The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing by Joshua
Oppenheimer

A
documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders
to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic
genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and
lavish musical numbers.

By omitting the historical context
behind the 1965–1966 Indonesian killings and letting the
Indonesian death squad leaders tell their own story, watching
The Act of Killing evokes the
Nietschean idea of ‘gazing into the abyss’. That if one
were to ‘gaze long
into an abyss, the abyss also
gazes into you.’ The Act of
Killing
is a deep ocean of ideas, constantly
reflecting the human condition. Every scene was like a wave, with
an entirely different idea, crashing over the previous scene and
provoked a new thought in me. My thought train spiraled and
branched off into different directions.

At first, I thought about the brutality
of man. Then it went to how history is written by the
victor.

And then I
thought about the nature of cinema and storytelling. That in the
act of telling their own story, the death squad leaders became
conscious of their past actions through the task of having to
present it to an audience. That aesthetic distance, interestingly
enough, ends up being the distance these death squad leaders needed
to truly examine what they have done.

And then I arrived at the nature of how
extreme ideas in society prevail, despite of how illogical or
inhuman they may be. That logic is relative, anyone can easily
manipulate logic to justify any action. One can make anything sound
logical to do whatever they desired in a given moment.

And like that, the film kept on
giving infinitely and its themes continually deepened. The Werner
Herzog brand of the ‘ecstatic truth’ is at play here. Each
audience member will have their own individual experience of the
film’s ideas and themes, because the film allows it so. Director
Joseph Oppenheimer never puts these men on trial and instead of
burrows for something deeper to reflect humanity at its core. These
men, like anybody, are just human. And I cared and became invested
into their emotional journey through how Oppenheimer displays their
humanity, which was perplexing at points. I had to remind myself
that they were still mass murderers.

At a two and a half hour running time,
the film is too long. It’s hard to sit with such heavy material.
There is a 115-minute theatrical cut that exists, which is 45
minutes shorter than this director’s cut. Joshua Oppenheimer
seemingly wants to covers more ground than needed and less
definitely would have been more. I stuck with it alright because I
was fascinated by the film’s subjects, but it may test the patience
of general audiences. That said, The Act of
Killing
is a great story told through subjects
that I never ever want to meet in real life.
It is an unsettling and powerful
experience and is one of the best films of 2013, if not the most
important.

Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

Trance by Danny Boyle

An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.

Danny Boyle’s new film Trance is an cinematic assault on the senses, and unapologetically so. The premise behind Trance is inherently silly. This is a world in which where hypnosis is magic and accomplishes everything. I doubt any real gangster in the world would ever incorporate a doctor of any kind to assist them with crime.  Audiences just have to go along with it. With trippy cinematography and an awesome soundtrack that I want on my mp3 playlist, Boyle crafts a colorful thrill ride of a film.In the past, Danny Boyle has experimented with genre to varying degrees of success. 28 Days Later worked for me, Sunshine did not. For Trance, the genre-shifting nature works mostly because of its three stars giving it the proper balance. All three lead actors are given dimensional characters to play. Vincent Cassell and James McAvoy seem to be enjoying their roles as they get to play out not only their own characters’ complexities, but their fantasies and projections as well. The standout, surprisingly, is Rosario Dawson.

This is the best Rosario Dawson role I have seen thus far. In her past roles, her sex appeal has been used too blatantly and it has taken away from her performances. The more you intentionally portray someone as sexy on film, the less sexy it is. I am too aware that I am supposed to be aroused by something that I am not totally immersed in. It’s more the idea of sex and the building of sexual tension that creates onscreen sexiness. Danny Boyle sets up the proper atmosphere and films her in a way that forwards the story. Boyle creates an allure to Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist character, who’s just sitting down in plain office attire hypnotizing the male characters with words. Her presence adds an entire genre, the erotic thriller, and it sets the film off on a corkscrew spiral mixing film genres, reality and dream states. Nobody is who they seem to be and the film delivers some nice twists and turns.

There’s a trashiness that the film revels in, as if the film is fine with the audience being aroused and indulging into its stimulus. It never gets serious enough for the audience to ever truly take it seriously. So for that, Trance is a fun naughty little piece of pop art, that’s not to be taken seriously and I was comfortably lost in it.

