Author Archives: Amos

“SHEIKH JACKSON”— A Crisis of Faith

“Sheikh Jackson”

A Crisis of Faith

Amos Lassen

 The death of Michael Jackson throws a strict Islamic imam into a crisis of faith in Amr Salama’s “Sheikh Jackson”, Egypt’s official Oscar submission. This is an offbeat, affecting and thoughtful drama about conservative imam Sheikh Khaled Hani (Ahmad Elfishawy), whose strict, devout life turns upside down upon the death of his onetime idol, Michael Jackson.

The script by flips between the adult Sheikh’s tormented 2009 present and his 1991 teenage past, when the younger Khaled (Ahmed Malek) became fixated with Jackson to the embarrassment of his widower father (Maged El Kedwany) and the pleasure of a pretty, musically inclined classmate.

Khaled’s eventual turn toward God and away from his dubious dad is haunting. However, it’s the cleric’s King of Pop-inspired crisis of faith and the ways it’s manifested and ultimately assuaged that gives the film its unique depth. Salama gently and effectively examines the role religion can play in one’s life and outlook as seen against a secular, more free-thinking existence that may offer greater movement but not always better choices.

The film uses some clever dream and fantasy bits, as well as a Jackson lookalike (Carlo Riley) and these help channel the superstar and his work. I learned here that Michael Jackson had an unusually intense cult following in the Arab world, his albums circulated underground and later fleeing legal and financial problems at home, Jackson briefly found sanctuary in the Gulf state of Bahrain, where he reportedly looked into converting to Islam. One of the film’s two interwoven timelines takes place in the city of Alexandria in 2009. A respected pillar of his community, conservative preacher Sheikh Khaled Hani (Ahmad Alfishawy) lives a joylessly strict life, even sleeping beneath his bed as a constant reminder that death is forever close at hand. He insists that his wife wear a full veil in public. Once finding his daughter watching Beyonce videos online, he warns her against the sinful perils of “dirty dancing” and “diabolical music.”

But then the shock news of Michael Jackson’s death shows a hidden side to the puritanical Sheikh. Flashing back to the early ’90s, we meet the young Khaled when he was a huge Jackson fan and mocked by his classmates for mimicking Jackson’s hair and dance moves. Khaled’s very public musical passion also earns him female attention at school.

Jackson’s death leaves the adult Sheikh shaken, questioning his religious faith and life choices. It also throws up painful memories of his mother’s death, his father’s cruelty and his classroom romance. He begins to suffer nightmares and hallucinations, including spooky Shakespearean visitations from Jackson himself (played by professional MJ impersonator Carlo Riley) during prayer sessions at his mosque. Almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he consults a psychotherapist and begins tracking down estranged figures from the past, hoping to find some kind of closure. “Sheikh Jackson” is a bit too serious and straight-faced— its protagonists often seem unsympathetic, its tone is sometimes too melodramatic, but it is also an offbeat charmer that runs with its bizarre conceit. Then there is a total absence of any Michael Jackson music. Unable to license any original songs, Salama is uses Hani Adel’s pastiche score, a weak imitation of the Jackson’s high-gloss sound.

Michael Jackson was a significant, oft-forbidden symbol of rebellion in many Arab nations for many years, But Salama and Omar Khaled’s screenplay doesn’t really make it clear for Westerners just what this singular performer’s appeal is for Khaled. We do not understand what Jackson represents or expresses that Khaled himself cannot.

“Only Yesterday: A Novel” by S.Y. Agnon— Reconstructing History

Agnon. S.Y. “Only Yesterday: A Novel”, Translated by Barbara Harshav, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Reconstructing History

Amos Lassen

When Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon published “Only Yesterday” in 1945, it was considered a major work of world literature and not just because of its vivid historical reconstruction of Israel’s founding society. The book tells what, at first, seems to be a simple story about a man who immigrates to Palestine with the Second Aliyah (the several hundred idealists who returned between 1904 and 1914 to work the Hebrew soil as was done in Biblical times and revive Hebrew culture). “Only Yesterday” is an epic novel that engages the reader in a stunning series of meanings, contradictions, and paradoxes all leading to the question of what, if anything, controls human existence?

