Friday, July 19, 2013

The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer – Denmark/Norway/UK) 115 minutes

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has made ripples in the West not so much because it’s a good film (though there is much about it that is very good) but because the impunity it portrays in such glaringly uncomfortable detail is so alien to the average Westerner’s post-Nuremberg sense of justice and faith that barbaric acts will ultimately be punished. The gangsters and militia men that Oppenheimer meets and films speak openly and unrepentantly of their part in the mass killing of over one million people accused of being communists in the wake of the failed military coup in 1965. Such candour is unusual among mass murderers but with the killers being friends, and in some cases, sponsors, of those in power in Indonesia, there is little danger of them ever appearing in the dock.

The reality is the impunity these mass murderers enjoy has been the norm throughout history, including much of the 20th century. While there has been a move in the past sixty years towards establishing a genuinely retributive infrastructure to judge crimes against humanity, it has been only partial and highly selective. The crimes of Stalin and Mao went unpunished as did the barbaric crimes of imperialism and the slave trades, both trans-Atlantic and African. Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush and Tony Blair will never stand trial for their part in the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands in the West’s strategic wars and subversion of foreign governments. Even many Nazis escaped punishment, often with the connivance of the Allied powers. There is no appetite to bring Indonesia’s mass murderers to justice, not least because they still hold the country in terror (the Pemuda Pancasila militia is not as strong as it used to be but still boasts of three million members), but also because nobody with any influence cares. The US gave its blessing to the 1965-66 murders and Indonesia, as the world’s most populous Muslim country and a vital ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism, is too important to the West to risk upsetting (the West also let the Suharto regime invade East Timor and kill a third of its population between 1975 and 1999).

Oppenheimer’s stated original intention was to do a more conventional documentary on the massacres but he found few left-wing critics willing to speak. Many of the Indonesian crew members on the film are credited anonymously, such is the level of fear that still exists in the country. He did however find the killers more forthcoming about their role in the massacres and he had the idea of getting them to re-enact the killings. He starts off with Anwar Congo, a petty gangster who sold black-market movie tickets, and who had a particular animus for the Communists as the more lucrative American films were regularly proscribed by the Sukarno regime which was overthrown by the coup. Congo is calm and coldly efficient – he devised a way of strangling his victims with wire to minimise the blood spilt, and points out that, unlike in the re-enactment, he would never have worn white trousers while on the job. Congo’s sidekick Herman Koto is also filmed going around the markets extorting money from ethnic Chinese businessmen, one of a number of ethically dubious choices on Oppenheimer’s part.

Oppenheimer briefly shows us interviews with high-ranking government officials, including former vice-president Yusuf Kalla, who is shown addressing a Pemuda Pancasila rally. We also meet newspaper editor Ibrahim Synik, who openly admits to portraying leftists in a bad light so as to turn the population against them, fostering a popular hostility that remains to this day. Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the half-Dutch leader of Pemuda Pancasila, shows himself to be a misogynistic buffoon, but terrifying when, live on television, he vows to massacre any leftists who might try to propose an alternative history of 1965 and 1966.

By far the most intelligent, and dangerous, of the interviewees is Adi Zulkadry, who, along with Congo, killed over 1000 people. He acknowledges that the tide could turn, as more and more children of the slaughtered begin to speak out about it. He also says he would do the same in their position. He does, however, get to the heart of the relativism that underscores the impunity in Indonesian public life. Like Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (Morris signed on as executive producer after seeing The Act of Killing in post-production), Zulkadry knows that had things gone the other way, he could have been tried as a criminal. Zulkadry  however says he doesn’t care much for the Geneva Conventions, which he says ‘could be replaced tomorrow by the Jakarta Conventions’. It’s the most clear-eyed and chilling political statement in the film, and runs counter to the teleological liberal endgame theory that is the prevailing idea in the West. In a way, Zulkadry’s words crystallise the dynamic that has made The Act of Killing such an arresting experience for Western audiences. Yusuf Kalla’s words extolling the gangsters (who are known as ‘free men’ in Indonesian) also underline why they are prized by the authorities. He says not everyone can live within the law, ‘otherwise we would have a nation of bureaucrats’. Pemuda Pancasila is a vital outlet for the Indonesian state, an outsourcing of repression that lets the government off the hook and allows the population to imagine they are breathing the air of a free and vibrant democracy.

