Saturday, April 30, 2011

Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010)

A mother's love in Animal Kingdom

Bless the beasts and the children

David Michod's Animal Kingdom (2010) is, to put it simply, a family crime drama set in Melbourne.

There's no sweep here, no operatic grandeur or long-rooted history, no sense of an era passing or an age dawning. Instead Michod gives us suburbs filled with tract homes, backyards defined by either chicken wire or rickety fencing, the odd farmhouse at the edge of a vast dry grassland.

It has a stunning opening: a young man sitting on a couch with his mother, watching TV. TV, mother, son, couch: totally innocuous until the paramedics arrive and--still within the same shot and all at once--we learn a story of abuse, neglect, traumatic loss, and monstrous lack of affect.

The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to that opening, but does show us with equally little fuss a family on the verge of imploding. Joshua "J" Cody, the young man (James Frenchville), is adopted by his estranged grandmother Janine "Smurf" Cody (Jacki Weaver); he's our means of introduction into the world of the Codys, a notorious Melbourne crime family that specializes in armed robbery (though certain members are not above maintaining a sideline in drugs now and then). 

Josh meets Uncle Baz (Joel Edgerton), who passes for the Voice of Reason in this family (Baz wants to quit the business and go into stock-brokering); he meets Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) who, at the other extreme, is the object of a manhunt by renegade cops. When the cops kill Baz (incidental or intentional we aren't sure), the death unleashes Pope to wreak bloody vengeance, with grave consequences.

It's not an all-out war, not even a small one; there is violence, but not baroque, or excessively glamorous (oftentimes the killings are suggested off-camera, through sound). If there's anything at all large-scale in any of this, it's the all-pervading sense of foreboding that hangs over the town (it's hard to call it a city--like Los Angeles, there's too much land in Melbourne stretching out in all directions, a sprawling suburb in search of a city). Like Los Angeles, Melbourne seems supremely qualified to call itself a prime location for sunshine noir--that subset of crime noir set in an arid landscape of desert brush and sand, often in brilliant daylight. But not a cheerful daylight; instead it's relentless, implacable, unforgiving, like God's judgment beating down on us, refusing to turn His glare away.

Pope is a frightening presence. When he first shows himself it's at night, to avoid the officers; later he feels safe enough to go out with Baz and narrowly escapes being offed himself. J watches silently as Pope plans a retaliation killing in response to Baz's death; he watches silently as Pope threatens him (Pope is afraid J might betray them to the cops). With Baz gone, Pope has without a word assumed the patriarch role, or rather a parody of one, as cruel disciplinarian and child-consuming monster.

Yet for all that, Pope isn't the dark heart of the film, it's Janine. Motherly yet sensuous, affectionate yet ruthless, she's the enabler and supporter who makes the Cody family's criminal activities possible. It's as if she were two people--the first able to warmly welcome J into her home, the second able to threaten lawyers and police officers into giving her what she wants. She's actually creepier when she's being loving--you wonder if she's at all sincere, same time you wonder if she's the one who ordered you killed.

Michod's film brings to mind Ben Affleck's The Town--both are family crime dramas, both have a strong sense of place (one set in Boston, the other Melbourne). Michod's is perhaps grimmer and more unrelenting, more perversely elliptical (it keeps its camera gazing long after one expects it to turn away, keeps the camera at arm's length when one expects a closer look). Can the picture bear comparison with some classic titles--The Godfather films, for one? Yes, and to its credit, it doesn't even flinch.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)

(With news of Hetherington's sudden death, thought I'd post this old article on the one documentary feature he directed...)

Top of the world, ma

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo (2010) focuses on the life of a platoon, stationed in what at one point is described as "the deadliest valley in Afghanistan." This is the Korangal Valley, in Kunar Province, the northeastern region of the country, and the men stay from May 2007 to July 2008, around fifteen months.

Hetherington (a veteran photojournalist), and Junger (author of A Perfect Storm) eschew any commentary or (for the most part) background music. There is little to no emotional manipulation in the raw footage, here; the filmmakers know their material is powerful enough without artificial enhancement. We see the soldiers a week before they mobilize, and in this early sequence we are given our brief glimpse of PFC Juan Restrepo, the army medic who is killed early in the campaign--he is larger than life here, all smiles and horseplay. His death is mentioned in passing by the soldiers, discussed more thoroughly by the same soldiers some months later, when the filmmakers interview them in Italy, fresh out of their military tour.