Stoker by Park Chan Wook

Stoker by Park Chan-Wook

After India’s (played by Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother Evelyn (played by Nicole Kidman). She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Screenwriter Wentworth Miller has stated that this is not a vampire movie. To this I say, “Trust the tale, not the teller.”  Regardless of what Miller says, it’s a vampire film or not, Stoker is clearly playing to the beats of a vampire film underneath its surface.There are things at play that suggest this, Uncle Charlie is fixated with India and he preys on her. India seems to possess some kind of innocence or purity that is at stake of being corrupted. Lastly, the movie is called Stoker. That’s no accident.

It’s as if someone took a traditional vampire movie, folded it inside out, wore it like a bag on his head looking outside from within. That’s the way to watch Stoker. Anybody who says there is nothing happening in this story is not looking at the subtext. The subtext is the supertext, that’s where the story is taking place. Park Chan-Wook leaves a lot of empty space for the audience to ponder about what’s going on. There is a whole lot going on if you tune to the film’s grammar and look in the right places.

Matthew Goode has always had this steely piercing look that looks sinister and that quality is well used under Park’s direction. Park knows how to pull back and just shoot an actor in a certain pose to emote a mood or feeling. As Uncle Charlie, we never know what he’s thinking or if we can really trust his intentions. Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman give fine performances but Matthew Goode gives the standout performance. The real star of the film however is Park Chan-Wook himself. He elevates the script by adding a visual poetry that subtlely implies. Everything is played at such a low volume that the audience is unnerved waiting for the tension to crescendo.

A good companion piece to Stoker is Park Chan-Wook’s 2009 vampire horror film Thirst; it’s probably what got Park the job. This is probably one of the best English-language debut for an Asian director. It’s a smooth transition as his directorial stamp is very much present. You will need to put in more brain work for Stoker, but it pays off.

Berberian Sound Studio by Peter Strickland

Berberian Sound Studio by Peter Strickland

 

Berberian Sound Studio centers on Gilderoy (played by Toby Jones), a British foley artist working on the audio track for an Italian giallo film, The Equestrian Vortex, takes a wrong turn as life starts to imitate art.

Berberian Sound Studio
subverts the usual visual experience of watching a horror film and shows you the creation of a horror film in sequences where you see the foley effects, voice and music being added to a film that is omitted from the audience. It creates an unsettling otherworldly creepiness as you watch foley artists stab watermelons, voice actresses shrieking and convulsing in sync to an offscreen projection. We never see much of the film-within-a-film The Equestrian Vortex and the lack of it forces the audience to be highly sensitive to the the sounds in the film. It’s unnerving and it becomes gradually creepier as it goes along. Never has a shot of someone’s hand tearing lettuce been so scary.

As a “film about a film”, Berberian Sound Studio celebrates the art of filmmaking by showing us the power of cinema by presenting all its techniques both literally and metaphorically. It’s not heavy on plot nor character. You must feel your way throughout this film with your senses as it’s creating tensions through visuals, sounds and feelings.

Things that aren’t happening before us are constantly implied and its constant claustrophobic interior setting is a metaphor about the inward journey of the artist’s mind creating their own world. The way an artist craft stories with their imaginations, the love and stress that goes into their work and how it can often become obsessive.

And for that, it’s perfectly okay to be lost inside Berberian Sound Studio. Set the volume at a decent level and just let the visuals, soundscape and montage guide you through varying states of reality and fantasy. I recommend it to horror fans and any film buff. It’s a real piece of art.

Dredd by Pete Travis

Dredd by Pete Travis

In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) teams with new trainee Judge Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby) to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Dredd is correlated to The Raid: Redemption because they have similar setups (my short review of The Raid: Redemption here). Fortunately, I saw The Raid: Redemption earlier in the summer of 2012 and missed Dredd in theaters, as a result I have enough time in between the two films to mentally separate them. Being unfamiliar with the source material, what I actually ended up comparing Dredd was the 1996 Slyvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd. It’s a sci-fi movie that I grew up on and entertained me (however Demolition Man is the superior sci-fi Slvyester Stallone movie). It’s famously criticized because Sylvester Stallone, at the behest of the producers, plays the latter two-thirds of the film with his helmet off. Judge Dredd in the comics, never takes off his helmet. I never knew what the big deal was with the insistance that the Judge Dredd character must keep his helmet on… till I saw Dredd.