Isaac Kumer was seduced by Zionist slogans causing him to think of the land of Israel as a place filled with the financial, social, and erotic life that he as the son of a poor shopkeeper in Poland. would never know. Upon arriving there, however, he cannot find the agricultural work he anticipated. Instead Isaac finds house-painting jobs as he moves from secular, Zionist Jaffa, where the ideological fervor and sexual freedom are alien to him, to ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist Jerusalem. Some of his Zionist friends turn capitalist and become successful merchants but his own life doesn’t change and he stays adrift and impoverished in a land torn existing between idealism and practicality, a place that is at once homeland and Diaspora. Eventually he marries a religious woman in Jerusalem after his worldly girlfriend in Jaffa rejects him.

It is very easy to see the Kafkaesque surrealism of the text about a man who is led astray by circumstances beyond his control. Playfully Isaac drips paint on a stray dog and writes the words “Crazy Dog” with it. The dog causes panic wherever it goes and ultimately takes over the story until the dog goes crazy after having been persecuted and not understanding why and bites Isaac. The dog has been the object of interpretation since original publication and has been seen as everything “from the embodiment of Exile to a daemonic force, and becomes an unforgettable character in a book about the death of God, the deception of discourse, the power of suppressed eroticism, and the destiny of a people depicted in all its darkness and promise.”

This is considered Agnon’s masterpiece and has a claim to being the great Israeli novel.” It is filled with ancient religious longing, modern political aspirations, and personal dreams of liberation and is a work of originality.

“Only Yesterday” (“Tmol Shilshom”) was written in Palestine under British Mandatory rule in the late 1930s, finished in 1943 during World War II, and published after the war in 1945.

“Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling” edited by Adam Kirsch— Letters of a Life

Kirsch, Adam, editor. “Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling”, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018.

Letters of a Life

Amos Lassen

I often wonder how our world will change now that written letters are a thing of the past for so many. We have learned about our history and society from the letters that were written over time and in most cases these letters were carefully thought out before pen was put to paper. We write emails as we write memos in most cases and the art of letter writing has fallen by the wayside. We still have the letters of the great literary critic, Lionel Trilling and we still have the wonderful Adam Kirsch to edit them.

With Trilling’s letters we get to see him argue with himself and as a liberal arts graduate of the 60s, I doubt that two days passed when I was at college without some reference to Trilling. He was a man who wrote powerful essays that were inspiring. Because of what Trilling had to say, we were influenced to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and ourselves. He was at the center of the period of time that became known as the age of criticism. We got the impression from his essays that he was somewhat reserved and highly circumspect. However, in this collection of selected letters, we see him as diverse and complex. We read of his love for Diana Trilling, who would become an eminent intellectual in her own right; we learn of his “alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz;” (could it have been any other way?). He writes about the complicated politics of Partisan Review and other fabled magazines of that period; and we become very aware of his relationships with other writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.

Taking all of the letters together, we see an intimate portrait of the man and the critic as well as the intellectual journey of America from the 1930s until his death in 1975. I cannot tell you enough how much I enjoyed reading these letters that have been so beautifully edited by Adam Kirsch.

Letters often give us the man behind the public face and they also provide a historical background and context to what the author was writing about. They are also full of surprises. In his letters to the woman who was to become Mrs. Trilling, Diana, we see the man’s vulnerability and love as well as self-doubts (he shared them with her but not to others). to her as he usually didn’t to others. I love that Trilling wrote about problems that we still struggle with today (see his letter about the use of the “n” word in “Huckleberry Finn”. By reading these letters, we see how people thought just fifty years ago and how it differs from how we think today.

Editor Kirsch focused on the letters about what engaged his mind, (often politics) and the issues that mattered to liberals in New York City in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. In the letters, we can see real historical events unfolding in real time. Something else we see is his Jewish background, although he kept it at arm’s length, he never hid that he was Jewish, but he didn’t want to be labeled a Jewish writer. (I had a wonderful college professor, Rima Drell Reck, who never mentioned her Judaism, yet I could feel it when she spoke. One year I brought her latkes at Chanukah and it was amazing to see her return, if just for a short while, to Judaism).

