The Act of Killing (2012)

The act of Killing

Movie Review

The Act of Killing is a documentary type of film that depicts former Indonesian death squad members reenacting their real life mass killings from the 1960’s. These older gangsters were encouraged to choose their own film genre in which to reenact these murders. The film was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous.  I found it very interesting that much of the rest of the crew was listed as Anonymous. The executive producers of the film were Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

Act of Killing Fish

The resulting effect of the multiple genres chosen by the older gangsters was quite surreal and jarring. These gang members were common thugs who were influenced by American movies like Scarface and The Godfather. They imitated their movie heroes such as Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. The word “gangster” was said to be the Indonesian word for “free man.”

Act of kilking tiger

Many of the gangsters admitted the killings were wrong and some suffered from gruesome nightmares from the past killings. But some did not think what they did was wrong since they were never held accountable and were even praised for what they did and still receive praise to this day. They killed with impunity Chinese, communists, and whoever opposed the authoritarian regime of General Suharto. In one particularly chilling scene, a gang member describes destroying a village and raping its inhabitants, saying 14 year old girls were the best.

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A riveting and telling documentary some are calling a masterpiece is a must see film about events most people have either forgotten or have never heard about: the genocide of upwards of 1,000,000 people in Indonesia on the 1960’s.  This film is a grim reminder of the evil that lurks in men’s hearts and of the banality of evil that allows such horrific events to occur.

 

 

The Battle of Algiers

Movie Review

Battle of Algiers

 

The Battle of Algiers is an Italian film directed by Gillo Pontecorvco, which was produced in 1966. It depicts true events which occurred during the Algerian war of independence from France, which was fought from 1955 – 1962. The events depicted in the movie occurred during the Battle of Algiers which took place from 1954-1957.

This film has been ranked in the top 100 films ever made. It was banned in France for five years where it was finally released in 1974. The Battle of Algiers is an important commentary on guerrilla warfare.  Revolutionary guerrilla fighters holed up and grouped together in cells in the Casbah section of Algiers. French paratroopers attempted to wipe them out. The movie is about this struggle and the methods used by both sides.

The tactics of the National Liberation Front (FLN) guerrilla insurgency and the French counter-insurgency are shown in the film. The French colonial power committed atrocities against the civilian population of their Algerian colony and the colonized insurgents committed atrocities against the civilian population of their oppressors in a spiraling escalation of violence. The FLN engaged in acts of terrorism by placing bombs in public places such as restaurants, nightclubs, and airports, indiscriminately killing civilians in the European Quarter.  The French paratroopers tortured, intimidated, and murdered members of the FLN. The use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique is depicted.  Algeria eventually won its independence in 1962.

Some of the scenes that really struck me were the incidents of waterboarding by the French Paratroopers, the men of the FLN covering themselves in burqas like women to disguise themselves and escape detection,  FLN women dressing like European women and carrying bombs in baskets, and in the end the women ululating in victory when Algeria won its independence.

The Battle Algiers is as relevant today as it was in 1965.The film was screened by the Pentagon in August 2003 as a field guide to fighting terrorism. Former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brezezinski, said: “If you want to understand what is happening right now in Iraq, I recommend The Battle of Algiers.” This film was also used by the Black Panthers as a training film. I am sure there are other terrorists groups that have been influenced by the film as well. The Boson Bombing suspects come immediately to mind.

The film, shot in black and white, is a triumph of realistic production values and heavily influence by Italian Neorealism of the 1950’s. It was filmed on location in Algiers using the real locations in the European quarters and the Casbah. It was so realistic that Pontecorvo had to issue a disclaimer that not one foot of documentary or newsreel footage was used in his two hours of film. Everything was shot live.

The film was nominated  for Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, Best Screen Play, and Best Director. It was the winner of the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antony and Cleopatra

A Review

Cleopatra

Sophie Okonedo as Cleopara

If you ever get a chance to see a production of National Theatre Live you should. The next best thing to live theatre is live telecast theatre. The play Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare is my fourth foray into this domain and it didn’t disappoint. Watching fine British actors like Ralph Fiennes who plays Mark Antony, and Sophie Okonedo  who plays Cleopatra, is a delightful pleasure like none other.

