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.

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The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinski

The Lone Ranger by Gore Verbinksi

Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

What really interested me in seeing The Lone Ranger was reading the Native Appropriations blog, which has been very vocal about the film’s cinematic misrepresentation of Native Americans. I have felt similar dissatisfaction with Chinese misrepresentation in Hollywood films in the past. This is not my fight, and my opinion probably wouldn’t matter much in this regard because I am not Native American. This is not something for me to be offended by or to tell other people that they should be offended by it or not. I do, however, believe that misrepresenting somebody’s culture in a medium as wide-spreading as film can be damaging by building a false misleading impression. So I wanted to be a witness while this discussion was ongoing.  So here goes…

The film is way too long. Mostly because of the Lone Ranger character is set up antithetically to what the audience wants to see – a triumphant hero. Armie Hammer, as proven in other films, is a capable actor. But this clumsy, nerdy, somewhat unlikable version of John Reid just doesn’t justify the running time. The intended arc for John Reid was that he starts off believing wholeheartedly in the law, the belief is then shattered and then he learns that to give justice, he must provide the justice himself. Verbinski spends way too long at phase one and it takes two hours before we arrive to phase two. In between that time the audience is just waiting for John Reid, a very inactive character, to change.

Johnny Depp has said that in playing Tonto, he hopes to change the past cultural misrepresentations of Native Americans on film. This hasn’t been brought up, but Johnny Depp previously played a Native American in a film he directed called The Brave ( I wonder what Native Americans thought of that film). The Brave actually was closer to accomplishing this very goal by presenting present-day Native Americans that were living in harsh conditions and it told a story about a father trying to help his family to escape said conditions. Marlon Brando, who has also been trying to make a film about the Native American condition for years, makes a cameo in it. So how can Depp, who previously made a film that was considerate to the Native American condition make an aesthetic choice that would further mystify and misrepresent their image? It’s inconsistent with his intended goal.

Depp’s Tonto performance, however, is fun to watch and drives the whole movie. Depp brings his usual tricks to comedy, namely a lot of mugging and facial reactions. This is why I think people are saying he’s doing Captain Jack Sparrow again. Comparatively, Tonto is a darker, more introverted character and more prone to solving his problems with violence than deception.

The Tonto costume looks cool but I am of two minds about it. On one hand, I wish this costume was really authentically Native American so there’s no political problem. But on the other hand, it is not difficult to design a cool looking costume with actual Native American attire. The filmmakers probably should have done the latter and dodged a bullet. The concept comes from a painting that was drawn by a Caucasian artist that wasn’t referring to anything authentically Native American. In the painting, a crow soars over the Native American warrior’s head, which Depp has taken literally, making the crow a headdress for Tonto. The film justifies this by establishing that Tonto is an outcast, and therefore is able to make up his own set of beliefs with the white face paint and crow headdress. I honestly do not know how to feel about that but Johnny Depp’s Tonto is the most entertaining part of The Lone Ranger. I enjoyed it, but it feels like I shouldn’t be enjoying it.

The production design is impressive; you can see literally where the budget went. The choice to shoot anamorphic was a great one; it transports the audience into the beautiful landscapes of the Old West. I read an article that argued how Westerns always underperform in the American box office, I don’t know why that’s the case. After all, Westerns are distinctly an American film genre.

The two major action set pieces, one in the opening and one at the film’s climax, is where Gore Verbinski fares best. The William Tell Overture kicks in and completely energizes these action scenes. I completely dropped thinking about misrepresentation, and just went along with it. They are heavily designed in a way that evokes Verbinski’s previous film MousetrapThe set pieces are an exhilarating thrill ride, and I wish the film would have just focused on delivering the fun.

For every goal The Lone Ranger tries to achieve with the material, the filmmakers have set up something antithetical going against it. The idea of making a commercial summer blockbuster movie out of an ugly part of American history is a noble one and I applaud it. There are scenes that show what has happened to the Natives that was genuinely tragic. The final result does fall short from balancing such a heavy subject with its fun factor. Verbinski shouldn’t be blamed completely as it looks like the studio’s marketing team checking boxes as well. It doesn’t accomplish the goal of changing how Native Americans are perceived in the media, perhaps the best thing is it’s gotten people talking about the subject.

In the end, the beginning and the end of The Lone Ranger is a lot of fun, but a lot of fat could have been trimmed from the middle. Even the bookending device with an aged Tonto telling the story to a boy is extraneous and adds a post-modern layer onto the film that continually takes you out of the story. I have no problem with downplaying the Lone Ranger to make Tonto a more central character, but it’s overdone. The Lone Ranger is just not an interesting protagonist, and the central story is about John Reid. It’s like the filmmakers got confused with that and couldn’t handle the material with discipline. I imagine if I saw it as a child, I’d just fast-forward through the fun parts.

