Review of INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED

Instructions Not Included

Last fall, I was stunned to hear that a movie I had never heard of (and I’ve heard of almost every movie that gets a theatrical release) had become the highest grossing Spanish-language film in the U.S. I remember thinking that I probably wasn’t part of the target audience and/or the marketing team gave up on English speakers wanting to see Instructions Not IncludedI got the impression that it must have been second-rate, kind of like those faith-based movies that have plagued the theaters lately (You know, the ones where people who don’t believe in God are stupidheads), where only the converted need to see them.  Additionally, it was categorized as a “comedy” in something I read.  Being in Spanish, images of all the bad Spanish-language TV I’ve watched, with all the midget and strippers dancing together and all that, came to mind.  So I quickly forgot about the film.

Months later, several people recommended Instructions Not Included to my wife.  At the time and when we got around to watching it, it was only on disc.  Now that it’s on streaming, you should check it out as well.

Instructions Not Included tells the story of Valentin Bravo, Acapulco’s local playboy whose amorous ways meet an end when a former fling named Julie leaves him with a baby girl.  Valentin goes to L.A. to find Julie to give back the baby, Maggie.  When a movie director witnesses Valentin saving Maggie in a spectacular fashion, he hires him as a stuntman.  Unable to locate Julie, Valentin settles down in L.A. with Maggie and becomes an unlikely father figure.

There’s much more to the movie than that (which makes it sound like One Man and a Baby), but if you read my reviews before, I don’t like spoilers, especially when it comes to comedies (To this day, I don’t know if I was underwhelmed by There’s Something About Mary because of the hype or because an obnoxious co-worker of mine decided to tell everyone about the best parts/gags).  This is more of a melodramedy, sweet-natured in the way comedies of the 30s and 40s were.  There’s some sadness to it, some laughs, someone making it “big” in Hollywood, and the cinematography makes everything look so clean (In the Acapulco scenes, the sun seems brighter than anywhere else on the planet).  Eugenio Derbez deserves his role.  He carries the film and hits all the right notes.  Loreto Peralta as his daughter, Maggie is actually very good in her role.  She’s not too cutesy or “precious.”  She’s just a likable kid.

As for the ending, I felt I should have seen it coming.  But it’s the sign of a good film that I was wrapped up in the story and cared enough about the characters I wasn’t trying to figure out what would happen next.  I recommend seeing Instructions Not Included.

IMDb rating: 7 out of 10

Netflix rating: 4 out of 5

Netflix Classic Review: Buñuel’s TRISTANA

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Luis Buñuel shares the distinction of having only one title on Netflix Streaming with Alfred Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes) and Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove).  Some time ago, Un Chien Andalou (1929), Buñuel’s groundbreaking short featuring a young Salvador Dali, was available, but no longer.  Tristana (1970) is far from his best work, but deserves a viewing from those who enjoy his more celebrated movies such as Belle du Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie  (1972).

Unlike the more famous Buñuel selections I mentioned, Tristana is a relatively straightforward melodrama that features very little of Buñuel’s surrealistic tendencies (Surrealistic Tendencies sounds like the name of a bad ’80s punk band).  Fernando Rey plays Don Lope, the guardian of the much younger Tristana, played by DeNeuve.  Also being a lecherousold man, he soon wants to be more than her guardian.  They become lovers as well, but Lope maintains his philosophy that, as a free man (free of religion), he is still free to love others.  Soon that belief is challenged when Tristana meets someone else she loves as well.  Lope is not a hypocrite and allows her to leave.  However, their love still lingers, and Tristana’s subsequent illness brings them back together after a number of years.  Watch the movie to find out who she chooses.

Tristana struck me as being simultaneously ahead of its time, yet also feeling dated.  Rey as the main character gives a convincing performance as a forward-thinking atheist/socialist (Given that this was made during the Franco regime, this was truly a daring philosophy for any character to espouse).  Yet, at the same time, he often talks of women as if they are nothing more than sex objects and lower than men.  I would like to give Buñuel the benefit of the doubt and say that this contrast between being enlightened and being Neanderthal was intentional, but the film is 45 years old now, so I can’t be sure.  Tristana does become a complete person to him towards the end of the film, through challenging his beliefs and standing up for herself.  But the misogynistic overtones of some of the earlier conversations, coupled with the disturbing age difference between the two, don’t quite redeem Don Lope in my eyes.

As for Catherine DeNeuve, she like in Belle du Jour, plays an “ice queen” with an ever increasing amount of willpower.  The character is well-written but remains enigmatic throughout the film.  She remains an object of men’s desire, a beautiful woman whom men can project their fantasies upon, even as she asserts herself as an adult.  One thing I didn’t like about her is that she uses her illness as a way to test which suitor really loves her.  In my opinion, this undermined the idea of her becoming an independent person, and came off more like a schoolgirl pitting two schoolboys against each other to win her affections.  As for DeNeuve’s acting, it is really hard to judge, as her part was dubbed over in Spanish.  I realize that many movies of this time, especially Spaghetti westerns, had actors speak in their native tongue, and then had another actor dubbed in the language of the movie later.  But for Tristana, it detracted from DeNeuve’s performance.