Harold Bloom, writing in his masterful work, Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human, says, “Of Shakespeare’s representation of women, Cleopatra is the most subtle and formidable.” And I would say Sophie Okenedo’s portrayal of her is by far the most superb interpretation of this magnificent creature. She is by turns moody, funny, bitchy, sexy, powerful, and above all regal. Ralph Fiennes holds his own with her as the Roman General who is in decline. Antony, like empires, is a study in decline and fall. The very hairs on his head rebel against the aging warrior. “My very hairs do mutiny; for the white reprove the brown for rashness, and they them for fear and doting.” You will see in him, one of the triple pillars of the world, transformed into a strumpet’s fool.

Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes as Mark Antony

In an interview Ralph Fiennes says of the pair, “He’s not an idealized warrior and she’s not an idealized princess. They’re full of temperament and tantrums and mood swings, and I think that combination is very moving to people.” Are Antony and Cleopatra in love? Well they certainly appeared to me to be in love. They certainly were not bored with each other.

Director Simon Godwin kept the action moving in this modern dress rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Costume designer Evie Gurney created designs for Cleopatra that were not just costumes but high fashion. They had to communicate not only her physicality but project power as well. The dyes used in the fabrics were made with Sophie’s skin tone in mind so that she would exhibit a golden glow. The Saffron dress was inspired by Beyoncé’s Lemonade album. So, it is not too great a stretch to say a costume fit for Queen Bey was also fit for Queen Cleopatra.

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Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo

The set design by Hildegard Bechtler was imaginative and ingenious. It was fluent and moving as the scenes changed in a smooth fluid manner. The center stage revolved from one scene to another, actors walked off into darkness others appeared in light. It was a miracle of rare device, changing swiftly from Egypt to Rome and back again. And at one point a submarine conning tower miraculously arose from the stage floor. And in Egypt a turquoise tiled pool. This magnificent play plays superbly well when properly directed and acted. It is too large for just any stage, but London’s Olivier is just the ticket!

In the climactic scene Cleopatra asks, “Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there, that kills and pains not?”

The worm of Nilus in this production looked more like a giant coral snake, with vibrant colors of red, yellow and black, but I am sure it made more of a dramatic stage presentation than its colorless cousin the asp.

“Will it eat me?” She childishly asks.

“I wish you all joy of the worm,” is the answer.

When she is discovered by Octavius after the fatal bite, he says, “Cleopatra shall be buried by her Antony: No grave upon earth holds in it a pair so famous.”

This play is about war writ large, East vs West, and two flawed individuals passionately in love with each other and at times at war with each other too.

 

 

Suspiria (2018) Movie Review

Suspiria 2

Not really a horror fan but every once in a while one will catch my fancy. Suspiria (2018) is just such a film. It is, I would say, a notch above the rest. Maybe two notches. It has everything going for it. Great writing, directing, acting, music, dance, costuming, art direction, and social consciousness. It has been described as an extraordinary work of art, grotesque, and savagely beautiful. Others have called it pretentious drivel. But, hey, it’s horror film. What do you want? At least it’s very artsy drivel!

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, it is a reimagined version of the original Suspiria (1977), a horror film cult classic, directed by Dario Argentento, which I must say I haven’t as yet seen, but I plan too as soon as possible. This version, at 152 minutes, is 54 minutes longer than the original. So, it is not only reimagined it is also greatly expanded as well. Coming in at just under three hours is pretty long for a movie, but I must confess, I didn’t notice it at all, as I was totally engrossed for the entire time.

Suspiria

The setting of the film is in divided Berlin in 1977, when the Baader-Meinhof Group was perpetrating terrorist acts all over the city. Rain drenched Berlin and the memory of the Third Reich hang over the Markos Dance Academy which is ruled by artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and the grand dame Helena Markos. Patricia, a young student at the academy is convinced that the place is being run by a coven of witches. She tries to convince her psychoanalyst, Dr. Klemperer, who thinks she is delusional and so writes in his notebook. She disappears. Another dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives on the scene fresh off a farm in Ohio. She auditions for a place in the Academy and greatly impresses Madame Blanc who immediately slates her as lead performer in her masterwork, “Volk.” During her audition, another dancer (Olga) who stormed out over a disagreement is trapped on a floor below in a mirrored rehearsal hall and is banged around and contorted with each dance move Susie makes until she is a pile of broken bones and a puddle of urine and saliva. One of the more horrible set pieces.

Dakota

This film is a feminist manifesto after a fashion about the empowerment of women. Other than the two cops who are sent to investigate the disappearance of Patricia, there are no other male actors in the movie, Lutz Ebersdorf not withstanding. If you are not in on the joke, I won’t spoil it for you here. The women cast a spell on the detectives and humiliate them unsparingly while at the Academy, then wipe their memories once they return to the station.

