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.

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding
Refn

Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get complicated when his mother
compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. Chang, a Thai police lieutenant, is exacting his own brand of vigilante justice and punishing everybody involved.

Only God Forgives is the classic case of a director doing a continuation of his authorial style. An aesthetic that was recognized in a previously successful film is further explored in a more extreme fashion in a follow-up piece. Very often it’s focused on using the established cinematic style to carry the entire movie. Wong Kar Wai made Fallen Angels after the success of Chungking Express. David Lynch made Inland Empire after the success of Muholland Drive. Terrence Malick made To the Wonder after Tree of Life.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic continuation of Drive. What’s stripped away is the frequent plot turns, traditional character development and character likability. These are probably the most quiet cinematic gangsters I’ve ever seen in my life. Characters are posed like empty vessels. They don’t talk much. Sometimes when they do, the director mutes their dialogue. Ryan Gosling plays a still taciturn character in a similar way he did in Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas is an effective threatening presence as Julian’s stern mother Crystal. There’s very little to draw from Gosling’s Julian, but it is there. Even within it’s morally ambiguous world, there is a clear character arc. Julian is an active character trying to find redemption but also wants to please his mother. Which leads to me to the Chang character…

Nicolas Winding Refn has said the Lieutenant Chang character represents the Old Testament God, exacting judgment and punishment on all the sinners in the story. I am not sure how clear that is in the film unless the audience read the press notes beforehand. Does the God theme really matter? In a way, yes. The film is so stoic with its characters posed like figurines, you cannot help but inject symbolism into the film’s empty canvas to derive meaning out of it. Trying to watch this film as a genre crime thriller, which is what it is on the surface, would be relatively more frustrating. Luckily I caught on to it.

The Chang character, in a perpetual black shirt with a white collar, is dressed like a priest. He is a violent enforcer of poetic justice, and all his actions are ritual-like. In a more traditional movie, Chang would have been the protagonist. Here, he’s the antagonist. From the story’s perspective, where all the characters are varyingly degrees of bad, it’s as if Chang is the Grim Reaper coming to collect souls even though he in fact is a force for good. That’s a really interesting left-field story choice and I dug that. Lieutenant Chang is the most fascinating character and a great antagonist.

There is an indulgent aspect to Only God Forgives, any director taking on big questions will naturally come off that way. Refn could have easily written a theology thesis but he’s chosen to express his thoughts with narrative film. I have no problem with that but it automatically sets up qualifiers for audiences to enjoy the film. While it is not necessary, I think having viewed Drive first will help one familiarize with Refn’s film language before seeing this movie. As for the God themes, it can go either which way. Some may find it pretentious, but I found images from the film stuck with me long after and I am still pondering the film’s themes. I found the Julian and Chang characters compelling. So for that, Only God Forgives is neither the masterpiece nor disaster that all the Cannes hype is suggesting, but more of a hyper-stylized personal statement. It will surely divide audiences, and your enjoyment will depend on how you deal with abstractions.

A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel

A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel


A Royal Affair is set in the 18th century, at the court of the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark (played by Mikkel Følsgaard), and focuses on the romance between his wife, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (played by Alicia Vikander), and the royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (played by Mads Mikkelsen).

It’s an exciting story and it’s very well told. At times, I found myself rooting for Caroline and hated King Christian VII. And then when doctor Struensee is introduced, I was rooting for him and Caroline. In the end, all three characters start to develop a triad relationship and King Christian started to become more likable so I rooted for all three of them. It perfectly shifted perspectives at different points of the story and we come to understand the personal meaning behind each character’s actions.

Mads Mikkelsen brings a firm masculine presence to Struensee. He carries a wisdom, which isn’t telegraphed through a typical scene where his character would recite intelligent things in front of the queen as she dilates her pupils impressed. No, it’s acted out in with his body and the way he carries himself. It’s easy to see why the king is charmed by him and why the queen falls in love with him. He is too good of an actor to be wasting his time playing young Hannibal Lecter in an American TV series. Hannibal Lecter is done, that character is just not scary anymore. Please make more movies like this!

Alicia Vikander has very expressive eyes. She communicates the repressed restraint of Queen Caroline Matilda, who is living in her own personal hell where she’s forced to live in constant abuse. She does a good job aging Queen Caroline from an innocent girl to a woman who eventually learns to be a queen. There’s no old age make-up, it’s purely in how she communicates the age from the confidence that one gains from life.

The unsung performance is Mikkel Følsgaard as King Christian VII of Denmark.  I read that King Christian VII has mental illness. They do not really go into that here but he does seem quite insane. On one level it is disturbing to watch because I can see anyone acting as psychotic as he does if one was the king and can do no wrong. But Mikkel Følsgaard communicates that deep down Christian is probably a scared boy that does not know what to do with his power.

