Cupcakes (2013)

CupcakesIsrael

1.5*
Director:
Eytan Fox

Screenwriter:
Eli Bijaoui

Eytan Fox
Director of Photography:
Daniel Schneor

Running time: 90 minutes

One would think the world has moved on past the point where putting a man in a dress is a central source of comedy for a film, especially one directed by Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox, whose 2002 film Yossi & Jagger established him as the most important director of gay films in the region.

But in Cupcakes, which features “five girls and a homo” as an act taking part in the UniverSong contest (read, “Eurovision,” but even trashier, if that is possible), a flaming queen named Ofer (Ofer Schechter) skirts the surface of transvestism to pop up in every second scene with a song-and-dance number, or just another wig-and-dress combination, to remind us he is as gay as the day is long.

All of this is supposedly in the name of gay liberation, and of “being yourself”, but the message is drowned out completely by the absolutely ridiculous behavior of the only out gay character. By the way, his boyfriend, Asi (Alon Levi), is famous and closeted, despite his wealthy family’s firm trading on the slogan of authenticity while covering up the sexuality of their handsome heir.  Viewers who know very few gay people may come to the disturbing conclusion Asi is better off staying in the closet.

Of course, we want the boyfriend to be out, but why is there all of this anguish? Does Fox really want us to believe that coming out is such a big deal, when he has a major Jewish character (the country’s bombastic culture minister) openly asking for pork while on a business trip to Paris?

This particular scene in the City of Light has one of the biggest laugh lines of the film, but most of the production reeks with desperately low-budget sets that may or may not be intentionally comical. Even if the director wanted us to revel in a kind of lo-fi musical, the characters are terribly one-dimensional, and the development is exclusively — and predictably — romantic in nature.

But the viewer’s enjoyment of (or repulsion at) the film is rooted almost entirely in the character of Ofer, who all but walks around with a giant spotlight trained on him while he rides a unicorn and has rainbows shooting out of his fingertips. It’s not that his outfits are bad (the only inspired moment is an elegant tuxedo-tutu combination toward the end that shows off his legs), but that there are so many of them we struggle to understand whether this is who he is or whether it is all just a show.

There is something admirable about the message to “be yourself”, but for the purpose of the film, the director has chosen characters who, even if they are being themselves, are only there to make us laugh at their bizarre behavior. For those on the periphery, like the culture minister in Paris, that is fine, but when characters central to the story are vapid and hollow, the thinking viewer should take offense.

Cupcakes may have a musical’s fluffy intentions of pure entertainment, and if that was all it wanted to be, perhaps it could have been mildly interesting. If we know it is a musical, we are willing to suspend our disbelief when characters start belting out an improvised song without hesitation and in perfect unison. But the film has too few songs, and when the genre is less clear, and the production value is this bad, the product is unbelievable and truly dreadful.

One would like to believe a film cannot be this camp unless it is done on purpose. Many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films have outrageously camp moments or characters, but Almodóvar doesn’t expect us to laugh every time they open their mouths or prance around in drag. He feels for them, and he makes us feel for them, too. Fox has no such desire, and his film is a slap in the face of efforts to present complete homosexual characters that don’t simply conform to limp-wristed stereotypes or angst-ridden closet cases.

Not only LGBT cinema but the world at large deserves much better than this silly little film.

Ajami (2009)

Israel

4.5*
Directors:
Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Screenwriters:
Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Director of Photography:
Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov

Running time: 120 minutes

Original title (Hebrew): עג’מי‎
Original title (Arabic): عجمي

The film opens with a senseless act of violence: a completely innocent teenage boy, repairing a car, is shot dead by someone who passes behind him on a motorcycle. This boy wasn’t the target of the assassins, but even the actual target had not done anything wrong except for belonging to a certain family.

Ajami, which takes its name from a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel, is a film that focuses on the tension between many different characters, all somehow connected by blood, circumstance or location. The film takes its cue, in content and structure, from many other films, including Crash and City of God (Cidade de Deus), but the most illuminating parallel can be drawn with Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 drama set in the low-income residential areas (banlieues) of Paris, La Haine – a film whose ending has the same emotional resonance as the resolution of Ajami.

The film was developed and directed by two Israelis – one a Christian Arab, the other a Jew – and the collaboration has born fruit that make for dynamic and balanced storytelling that is never contrived for the sake of pandering to a specific ideology or religious group. A comparison with a film such as Julian Schnabel’s Miral makes the raw realism and the real-life significance of Ajami very apparent.

In terms of structure, the film is divided into a prologue and four chapters that deal with different aspects of the narrative, either chronologically or geographically distinct from each other. These time shifts initially make for a slightly jarring experience and the necessity of this reorganisation of the timeline may be debatable, as characters whose deaths we have witnessed suddenly reappear on-screen à la Travolta in Pulp Fiction, but the film’s particular strategy manages to create expectations along the way. In this way, the film may also be compared to the collaborations between the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, especially 21 Grams.

At various points throughout the film, the voice of a young boy called Nasri, introduced by means of a meaningful close-up early in the film, contextualises some of the events we see unfold, and for once, a film uses the voice-over the way it should be used: he says enough so that we can understand the situation better and everything he says is immediately relevant, and the filmmakers only use his voice to communicate summaries rather than long-winded reflections, as is so often the case in the cinema.

After the shocking opening scene, it takes Nasri a mere sixty seconds to summarise the build-up to the event, which makes it appear that revenge is alive and well in the world of the film and one death is not avenged by another death. Rather, there will be blood to spill for years to come as an entire family might see its members taken out as revenge. All of this information is presented to us by means of a very effective fast-paced sequence of events that borrows from Fernando Meirelles’s City of God.

The film is about money and the lengths individuals will go to in order to ensure their safety and survival, and the film’s intelligent screenplay gradually reveals the extensive network of characters who all create a kind of butterfly effect in the neighbourhood of Ajami: the actions of one character could have far-reaching consequences for many other people. In this film, a boy is shot by Nasri’s father. Nasri’s father is shot in return, but not killed. Nasri’s brother, Omar, becomes the next target of this revenge killing, but when a local judge decrees that Omar pay 38,000 Jordanian dinars (about $53,000) in damages within 45 days, he realises that he will have to get hold of the money in a way that cannot be legal.

His need to get hold of a large sum of money is shared by another young man, Malek, who is from the Palestinian territories and works illegally in the restaurant of a man called Abu Elias. Malek’s mother needs a bone marrow transplant and he takes it upon himself to find the money needed to take care of her.

In the meantime, Omar has fallen in love with Hadir, the daughter of Abu Elias, but since Omar is Muslim and Hadir is a Christian, their relationship has to be a secret.

These details all create a very rich tapestry of characters and intentions, and it is remarkable to see how we change our minds about events as the focus slowly shifts from one group of characters to another. The characters are acting according to their needs and while they try to maintain a level head in the process, coincidence, love, and many other factors play a role, as they do in life, to complicate an already chaotic state of affairs.

Directors Copti and Shani have succeeded in producing a genuinely sincere representation of the complexities of life in Israel and filled it with characters who are accessible to (though never simplified for) audiences around the world.