The film meanders as it introduces the men and their situation; perhaps the most vivid of these early moments comes when the men describe their location upon arrival a "shithole"--this while the handheld camera reveals a verdant valley full of giant cedar trees (one can imagine the fragrant cedar filling one's nose when wind sways the branches). The film comes into sharper focus when the platoon commander, Captain Kearney, establishes an outpost on a high mountaintop, and names it after their deceased comrade--as Kearney and his men put it, this "changed the dynamics of the valley," the outpost being the equivalent of "a middle finger sticking out" at the Taliban.

We never know for certain the true strategic value of O.P. Restrepo; we can only take the soldiers' word for it. We do see for ourselves the titanic struggle the men undergo, trying to establish the outpost--as Kearney puts it, they fight to establish a strategic foothold, turn around, drop their guns, pick up shovels, and dig to establish a foundational foothold. Once finished, one soldier notes that the crude little base barely deserved their friend's name--it mainly consisted of a hole scratched out of the ground, some corrugated tin for shelter, and HESCO bastions (steel-netted plastic barriers filled with dirt, named after the British company that mass-produces them) for protection against rockets and small-arms fire.

The film excels in this--showing not the larger meaning (that's up to us to suss out), but the minutiae of the soldiers' existence; not the purpose for which they fight (and, on occasion, die), but the how of their daily struggle, the boredom, the horseplay, the Christmas lights strung up in their self-constructed bunker in lieu of a tree. When a man falls, the camera captures not so much his death (no Hollywood-style slow motion plunge, accompanied by a syrupy arrangement of Barber's Adiago for Strings) as the wrenching emotional loss expressed by his comrades. This is an ant's eye view of battle--an ant in this case perched atop a particularly high hill.

This is not an objective documentary; if anything, it brings the American soldiers' experience closer to us, their faces presented like so many still, silent memorials to their sacrifice. At the same time, it makes no apologies towards the less appealing side of their efforts. Kearney tries to conduct a weekly shura, a town meeting, with the village elders nearby; he talks of the possibility of road constructions and money flowing into the region if the elders lend their support. The camera gazes into the elders' faces, and we see little to no enthusiasm in response to Kearney's words; he might as well be talking about constructing roads on the moon.

The elders are more emotional when a rocket attack is called in, and Kearney is summoned to witness the results: children wounded and shrieking in shock and fear, or dead and covered in grime. "These are angels," an elder exclaims. "Where is the Taliban here?" Kearney talks of frustration, and regret. He calls the civilian casualty "locals," and the jargon would seem devastatingly callous if Kearney wasn't so visibly shaken. Calling the dead and crying children "locals" is his way of keeping distance, of maintaining professional demeanor, of "processing" what he saw (the word is used several times in the film to presumably mean 'dealing with a traumatic experience'). Was this the best word to use in that situation? I don't think so, but it's probably the only word he's been trained to use, and to his credit you see the strain on his face when he tries to apply it.

Later we see soldiers firing a machine gun, and bragging proudly about how the bullets tore the enemy apart as he ran away; we see other soldiers playing a videogame--a shoot-em-up, of course--and it's easy to make the case that for some soldiers this (their outpost) is a game as well, the ultimate video game in the ultimate virtual environment, where you point your equipment, pull the trigger, and watch with delight as the enemy flies to pieces.

Such moments don't entirely demonize the soldiers, don't make them entirely monstrous, even if the implications of what they say or do can be monstrous; the film's finale ensures we retain some measure of sympathy for these young, young men. I do think the film taken as a whole humanizes them, in the very best sense--we see their vices as well as their virtues, we see them all around, we see what the human spirit is capable of in all its glorious and godawful diversity, when engaged in the enterprise called war. Restrepo in effect is a harrowingly comprehensive portrait of the soldier at war, and easily one of the best, most honest films of this year.

First published in Businessworld, 12.16.10

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Casino Jack and The United States of Money (Alex Gibney, 2010)

Jack-off all trade

The title of Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and The United States of Money doesn't quite have the right swing--you keep looking for an extra syllable or two--but the subject matter, superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, is as compelling as all hell.