Tristana shouldn’t be considered a classic by any means, but it held my interest.  While not pushing many boundaries, it still is an intelligent and thoughtful piece of film from a treasured director.  I’m not sure if viewing this would convince Netflix to stream more of his films.  But do yourself a favor, and if you watch this, put his other films in your queue.

My Netflix rating: 3 out of 5

My IMDB rating: 7 out of 10

Working on my best 100 movies on Netflix

Working on my best 100 movies on Netflix

With the time it takes to write posts, my ambitions to post a top 100 list on movies on Netflix, and review some of the titles, would be difficult in the WordPress format. This is due to the fact by the time I post and write something, it may no longer be on Netflix instant. This happened when I thought about doing it at the end of last month. Sure enough, one of my top 10 choices, Some Like It Hot, left at the end of April.

I will get to this project, but in the meantime, I’ve made a quick list at Listal of the top movies currently on Netflix. I haven’t had time to order them, or actually narrow it down to 100 (it’s at 102). But it’s far quicker to edit this list than to post and re-post the list here. Listal is a fun site, you should check it out.

Coincidentally, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) probably would be my #1 choice at this time. I look forward to the day when I have nothing but free time to go back and watch all these movies to compare and confirm my rankings. But until then, it’s still fun to make lists. Please post a comment if you feel there are titles I’m overlooking, or ones that I’ve overrated and should reevaluate.

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Review of Room 237: Random People Driven Mad by Kubrick’s “The Shining”

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From the people who brought you the homeless guy on the corner rambling on about how the contrails of planes are a government conspiracy, comes Room 237, a “documentary” about the hidden meanings that lurk beneath the surface of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Various theories about the meaning of the film are discussed by anonymous people as we look at various scenes from Kubrick’s underrated and misunderstood horror film. Unfortunately I think this documentary will mean the film will be more misunderstood, but there are some interesting discussions from those participants who have not suffered some sort of brain damage from years of drug abuse (roughly half).

 

Whether or not you like this film will probably depend on whether or not you agree with the statement made by one of the anonymous film “critics” towards the end of the film:

 

“One can always argue that Kubrick only had some, or none of these (theories proposed in Room 237) in mind, but we all know that from post-modern film criticism that author intent is only part of the story of any work of art, and those meanings are there regardless of whether the creator of the work was conscious of them.”

 

We don’t all know that, in my opinion. The first problem with this statement is that it comes after about eight different mutually exclusive theories about the film’s true meaning are presented. They can’t all be right, or equally valid. Secondly, this statement seems to say that stretching to find meaning and clues in scenes says as much as what the film is about as the script does. Certainly in a Kubrick film there are subtexts and careful attention to detail, but Kubrick chose to make a film about a man losing his grip on reality. That’s what the film is about, you don’t have to create a new story as if the film is a painting that leaves itself open to interpretation.

 

To play the devil’s advocate with this theory, if you say any film is a work of art (which is a stretch but you could make that argument, because with this theory anything you say is valid), then I could say McG is an artist and Charlie’s Angels is a work of art. Rather than being a story about ditzy girl detectives, I could say that McG is commenting on the historic struggle of women to earn the right to vote. But we all know that McG is an idiot who made the only mediocre/bad Terminator movie. Saying that such a meaning is there regardless of whether McG was conscious of it is ridiculous, and not in any way true just because someone says it is.

 

Now I know this might burst some bubbles here, especially for those who believe everything they read on the internet. But if you can listen to the theories without getting angry, it’s actually a fun film to watch. If they don’t make you angry, some of the observations these people make will make you laugh. But they will also point out details the casual viewer might miss. One guy sees phallic symbols everywhere (although this may have been Kubrick’s idea of a joke). In the midst of some overbaked theories about latent homosexuality, the same guy points out that Jack is reading a Playgirl in the lobby, something I would have never caught. So while you may not buy their theories, most every person will point out something that you may have overlooked before.

But of course, noticing these details is one thing. Claiming they are hidden clues is another. It’s all good to point out that the Indian imagery and a German typewriter in the lobby; building upon that to say the film is really about genocide might be too much (outside evidence points to Kubrick reading about both the Holocaust and American Indians during the making of The Shining, so I was at least convinced it informed some of his choices as to what props to use in the film). Other details noticed are just silly (such as someone superimposing the film playing backwards on top of the film playing forward and commenting on how the images line up), or seem to excuse continuity errors. But I enjoyed hearing their theories as to why these were intentional and not mistakes.