Kirsch tells us that Trilling was definitely on the left, and interested in writing about deficiencies of the left. He wanted to explore the unexamined assumptions at a time when liberalism was o the rise. It is the opposite today and there is no way to guess what he would say.

Trilling wrote at least 600 letters a year (Trilling’s by own estimation) of which we get 270. Trilling needed his space, and because of it, the reader is rewarded by his engagement in literature and culture. He was often “enormously impressed” as well as very much against. He was generous to those needing his help, and outspoken honesty throughout. For those qualities alone, the letters are well worth reading but there is so much more.

“Ivy Vs. Dogg: With A Cast Of Thousands!” by Brian Leung— A Challenge

Leung, Brian. “Ivy Vs. Dogg: With A Cast Of Thousands!”, C&R Press, 2018.

A Challenge

Amos Lassen

In “Ivy Vs. Dogg”, Brian Leung introduces us to teen Ivy Simmons who shocks her small town by daring to challenge hometown boy-hero, Jimmy Doggins, in a showdown election for the title of Junior Mr. Mayor of Mudlick. This is a conversation about how society imagines the correct subject position for a person and does so satirically with the goal of arriving at the fantasy version of correctness. We see that the committee has a received and built vision of gender propriety and “value the young people performing the simulacrum of this vision.” The committee and community (mostly) has long dealt with this kind of thinking.

Ivy Simmons has a longstanding rivalry with Jimmy, “Dogg,” Doggins, high school tennis star, and hometown hero. It comes to a head when the town of Mudlick’s annual Jr. Mr. Mayor election is announced and Ivy becomes the first female ever to run. Mudlick’s busybody leaders, known as “the committee” don’t approve, especially when Ivy reveals that she is pregnant. Displeased with the public debate over what Ivy should do about her unborn child, matriarch Abigail Colton displays a lifelike topiary girl on her front lawn, enchanting all of Mudlick to the point where they fear for the life of this “girl” when Colton also rolls out a topiary of a giant squid. Between this and the election, emotions run high, forcing Ivy and Dogg to make the most adult decision of their young lives.

Brian Leung’s satire of suburban politics and helicopter parenting, laughs at the rules we follow to keep people in their place. In the campaign, the fault lines in community rise to the surface and we see the courage it takes to be not just a candidate but to be being.

Mudlick is filled with characters both human and humane and it is a place where the absurd collides with the status quo and chaos follows. We see who we truly are and how we wish to be seen.

“One Deadly Summer” by Sebastien Japrisot— Hatred, Revenge and Lust

Japrisot, Sebastien. “One Deadly Summer”, translated by Alan Sheridan, Gallic Books, 2018.

Hatred, Revenge and Lust

Amos Lassen

When she was just nine-years-old, Elle learned that she is the product of the gang raping of her mother; She later uses her sexual wiles to lure her husband, Fiorimond, into a deadly plot against the men whom she believes to be the rapists.

Set in the 1970s, this story of obsession and suspense pulls us in on the first page. We see the story via Elle and “Ping-Pong” and because of this we do not know immediately what that summer was all about. We start with the why of the plot instead of going right into the events. We read of how injury takes us to obsession and then to revenge. Early on we are aware of Elle’s promiscuity and we see that she uses sex to her advantage (she thinks). Sex has powerful consequences as we have seen throughout history— it can build an empire or cause one to fall. Elle understands its power and thusly uses it and she does so calculatingly whether it is coerced, casual or part of a marriage.

Japrisot gives us a portrait of working class life in a typical French village. It is as if we are actually living there, entering homes, working, tending to household duties and family matters, go to the disco on the weekend and so on. We get to know the villagers as things happen (not all of them are good) and we see that an unexpected event can take a person into a strange and different world, almost in a moment.

At first, all we know is that a mysterious young beauty causes quite a scene in a small French town one summer, driving the men wild and tricking one of them into marrying her. We learn that this is because of a long-ago crime in the same small town, and this young woman is now out for revenge. The reader knows that Elle is drawing the men to their doom. I must say that I had a problem with Elle—

she is an unlikeable heroine. She is selfish and cruel, so her influence over the other characters is unbelievable. I really did not care what happened to her. I really cannot say any more about the plot because to do so I would have to include spoilers. I can say that even without any feelings for Elle, this is a fascinating read that reminded me of the “sexy” French novels I would read on the sly when I was a college student. No one writes about sex like the French.