Judge Dredd is not a character as more a representation of pure black-and-white law taken to the extreme. That’s why he’s meant to be faceless. Taking off his mask and trying to find the human backstory behind that character completely shatters what he thematically represents. Yes, I know I sound stupid right now. However, a movie with Judge Dredd alone just shooting criminals would have been boring. The filmmakers understand this, so they have placed in a buddy cop dynamic into the film with the Judge Anderson character. She is more human and more dimensional as a character, and set as a juxtaposition to the stoic Dredd. It can even be argued that the movie is Judge Anderson’s story. Both characters had a good working chemistry and the film deeply benefits from their buddy dynamic as it provides something human enough for me to hang onto between the action scenes.

As Judge Dredd, Karl Urban manages to communicate a lot under a helmet and has a firm grasp of the material. Playing a character who is that extreme can easily fall into parody very quickly (there are many Youtube videos parodying Stallone’s delivery “I’m the lawwwwww!!!!!”) and Urban doesn’t fall into that. Lena Headey manages to be cold and scary without being cartoonish as the film’s villain Ma-Ma. The film is over-the-top but there’s no ‘wink wink’, everybody just “is” the character they’re playing.

Slow motion in films have been overdone and viewers have grown used to it now. The way to keep slow motion fresh is to incorporate it into the story. Having a drug that slows down your perception of time is arguably the most blatant way to do this. But you know what? It works! It seems fresh and they take the Slo-Mo drug as a story device and take it to creative places. The films has fun action set pieces. The next set piece tops the last and it moves fast enough for you to ever really ponder about the satirical tones.

Dredd  is fun and made by a team that understands and loves the material. Their goals with this movie were simple but they accomplish them. It makes me think, as proven by the 1995 film, that perhaps the Judge Dredd property is not meant to be adapted into a vehicle for a big name star. The dark humor combined with ultra-violent tone of it just registers as something kitschier that will fare better for a smaller audience. No one’s going to take their whole family to see this movie but more likely a group of guys will cackle over it with a case of beers in their apartment.

For the people that want to see Dredd, will get it and enjoy it. For the people who don’t care that much may just dismiss it as being a lesser version of The Raid: Redemption. I’m not going to get on that bandwagon, Dredd deserves better than simply writing it off like that.

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

Seven Psychopaths by Martin McDonagh

A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

Seven Psychopaths takes its central gag from Adaptation in that it’s about an author struggling trying to write the ideal original story, trying to avoid cliches and climatic gunfights but then at the end the author picks up a gun and shoots his way out of his problems, ironically juxtaposing the exact situations he’s trying to creatively avoid. It simultaneously addresses and pokes fun at the author’s eternal struggle to balance his own personal voice and the necessary components of what makes a story entertaining. So, does Seven Psychopaths bring insight to the craft of storytelling? Not exactly. Is it funny? Yes.

Colin Farrell plays a good straight man and Woody Harrelson makes a hilarious villain. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken both balance the movie’s post-modern aesthetic by adding humanity to the story. With all the post-modern cutaways, witty dialogue and crazy titles stopping the film to identify each psychopath, the movie titters on being self-indulgent but it does not because we believe their characters and care about them. The tone is balanced very well as a result and we are able to both laugh and take things seriously at the same time. Sam Rockwell steals the movie. The humanity he’s able to insert into his character is impressive. Even in his craziness, we understand how his mind works and believe that he is genuinely trying to help his friend. In the hands of a lesser actor, the movie would have collapsed.

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s second feature and it shows. It’s a film where the director is enjoying a bigger cast, bigger budget and more free reign. I don’t have a problem with that. However,  In Bruges is still the superior film. It was a deeper film about guilt and redemption and even had a metaphysical layer that explored the idea of purgatory. I still read it occasionally as a screenplay. Seven Psychopaths is a good piece of fluff and flirts with the suggestion of deeper ideas ironically to get laughs. It’s really good fluff, but fluff nonetheless.