The film certainly is an unforgettable experience, documenting atrocities that have been largely forgotten outside of Indonesia, but Oppenheimer’s methodology often grates, and is morally questionable too. The idea of re-enactment seemed appealing on the face of it, especially given how many of the killers have re-cast themselves as world-historical stars. The first attempt at a re-enactment runs aground when residents of a formerly communist neighbourhood decline to take part, being terrified of being portrayed on film as communists. The fictional reconstructions provide some visual ballast in the absence of counter-testimonies but they over-indulge the killers and go far beyond what is necessary in constructing the anatomy of political psychosis. When Oppenheimer shoots Congo and Koto in a cross-dressing pastiche of a generic karaoke video, shot by a tropical waterfall, the film has trespassed into the realm of the irredeemably crass. Oppenheimer, despite leaving many names in the credits anonymous, also puts people at risk in a most irresponsible way, particularly the gantry staff who comment on Congo and Koto’s TV appearance. The afore-mentioned extortion of market stall holders also leaves a very unpleasant taste. Oppenheimer no doubt thinks he is coldly 'exposing' the crimes in this way, but given the impunity forming the core of his thesis renders this exposure pointless, it only testifies to the authorial vanity so common among filmmakers.

The re-enactments are ultimately gimmicky; Rithy Panh, who lost his entire family to the Khmer Rouge, never needed anything of the sort for his documentaries on the Killing Fields, such as S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine or Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell. Panh’s films are far less showy but more revelatory than The Act of Killing. Only occasionally does Oppenheimer come close to Panh’s candid sobriety. When he lays one of Adi Zulkadry’s monologues over images of him and his family shopping in a Jakarta mall, the truth about what he has done shines through far more evocatively than in Oppenheimer’s macabre and kitsch grand guignol.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Shokuzai – Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Shokuzai (Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Japan) Part 1: 119 minutes Part 2: 148 minutes

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s last film Tokyo Sonata (2008) featured a salaryman who doesn’t tell his family he has been made redundant and continues to go to work as normal, hanging around a public park, dressed in his suit, with other jobless corporate workers. The film met with reasonable international success but was a flop in Japan and Kurosawa has since struggled to get funding for subsequent films. Like the hero of Tokyo Sonata, he continued going into work anyway and eventually got a television series off the ground. Based on Kanae Minato’s best-selling novel, Shokuzai (‘Penance’) was a five-part mini-series, released outside of Japan as a two-part film, running to four and a half hours in total. Its made-for-TV origins are rarely evident and it's a fine addition to Kurosawa’s oeuvre, which has long straddled horror and social realism.

The film focuses upon the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl, Emili, the daughter of an industrialist recently arrived in a small Japanese town. Four of her friends are with her as she is taken away by her killer, who poses as a technician doing repairs in their school; the four girls discover her body but, traumatised, they are unable to help the police and the hunt for the murderer goes cold. None of this convinces Emili’s mother Asako (Japanese pop star Kyôko Koizumi, previously seen as the wife in Tokyo Sonata) who takes the four aside and tells them she demands information from them or else she will exact unspecified compensation.

After the initial prologue we fast-forward fifteen years, where the girls are now young women leading separate lives. A different episode focuses on each, with the only common thread the presence of Asako, who flits in and out, looking increasingly deathly, as if she is an avenging angel. Each of the four women has internalised her trauma in a way that ‘de-feminises’ them – Sae (Yû Aoi) has never menstruated once in her life, convinced it is punishment for her failure to remember the killer’s face. She meets and marries a former school friend, now a wealthy businessman, who is seemingly unfazed by her barrenness but who incorporates her into a weird fetish whereby she adopts the role of a passive rag doll. Maki (Eiko Koike) is a primary school teacher, in a school very similar to the one the killing took place in; she practices the martial art Hiro Koda and has an overbearing possessiveness regarding the children in her care, which is one day put to the test when a knife-wielding maniac attacks them.

