Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous)

The hills are alive with the sound of killing...

Taking direct inspiration for this review's opening statement from "The Godfather" in probably the same way those Indonesian death squad leaders did for their murderous deeds, Al Pacino's Michael Corleone character has once said in the sequel that if history has taught us anything, then it is that you can kill anyone. "The Act of Killing", a disturbing documentary film that, in equal measures, brutally condemns and trivializes genocide, shows us that, indeed, people can kill anyone they wish. But worst of all is that someone can kill thousands and still be revered as some kind of a savior. That happens, of course, if history books are written by the crazed victors, and that exactly what has occurred in the Republic of Indonesia sometime in the '60s.

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, plus an unknown native with the help of many other crew members that have chosen to stay anonymous (in fear of reprisal from the executors), the film is an oftentimes humorous but ultimately stomach-churning documentation of murderous mad men slowly going even madder and the despicable cinematic work that they attempt to make for kicks. You know, imagine Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot or even Kim Jong-un (well, I think the latter is really not that "left for the imagination") making genre films about their genocidal fits. "The Act of Killing", at least from how I see it, is an 'almost snuff film', as it reenacts, in accordance to the Indonesian executioners' romanticized memories of the killings, the way they whacked countless commie scums in numerous practical ways. These 'gangsters' ultimate goal is to remind Indonesian people about their brutal past. But do they really speak about the whole truth? Did history judge them right? 

Joshua Oppenheimer and company, by distancing themselves and the camera as much as possible from the constant hullabaloo transpiring among the 'grotesque' human circus in their midst, are able to tell a gripping story of power, pride, and political madness that's both subjectively dramatic and convincingly journalistic. It also certainly helps that their subjects, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, among others, are obnoxious 'characters' in their own rights, which further underlines the documentary's slow descent into insanity in a fashion that's even more animated than Al Pacino's scenery-chewing tendencies in "Scarface". To a jestful extent, I even imagine the two of them starring in a weekly reality show aptly entitled "The Killers", but I digress. 

With the subjects' odd chemistry that, in a very morbid way, reminds me a lot of the one Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung have shared in their prime, "The Act of Killing" successfully comes across as some sort of an energetic comedy film for all the wrong reasons, but its effect, once the misled humor fades well into the background, is painfully persistent. It's as unsettling a commentary on the darkness of man as Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", but this time, there seems to be little to no remorse at all. Here is a film that portrays insanity not as something brought about by psychological trauma (unlike Kurtz in the aforementioned novella) but as something molded and justified by extremist beliefs. "The Act of Killing" is so powerful and real and pitch black (the humor makes it all the more bleak) in its depiction of modern evil that I sometimes can't help but wonder if the whole thing is staged, and Anwar Congo and company are but hired actors. Well, I can only wish that it was all fake, the same way these thugs imagine that they're Hollywood actors merely portraying 'gangster' roles like Paul Muni and James Cagney. 

There are films like "The Killing Fields" and "The Last King of Scotland", which are brave in their own rights by both recreating a violent point in an otherwise obscure country's history. But then, there are also works like Alain Resnais' short documentary "Night and Fog" and "The Act of Killing", which show, in all their tragic strands, the consequences of violence, inhumanity and extreme political will. 

For the sake of everyone's peace of mind, I think it is a good thing that the film (or films?) Anwar Congo and company have made was not shown in its entirety in the documentary, except for Anwar's reaction while watching it, which seems to bode remorse. I think there's no sight worse than a bunch of murderers shamelessly feeding their huge, blood-drenched egos with a hagiographic film naturally made to make them look like superstars of their own ideology. But then again, as their vision of their fantasy film dwindles slowly into the absurd and the utterly surreal, so do their reputations as noble guardians of the state. A big-ass gangster playing a heavily made-up prostitute? An executioner, fresh from dying his hair black, being visited by the ghost of one of his victims in an outfit that's an amalgam of kimono sensibilities and Edward Scissorhands'? The joke's on them. 