Thom Yorke from Radiohead provides a hauntingly throbbing soundtrack to the horror which accompanies the dance routines. The film incorporates stylized dance sequences choreographed by Damien Jalet. Volk is a dance created at the Academy that featured Blanc in the original role of the protagonist, the part Susie was auditioning for when she turned Olga into a human pretzel earlier in the film. And it’s actually based on a performance Jalet choreographed in 2013, called Les Meduses, that was staged at the Louvre.

The title of the film Suspiria, means sigh, as in the sighing of pain, or suffering.

Tilda Swinton alone is cause enough to want to see this remarkable film. She plays three characters each of which represents an aspect of the human psyche – the id, the ego, and the superego.

Tilda

This movie is not for everyone. Not for the squeamish nor the faint of heart. But if you like a good horror show, one that makes you think, and is well crafted, and beautiful to look at and listen to, then I recommend Suspiria.

A STAR IS BORN

A Stra is Born

Who needs another remake? It turns out we do. As a rule, I generally eschew remakes. In this case I made an exception. The trailer looked good so I gave it a chance. And friends, I am glad I did. This film is fresh and original in its interpretation. Bradley Cooper proves himself an adept director and makes a lot of smart choices in the presentation of this material. Lady Gaga is a wonder. The thing about Gaga for me has been she always wears a mask and we never get to see the real person behind the persona. Here we do. A very satisfying portrayal of an insecure character with a lot of personality and a load of talent.

Bradley Cooper is very good as the alcoholic country rock star who is in decline and fighting his own demons. The chemistry between the stars is palpable and their love story believable.

I liked the camera work and the production values are superb. It’s not an unqualified success, but Bradley Cooper hits this one out of the ball park. Two thumbs way up!

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Movie Review

Joan of Arc poster

La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (original title) is a silent film that was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I was motivated to watch this film as it was referenced by Paul Schrader as an example of transcendental film style in his book, Transcendental Style in Film:  Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and in recent interviews he has given about his latest film, First Reformed (2017). I wanted to see first-hand what this style of film looked like.

Joan of arc 4

In 1431, Jeanne d’Arc was placed on trial on charges of heresy. The church attempted to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions. They tried various forms of coercion and threatened her with torture. Finally, in a moment of weakness, she confesses, but later in her jail cell she recants her confession and is then burned at the stake as a witch.

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There is transcendence here as Jeanne is in touch with God or rather He her. She has been sent on a mission by God to run the British out of France. Jeanne hears the voice of God talking to her but this not believed by the clergy who accuse her heresy.

Joan of arc 1

Jeanne d’Arc was a peasant girl living in medieval France who believed that God had chosen her to lead France to a victory in its long running (100 years) war with England. She convinced Prince Charles, who was later to be crowned King Charles of France, to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orleans where she won a decisive victory over the British. She was later captured by British forces and tried for witchcraft and heresy and subsequently sentenced to be burned at the stake. She was 19. From that moment on she was known as the Maid of Orleans. Jeanne d’Arc was canonized as a saint in 1920. In all there were 70 charges lodged against Jeanne for witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was burned for dressing like a man, the most unpardonable sin of all, which according to the Bible was an abomination to the Lord.

Joan of arc 3

The film is considered to be a masterpiece of the cinema and I readily agree. It is shot largely in close-ups in crisp black and white against stark gray background. It is silent but the version I saw was accompanied by a musical score that was created for the movie in 1994 called Voices of Light composed by Richard Einhorn. It is an astonishing piece of work and is very effective in driving the action and setting the mood. I would, however, like to watch the movie sometime in silence as that is the way Dreyer intended it to be seen.

Joan of arc 5

The story is mainly told through the range of expressions on the faces of the characters as Jeanne suffers the agony of the trial. The camera work consists of low angle shots and high contrast lighting which made the faces priests and other interrogators look all the more grotesque. Jeanne, in contrast, was shot in soft even lighting. The character of Jeanne was played by Renee Jeanne Falconetti. Roger Ebert said in his review, “You cannot know the history of silent films unless you know the face of Renee Jeanne Falconetti.”

Joan 6

Based on the actual record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc the entire film was shot in continuity. It depicts the suffering of Jeanne as she is tormented, humiliated and finally burned alive at the stake. This is the Passion of Jeanne which mirrors the passion of the Christ. Jeanne screams out in agony at the end of the film, “Jesus!”