 

“THE SONG OF SOLOMON”— “When the song is finally sung, Lucifer will be unleashed”

“THE SONG OF SOLOMON”

“When the song is finally sung, Lucifer will be unleashed”

Amos Lassen

With The Song of Solomon, Stephen Biro has directed an exorcism film that will please both those who love gore and those that enjoy a deeper meaning with their film viewing experience.On the surface the plot is that of any other exorcism film. A woman named Mary (Jessica Cameron) is suffering from demonic possession and the Catholic Church sends many holy men to battle with the demon in an attempt to save the soul of the young woman. This is where the film stops with any comparison to exorcism films of the past. It is full of biblical references and those that know their theology will enjoy the subtle nuances The dialogue contains clues to what is lurking in the dimly lit bedroom of the possessed.

Jessica Cameron gives a master class in her portrayal of Mary. From the “innocent” looks she gives trying to pass herself off to a shrink to the end of days’ final moments, she owns the role and gives a performance that is impossible to forget. In the fight for her soul, Jim Van Bebber, David E. McMahon, Gene Palubicki, and Scott Gabbey provide the different flavors of priests ranging from the warrior to the defeated and do so with gusto. Maureen Pelamati is also great as Mary’s mother.

Mary witnessed the brutal suicide of her Father and his death unleashed the savage forces of demonic possession in his daughter. The End of Days are upon the world. Famine, drought, looting and chaos is ripping the world apart and the Catholic Church is trying to save an innocent soul from satanic possession. Holy men are sent to confront the possessed, but what is the Holy Church actually doing? It is working on the Second Coming of Christ but before he comes back, the Antichrist must rule for seven years.

The evil that has possessed Mary is stronger than that found in the likes of The Exorcist – it takes priest after priest after priest to try to free Mary from her shackles. However, as the film progresses, it seems that defeating the demon might not be the plan after all.

“The Song of Solomon” takes a modern approach to exorcism and we get a very different view of religion and more specifically, the motivations of the church. This is not a film for those who revere the church.

It isn’t only the gore that pushes boundaries here, the very idea of the exorcist himself and his motivations, his fragilities, his humanity are pushed to extremes we’ve seen particularly in the final exorcism. There’s true thematic power behind the real story of “The Song of Solomon” and those skeptical of religious organizations and the religious right will be up in arms.

Story, acting, directing and effects come together in perfection. Stephen Biro and company have set a very high bar against which every horror film should be measured from now on.

BONUS MATERIALS include:

  • Commentary with Stephen Biro & Jessica Cameron
  • Commentary with Stephen Biro, Marcus Koch & Jerami Cruise
  • Behind the Scenes/Making of
  • Outtakes
  • Photo Gallery
  • Video Interview with Actress Jessica Cameron
  • Video Interview with Writer/Director Stephen Biro
  • Video Interview with Special Effects Artist Marcus Koch
  • Video Interview with Director of Photography Chris Hilleke
  • Video Interview with Actor Gene Palubicki
  • Video Interview with Actor David McMahon

“SUFFERING OF NINKO” (“Ninkō no hunan”)— An Irresistible Priest


“SUFFERING OF NINKO” (“Ninkō no junan”)

An Irresistible Priest

Amos Lassen

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a Buddhist priest who is cursed to be sexually irresistible to all around him. He is a novice Buddhist monk living during the Edo period, based at Enmei-ji, a temple in the mountains. He is, in fact, an ideal monk, adhering to asceticism to learn his religion, dutifully cooking, cleaning, and praying every day. Despite his diligence he has a problem – Ninko attracts females and his popularity is truly astounding. When he travels to the local villages asking for alms a cry goes out, “Ninko’s come!” and he is mobbed by many fawning female fans forcing their way past the other monks so they can get their hands on him.

We see him swamped by a wave of beauties bounding in from the bathhouses and back alleys of the town and from the mountain’s forests and it looks great for anyone interested in the fairer sex. For a Buddhist monk, however, sex with women is a sin so it’s not so great for Ninko.