To look at things more lightly, I think what Joshua Oppenheimer has done to these people can be likened to what a mild-mannered student may possibly do, in retaliation, to the resident school bully. In that respect, "The Act of Killing", in an odd way, is a revenge film (at least from how I see it) that one ups these Indonesian harbingers of death without them even knowing it. I never thought that a film like this can be entirely possible. Now, can somebody make a film entitled "The Act of Torturing" about the Abu Ghraib prison?

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Monday, February 10, 2014

When the Wind Blows (Jimmy T. Murakami)

A nuclear couple.

Still fresh from watching "When the Wind Blows", I just can't fathom why this film is not as well-known or as highly-regarded an animated film as, say, "Grave of the Fireflies": Isao Takahata's devastating pacifist masterpiece released two years after this one. Admittedly, I would not have been able to know about this film if not for Pink Floyd's official Facebook page (again, thank you), which once posted about "When the Wind Blows" as a sort of look back to Roger Waters' involvement in it as a musical scorer. Though not as quietly painful as the aforementioned Studio Ghibli classic, "When the Wind Blows" still holds its own ground by being arguably more innovative in how it conveys the horrors of war through an assortment of visuals that often border on the psychedelic. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Raymond Briggs (which I definitely must read), the film tackles the paranoia that has spread across the globe like a plague during the Cold War period, and then filters it through an elderly couple's (voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft) distorted states of mind in an idyllic British countryside. 

Perspective-wise, the film is definitely on par with "Grave of the Fireflies" in terms of treating the impact of war on a highly personal level. For the elderly couple, though, the Russian missile threat, which they view as nothing that the government could not handle, is something that they can live through, no sweat, just like the Second World War. Mockingly labeling the Russians as 'Ruskies' and praising Winston Churchill's wartime deeds while calmly building a bomb shelter (or "the inner core or refuge") as ordered by the government, the couple seems unfazed by the threat as they go on with their everyday routine. But through the film's use of 'acid' imagery in between seemingly ordinary scenes as a sort of visual foreboding, "When the Wind Blows" excels in underlining the immensity of what's about to come even when we're often greeted by the couple's confounding smiles. 

As an exploration of wartime psyche, the film is really quite stunning on how it emphasizes the couple's naivety and inept grasp of modernity; a sight that's very painful and heart-sinking to watch. But be that as it may, the film is more fascinating in its humorous undertones, that of which do not minimize the impact of war but merely acknowledge its funnier side. 

More often than not, the greatest of dark comedies stem from the very idea of war and destruction, and "When the Wind Blows", although not blatant and showy in its humor, is just as potent a comedy of wartime horrors. But just like a true war comedy, the scarring emotional impact is still very much in place despite its funnier moments. 

But with that being said, I'm not saying that "When the Wind Blows" is strictly a comedy film. On the contrary, I thought that the film is as serious as any film about war can get, specifically due to its intimate approach. But still, there's something funny about the elderly couple's cluelessness about the kind of full-scale nuclear war out there that it's just more natural to smile than to weep at their predicament. Consciously or not, perhaps they have seen so much of the horrors of war that they choose to just shrug them all off into non-existence instead of moping in and around its ravages. A quote from Kurt Vonnegut: "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward." 

For the elderly couple, to greet the onset of complete annihilation with nothing but smiles on their faces and denial in their minds are all but enough. It may not literally save them, but it can at least preserve the lives they've led as they know it. In the case of "When the Wind Blows", there's indeed something oddly bittersweet in not acknowledging doom for some kind of selective thinking. And in that respect, the couple live on in a way they may not have thought they would, but nevertheless do in a way only the both of them know.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

There's a storm coming...

There's this one quote that I've read somewhere on the Internet (where else?) which says that dreams do come true, but so do nightmares. In "Take Shelter", the line between nightmare and reality gets blurred within the mind of a man compelled to enact on his eschatological visions. With yellow rain, black birds forming unusual patterns across the sky, and intense thunderclaps flooding his consciousness, Curtis, a blue-collar worker who is as depressed psychologically as he is financially, anticipates an impending storm quite the same way Noah did thousands of years ago. But if the latter has prepared a humongous ark to accommodate his family and the entire animal kingdom and save them from the great flood, Curtis squeezes out his loans dry by building a storm shelter some 10 feet underground. "Take Shelter", directed by Jeff Nichols, is a small-scale film whose themes are ironically biblical in scope. Is Curtis insane, or is he just a man who is after all crying a very real kind of wolf? 