Of interest of course is where Abramoff comes from, the development of the College Republicans, and what they stood for--basically unfettered business, limited government. Abramoff in the old photos seems like a presentably handsome bright young man, with a charming smile; his adventures with this group reads like a musical farce adaptation of Voltaire's Candide, where the eponymous character out of idealism and naivete blunders into one scrape or another, all due to a surfeit of good intentions--a marked contrast to the the more cynical, more visibly dissipated Abramoff that we see later.

Gibney gives us a "greatest hits" of Abramoff's colorful career, being careful to name his fellow collaborators: Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Neil Volz, Michael Scanlon. Looming in the background, rock star to this band of rodents, is the oversized figure of Tom DeLay, the powerful Republican majority whip--you know when he steps into a room; even on video his personal wattage make your arm hairs stand up.

Gibney needs some of that star power; he unfortunately doesn't have actual interviews of Abramoff to galvanize and play off against contradictory footage and overall dominate his documentary (the way, say, Robert McNamara galvanizes, plays off against, and dominates Errol Morris' The Fog of War (2003), or the way Michael Moore for better or worse dominates all his movies). That said, there's plenty here to entertain and enthrall and, ultimately, infuriate.

The casino case is given center stage of course--where various Native American tribes gave as much as $45 million in three years to Abramoff to lobby for their interests (in a hilarious little footnote, it turns out Abramoff was at least partly responsible for the closing of one of the casinos he is championing--a maneuver the Mafia, with their ties to both trucking and road repair businesses, might appreciate). One of the picture's comic highlights has a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs reading back to Abramoff his own hideously embarrassing email messages regarding his Native American clients: "These mofos are the stupidest idiots in the land for sure!" or "we need to get some money from those monkeys!!" To which Abramoff's reply is almost always some variation of "I can't answer that" or "I can't comment on that."

But for my money easily the worse single scandal he was ever involved in, and possibly the most heartrending, is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) affair. Chinese, Filipinos and other Asians were imported into the islands to manufacture garments (t-shirts, pants and the like); because the CNMI was United States territory, this allowed the manufacturers to label their product "made in the USA" and deliver them into the country without tariffs or quota restrictions.

Conditions in the sweatshops were horrific. The workers' passports were confiscated; they worked seven day weeks, eighteen hours a day. Pregnant women were forced to abort their pregnancies so they could keep working. Food, rent and other expenses were deducted from salaries, meaning the workers couldn't even earn the return trip back home. Some women to earn that extra money, would resort to prostitution, resulting in a flourishing sex trade.

Coupled with this living tragedy was the human comedy of Abramoff arranging to have various US congressmen and senators brought over for a visit--they'd be given a token tour of the factories, then off to the golf courses or snorkeling or nightclubs (that flourishing sex trade). Tom DeLay after one such trip declared the factories "a free-market success," and successfully blocked every attempt by other lawmakers (congressman George Miller in particular) to reform the system. Abramoff's lobbying efforts to keep the CNMI popular and productive netted his law firm some $6.7 million over six years, from 1995 to 2001.

Eventually, changing world conditions meant the business owners would take their money elsewhere; the factories closed down, the little island commonwealth was that much more economically depressed--and here we see the fruits of capitalism run amok, free of accountability and responsible regulation. Gibney as much as says it in this picture--what happened to the CNMI was a foretaste of things to come, on a far larger scale.

Gibney takes much of his information from Peter Stones' Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of America, and let's not pretend for a moment that either book or documentary is in any way impartial--when Gibney lists the lawmakers that either profited from or accepted vacation trips from Abramoff, you mostly saw the initial "R" next to their names (to his credit, Gibney does mention a few Democrats, and even Senator Harry Reid as at one point being involved). Objective or not, it's difficult not to see this as one of the Grand Ole Partie's less proud moments--even President George W. Bush makes a cameo appearance here, there, and not in an especially edifying manner.

Gibney doesn't have the plain-folks showmanship of Michael Moore, but he does score a filmmaking point or two: a shot of the law firm Greenberg Traurig's main office, the lenses expanding the building's girth to signify its expanding income, thanks to Abramoff's efforts; a harrowing tale related by an aide of George Miller, where a CNMI garments worker makes the congressman a startling offer in exchange for enough money to go home; excerpts from Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), intercut to show the contrast between James Stewart's haggard idealism and Abramoff's buffoonish avarice.