But it isn’t just the ladies who have taken a liking to Ninko. Two monks have their sights set on bedding Ninko and this vexes him just as much. He blames himself for the lust and suffering he causes in others. He feels he needs more training and that he is not virtuous enough. The head of his temple notes that Ninko has dark desires of his own which he must face and conquer if he wants to put others at ease. These dark desires attract a faceless demon that sets from a series of horrific visions that force Ninko to act.

This demonic meeting leads to a journey that takes the film from ribald comedy to dark horror as Ninko meets Kanzo, the manslayer who takes him on a demon-hunting quest. Their mission is to kill Yama-onna, a sexy lady in red rags who lures men with her physical form into having sex during which she sucks their vitality out. The narrative brings Ninko face-to-face with this creature.

The film goes from live-action to animation and draws upon traditional Japanese arts and crafts. Shoji screens, ukiyo-e, and Buddhist illustrations are some of the techniques used to deliver the story and atmosphere and it is done with ease because Norihiro Niwatsukino, a director, writer, producer, special effects supervisor, and animator has used many mediums from film to animation. He brings visual elegance here so that while the cinematography seen on screen might not be mind blowing, the film remains visually engaging. Ninko may not travel to too many different places but the landscape illustrations that depict Ninko’s travels are vividly drawn. Animation is used quite often and it’s exciting at times such as a surreal sequences of slow motion chases led by women in a village that is alternated with interpretive dance that moves back and forth from live-action to animation. The faces of actors are filled with lust before they are transformed into figures that look like they could have come straight from a steamy sex education manual. The use of animation, song and dance, and drama highlight the film’s genre breaking form that makes it so enjoyable. You will want to know whether Ninko conquers his inner-demons and overcomes the lust of others and all I can say is that the ending will take the audience by surprise.

Norihiro Niwatsukino plunges the viewers into the world of Edo-era Japan making them the witnesses of a weird, surreal clash between celibacy (read: repressed sexuality) and libidinous desires (posing as a dark side of sorts).

This is a fairy tale that takes a comedic turn, borrows a road-movie trope or two, flirts with folklore-inspired horror and ends on an ecstatic note, all the while defying genre classification and filled with potential to become a cult film. The film

blends softcore erotica with a sensual dance performance, bringing ancient manuscripts to life through short animated vignettes that are both naughty and beautiful. They also reflect the unrestrained creativity of their author who is credited as producer, director, writer, editor, animator and VFX supervisor.

“THREESOMETHING”— When Three Is Not a Crowd

“Threesomething”

When Three is Not a Crowd

Amos Lassen

It is good to laugh about sex every now and then and, in effect, we all do so (just not publicly). What could be a great humorous premise for a film then three friends having sex together? First we meet Charlie and Isaac who are best friends yet want to take that friendship to a new level. It is not so difficult to imagine what that level and I understand that between best friends, everything goes… or does it? Everything has changed so quickly regarding sex that there seem to be no taboos left (with the exception of passing gas loudly at a charity function. They will not remember your donation to the charity but you can bet your life that your tootin’ will not be forgotten.

Charlie (Sam Sonenshine) and Isaac (James Morosini) invite Charlie’s friend Zoe (Isabelle Chester) over for dinner and explain that what they really want is for her to join them in a threesome. She is stunned at first but she soon becomes intrigued with the idea. (After all, it is an interesting alternative to desert). Zoe agrees but then cannot decide whether she is only interested in the physical or is looking for love. As you can imagine, this is a comedy yet it gives us things to think about. What we know about sex, intimacy and friendship has certainly changed since our parents were dating and how we got to know each other. Did Zoe and the guys not think that this could get a little weird?

Zoe is a free spirit, a cosmic bohemian wild woman, if you will, who is living in a glass tree house and actually just trying to get herself together. Zoe and Isaac fall in love, fast and hard while Charlie has a crisis of masculinity. It seems to me that our three characters are looking for something that is out of reach and are trying to understand what is best for them. There is a great ending coming which I will not share but if comes only after self-searching and examination. There are some risqué moments here and even though our two male leads play straight men, there is a good deal of homo eroticism, as we might expect. The two guys are good looking and make nice eye candy in various states of undress.

Check back with me in a couple of weeks, all of my opinions could very likely change.