Perhaps, there's no other form of mental disturbance worse or alarming than the kind where one sees frightening visions of the apocalypse, but what's scarier is the idea that such visions can be easily shrugged off. Michael Shannon, one of the most intensely specialized character actors right now, portrays Curtis in such a way that his perceived craziness seems to be bordering murderous but still comes across as someone very fatherly and sweet. Jessica Chastain, playing Curtis' wife, also excels in her role as a typical homemaker who wants nothing but an orderly and financially secure life for her family.

In all fairness, the film takes a while before its pace really picks up, but once it does, it really is quite shattering, to say the least. With Curtis' visions subdued and perfectly made ambiguous throughout most of the film, "Take Shelter" takes perfect advantage of its narrative's mysterious aura to create a schism between what's true and merely imagined. Indeed, what's so admirable about "Take Shelter" is how, being the doomsday prophet that he is, Curtis' visions affect his family more than it do other people that when he finally lashes out to tell the latter of the storm, what we see is a sympathetic man who knows that he miserably failed his family by squandering their life's savings and letting his insane projections of the armageddon seep out of his mouth for them to hear. 

But, surprise surprise, "Take Shelter" is also more than a quasi-apocalyptic drama. Set amid the backdrop of the U.S. economic crisis, "Take Shelter" is also effective as a subtle commentary on America's depression-stricken economy at the time, which also makes Curtis' excessive expenditure on building the shelter seem more ridiculous and unjustified. It also certainly aids the film's implosive nature by setting the story in a relatively sleepy community as opposed to setting it within the heart of America, as it welcomes a more unsettling kind of 'apocalypse aesthetic' without looking like a climax of a superhero film. 

"Take Shelter", visual-wise and as far as the idea of the world being no more is concerned, is indeed the antithesis to the films made by Roland Emmerich, who definitely knows how to put on an eschatological light show in the biggest of cities and the most popular of landmarks every now and then. After all, "Take Shelter" is an unsettling psychological drama, so it's only fitting for the film to unravel from the inside. "Take Shelter" may understandably be left unseen by many due to its acquired taste kind of pacing and narrative approach, but it's definitely something that flirts with the sublime. 

For many years, we have been given films about the end of the world that are chock-full of inspirational speeches and heartstring-tugging melodrama. Even the bible has made it look quite intense and a bit fun with Noah and his zoo-like ark. But perhaps, "Take Shelter" is the most accurate in its delineation of the end: somber, terrifying, and something akin to the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". What this film highlights is that the world may certainly end, and here comes the cliched T.S. Eliot quote, "not with a bang but with a whimper." And if ever this film has proven anything, then it is the fact that it's a real bummer being a doomsday prophet.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Her (Spike Jonze)

Lying on the moon.

For years immemorial, films are not entirely reserved in their use of artificial intelligence as a way to prove a point regarding the human condition. We've witnessed HAL 9000's descent into computerized ruthlessness when he tried to murder David Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey". We've seen "Blade Runner's" Roy Batty, a humanoid replicant, cry his heart out regarding his memories "that will be lost in time like tears in the rain." And just recently, we felt all there is to feel when Sam Rockwell's astronaut character in "Moon" found out about the painful truth about himself, all while Gerty, a good guy version of HAL, shows primitive signs of compassion and morality in the background. Yes, I admit, I did shed some tears when I saw "Moon" for the second time. And while we're at it, I swear I also quietly wept for a few minutes after seeing Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence".  

Perhaps in more ways than one, indeed we've really reached a phase in cinema where we may cry not much anymore about the tragedy of human relationships but more about man's inability to grasp his real place in the universe. Unofficially, I would want to call our generation the 'sci-fi film mopers'. What that really means, I don't exactly know for sure, but I really think we are the kind that would brood about the relentless progress of technology because of how it redefines life as we know it, and love as how we feel it. "Her", Spike Jonze's first ever feature-length love story, firmly takes on its effects on the latter, questioning how will the notions of romance adopt to our ever-advancing world without losing so much as a spark. The film is very romantic in a very sad, 'your lover's hand is slowly slipping off yours' way, but very hopeful in its view of the modern sentient man's ability to love the intangible. Without a doubt, the film is a tender reminder that sublime cinema is not all the time built around harsh themes and provocative storylines. And as simple as "Her" is, there is still a pervasive sense of philosophical depth in its every scene and moment that the film itself seems a miraculous feat in its own right. 