Shame by Steve McQueen

Shame (2011 film)

Shame by Steve McQueen

In New York City, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender) has a carefully cultivated private life, which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. That life is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

It almost does not matter that Shame is a performance-based film, film is still a director’s medium. Whether you have a good performance or not in the can, it’s still up to the director to help the audience understand the performance in context to the story. That brings me to my next point: Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have a really good thing going on. One trusts the other and the other completely knows how to use him in a movie.

McQueen is a director that knows 1) how to guide an audience through Fassbender’s performance and 2) knows how to put the actor and the audience into the world of the film. In fact, he does them both with the same technique: the long take. There are several long take sequences in the film that really put you into the world of the film and I think it was the right aesthetic choice. The long take not only brings reality by preventing artifice through editing, it allows us to really look inside Brendan.

Brendan is a protagonist with an unexplainable problem. It’s the compulsive need to find catharsis and escape through the flagellation of one’s body. As the emptiness grows inside through one’s growing addiction but cannot stop indulging to feel alive. The film doesn’t even go into telling us what happened to Brandon or Sissy before the story that may have been the genesis of his addiction. That does not matter. We only get the sense that they’ve been through some kind of trauma together.

Much of the journey is communicated through Michael Fassbender’s personal quiet performance. We understand Brendan through how he reacts to his surrounding world. A noteworthy scene was his boss David (played by James Badge Dale) mentioning the amount of pornography on his office desktop computer and we feel the immediate tenseness of his terrible secret and a fear of embarrassment as Brendan covers up with a poker face, even though his boss is totally unaware of his problem. Yes, Shame transports you into the mind of an addict. We feel why a moment’s thrill is better than perpetual existential gloom. Yes, Michael Fassbender deserves the praise and awards. I’m glad he’s getting both.

I’ve been writing this post for the past few days and I have found it very hard to sum up my thoughts. When I finished the film, it was very subtle and I did not completely understand the film. Through days of digesting it, it stuck a very deep cord inside me. I thought about man’s insatiable need for love and connection. I particularly thought about the scene where Sissy sings a sad rendition of New York, New York and why it moved Brendan to tears. I thought about Brendan’s romantic pursuit of his colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie) and what happened there. I’m still digesting it. It is impressive how much deep underneath inside emotions Shame managed to communicate. This is a real work of art. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are a great team and I hope to see more work from the both of them.

One of the best films of the year. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on my top ten by the end of the year. Now I want to see Hunger.

Tyrannosaur by Paddy Considine

Tyrannosaur by Paddy Considine

Before I write out my thoughts, I must admit that I am only familiar with the general popular mainstream British cinema. I know the stars, uprising actors and some independent directors of who I have only seen bits of their filmography (i.e. Thus far I have only seen one Ken Loach film). I am not yet immersed enough yet to know about the British character actors. The two major players from Tyrannosaur, director/actor Paddy Considine and actress Olivia Colman, both of whom I only recognize from Hot Fuzz.

Tyrannosaur begins with Joseph (played by Peter Mullan), an unemployed widower who’s on the verge of self-destruction, decides to change his life after accidentally killing his own dog in a fit of rage (one of the most engaging inciting incidents I have experienced in a long time). Joseph befriends the local charity shop worker Hannah (played by Olivia Colman), a respectable wholesome and kindly Christian woman who takes pity on him. They slowly become friends. However, Hannah has a dark secret of her own at home – James, her physically abusive husband . This threatens to plunge Joseph back into his former life.

One of the joys of watching a movie is seeing the story unfold. Each scene engages you with a bit more information and you search and piece things together in the next scene, so on and so forth. Tyrannosaur sucks you right in from the beginning in its opening sequence (my reaction: “He kicked a dog dead! Who is this guy?”) and keeps you asking questions about its characters. It doesn’t even end with Joseph as the Hannah’s character is introduced. We begin to explore her story and ask questions about her. I found myself thrilled to know the answers.