Akiko (Sakura Ando) has turned into a tomboyish hikikomori, living with her parents, playing video games in her room and whose only social relationship is with the neglected seven-year-old daughter of her brother’s girlfriend. Finally, Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki) follows her sister to Tokyo and promptly seduces her husband behind her back.

Shokuzai is an unusual horror movie in that the fateful killing is kept largely offscreen and happens at the beginning, letting the story, and the characters, unwind from thereon out. Like Kurosawa’s previous films, the tone is one of heightened realism, where just the slightest modification of the everyday is sufficient to induce uneasiness in the viewer. Though the plot lurches from time to time into the incredible, the film’s portrayal of disturbed characters is masterly and complex.

The only flaw lies in the final episode, which offers a framing narrative, focused on Asako herself, and which delivers the answer as to who killed Emili. All this is a bit unnecessary as Shokuzai has not been a whodunnit up until that point and it delivers a very weak punch indeed. One presumes that Kurosawa inherited it from the source novel and television executives would have been none-too-keen to change the ending. It does seem at odds though with the rest of the film and Kurosawa’s previous work. Still, the damage is not fatal and Shokuzai is a remarkably rich work that has made Kurosawa bankable once again. He has another film, Real, on the way but more troubles have arrived, with his biggest production to date, the historical drama 1905, largely in Chinese, starring Tony Leung, falling foul to budgetary problems and the Shenkaku Islands dispute between Japan and China. The poor man must feel as cursed as the characters in his films.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Look of Love – Michael Winterbottom

The Look of Love (Michael Winterbottom – UK/France) 101 minutes

Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom’s fourth collaboration looks oddly anachronistic. Of course, a biopic of The King of Soho, Paul Raymond, could not help but hark back to the past, but its raison d’être still seems dated, even if Raymond did die only five years ago. The Look of Love (so titled after Raymond’s son blocked The King of Soho) starts with Raymond ( Geoffrey O’Brien) getting his nude revue up and running in the 1950s, circumventing the Lord Chamberlain’s restrictions by making sure the topless ladies do not move. The Lord Chamberlain’s demise several years later clears the way for Raymond to expand his empire, learning, as he puts it, that the public is willing to pay ‘lots of money to see women wear very little.’

Raymond is, unsurprisingly, an adulterous cad, but his wife Jean (Anna Friel) tolerates it well enough, until, that is, one of his conquests (Tamsin Egerton) is tempting enough for him to walk out on her. Eventually the Raymonds split up and Paul takes pride in correcting journalists by saying his is the most expensive divorce settlement in British legal history. Even his greatest reversal is a source of pride for a lad from Liverpool who ‘came to London with just two bob in his pocket’ (Raymond’s background though was solidly middle-class).

All this is enunciated in very Alan Partridge fashion by Coogan (as is much throughout as his boast to visitors that his bachelor shag pad was designed by Ringo Starr); this is one of the film’s many problems. In Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story, Coogan played himself, forever bristling at people’s references to Partridge within his presence. In reality Coogan is clearly more at ease with it if this film is anything to go by. That is understandable as Partridge is Britain’s greatest comic creation of the past two decades but here the effect is wearying. More so as it throws into calamitous relief the efforts at pathos when Raymond’s daughter, and chosen heir, Debbie (Imogen Poots) dies of a drug overdose.