If it were up to me, the film deserves Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor for its three leads.

A Royal Affair is well-shot with good production values and beautiful art direction. The film feels very romantic. The dance scene between Caroline and Struensee is sexy. There is a genuine sense of jeopardy because you feel their passion for each other, but like the characters, the audience doesn’t know where their love can ever go. That makes every moment so much more valuable.

One of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Perfect Sense by David Mackenzie

Perfect Sense by David Mackenzie

A chef and an epidemiologist fall in love just as a global epidemic begins to rob the world’s population of their sensory perceptions.

Perfect Sense presents the idea of the apocalypse in a more personal (and lower budget) way. What are the sensations that make up your life? What does each sense mean to you? What triggers a happy memory? A sad memory? As each human sense fades away one by one, human joys and memories fade away, society crumbles, the way we connect goes away and people start to lose touch with humanity. Or do we really lose joy and memories at all? Are we capable of surviving through it?

The disease in the film is quite ridiculous if you think about it. That does not matter. It’s working as a metaphor and we see how the epidemic affects the world. In another movie, they would focus on solving the origin of the epidemic and save mankind before all our senses go away (like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion). Perfect Sense focuses on the apocalypse through the relationship between its two protagonists Michael and Susan (played by Ewan McGregor and Eva Green) and how they’re reacting to the situation. Their professions allow us to peek at what’s going on in the outside world. Michael’s job as a cook deals in giving people sensation but restaurants have become obsolete after people lose their sense of taste. We see how his restaurant deals with it. Susan’s job shows the science side of the investigative process of the epidemic. However, the melancholic  gloom in the film gives you the feeling that they’ll never really know.

The romance between Michael and Susan is not random. It’s more than he is handsome and she is gorgeous. What makes it romantic is that Susan’s scent was the last thing he smelled on the night they both completely lost their sense of smell. The movie doesn’t over-punctuate that to make it cute. No, what I appreciated about this stroke was that the collapse of the world pushes them together into a genuine connection. Michael and Susan both fight against the loss of their senses together, trying to enjoy what they can out of life.

Ewan McGregor gives a very natural performance as Michael who starts off as a disconnected person and later comes to appreciate life.I always thought there was something naturally dark about Eva Green. There’s something brooding beneath her cold stare (even when she was Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale) and I’m glad director David Mackenzie utilized that to tell this story. I’m about to review Womb next and I’ll probably have the chance to elaborate more on Eva Green later. I liked this romance and how it developed in the context of the story. There’s a scene where the couple reveals their deep dark secrets to each other that was rather noteworthy.

You can practically watch this back-to-back with Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. (I’m saying this for comparison’s sake, I would not suggest this as a double feature. Unless you like your gloom, then carry on.) Perfect Sense accomplishes what good science fiction does – it made me think about the human condition. I thought about the limits of man, what we are capable of, how we wake up to appreciate the little things after they have been taken away from us and how the human spirit strives to survive even in the worst hopeless moments.

And yeah, I really do not want to lose my eyesight, hearing, sense of taste, smell or touch. Not even if Eva Green was my lover. Well…

Melancholia by Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier loves watching a woman fall apart, even in the face of Armageddon.

Why does he love watching a woman in a hysterical frantic state? I don’t know. Does Lars von Trier have issues with women? It’s very suspect. Is it ultimately interesting onscreen? Yes.

If there is such a thing as beauty in destruction, as beauty in the total surrender of hope, Lars von Trier has somehow captured it and crafted an unique tale about surrender. The first 40 minutes of the film were bewildering and it slowly creeps up on you as you understand the film’s syntax and what it’s trying to achieve. There’s no point writing movie mistakes about the scientific errors of planetary collision for this movie. Von Trier’s scientific set up is obviously metaphorical. What he is really after is human emotions going haywire in the midst of destruction.

Speaking of emotions, this is Kirsten Dunst’s role and the film solely hangs on her performance. It’s a performance that draws all colours of human emotion. She plays Justine’s inner conflict as someone who is trying to care about the people around her against the growing part of herself that has ceased to care about anything at all. Most of her actions don’t appear to make much sense to the other people around her and it’s fascinating to watch because the audience can make sense out of it.

There is a very dark strain of humor running underneath this film. Dunst’s character Justine, in a deep state of depression, is taking the end of the world better than her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, acting as her straight man). There is a noteworthy scene where Claire pleads to Justine asking them to have a nice meal together over presumably the last night of their lives. Justine scoffs at the stupidity of the suggestion, as if trying to put a positive spin at the end of of the world is taking 5 steps back away from the depression that she has already achieved. It’s emotionally complicated, heavily morose and yet hilarious underneath. To find humor in the face of Armageddon is an achievement within itself.

Seriously, what else can you expect when Udo Kier is the wedding planner?

You laugh, don’t you?