Gibney in the movie's final segment tries too hard to tie all all this to the 2008 economic collapse; Abramoff was a symptom of what was wrong--one of its more bizarre symptoms--but the collapse itself is a larger story that needs its own documentary (or documentary series, if you like. He really needed to keep his focus on his main subject. Gibney does have one more bizarro trump card up his sleeve--we are given Tom DeLay's ultimate fate in a series of titles, and learn that he has since appeared in Dancing with the Stars; the end credits roll against footage of DeLay hot-stepping with a gorgeous partner half his age in the show. You know--he's not bad; not bad at all.

First published in Businessworld. 4.14.11

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hall Pass (Bob and Peter Farrelly, 2011)

Free lunch

The Farrelly brothers' Hall Pass (2011) is crude, lewd, and not a little rude; also sentimental in the worse way, prodigiously misogynistic, hugely juvenile.

Okay, now that I've got that off my chest, let me tell you what I really think.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009)

Sugar and spice

Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) is an intense if misshapen little thriller, easily the most entertaining of that by-now debased genre, the serial killer flick.

Here the focus of interest is not on the killer but on Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous tattooed girl. As played by Noomi Rapace, she's long of face and fierce of countenance, with a sullen "fuck you" look backed up with either a golf club (she possesses a vicious swing) or laptop (she supports herself through freelance hacking, and online investigations). Rapace is an actress, of course--in numerous videos and photos she seems warmly feminine, with hardly a hint of the character's fierce demeanor; when she does play Lisbeth, however, you can't imagine anyone else in the role (the American remake--but of course there's always an American remake--will feature Rooney Mara as Ms. Salander (no, I can't imagine her doing it either)).

The rest of the picture develops in reaction to the girl's presence (she's both catalyst and responder to the surrounding men and their various activities). Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) conducts the movie's main action, the search for a long-lost young woman, a search that leads him to a cunningly hidden serial killer. Blomkvist comes to depend on Lisbeth for clues and, in an unofficial capacity, for a quick roll in the hay (Lisbeth on top and in charge, naturally); Blomkvist also plays Boy Friday to Lisbeth's punk avenger, dangling helplessly from a line while Lisbeth rides to the rescue (a refreshing change from the endless number of helpless damsels waiting endlessly in distress for the hero's rescue). Nils Bjurman--Lisbeth's legal guardian, a nasty customer--offers small favors in exchange for oral sex and, on occasion, much worse; Bjurman is Lisbeth's bete noir in this picture, though beyond him--in this and succeeding novels (this is the first of a trilogy)--stand far more malignant, far more powerful male authority figures.

It's that 'much worse' from Bjurman that gives the movie its most powerful and--to my mind--most problematic moment (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to watch the picture). Bjurman's assault on Lisbeth is intensely and graphically staged and shot, so intense and graphic it throws the rest of the picture out of whack--why fear sociopathic former Nazi officers and their soundproofed basements when you have Bjurman the fat bureaucrat with his rather sadistic notions of rough sex? A climax that occurs in the middle is not a climax but a misplaced high point, after which the rest of the picture can only be a disappointment.

Author Stieg Larsson was reportedly driven to write the novel when at the age of fifteen he witnessed the gang rape of a girl and failed to help her--the horror of violence inflicted against women is a constant theme in his work. A laudable sentiment, one that inspired Larsson to create a memorable heroine named after that girl of long ago.

That same sentiment tends to make Larsson protective, though--when push comes to shove, Larsson's Lisbeth will always do the right thing, or arrive too late to commit murder (she's not above inflicting violence in self-defense though, or rape with a dildo for revenge--but then the victim is a sex offender, so that must be all right). Larsson inflicts horrors on his heroine, but falls short of truly testing the heroine's moral integrity--it remains as intact as an untouched hymen.