 

The centerpiece of the film is straight conspiracy theory. One guy claims that The Shining was really about Kubrick’s role in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the relationship between Jack and his wife mirrors Kubrick telling his wife and how it affected their relationship. Even amidst this lunacy, there is a detail that lends just the slightest amount of credence to this interpretation (as is the case with any good conspiracy theory). Just look at this kid’s sweater, for god’s sake:

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As crazy as this theory might be, I mean, c’mon! What is up with that sweater? If it was a mass produced t-shirt, I would think nothing of it. But this looks like Kubrick’s grandma knitted it herself, so there had to be a reason that it was an Apollo 11 sweater and not a Starsky and Hutch shirt or something. I have my own theory on this, but I was unable to find evidence for this on the internet. Again I think Kubrick was “taking the piss” out of conspiracy theorists, yanking their chain a bit. But in order for me to be correct, the conspiracy theory would have had to have to been out there before The Shining came out. I was not able to find out the origin of these rumors, or when they started. If someone knows, let me know. It seems like they might have originated with this movie, but I’m not sure.

 

Every theory presented in the film is entertaining, but the best discussions revolve around the use of space in the film. The rides the kid takes on his big wheel go from showing us the lay of the land (of the hotel) the first time through,  to taking a sharp turn into the physically impossible during the last ride. These rides mirror the mental state of Jack, and there are details that Kubrick surely meant to be part of the film. The passion of the anonymous critics comes through in the maps they construct to show how certain aspects of what we see in the hotel are not possible, and what that might reveal about Jack’s character, and his relationship to his wife and son. There is also an interesting observation made about the rug pattern you see in the movie poster for Room 237. 

 

Although I certainly didn’t buy most of it, Room 237 was for the most part intriguing, definitely entertaining, and at times considerate of Kubrick and his design for this film. Would I watch this again? Probably not, but it did make me want to watch The Shining again to come up with my own wacky theories.

 

My IMDB rating: 7 out of 10

 

My Netflix rating: 3 out of 5

 

Review of Dirty Girl (2010)- Leaving the state of Netflix May 9

I’m trying something new with this review. I’m linking it to the trailer, because why explain a movie’s plot when a trailer (like a lot of trailers these days) tells you everything you need to know about the movie?

Dirty Girl (2010) stars the likable Juno Temple in the title role, and “introduces” Jeremy Dozier as the “dirty” girl’s gay friend/road trip companion ((I hate when movies use the term “introducing”; it implies that there is some high level of acting skill that demands we know that this is their first role in a major film. It is rarely warranted, and definitely is not necessary for this actor or this role). It’s directed and written by Abe Sylvia, who has not really directed or written much of anything else (directed one episode of Nurse Jackie and written several more episodes of that series). I’m getting really tired of watching movies that are mediocre at best and discovering that they’re directed by a first-timer. It’s like going to a baseball stadium hoping to see the Yankees and ending up seeing the Toledo Mudhens. But anyhow, like the previously reviewed Stand Up Guys, it left me wondering how this first timer could pull in established actors such as William H Macy, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, and Milla Jovovich in supporting roles.

The first half of the trailer basically nicely summarizes the first 30 minutes of the film, with the added benefit of providing the viewer of the trailer the same emotional involvement in its characters in a minute and 20 seconds as watching the film. So according to my math, you can save yourself 28 minutes of your life by watching the first half of the trailer instead of the first 30 minutes of the movie. As far as the remaining hour of the film, the trailer basically gives you a good idea of what happens in the end, but doesn’t give away too much. Perhaps that is due to the setup being more promising than what the film can deliver.

Dirty Girl does have its share of supporters here on the Interwebs. I would suspect most of those people don’t really consider themselves critics, and also give into the charm and faux sentimentality of the film. Reading reviews and message boards, however, there are people who attempt to defend the film’s mistakes and/or give the director too much credit. Like the soon to be reviewed Room 237, you shouldn’t read more into the film than is there, especially in the case of Dirty Girl, which was not directed by a Kubrick level talent. The first critique of the critics (this film has a 27% on Rotten Tomatoes) is that they didn’t understand why it was called Dirty Girl. Supporters say the title is ironic, that she’s not really a dirty girl at heart. Reading some reviews on RT, there are some critics who don’t get that. But besides a brief introduction at the beginning, where Temple is having sex in a car in the school parking lot, and she asks the teacher an inappropriate question during an abstinence talk (wow, what an original way to show that these townspeople are so repressed!), we don’t really get the feeling that she’s much of the dirty girl that the film wants her to be. There’s literally 3 minutes of the “Dirty Girl” before that concept is almost completely abandoned by the film. Her supposed reputation has little to do with the film besides provide her a way to meet her gay outcast friend and road trip companion.