Spike Jonze, a filmmaker whose two major works, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation.", exemplify what cinematic oddity should be, proves in this film that he can indeed stand on his own without Charlie Kaufman on scribe duty. But more importantly, there's finally something in "Her" that has slightly been amiss in his past films: a beating heart.

Judging by "Her's" story of a letter writer who falls deeply and madly in love with his operating system, it is easy to dismiss the film as a gimmicky project that merely capitalizes on the currency of Siri. On paper, it's nothing but a piece of 'what if' story that seems lucky enough to even be green-lit by a production outfit. It is a story that's as far-fetched as it is entirely ludicrous. But hey, so is "The Running Man", but look at how prophetic and potent its commentary on reality shows has ultimately become. Look at "The Truman Show". Look at "Network". Again, look at "Her". Goddamn, that last sentence reads so beautifully.

Anyway, if we finally get through the superficial uniqueness of the story, "Her" is actually a film whose emotional quality is of the highest order. Honestly, it's been a very long time since I last cried watching a film (the weeping episodes I have mentioned above were like ages ago), so when I finally did once again, I was kind of like cleansed. It was therapeutic in a way knowing that I wept over a film that's close to perfect, but quite pathetic on my part for not bringing with me a box of Kleenex. Instead, a pillow became the proxy absorber of my tears. It was quite a 2-hour experience now forever fossilized in the corners of my memories, and I'm quite sure that it won't leave anytime soon. 

For sure, many people will surely remember this film mainly for its concept and perhaps not much else, but for me, what I will hold dearly in my heart about it are the performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and, of course, Scarlett Johansson, who provided her voice for the OS Samantha (who deservedly won the Best Actress award at the 2013 Rome Film Festival). More than the story, what makes "Her" so much more than an ordinary sci-fi drama is how well the three of them has handled the film's seemingly ridiculous premise (in some respect) while at the same time lighting up the screen with the most intimate kind of chemistry. Also, from the very first time Joaquin Phoenix's character appeared on screen with that extreme close-up of him dictating to his computer a touching letter supposedly sent by a husband to his wife, rapport was instantly established. 

This man right here, named Theodore Twombly, is someone who writes love letters to all kinds of people every single day but is devoid of love himself. Now estranged from his wife, he visibly trudges through life like an invisible man, aware of the technological advancement happening around him but is oblivious of his need for affection. Along then comes Samantha, a new, state-of-the-art OS who is as intelligent (or even more so) as an actual person. Slowly but tenderly, they were able to nurture a different kind of romance that knows no judgments and knows no bounds. Should I say that it was love at first click? 

Unexpectedly, Theodore finds himself once again falling fully for a woman who truly essentiates love, but this time without a body for him to hold and a face for him to touch. I think this is where "Her", as an essay about the beauty of unconditional romance, really excels. 

Throughout the historical course of both literature and film, more often than not, technology has always been seen as this frail substitute to real human connection. Surprisingly, "Her" is, if my memory serves me well, the very first film that I have seen which looks upon technology not as something that cripples our emotional capacity but as something that actually improves our ability to care. "Her", a visual love poem fitting for our times, embraces the inner heartbroken outcasts in us that yearn for someone ideal even if truly imperceptible to the eye. Indeed, there's something so perfect in that which we cannot see but can nonetheless feel, and there's also something so extraordinary in a film so awfully simple and silently bittersweet yet can make your heart cave in and your eyes swell in tears. "Her", for a lack of a better description, is the ultimate 'feel' trip of our generation.

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Watch, wipe, repeat.