Which is a pity--when was the last time we saw a convincingly complex heroine, or at least female protagonist, on the big screen? Carey Mulligan's sixteen year old schoolgirl in An Education (2009) comes to mind; so does Andre Techine's eponymous youth in Girl on a Train (same year), Melissa Leon's working class mother in Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (2008) and, on a more pop level, Angelina Jolie's double agent in Philip Noyce's Salt (2010). But Jolie's espionage caper is a simpleminded shoot-em-up with breasts attached; I was thinking more of Linda Fiorentino's smart, sexy Bridget Gregory in John Dahl's hard-edged noir The Last Seduction (1994)--now there was a woman (with a wicked sense of humor, no less) willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wanted, humanity (not to mention nine out of ten commandments) be damned. Going further there's the eponymous housewife in Filipino filmmaker Laurice Guillen's classic Salome (1981) and the serial lover in Guillen's much underrated Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983)--films where women are willful entities who struggle bitterly to assert their right to their own sexuality, even their right to choose their own path of self-destruction. Lisbeth Salander sports a Mohawk hairdo and corresponding attitude but when push comes to shove she's really a softie at heart, a girl scout, right hand to breast and the other raised in familiar salute.

First published in Businessworld. 3.31.11

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Mr. Nobody (Jaco Van Dormael 2009)

A moment of uplift n Jaco Van Dormael's Mr. Nobody

Wonder full

Jaco Van Dormael's latest film Mr. Nobody (2009) is only his fourth ever feature (his previous work Le huitième jour (The Eighth Day) was released some fourteen years previously) and it's every bit as bewildering, mind-bending and confusing as anything he's ever done, if not more so.

His first feature Toto le Heroes (Toto the Hero, 1991) told the story of a bitter old man--bitter mainly because he believes he was switched at birth, and if this had not happened, his life might've been better. The film switches back and forth from memory to fantasy to revenge scenario often without warning, and in this it seems at least partially inspired by Dennis Potter's memory dramas, where memory serves to complete an often fragmented narrative, and fantasy illuminates the characters' innermost wishes and dreads. As with Potter, the end combination was emotionally potent with each element supporting and reinforcing the others; Toto le Heroes remains, to my mind, Dormael's finest work. 

Dormael's follow-up The Eight Day takes up an old premise--that a simpleminded innocent can change a modern man's life--and again with his fragmented time scheme breaks up the familiarity, makes it surprising and fresh again (though not, unfortunately, so fresh it makes one completely forget the hoariness of the original premise). 

Mr. Nobody takes off from Dormael's by-now familiar style: start with an old man full of secrets, proceed pell-mell at whatever direction for full chaotic effect . Dormael has added a few other tricks, not just bouncing from past and present or reality and unreality, but from one alternate reality to another, starting from the moment Nemo (Latin for 'nobody') decides at the train station to either go with his mother to North America or stay behind with his father in England. There are some openly science-fictional elements (in one scene we see Nemo lying in bed, the 'world's oldest man,' and the last, thanks to modern medicine, to be dying of old age; in another a space ship is flying to Mars).

Hell with science fiction--the SF elements seem more like an afterthought, a way to flex digital effects muscles than anything actually important to the flow of the story (mention is made of superstrings and Schrodinger's cat though far as I can tell that's all they are--mentions). As for the latter--what story? The picture seems to be following two childhoods, three romances, a handful of fateful decisions, a variety of deaths, a side-story involving the science-fiction story Nemo in one of his several careers is writing, and a wrap-around narrative involving the 117-year-old Nemo being interviewed for his memories. Think Nolan's Inception was complicated? Not really; as I once put it Nolan for all his gimmicks is strictly a linear plodder.

This one is nothing if not nonlinear, and glides from one thread to another with if anything too much ease. Dormael's picture would be too bewildering--actually, is too bewildering--if it weren't for Sarah Polley playing Elise, one of Nemo's wives. Polley, an excellent actress, manages to make her thread involving, especially one scene where she suffers extreme depression and is unable to attend her son's birthday party. She determinedly sits up, walks out of her bedroom, teeters into the middle of the party going full swing, and tries to join in--the scene's a miniature masterpiece of mixed pathos, comedy, horror, suspense, hitting an intensity Dormael isn't able to maintain.

Otherwise--call this Dormael's folly, an overambitious, overreaching, overlong film stuffed full of vivid moments, memorable surrealism, and, at least for a moment, searing emotional honesty. It all feels like Dormael just threw in everything he had, and beyond this has little else to say, but the sheer volume of what he's dumped, the sheer complexity of what he has wrought is a sight to see, nevertheless, impressive and intimidating in equal measure.