Director Paddy Considine understands that the lurking threat of violence is much scarier than merely presenting violence occurring and manages to create some tense dialogue set pieces, particularly the scenes between Eddie Marsan and Olivia Colman. He knows the exact amount to show and when to get out of the scene and it incorporates it with film language. i.e. A character is about to be punched and we cut to another character hitting a brickwall with a sledgehammer in another scene. We are left to ponder about the fate of the first character as the brickwall is being pounded away.

Having seen Olivia Colman only in Hot Fuzz as a goofy policewoman, she really blew me away as Hannah. It’s one of the most engaging performances I’ve seen this year. One noteworthy scene where James, Hannah’s abusive husband, pleads for forgiveness, breaks down and cries at her leg for physically abusing her. Hannah gently pats his back in a loving gesture but her face reads entirely different. She acknowledges that this is only the beginning of a never-ending abusive cycle. Olivia Colman’s face plays 6-7 emotions; from love, worry, fear, pity and dread all at once. It is a very layered performance that hits a lot of different emotions and you won’t understand the subtlety of her performance until the end of the movie.

That’s the thing, Tyrannosaur struck me hard emotionally. So much that it mentally delayed me from acknowledging what was really going on. The film ended and I was left thinking about the characters: connecting their backstories, the events of the film and what would probably happen to them after the story. It was raw and it was real. The two central characters are very engaging and the three leads turn in a very good performances in a well-crafted story. I like to see more films from Paddy Considine in the future.

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

There is something admirable about the PG-13 horror film. It is not allowed to be gory, crass, nasty or graphic, and that forces the filmmaker to use alternative, more subtle methods to induce scares for audiences. Scary thoughts and ideas have to be implied as opposed to physicalized. Often it takes more thought and discipline to achieve this. Joe Dante’s The Hole is one good example. I would even argue the latter Harry Potter films are essentially horror films for children as well.

Anyways, the set-up: Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer, who recently lost his wife from childbirth, travels to a remote village where he discovers the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals.

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success speaks about the 10,000 hour rule, the idea that mastery in any skill must involve practicing it for up till 10,000 hours. From all those years of playing Harry Potter, actor Daniel Radcliffe has proven the 10,000 hour rule with the skill of “acting to nothing.” Much of the film’s scares hang on the reactions off Radcliffe’s face, everything that the film wants the viewer to believe is present is communicated and punctuated through his performance. He has matured and refined his act into a disciplined performer than previously relying on instincts as he did on the Harry Potter films. A popular criticism that’s been circulating around is that Daniel Radcliffe is a bit young to be believable as a solicitor that has recently lost his wife. I did not mind it as it was not a conscious observation to me as I watched the film. He is a very watchable presence and carries the film competently.

Jump scares are something one can grow out of in life. It used to be the part in a horror movie I dreaded the most when I was a child and now as an adult they do not scare me at all. After all, there’s only 2 possible results to a jump scare: either the jump scare was for nothing (in which there was no point to the build-up and it’s just there to scare you to keep you unsettled for the real scares later) or for something (in which the build-up was giving away the surprise of the scare, i.e. in The Descent, there is never any build-up music/sound effects to a scare). Personally there were too many jump scares utlized in the film.  That said however, it is still a legitimate aesthetic choice because it can still prove very effective for a teen audience.

The film gave me 4-5 genuine scares. The Woman in Black‘s scarier moments come from the idea that children are vulnerable to death and danger without proper parental protection. It’s a lingering omnipresent feeling provided by the film’s gloomy gothic atmosphere. The Woman in Black is picking off all these children and the parents cannot do anything to protect them. One noteworthy scene that gave me the creeps was a child victim who dies from drinking lye. The little child helplessly collapses, spits bloods and drops dead. Nobody can do anything but watch her die. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it?

Which reminds me, to all the responsible parents out there: Please respect the film’s rating, do not take your child to see this because Daniel Radcliffe is in it. 13 is the minimum age for this movie.

I really enjoyed the ending. It was poignant and bittersweet. Although I didn’t think the very last shot was necessary (I’m not going to say what it is but people who end up watching the film can reply to me on that).

Overall, it’s a competent horror film with a fine lead performance cast in a role that plays to his strengths. It’s not great, but it is pretty good work. You can easily nitpick it to death, but I am not going to. I look forward to seeing more of Daniel Radcliffe in future films.