Dryer presents this film as the triumph of the human spirit over the trials and tribulations of life experience.  He strives for new forms of expressionism as he focuses on the visual expressions of the human face.

My original motivation, as I stated earlier, was to view this film from an academic point of view in order to learn more about transcendental style, but I came away more enriched for having had the experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Reformed (2017)

Movie Review

First Reformed poster

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds you of why you love movies so much. Sometimes you forget because there is so much crap out there in commercial fare. First Reformed is just such a movie. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it is a movie not to be missed.

First a little about Paul Schrader. He is now 71. When he was 24 and a film student he wrote a book, which proved to be very influential in the coming years, entitled, Transcendental Style in Film. He fell under the sway of esteemed film critic Pauline Kael and became a film critic himself. Two years later he was writing and directing films. He is best known for Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). He has 24 screen writing credits and 23 director credits. Even though he is known for a particular style he has never employed the transcendental style in any of his movies. Until now.

First Reformed is shot in transcendental style which Schrader first defined as a 24-year-old film student. What is transcendental style anyway? A style of filmmaking employed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Yasujiro Ozu. Transcendental style is an attempt to withhold certain cinematic elements the viewer might expect to see. Sometimes a static camera is employed, sometimes a kinetic camera. Slower cuts and fewer cuts. The camera might linger on a doorway a little while longer after a character leaves a scene, A static camera lingers on an empty room as characters enter then exit. The camera holds a little longer than expected. These devices are intended to make the viewer “lean’ in to the movie and to engage the viewer. It is a style that is intended to bring the viewer closer to the “other”, to the mystery.

It is called transcendental because there is a spiritual dimension that is sought after. This is achieved through style not content. Schrader later revealed in interviews that he realized what he was witnessing in some of the films he studied was an outgrowth of post WWII neorealism.

Schrader breaks from that style twice in First Reformed. The first time is a tender scene in which Toller and Mary lie on top of each other while they try to match their breathing patterns. Schrader asks himself, what would Tarkovsky do? Levitate! So, he has the couple mysteriously begin to levitate. The other time is the film’s final scene, which is I won’t describe here.

Schrader freely admits who his influencers were: “There is a little Tarkovsky in there. The credits are from Rossellini. The barbed wire is from Flannery O’Connor (I knew it!). That’s the secret of creativity. You have to steal around.” Also, it is pretty evident that Winter Light (1963), directed by Ingmar Bergman, was the blueprint for this film.

Ethan Hawke, in probably the best performance of his career, plays Reverend Ernest Toller, a character in spiritual crisis. He is pastor at the First Reformed Church which is a spin off of a mega-church called Abundant Life Ministries run by Reverend Joel Jeffers, played very effectively by Cedrick the Entertainer (Cedric Kyles) in an unusual casting choice.

Toller’s church is small and has few parishioners. The source of his pain is that as a military chaplain he encouraged his son to enlist in the army who was later killed in action in Iraq. His marriage did not survive his son’s death. His ministry at First Reformed is sort of a penance.

One morning after service a young woman approaches Toller and asks him to counsel her husband. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is with child. Her husband Michael is going through a spiritual crisis of his own. He is an environmental activist and is very depressed at the thought of bringing a child into the world that is undergoing the throes of devestating climate change. He wants Mary to have an abortion. During their counseling session Michael asks the question, “Will God Forgive us for destroying his creation?”

Toller is a drinking man and keeps a journal in his spare study. He continues to drink and slips further into despair. After his dealings with Michael he slowly starts to become radicalized. He moves closer to Mary but cannot overcome his despair. The movie progresses to a startling conclusion which leaves the viewer a little bit perplexed. It is an ambiguous ending and we don’t know for sure if what we are witnessing is reality. In any case this is a powerful film that one is not likely soon to forget.

 

 

 

Wonder Wheel (2017)

Movie Review

Wonderwheel 2

 

One of my many guilty pleasures as a film buff is watching the films of Woody Allen. I know he is a controversial artist but I love his films anyway. Thus, the source of my guilt. Can we separate the art from the artist? I don’t know. But I do love his films.

His latest foray into the cinematic realm is the nostalgia laden Wonder Wheel, which takes place at Coney Island in the 1950’s.