The film’s structure and trajectory also have an over-familiar air to them – the passing of time is marked by the most obvious of chart hits (if it’s Roxy Music, it must be 1974; if it’s Soft Cell, it must be 1982) and the film is a string of montages of drug-taking, group sex and getting filthy rich. It’s all very Goodfellas or Boogie Nights but The Look of Love has none of the spark of either of those films and is very much catching a ride on their coattails. It also lacks the force of The People Vs Larry Flynt as Raymond never really approached Flynt’s notoriety or cultural influence. This is largely down to Raymond himself – he was a reluctant smut merchant, denying all the time he was a pornographer (just as Richard Desmond later would), and buying up property all over the City of London and elsewhere in an effort to edge himself back towards respectability. In fairness, the film understands this and dramatises this shift quite well. But Raymond’s own self-willed obsolescence makes the film’s very relevance moot.

Raymond became a virtual recluse after Debbie’s death in 1992, by which time he had become Britain’s richest man. Long after Raymond’s tit-and-arse empire was usurped by the internet and rival upstarts such as Peter Stringfellow, his property portfolios matured in silence and continue to be a source of enormous wealth. Raymond’s cultural legacy is now negligible, even if his famous Raymond Revue Bar and other holdings still exist in Soho, and it is hard to muster much interest in what is a long-forgotten aspect of prurient British pop culture. The film might have had more impact as a made-for-TV effort in the early nineties. As it stands, The Look of Love just leaves you asking, ‘why bother?’

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Two US Indie Comedies

Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton – USA)  90 minutes
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach – USA) 86 minutes

At some point about a decade ago, American Indie films stopped looking like Indie films – or at least what they looked like back in the 80s and 90s. This was largely because independent filmmaking became co-opted by off-shoots of Hollywood studios and increasingly came to appear like Sundance product with beefed-up production values, stars appearing for scale and more ambitious subject matter and themes. In the past couple of years, no doubt because of America’s rickety economy and a consequent parsimony in Hollywood, we are beginning to see a return of films that look like they might have been made in the heyday of John Sayles, Hal Hartley or early Gus Van Sant.

Your Sister’s Sister, by Lynn Shelton, director of the 2009 comedy Humpday is one such film. It is essentially a three-hander, set in Washington state (Shelton lives in Seattle, but it is curious how US Indie films seem to set themselves apart from Hollywood by looking almost Canadian). Mark Duplass (from Humpday) plays Jack, a humorous but depressive thirty-something, struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother. His best friend (also his brother’s ex) Iris (Emily Blunt) suggests he take some time out at her parent’s holiday home on an island off the Seattle coast. When he arrives there though, he finds Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just walked out on her neglectful girlfriend. After getting drunk together, the two end up sleeping with each other, only for Iris to arrive unannounced the next morning. Jack and Hannah agree not to let her know what happened but that is not going to be too easy.

It starts off very well, with Jack dyspeptically scorning the fellow attendees at a memorial gathering for his brother; he counters a heart-warming tale of the dead man’s altruism after watching Hotel Rwanda with one of his brother’s Damascene conversion from bully to nice guy after watching Revenge of the Nerds (!) Duplass is excellent in the role, harbouring pain, anger and self-deprecation, and Shelton’s script shrewdly withholds much information (we never learn, for instance, how his brother died), leaving us to puzzle over what exactly is bringing him down. DeWitt is also good, being a rare example of an actress in an American film that talks like American women one might know in real life. She is bright, sassy and talkative. Only Blunt, with her imported British accent that is explained away in the script, is a bit flat.

But where the first half of the film is a sparky dark comedy, it descends into something a lot more formulaic once the fateful copulation takes place. What might have been an interesting comedy of manners is squandered in a series of unconvincing disputes and the crisis is resolved far too easily. The turn the film takes is catastrophic, and I don’t mean that in the Shakespearean sense. It is also, after the initial edgy promise of a film exploring sexual politics, grief and betrayal, despairingly conservative, saccharine even. A clear sign of a writer-director not really knowing how to follow through on an interesting premise.