“The Mandela Plot” by Kenneth Bonert— A Journey

Bonert, Kenneth. “The Mandela Plot”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

A Journey

Amos Lassen

As the 1980s come to an end, South Africa is in the midst of political violence with the apartheid regime facing death. Young Martin Helger struggles at elite private boys school in Johannesburg where he really does not fit in. Martin’s father is a rough-handed scrap dealer and his brother is a mysterious legend.

 Then one day a beautiful and manipulative American arrives at the family home and Martin is thrown into the struggle. At the same time, secrets from the past begin to come out and old sins come to light and this second-generation Jewish family is torn apart. Martin must rely on alternative strengths to protect himself and fight for a better future.

 “The Mandela Plot” is a literary thriller, a coming of age tale, and a journey through a world that entertains and terrifies equally and is deeply resonant for the present.

After Martin becomes infatuated with a slightly older American woman, Annie, who arrives to join the fight against white oppression, everything changes.

There are plot twists and turns throughout as well as a lot of pain. Bonert’s characters and plots are brilliantly drawn and thought out. What is strange is that there were passages that completely bored me. He also writes with grammatical errors. Aside from having several South African friends in Israel, I know nothing about it and that is what kept me reading. I love the story of the Lithuanian Jews who had fled the anti-Semitism in the early 1900’s and had emigrated to South Africa where they found safety and prosperity even as they tackled the racial laws in the country. (Jews were considered “white”, but still not British or Afrikaner. They occupied their own societal level.)

The characters in Martin’s family and outside life are sketchily drawn, mysterious and his Jewish family’s past is dark and hidden at first. As the story moves forward, the personal secrets become more sordid, the personal violence more bloody, the danger increasing as the country slides into catastrophe.

“50 YEARS OF FABULOUS”— The Imperial Court

“50 Years of Fabulous”

The Imperial Council

Amos Lassen

“50 Years of Fabulous” is a fascinating documentary that celebrates what makes San Francisco a unique, powerful, and heartwarming home for the LGBTQ community. Filmmaker Jethro Patalinghug does this through concentrating on the vibrant history of the Imperial Council, the oldest LGBTQ charity organization in the world.

The Imperial Council was founded in San Francisco by activist and drag queen José Sarria, (who was also the first openly gay man to run for political office in the United States), in 1961 and since then the Council has helped shape LGBTQ life and history in San Francisco. Each year, the colorful Council crowns an Emperor and Empress who become the faces of the non-profit group. The Imperial Council celebrates unity, pride and a dedication to helping others as it advocates for human rights, hosts rousing events, and generates s lot of money for Bay Area charitable organizations.

The documentary combines historical footage and photos with contemporary interviews and delightful performances, spotlighting gay culture that shows the group’s impact, as well as some of the challenges it currently faces.

 Director Patalinghug takes a look at the history of the organization history as it celebrates its 50 year anniversary and now starts to question if there is still place for it in today’s LGBTQ community.

Sarria believed that the community should not just come out of the shadows but be proud of what he called the nobility of being gay. Thus the Court system was created with a system of royal titles to recognize the roles that its members would play.  He intended that the Court would join with other LGBT organizations and lead the move to equal rights.

The organization is part social, part political but its real greatness is as a dynamic fundraising operation that would help fund crucial LGBT services and charities.  It naturally really came into its own during the AIDS Epidemic which devastated their hometown far more than most.  By mounting daily events it raised much-needed millions of dollars to help people pay for medications, rent and even funeral services.

The Council/Court excels in all its traditions especially the annual election and coronation of its Empress & Emperor who must use their year in office to not just further the cause but raise a substantial amount of money.  They all dress up in their elaborate regal drag with their huge wigs topped off with crowns and tiaras, and even the Emperors get to sport gold laurel leaf crowns.

Patalinghug interviews some of the Courts past Empresses and Emperors and what we see is their happiness of being a part of this rather wonderful old organization.  It includes a clip from a 2004 interview with Sarria himself, but the most moving part of the film by far is his funeral held in a Cathedral with the entire Court in their best black drag and dressed up to the nines in his honor.

The latter part if the film is given over to discussing how the LGBT community has both evolved and embraced this new age of technology giving us different perspectives on how we now congregate and interact with each other.