti-Semitism in honest discourse, not just from the white supremacy groups in America or various anti-Jew factions in the Middle East. According to Levin's world, criticizing Israeli government policies makes one anti-Jew. Much screen time is given to the aftermath in the Palestinian community to the July 2002 assassination of a Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, without mentioning the fact that the Israeli army fired a missile into a residential building and city street, blowing up seven children and four other civilians in their wake. The only non-Palestinian in opposition to any Israeli government policies is a man who believes that Sharon wasn't being tough enough and should have started cleansing the ethnics.

Levin spends an obscene amount of time covering the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. Levin interviews the same Jewish leaders who stupidly turned the would-be art house experiment into a pop-culture event by taking to the airwaves to protest the film sight unseen, thus causing Christians to join together in support of the film as a matter of religious conviction. Gibson is quoted out of context during an interview, and the rantings of his truly anti-Semitic father are used against him (so disparaging someone because of someone else's comments or actions is ok... sometimes?). Levin travels to church meetings and scorns them for having specifically Christian beliefs (I hope I'm not going to hell for not accepting Jesus, but that IS their religious belief, not a bias toward any one group). Not mentioned in the film is that not a single act of anti-Semitic violence occurred in this country because of the film, and polls showed that the belief in the 'blood libel' actually decreased after the film's release.

Levin can't seem to grasp the idea that people hate and blame because it's easier than either accepting their own responsibility, or it is easier than blaming random chance. Some people hate out of stupidity or anger, or sadness. Sometimes, people hate to excuse their own deplorable behavior (the language and ideas of modern racism were in fact invented as an excuse for slavery, a justification for how moral, God-fearing people could condone the kidnapping and selling of fellow human beings). Levin seems shocked by the very principle that people hate other people for no good reason.

Levin finds no answers and asks no real questions. The film has little value as an educational tool, since it practices the same sort of closed-minded thinking that it attempts to debunk. By neither ascribing this anti-Jew attitude towards various ingrained prejudicial outlets or detailing the very real conditions in the world that bring about fear mongering nor finger pointing, Levin has created a documentary that will enlighten no one.

For a better, smarter look at anti-Semitism, look for The Believer, a fine drama about a Jewish youth who becomes a skinhead leader in his community.

Grade: D+

Friday, September 2, 2005

Review: Three... Extremes (2005)

Three... Extremes
125 minutes

By Scott Mendelson

Three... Extremes is a two-hour anthology with three 40-45 minute short films by three of Asia's most celebrated horror filmmakers. Unfortunately, all three of these shorts defy easy, non-spoiler descriptions, so this might not be the longest review ever written. The film's greatest strength as a whole is that each of the three pieces represents a completely different sort of horror film.

To wit... The opening segment, entitled 'Dumplings', involves a seemingly miraculous de-aging product and its mysterious origins. This curtain raiser is a pitch-black comedy that eventually deals with this critic's very favorite comic subject (and, as a side-note, shares certain similarities with my favorite dirty joke, involving tomatoes in a brothel). Director Fruit Chan wisely reveals the 'twist' early on, so that the majority of the film allows the audience to revel in the astounding horror of the situation at hand. Of course, much of the comedy eventually comes from just how much the director is actually showing us, much of it the sort of thing that a more straightforward film would keep off screen. Yes, one should note that the piece deals with the ever-increasing mania to stay young and look younger, no matter how immodest the proposal, and it succeeds just such a social satire. But the important thing is that 'Dumplings' is a terrifically shocking black comedy about one of the funniest things that a person can joke about.

The second segment, Park Chan-Wook's 'Cut' is the purest example of unmitigated human horror of the three segments. In short, the story begins when renowned comedy director Ryu Ji-Ho walks into his house to find a rather angry stranger, a tied-up little girl, and his wife tied to their piano and in great peril. What follows in a long game of wits, with the angry stranger taunting the director, daring him to be a flawed man, angered that he is in fact a decent man, since rich people aren't supposed to be decent too. This is easily the most visually frantic and viscerally jolting film of the set, as well as the most blatantly violent and gruesome. 'Dumplings' has a matter of fact visual presentation of its more shocking subject matter, but 'Cut' has more pure violence and gore. At its heart, it's about how one allegedly good man is consistently forced to choose between two terrible, immoral choices, while trying to bare his soul to the intruder in a desperate stab at sympathy.

If 'Dumplings' is the black comedy, and 'Cut' is the visceral terror show, then 'Box' is the subtler, more elegant tone poem of the set. Directed with subtlety and patience by Takashi Miike, the story concerns a woman torn over the memory of the death of her twin sister, and the consequences of her accepting an invitation to revisit the place where she died many years ago. 'Cut' moves very slowly at first, daring to be almost dull in order to build a mood and sense of silent dread and mystery. The film depends purely on silence, and it uses that silence to surprise the audience on at least two occasions, when that calmness and introverted quiet is shattered without warning. 'Cut' may not be the one that everyone talks about when they leave the theater, but it is perhaps the most successful in terms of building tension and suspense.

Three... Extremes
(no, that's not a typo, the title really is written as such) is a delicious and macabre experiment, the sort of which we should see more of from directors both American and abroad. For an older, campier anthology, try Creepshow (made in 1982, it contains at least one classic segment starring, of all people, Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen). Horror by nature often works best in small, potent doses, and the short film format allows directors to experiment in a way that they might not be willing to with a full-length feature. And, of course, this film truly does feature three extremely different kinds of horror stories, so the title is apt. Three... Extremes is a wonderful idea, well executed, and (most importantly), very very creepy.

Grade: B


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