Noah Baumbach’s third feature, shot in high-contrast black and white, is another Indie film that looks like a throwback to a couple of decades ago. Written with the film’s star (and Baumbach’s real-life partner) Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is a light but deftly nuanced portrait of a hyperactive Millenial New Yorker. 28-year-old Frances is struggling as a dance company apprentice, forever hoping for the big opening that might free her from the impecunious existence she leads. She gets dumped by her boyfriend when she declines to move in with him due to her loyalty to her flatmate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), only to be then cast aside by her shortly afterwards.

The film from there on is a low-rent picaresque, where Frances, rudderless (or ‘undateable’ as her new flatmates Lev and Dan call her), drifts from one precarious living situation to another, sub-letting, couch-surfing and eventually going back to her alma mater Vassar to try and earn some extra cash. Frances is surrounded by people who have money but her own protestations of poverty are dismissed – Dan says at one point, ‘to say you’re poor is an insult to people who are really poor’. That’s a fair point but the film is unusual in its portrayal of a college graduate who is struggling to get things off the ground. Even Indie films rarely concern themselves too much with things like personal economics, though many of the people involved in their making have probably known even at least temporary hardship.

Gerwig, who was last seen in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Woody Allen’s utterly forgettable To Rome with Love, is endearingly fantastic as Frances. She is daffy but confident; sprightly but self-doubting. Her elastic, effervescent performance is likely to divide people as much as Sally Hawkins’ in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky did, but those who watch it with a bit of patience will be rewarded. I don’t know how much of a market there is for it, but Gerwig is a comedy all-rounder, equally at home with gangly slapstick as she is with deadpan repartee. The film is very built around her but she emerges as an undisputed star from it.

Baumbach, who probably could have easily made a more commercial offering, also deserves credit for persisting with a type of guerrilla filmmaking that produces unexpectedly fresh results (much of it was shot on the hoof, without permits). Frances Ha is a light comedy but it inhabits its space very convincingly and its brilliant portrayal of such a great character offsets the rushed nature of its narrative (the end, in particular, is thrown together a bit too easily). There are touches of Jim Jarmusch (when he was still an interesting filmmaker) to it but the main reference is Truffaut. There are constant allusions to him in the film, which is strewn with pieces of Georges Delarue’s music from Truffaut’s films. Like Truffaut, Baumbach is good at making the trivial significant; he even short-circuits the usual American fawning over Paris by having Frances spend two days there on a whim only to become even more alienated there. Frances Ha does not take itself very seriously but it is a very good example of serious comedy. Unlike Baumbach’s sometime collaborator, Wes Anderson, he manages to stay just the right side of mannered. A very funny, deceptively simple film that is likely to be one of the best American comedies this year.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

La fille du 14 juillet – Antonin Peretjatko & Before Midnight – Richard Linklater

La fille du 14 juillet (Antonin Peretjatko – France) 88 minutes
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater – USA) 109 minutes

The opening scene of Antonin Peretjatko’s madcap comedy is one of the funniest set-pieces I have seen in the last couple of years: former President Nicolas Sarkozy inspects the troops and greets dignitaries at the official celebrations on the French national holiday of the title (only foreigners call it ‘Bastille Day’). Sarkozy is shown all jittery in sped-up motion, with comic music accompaniment. Lest Peretjatko be accused of political favouritism, Sarkozy’s successor François Hollande is then portrayed in the same light; we also see tanks edging in and out of position with geometrical punctiliousness – it’s good that someone is ridiculing France’s militaristic holiday celebrations, which are little more than a fancier, less dogmatic version of North Korea’s.

After the promising start though, La fille du 14 juillet is only fitfully funny. The hero of the film, Hector (Grégoire Tachnakian), a young slacker working as a museum guard, is besotted with Truquette (meaning 'Thingamijiguette', played by Vilmala Pons), a pretty woman whom he encounters while working on the 14th of July. Hector’s friend, Pator (Vincent Macaigne) has the idea of inviting her and a friend along with them on holiday in the south of France. Unfortunately, the friend’s licentious Benny Hill-esque brother insists on tagging along and intends on doing all he can to get his way with Truquette first.