For anyone at least over 15, "Don Jon" is, by itself, reason enough to get all jealous over Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the strings he can pull over at Hollywood. Only in his early thirties and fresh from his breakout roles in a slew of highly successful films ("Inception", "Looper", "The Dark Knight Rises"), Gordon-Levitt now tries his hands on directing. But unlike his contemporary James Franco, whose dilettante self seems content in directing artsy films that perhaps no one would be able (or even want) to see, "Don Jon" has enough mainstream appeal to easily catapult Gordon-Levitt's potential as a filmmaker immediately into the forefronts of the movie industry. "Why is that?" You may ask. Well, if you're not familiar at all with "Don Jon", do yourself a favor and look it up on IMDb, read its plot, and then skim through its cast. Done? A malicious grin is definitely in order.  

With its title being a Caucasian iteration of everyone's favorite moniker of sleazy womanizers, "Don Jon" is a film about a man addicted to porn and his relationship with a blonde bombshell he met in a bar, played by none other than Scarlett Johansson. "Don Jon", for the narrow-minded folks, may be deemed as nothing but an opportunistic vanity project on Levitt's part. Surely, with its sexually-charged tone and crucial casting of Johansson in a prominent role, this film may also make some people raise their eyebrows and others shake their heads both in admiration and utter disbelief. "A film about a porn addict with Scarlett Johansson cast as his sexy girlfriend." Honest to goodness, that's almost every heterosexual man's dream film project. On the surface, yes, "Don Jon" may seem like Joseph Gordon-Levitt's ultimate wet dream realized on film. But in all seriousness, if ever "Don Jon" has proven anything, then it is the fact that Gordon-Levitt, as a filmmaker, definitely has the genuine chops, and also the balls.

Story-wise, the film is not the kind that you would expect to blow you away, as it is a bit laid-back in its narrative flow and relatively light in execution. Quite simply, though "Don Jon" is mounted just like your typical rom-com film, it excels on how it depicts the so-called 'rush' of porn addiction in a series of repetitively kinetic camerawork that will rival the aesthetics of the likes of Danny Boyle and even Edgar Wright. "There's more to life than a happy ending." The film's tagline safely suggests. For me, the perfect tagline for the film, judging on how modernized its take is on the apathetic transience of libido, is "Watch, Wipe, Repeat." After all, the film is all about man's sexual relationship with technology, so what better way to emphasize this fact than with a not so-emotional and highly detached tagline such as that? Oh jeez, I'm already thinking out loud.

To get back on track, let's check on the film's characters. Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon, who frighteningly looks just like a "Jersey Shore" staple, is made to look grotesque and peculiar and highly detached from reality despite the fact that most men often do what he does, and that his problem with porn has already been tackled more believably in Steve McQueen's masterful "Shame". As a character, Don Jon, an Italian-American bartender and a devout churchgoer, is easy to empathize with on paper because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's effortless wit and also simply because of pretty obvious reasons. But perhaps due to how heavily caricaturized Don Jon is (his ripped musculature, freakish tan, and perfectly-gelled hair), there seems to be a slight disconnect between the character and us, the audience, who should be able to easily identify with him. Don Jon, I guess, is a tad too larger-than life for the film. 

Don Jon's parents in the film, on the other hand, though entertainingly played by both Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, are sadly too similar, characterization-wise, to Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara's turn in "Buffalo '66", from their dysfunctions as a couple up to their affinity towards football. Scarlett Johansson's character is also finely portrayed, what with her surprisingly apt accent. But sadly, the writing seems too weak to back the on-screen performance. Personally, it's Julianne Moore who has given the best performance in the film. Playing a middle-aged night student who has captured Jon's fickle attention, her line deliveries, which are oftentimes whisper-like and prosaic, bode well with her broken character.

In all fairness, the screenplay has numerous bright spots, such as the climactic scene between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Julianne Moore, and some really fun moments (the confession scenes come to mind). But overall, it may just need 10 more pages or so to further flesh out the characters. If not for the film's surprisingly poignant final sequence, "Don Jon" would have been less memorable than it actually is. 

Ultimately, looking past all of the film's flaws, "Don Jon" is actually a fun little portrait of a man's unhealthy addiction to internet smut, and a simple yet potent eye-opener regarding the delicate line that separates fucking from making love. After watching "Don Jon", you will realize that there's indeed a BIG difference between the two, and I'm not talking about sizes or anything, you dirty-minded fellow you.

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