The other big topic of discussion surrounding this film concerns the setting and anachronisms involving the hairstyles, music and clothing in the film. The film clearly states that it takes place in 1987, starting in Norman, Oklahoma. Yet the Farrah Fawcett style hairdos and fashion on display scream late 70s. One person on IMDB argued that this was a deliberate choice by the director, as a way to indicate that the people’s attitudes and beliefs were old fashioned and out of date. Puh-lease. If that were true, why are the heroes of the film, Danielle (Temple) and Clarke (Dozier) similarly dressed? (And why do they listen to schmaltzy ’80’s pop instead of something edgy for 1987?) Since they are not backwards in their thinking, they should not be backwards in their fashion, but they are. You could argue that fashion takes longer to get to certain parts of the country (I had a laugh in Ohio in 2001 watching the news reporting on this “new” trend of “sagging” jeans- apparently Ohio had slept through the ’90’s), but not that long. Especially since Norman is a college town. Nope, it’s just pure laziness on the director’s part.

The wardrobe choices for the film point toward the larger problem with the film- despite the cast being up to the task of making this mediocrity watchable, everything feels false, slightly off, and borrowed from other movies. A third character, a male stripper they pick up on the road, seems to come from another movie. He’s in it for maybe ten minutes, but you think he’s going to be someone of importance. I guess he was just there to help with Clarke’s sexual awakening, because I’m sure the director saw something like that in other movie somewhere, and figure he needed that in his film. The stripper character is less than one dimensional. Being a road trip, of course at one point they run out of money, and Danielle starts to strip for money at a bar. But only after she starts does Clarke realize it’s a gay bar, and HE strips for money! Boring! So unimaginative. It’s labeled as a comedy and drama on IMDB, but the only time I laughed was at a throwaway line about going to the beach when they get to Fresno. Her search for her father ends predictably and quickly. The one point where I thought there might have been something different and interesting about the film is when Danielle’s mother is repressed by Mormonism rather than some non-descript fundamentalist Christian religion or Catholicism. But that angle is not explored beyond some lame jokes.

You have a few days if you want to watch this anyways if it still sounds good to you.

My Netflix rating: 2 out of 5

My IMDB rating: 5 out of 10

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Quick Review of Lockout (2012)- It’s Getting Locked Out from Netflix May 7

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Lockout (2012) leaves Netflix May 7, so you don’t have much time to watch it. Since you don’t have much time, I won’t spend so much time on this review. If you decide to watch it, you basically have about 24 hours to do so.

Starring Guy Pearce, he of regal desert adventures, tattoos of memories, and brief cameos as the guy who gets blown up in Oscar winning movies, and Maggie Grace, she of the one death of a major character on Lost that you really didn’t care about, and the 25 year old masquerading as Liam Neeson’s 18 year old daughter in Taken, this film instantly reminded me of another film that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It took all of ten minutes to figure it out though. This is basically the same premise as Escape from New York, without the skill of John Carpenter at the helm, or the charisma of Kurt Russell as Snake Pliskin in the lead.

Instead of Snake, we have Pearce as “Snow.” Instead of the inescapable island of Manhattan serving as the penal colony, you have the inescapable space station where prisoners are kept in “stasis” or deep sleep. Instead of the president’s plane being shot down over Manhattan and the president being the captive by the Manhattan prisoners, Maggie Grace plays the president’s daughter being held hostage by the prisoners when they escape their hatches. Instead of an experienced Carpenter at the helm, we have a director duo with no experience with a major film.

Although it wasn’t in anyway all that bad, it will not hold a place in my long term memory like Escape from New York did for my 8 year old self when I first saw that movie. I do recognize that if I had first seen Escape as a 39 year old, it probably wouldn’t have made the same impression on me or hold the same place in my heart. But on the same hand I really can’t imagine the movie or Pearce in the lead role having the same impact on an 8 year old today.

It is an adequately done film, which I know doesn’t sound like high praise, but if you’re just looking to pass time, without having to think too much, this will do the job without offending your inner film critic. The only thing that I thought was really a bad idea was making one of the prisoners who was given A LOT of dialogue have a thick Scottish accent. It gave me flashbacks of when I was first trying to understand Trainspotting.

My Netflix rating: 3 out of 5

My IMDB rating: 6 out of 10

Also, I am going to create a Youtube channel for the trailers of all the movies I review on Netflix, plus any trailers for Netflix exclusive content. You can find that Youtube channel here.

 

Some Like It Hot, but apparently not Netflix- Titles Leaving April 30

So the list maker in me really wants to make a top 100 titles on Netflix (see my lists on Listal), but the monthly purge of titles makes that difficult to do. Here are some candidates that are going to be gone April 30 or thereabouts, along with some other classics and noteworthy titles.

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Some Like It Hot (1959) is one of those rare comedies that holds up over 60 years later now. Written and directed by the great Billy Wilder, this could have possibly been a top 10 or 20.