There are some good gags here and there, such as an amusing scene in a dole office where the absurdity of French bureaucracy is laid bare, and the central trope where la rentrée, the French return to work and school after the holidays, is brought forward one month, in response to the economic crisis, something that sows panic amid the film's characters. The film has the free-wheeling air of the New Wave and later French films, such as early Bertrand Blier, but underneath the playfulness lies a certain piety, and it soon becomes clear the film is a rather annoying homage to its forebears. It also reminds you of one of the less appealing features of the New Wave – the dolly bird portrayal of many women; Vilmala Pons doe-eyed, yé-yé girly Truquette is worse still – she is one part Anna Karina, three parts Zooey Deschanel. Some might see La fille du 14 juillet as a riff on classic French slapstick; to me, though, for all its zaniness, it looked tired and hackneyed.

Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return for the third instalment of the films charting the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy), who first met in Vienna in the 1994 film, Before Sunrise. That film was a charming talky piece that brought Linklater’s goofy philosophising to an international context – a Generation-X Brief Encounter. The pair were re-united ten years later in Before Sunset, when Céline tracks down the now-married Jesse at one of his book signings in Paris. Before Sunset was clunky in comparison to its predecessor, possibly because of the pretensions of its older characters, and it made heavy play of the prevailing tension between the US and France, in the wake of the Iraq war. Delpy has, in the meantime, turned director and copied the formula for her own brand of particularly lugubrious comedy (2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York).

Before Midnight finds the pair now married, having made the fateful choice following their reunion in Paris. They have twin daughters and Jesse is at loggerheads with his ex-wife, who, none-too-surprisingly, is doing her best to impede his relationship with his fourteen-year-old son, Hank (Séamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, from Moonrise Kingdom). The film opens with Hank and Jesse bidding farewell at the airport in Greece, where they have been holidaying. It’s an extended scene and is Linklater at his best – sharp dialogue and the same eye for social awkwardness that has marked his work since Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Once Hank is on the plane, Jesse returns to Céline and the kids and the next long scene, where they drive back to their holiday home, is equally good, bringing us up to speed on what has passed since the last film.

Both Hawke and Delpy have aged considerably in the past few years, the former looking scraggly, like Chris Cooper, the latter, morphing into something resembling Hilary Clinton. The film loses its way when it strays into holiday bucolic, with the guests trading idle banter with their host, Greek writer Patrick (played by Zorba the Greek cinematographer Walter Lasally) and his family. It is sunny and carefree, light years from the edgy cinema of Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of Attenberg and producer of Dogtooth and Alps, and who plays one of the hosts, Ariadne, here. There is little sense of the economic crisis crippling Greece, referred to only once in the entire film.

To his credit, Linklater knows that films about holidays are uninteresting unless something goes wrong, like L’Avventura, About Elly and Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which is explicitly referenced at one point by Céline. The simmering discontent in the marriage boils over in the second half of the film, when an intended relaxing stay at a luxury hotel becomes the backdrop to a protracted argument of vicious mutual recrimination between the couple. The argument, which stems from Jesse’s wish to move to Chicago to be closer to Hank (and which Céline is having none of), introduces darkness into the trilogy for the first time and severely undermines the youthful romance of the first two films. These scenes are a mixed bag – they have a maddening energy but it is difficult to have too much sympathy with such a dislikable pair; Jesse is sanctimonious and cruel while Céline is insufferably smug (as is Delpy in many of her films). Hawke and Delpy collaborated once again with Linklater on the screenplay, after their Oscar nomination for Before Sunset, but the dynamic at play here is far from the heightened claustrophobia of Cassavetes or Bergman. The ending is sufficiently ambiguous to leave open the chance for a fourth film. Before Midnight recaptures some of the spark of the first film in the trilogy but it is an uneven effort. Maybe taking Jesse and Céline out of picturesque locales might be a better idea for Linklater to consider in a future film.