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), a young gay man raised in foster homes, is introduced to flamboyant entertainment giant Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) and quickly finds himself in a romantic relationship with the legendary pianist.

Michael Douglas is well-known for playing two types of roles: the victimized man in peril or the man of immense power. Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace embodies both these aspects. He is a powerful man in love with another man but ultimately a victim to his own public image. One can argue the story is about a love triangle between the real Liberace, Scott Thorson and the public Liberace. The segment where Liberace and Scott visit a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe was genuinely creepy.  Douglas disappears into the role, showing the inner, outer, darker and lighter sides of Liberace. Liberace can be added along with his long list of great roles; this is Oscar worthy.

As the audience avatar, Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson guides how the audience feels about Liberace. Matt Damon is a good straight man to Douglas, his performance is overshadowed but that seems to be part of the plan. It’s fun to watch them bickering and arguing like a married couple multiple times in a hot tub.

I can see how Behind the Candelabra was considered ‘too gay’ to be a studio feature.The film actually does not have a gay agenda on it’s hands. The kissing or sex scenes were not handled in a vengeful gay protest film type fashion. No, Steven Soderbergh rises above that by  concentrating on the central love story between Scott and Liberace and finds the most interesting drama therein. We are shown the reasons why they’re in love with each other and those human reasons are relatable, gay or not. I rooted for their relationship.

This is the way to do a biopic. Often biopics are uninteresting because they can’t focus onto a theme or settle on a fixed view of its subject to create a message. Not everybody’s life story is fit to be made into a film. This particular segment of Liberace’s life was more friendly to film adaptation because it was so inherently dramatic. Credit must also be given to the writers and Steven Soderbergh, who manage to suss out the drama out of the real life facts, find a firm view that sums up Liberace as a person and extrapolates a thematic message about love. The tone is well balanced; it has both serious and funny moments but it never takes itself too seriously.

As said before in my Side Effects review, I sincerely hope Steven Soderbergh doesn’t stop making movies. This is  my favorite of his films. He’s onto something.

Related Reviews
Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

Related Reviews
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate by Tsui Hark

Red State by Kevin Smith

Red State by Kevin Smith

A group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

I used to be a Kevin Smith fan. I liked all his work up till Clerks 2. I would look up funny clips of his speeches and occasionally read his blog. Zack and Miri Make A Porno made me laugh but it was not something I could recommend to somebody else. I thought Cop Out was one big juicy raspberry but it was not the reason why I do not care for his work anymore. The real reason is because he’s gotten so whiny these couple of years it’s just a turn-off listening to him talk about anything these days. As someone who wants to work in the film in industry, I could not empathize with his view of film critics and/or Hollywood politics. I purely see those as good problems to have at this point. I totally understand and respect that he is probably in a different stage in life than me but I just cannot help it. Sorry.  On with the review…

Michael Parks is really good and brings a muted creepiness as Reverend Abin Cooper, but he needs subtitles. I understood Jeff Bridges in True Grit word for word and still found Parks’ drawl scratchy delivery difficult at times. Melissa Leo goes over-the-top. That’s all I have to say about the acting.

Red State titters between being a satire, a horror film and a late night B action movie. All three genres end up competing against each other. The horror was not horrific enough; it’s watered down once the action kicks in. That’s a problem because it’s satiric metaphors are never fully physicalized and they end up being stated through dialogue. The violence is meant to be taken seriously but there’s a scene involving a cop receiving a head shot outside Abin Cooper’s house that looked  too funny to be shocking. At the final dialogue set piece with Agent Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), it seems like the film is giving you permission to laugh at what’s going on, but I was not sure if I was supposed to. What floats to the surface after all this genre clashing is the message of the film, which seems too on-the-nose. After watching Red State, I could not recall a specific scene or any characters (besides Michael Parks) that were memorable. What I can tell you is what Smith thinks is wrong with America.

It’s nice to see Kevin Smith write in a different voice and it’s too bad he claims to have only one more movie in him before quitting as a filmmaker (I do not believe this at all). I assume his cinematographer Dave Klein must be thrilled to finally be able to pan the camera, do handheld and use a crane shot. As he admits, he’s not the strongest director in the world. Horror is a visual medium and he would probably benefit in a genre that is more based on writing. But you know what? It’s a new direction! It’s something new from him. So again, I must go back to … I don’t know what the hell he is being so whiny about!