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Into the Wild (2007) is an extremely effective portrayal of a young man who yearns to be completely free, but through that process learns what is really important in life. It is similar in theme to 127 Hours but probably holds up better than that movie does. As least I can say Emile Hirsch is less of a douche than James Franco.

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My wife hates West Side Story (1961) but it’s one of the few musicals that I can like. Maybe I laugh at it the way I laugh at Greasebut I do think Leonard Bernstein is a genius, which makes some of the musical numbers interesting to my musician’s ear. The story is good enough, and this has to be one of the most realistic depictions of street gangs ever (cough).

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Bull Durham (1988) may not have made my list of the top 100 Netflix streaming movies, but it would make the short list of best sports movies ever. Although I haven’t seen it, North Dallas Forty (1979), starring Nick Nolte, also is mentioned in the discussion of best sports movies. It also leaves Netflix April 30.

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Mean Girls (2004) also wouldn’t make the top 100 probably, but it would be in the top 100 of the last decade for me, probably. It also might help explain to younger readers why Lindsay Lohan gets the attention she doesn’t deserve anymore.

Here are other noteworthy titles leaving, courtesy of What’s On Netflix Now?

Bad Boys (1983) 
Brian’s Song (1971)
Caligula (1979)
Conan the Destroyer (1984)
The Doom Generation (1995)
The Doors (1991)
Fierce People (2005) 
Harold and Maude (1971) – REVIEW
Harry and Tonto (1974)
Incendiary (2008)
The Invisible Man (1933)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Looking for Richard (1996)
Marathon Man (1976) – REVIEW
Marvin’s Room (1996)
Mean Girls (2004)
The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976)
The Manhattan Project (1986)
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

 

Mirror Mirror and at least 2 other titles leaving Netflix this week

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Mirror Mirror (2012) was one of two Snow White movies that came out around the same time. I did see Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) when I still had HBO, and both the film and Kristen Stewart were as bad as the commercial made them look. I haven’t had the chance to watch Mirror Mirror yet, but I did catch the first 15 minutes. I’m actually more curious about this film now than I ever was, because I noticed for the first time that Tarsem Singh directed this. Singh directed the ultra gory The Cell (2000), which had amazing visuals, and a story that played second fiddle to the eye candy, but was still good enough. He started out as a music video director, so it would make sense to a point that the visuals would dominate for him. He has other films that have been less successful than The Cell, with the visuals always being more thought out than the story or characters. I watched the first 15 minutes of the film, and yes, it is beautiful looking. Nothing about it seems objectionable, besides the fact that I really don’t care for Julia Roberts. I’ll try to watch the rest before Mirror Mirror leaves Netflix on April 24.

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The Whistleblower (2010)  stars Rachel Weisz, and more importantly Monica Bellucci. How have I then not yet watched this film? I have always been a big fan of Bellucci’s…uhhh, acting. The synopsis is as follows: “Inspired by true events, Kathy (Rachel Weisz) is an American police officer who takes a job working as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. Her expectations of helping to rebuild a devastated country are dashed when she uncovers a dangerous reality of corruption, cover-up and intrigue amid a world of private contractors and multinational diplomatic doubletalk.” This film has always been on my radar. It has a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, yet some of the negative reviews ding it for a too literal-minded approach to the material (aka preachy?). The Whistleblower blows its last whistle on Netflix streaming on April 25.

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Last but not least, but last to leave Netflix, is Monsieur Lazhar (2011), an Oscar nominee for Foreign Language film (apparently Canada is NOT in the United States). The IMDB synopsis: “Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant, is hired to replace an elementary school teacher who died tragically. While the class goes through a long healing process, nobody in the school is aware of Bachir’s painful former life; nor that he is at risk of being deported at any moment. Adapted from Evelyne de la Cheneliere’s play, Bachir Lazhar depicts the encounter between two distant worlds and the power of self-expression. Using great sensitivity and humor, Philippe Falardeau follows a humble man who is ready to transcend his own loss in order to accompany children beyond the silence and taboo of death.” It looks like worth a viewing if you can see it before April 27th, when Monsieur Lazhar leaves the Netflix instant classroom for good.

As always, be sure to check your own queue for titles that may be leaving. Expect more to be leaving on April 30th (which will probably show up on Netflix in the next couple of days).

 

 

Only God Forgives Review

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What an edgy poster!