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Kate Winslet as Ginny

The critics have been harsh on this film but unjustly so in my opinion. They have slammed the writing concluding there was not much point to the film. Au Contraire. This is a wonderful piece of entertainment, if a bit melodramatic, but melodrama was indeed the point.

Juno

Juno Temple as Carolina

I think the critics just don’t like Woody Allen, for obvious reasons, and continually judge him by his best work of the past. In Hollywood you are only as good as your last time at bat.

Now here’s the bad part. Sometimes Kate Winslet’s character seems to be channeling Blanche du Bois and sometimes she seems to be channeling Mia Farrow. Definitely heard some Woody Allen coming from Mickey the Lifeguard and what about that red headed step child who was a pyromaniac? Could that be Ronan Farrow burning down the house? And let us not forget the plot twist of Mickey overthrowing the older Ginny for her stepdaughter Carolina. And you thought your had drama in your life.

There is dark humor in this film as well a pathos. Kate Winslet is a wonder in Wonder Wheel giving one of her most emotionally resonant performance in years as an aging would be actress (I coulda been a contenda) stuck in a dead end life as a waitress in a clam house on the boardwalk at Coney Island and living in an apartment in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. Jim Belucshi is Stanley Kowalski to her Blanche. Yes, I see echoes of Tennessee Williams here.

The real star of the show is Coney Island as depicted by the wonderful cinematography of famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The the amazing color in Wonder Wheel perfectly captures the time of the period and is achingly beautiful.

Two thumbs way up for this Woody Allen cinematic classic.

Red Desert (1964)

Movie Blurb

Red Desert

Il Deserto Rosso was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first foray into color and a painterly palette did he choose. He explores the themes of alienation in the modern world and the divorce between reality and spirituality. His scenes of industrialized post war Italy are both beautiful and frightening. Progress comes with a cost. Monica Vitti is extraordinary as the wife of the plant manager who suffers a mental breakdown in the face of modernity.

I rate this movie 8/10.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Movie Review

Killing Deer 1

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is the brilliant evocation of an American horror story. It was definitely the most disturbing film that I saw in 2017 and yet it made my Top 10 List.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started watching this film and I was slowly drawn into the seeming banality of the of the characters. The movie opens with a scene of open heart surgery performed by Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) which is nothing less than spectacular. This was a real surgery. It was filmed during an operation on a real patient who was undergoing quadruple bypass surgery.

heart

In a subsequent scene early on in the film we see the famed heart surgeon making friends with a young man. We don’t know exactly why or who this young man is. Is he a family member? A friend? A neighbor? A little at a time the story unfolds and we learn that the boy’s father was a patient of the heart surgeon and that the father died on the operating table. We surmise that the doctor feels badly about the boy losing his father and he is making friends with him in some sort of an attempt to appease the boy and possibly mollify his own feelings of guilt.

Sacred deer

Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan

Slowly they form an emotional bond and the doctor invites the boy over to meet his family. Everything seems to be normal at first but there is a creepy feeling that something just below the surface is not right.

Spoilers ahead

Martin befriends the children and forms an emotional attachment to Kim, the daughter.  Before long a mysterious illness befalls both children and they lose the use of their legs. We learn later that somehow Martin has caused this illness to occur. He then makes a crucial demand upon Stephen in order to save their lives. It seems Martin blames the death of his father on Stephen. Martin demands that a sacrifice must be made in order to set things right. Stephen must make a horrible choice as to who in the family to sacrifice.

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Nicole Kidman with the two children played by Sonny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy

This is where the killing of  deer comes into play. The movie is loosely based on the myth of Iphigenia. In Greek mythology Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, was to be sacrificed for the sins of her father. He had killed a sacred deer belonging to Artemis. The goddess demanded in retribution that Agamemnon kill his daughter Iphigenia.

There are other disturbing aspects to this film There is a strange sexuality that exists between the doctor and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). Also, Anna has a sexual interlude with the anesthesiologist who was on duty on the day that Martin’s father died. This she did in order to get information from him about her husband’s condition on the day of  the fateful surgery.

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The scenes in film were  shot in a manner to put one in mind of a series of Edward Hopper paintings. Which is to say they carried with them an emotional weight and a strange beauty.

Nicole Kidman was in fine form here as Anna, the doctor’s wife. Is there anything she can’t do? Colin Farrell was very good as Stephen Murphy, the surgeon and Barry Keoghan was sufficiently strange and creepy as Martin.

I liked this film but it is not for everyone. It was extremely disturbing and strangely cathartic.