Only God Forgives (2013) reunites Ryan Gosling with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. A movie poster like the one above highlights the “edgy” violence that peppers the film. The actual viewing experience might leave its audience feeling beat up. The striking visuals and moments of understated brilliance are weighed down by a slow pace, an anti-hero that may or may not be on Ambien in every scene, and an ending that will most likely leave you befuddled, or at least leave you on your own to decide what the meaning of it all is.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

The movie takes place in Thailand, where two expatriate brothers, one of which is Julian, played by Gosling, and the other of which is a pyschotic with an interest in under-aged girls. This combination results in the brother being found with  a dead underage prostitute in a hotel room. Rather than arresting him,  the police’s Lieutenant Chang, who, according to Wikipedia, acts as “The Angel of Vengeance,”  allows the father of the slain girl to do what he wants to Gosling’s brother in the hotel room. But the father takes things too far, and kills the brother. However, Chang does not care about Billy’s death; instead, Chang cuts off the father’s forearm for allowing his daughter to be a prostitute.

Although the film at this point is bathed in both red neon light and blood, we only see the aftermath of each attack. The visuals are gruesome yet beautiful. Bathing the film in red neon light is a bit on the nose, but it fit not only the subject matter but the seediness of the setting. You can feel the tawdriness of the city enveloping the main characters.

Gosling, who owns a Muy Thai boxing club (which we learn later is a front for a drug smuggling operation), soon learns about his brother’s murder, and seeks out the girl’s father. Just as you think this film will become a art-house Death Wish, we find Gosling actually listening to the explanation. I liked that we don’t actually hear that explanation; instead we see the father gesturing and talking, and we see Gosling’s reaction, if you can call it that. Gosling stares straight ahead, stoic and seemingly unmoved. He decides to do nothing to the father.

So as not to confuse Julian with someone of high moral ground, or “the good son,” or even someone who shuns violence,  we are shown various things that make us believe that Julian ultimately lacks moral convictions. He is not an anti-hero, he is a non-hero, a weak person who passively accepts things he can change. He is not above seeking out prostitutes himself: he pays a regular named Mai to put on a show for him while he remains at a distance, tied up to a chair. He seems to be almost asleep throughout the movie, with occasional explosions of rage or violence that only sometimes seem to have a reason behind them.  He can beat someone up at a club for no reason, drag him across the floor by his teeth. Yet when confronting Lt. Chang, who is ultimately responsible for his brother’s death, he is strangely impotent, and quite easily beaten in hand to hand combat.

Julian’s mother, Crystal, bursts onto the scene, and we get all that we need to know about why Julian and his brother’s mental and emotional problems by the way Crystal treats the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel. This scene is brilliant, but at times the role as written by Refn may have been a bit too much. Crystal is very willing to act where Julian has been passive, and she stirs up the pot by taking vengeance against her son’s killers. This moves the plot and action along, but perhaps too much of an incestuous vibe is played up for my taste. She compares the penis sizes of her sons when at a dinner with Julian, who is pretending that Mai is his girlfriend. She sees right through the ruse, delivering judgment upon Mai and Julian with scorn in a way that only a spiteful mother could. I’m not sure we need the incestuous overtones thrown in.

Regardless, up until this point, the look of the film, the performances, and the script measured up to the expectations I had for the film (I was not a huge fan of Drive, a film for the most part has erased itself from my memory). The way Refn used violence in the film was effective and even though graphic, understated. But there’s a scene where it started to go south a bit for me. Lt. Chang is nearly executed by gunmen in an outdoor restaurant. Chang tracks down the man who hired the gunmen, whose name is Byron, who himself was hired by Crystal to kill Chang. Lt. Chang drive skewers through Byron’s hands, legs, eye, and ear in a drawn out scene that would seem more at home in Reservoir Dogs than in this film. It seemed to want to shock the audience with how realistic it was. It felt very out of place in a film where we often feel like we are in a dream state, or like Julian, seemingly overdosing on Ambien.

Throughout the film, Julian has had visions of Chang, and it seems like we are destined for a great showdown when Chang and Julian finally confront each other in the boxing gym. But expectations and hopes are quickly dashed, as Chang easily defeats Julian in hand to hand combat, in the same way that a human swats away a fly. I thought the way this scene was handled was interesting and different, but it contributes to the unraveling of the film. I’m not sure what it really was supposed to mean or signify. Julian clearly is not a hero or a villain or even much of a presence or force in the film. That is clear. What isn’t clear is why this story was told in the first place. I don’t feel I was ever given a reason to care why Julian was such a non-entity. Perhaps if Chang had more of a personality himself, that might have provided some insight. But although a force to be reckoned, dealing out punishment to all those who come his way, Chang is too reserved and mysterious himself to be an effective counterpart to Julian. (Crystal is the most understandable and interesting character in the film, but the film isn’t really about her, except for the fact that that in a sense she created Julian’s personality by being such a forceful personality herself).

Although there are a great many things worthy to praise in this film, there wasn’t enough insight into Julian or Chang to feel one way or another about how it ended.  It really didn’t end in a traditional sense either, with another vision of Julian’s ending the film. Chang sings karaoke in a bar in front of other policemen as the credits roll. Although it seems unclear, I took this to mean he is the last man left standing, even though Julian’s last vision breaks from reality and the gritty setting of urban Thailand and ends in a field surrounded by trees.

Refn is extremely talented in an unconventional way. But he still has a long way to go before he can get me to care about what happens in his films as much as I can enjoy the technical skills on display. He knows how to write in a restrained way, by showing rather than telling. But he needs to show a bit more, give his characters some emotional weight, for his films to feel like they are more artsy exercises in pretentiousness.

 

Review: The Act of Killing (2012): Pure Torture

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Let me just cut straight to my opinion of this film: I hated it. I will make it my mission to see it destroyed, and all its critical acclaim go the way of The Birth of a Nation‘s.

The Act of Killing (2012)  is the fifth and final entry of my reviews of the 2013 Oscar Nominated Documentaries. Given all the rapturous acclaim for this film, I was expecting it to contend for my top pick up to this point: The SquareThe premise seemed insane and unbelievable, or as one IMDB reviewer put it, “it needs to be seen to be believed.” True, but that doesn’t make this a good film. The idea of allowing mass-murderers to re-enact their crimes seemed too surreal and interesting to fail, yet it does. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are producers for this film, and if either of them had tackled this subject matter, then it could have been the film I imagined it would be, or the film that critics think they saw. But Joshua Oppenheimer is a hack, offering the viewer nothing but indulgence and wallowing in other people’s depravity, and making us feel complicit in their crime. If that’s how the viewer should feel in watching this, then of course you have to question how Oppenheimer can sincerely believe “There’s no good guys, there’s no bad guys, there’s just people.” [1]

Bullshit!

Oppenheimer must not have even watched his own film, and must be blinded by his “contact with Anwar (the centerpiece of the film and one of the murderers), with whom he’s grown close” [1] Either that or he’s a hipster, trying to maintain an ironic distance from the horrific implications of his film.

I unfortunately have to review this film, develop an opinion of it, and decipher the filmmaker’s intentions by seeking sources outside the film, because we are given virtually no context for what we see in the film. The film begins with a quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”. We then see what seems to be a structure for an abandoned amusement park that is in the shape of a giant fish. Cut to a waterfall where Anwar, the “conscience” of the film, and Herman, the grotesque pig of a man that is dressed in garish drag, are motioning as if they are sirens luring ships to the shore. They are surrounded by ornately costumed dancers. But there is no music, just a director shouting directions. We will come back to this scene towards the end of the film, but when the director shouts “Cut” you see the young dancers stretching to get their coats- they are uncomfortable and cold. The fantasy quickly gives way to reality. We then are given the only historical context to the film: “In 1965, the Indonesian Government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese. In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million ‘communists’ were murdered. The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power, and persecuted their opponents- ever since.” The film then goes on to give their film its current context, which is where they claim to do things that the film won’t end up doing: “When we met the killers, they proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished. The film follows that process, and documents its consequences.”

Not really, Oppenheimer. If you were to truly have documented the consequences of their actions, you would have at least partially stuck with your original intentions for the film, as chronicled in The Australian: “When the filmmaker tried to explore the truth about what happened in 1965 through the experiences of survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, he found: ‘They were too scared to say what had happened to them because the killers were living all around them.’ Police threatened the filmmakers with arrest, while plantation bosses and civic leaders regularly found ways to interrupt shooting. Eventually, the survivors asked Oppenheimer: ‘Why don’t you film the killers?’ Suddenly, ‘all the doors flew open.’ Whereas his original subjects had feared reprisals, the men who’d helped bathe Indonesia in blood were eager to talk about their achievements.” 

And we are treated to their boasting for 2 hours, while the victims and their suffering become an abstraction, and even a source of amusement. Herman, the fat pig of a paramilitary leader, enlists locals to help recreate scenes of terror and kidnapping in the streets. It’s a spectacle to everyone involved, with laughter and joy taken in the recreating of their own country men’s misery. “They burned our house down!” Herman says, mocking and mimicking the families of victims, while people in the street laugh and laugh. They calmly recount how they strangled “communists” using wire. Anwar tap dances on the same roof where he supposedly killed thousands. We meet a newspaperman, who occupied the same building that they killed people in, who claims to be ignorant of what was happening under their shared roof. The Pancasila paramilitary group to which they belonged still thrives, and essentially rules the streets. We see their rallies, which seem stuck in a time warp, as they rail against communists, and claim that the origin of the word “gangster” is “free man” over and over again. In case you thought they were just violent, we are treated to their leader playing golf and making disgusting comments about the female caddie’s genitalia. So we learn they are sexist too. Anwar, Herman, and others begin recreating interrogation scenes quite convincingly, but in a very movie-like exaggerated manner.

Given very little context for what is happening, things become very confusing at times. When we are introduced to Anwar’s neighbor, who tells a story of how his relatives were killed, I didn’t know if that was part of the movie they were making or not. Some of the recreations have a nightmarish quality to them, that frankly felt like what a self-indulgent director would do given an unlimited budget. But we never get a sense of how the film they think they are making comes together, or how the “scenes” relate to the historical context we are not given.

We eventually also learn that the killings may have been a cover for the genocide of the Chinese population of Indonesia. When Herman runs for office, we learn that the populace can be bribed for their vote, and he who bribes the best will win the election. Herman loses, and we lose respect for the general populace of Indonesia for seemingly accepting and participating in the corruption that they are essentially victims of. We get to see the members of the paramilitary shake down business owners for protection money, so some sympathy may remain.

Everything I mentioned up to this point happens in the first half of the film. At the hour and 15 minute mark, we got antsy, wondering how much longer this indulgence in depravity could last. I have to admit that I stopped watching at that point, and watched the last 45 minutes just today, a week or so later. Despite several scenes highlighting the natural beauty of Indonesia, the whole country seems like a place to never visit. Oppenheimer treats the viewer to repeatedly observing the actions of people who are the opposite of self-aware at best, and the worst of humanity at worst, without challenging them in any way, shape, or form. I can imagine Herzog taking the same material, and giving it shape and form, and purpose. I can imagine the director of The Devil Came on Horseback or even The Square allowing these people to have their say, but placing their actions in the context of the misery and strife they create. With The Devil Came on Horseback, it was clear what the benefit of the film was. No one would have heard about the suffering in Darfur without it.

And to those who might say that I missed the point of this film, I would point them to Errol Morris’ own The Fog of War, which essentially is a long sustained interview with a “villain” who may have also been to some a mass murderer. The implications, context, and consequences of one man’s actions are clear, even if what we do about it is not. But we inherently as Americans should have wrestled with what we saw because we understood its context and significance. And for what it’s worth, we see a man genuinely wrestle with his conscience, in an understated but genuine way, quite the opposite of the showiness of Anwar’s coming to terms with his actions. So then what is the point of this film? What was the point of going on for 2 hours, letting these people take joy in recreating their own murderous crimes? What are we supposed to learn? What are we supposed to do?

I must quote the following from Jennifer Merin, who quotes her colleague, who also sums up my feelings about the film: “During a post-screening conversation I had with BBC Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser, he commented. ‘It’s as though a documentary filmmaker went down to Argentina, found some ex-Nazis and gave them some money to make a film about how much fun they’d had killing Jews during the Holocaust. Everyone would be horrified. But in this case, it’s about Indonesia. People don’t know as much about it, so they don’t take exception in the same way.’ Insightful and pithy, as always, Fraser’s take on the film and the general response to it just about sums up my own” (2).

But Oppenheimer has the nerve to say the message of his film is “there’s just people.” No, there are people who murder and get away with it, and boast and revel in it. But allowing them to revel in it, without ever really questioning them during the whole process, should leave Oppenheimer with a dirty feeling. Sorry, Oppenheimer, Anwar does not truly come to terms with his actions. A few minutes of hacking up phlegm, or wretching, or whatever he does, does not even begin to count as contrition. If Hitler had come to terms with his actions by getting a little sick, would that mean anything to anyone?

Even better than that, put Hitler in place of Anwar in the penultimate scene of the film. Remember the waterfall fantasy scene at the beginning of the movie? We return to that scene, this time to the tune of “Born Free” (there they go again with the whole “free man” thing) where Anwar is a god like figure, Herman is a grotesque drag queen, and beautiful dancers surround them. Insert two downtrodden dirty people who have wire around their neck, which should immediately for the viewer place these as two of Anwar’s victims. They remove the wire from their neck, and thank Anwar for “sending them to heaven.”

Grotesque. Indulgent. Complicit. Depraved.

Anyone watching this film should read the following, which calls into question the veracity of the claims of the participants in this film:

BFI Review

Also, read the few negative reviews I could find for other reasons to not praise this film:

About.com Review

Filmracket Review 

So that leaves us with the Oscar Documentary Challenge, that I should have finished a month ago. The good news is that 20 Feet From Stardom is now on streaming! So you can decide for yourself on how to rank all five documentaries nominated by the Academy. For me, the order from best to worst would be:

1. The Square

2. 20 Feet from Stardom

3. Dirty Wars

4. Cutie and the Boxer

5. The Act of Killing

Methinks that Blackfish could have been a nomination. I will have to watch that soon.

My IMDB Rating of The Act of Killing: 1 out of 10

My Netflix Rating: 1 out of 5

References:

1) APPLEBAUM, STEPHEN (13 April 2013) Indonesia’s killing fields revisited in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary. The Australian

2) MERIN, JENNIFER (2013) The Act of Killing- Movie Review- 2013. About.com