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Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Ashkan Khatabi and Amir Jafari in “Bending the Rules”

And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Hirobumi Watanabe)

And the Mud Ship Sails Away has the nonchalant, half-assed feel of one of those Downtown sketches that start out funny and then refuse to end. The opening title – “Inertia” – pretty much sums up this meandering, no-budget hymn to the tedium of life in rural Tochigi, hinging around the exploits of an unrepentant bum called Takashi (played by the manically charismatic Kiyohiko Shibukawa). Living with his superannuated grandmother, Takashi spends his days idling in front of the TV or heading to the local bowling alley and pachinko parlor, occasionally stopping off to collect unemployment benefits that get swiftly snatched away as alimony by his ex wife. The arrival of a young girl claiming to be his half-sister doesn’t upset the balance of his life – if anything, he seems more bothered by the well-heeled former schoolmate who’s now running in a local election. But, pfft, this isn’t the kind of thing you’d watch for the story: until a bewildering final quarter that’s completely at odds with the rest of the film, And the Mud Ship Sails Away is content to be a mundane, nothing-happens comedy in the vein of early Jim Jarmusch.

Au revoir l’été (Koji Fukada)

After flunking her university entrance exams, Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) joins her translator aunt on a trip to the Shonan coast, and proceeds to do what any self-respecting teen would do in the circumstances: mooch around, hit the beach and study as little as possible for her impending re-sits. When her aunt is reunited with an old flame, Sakuko quickly takes an interest in the man’s nephew, Takashi, who’s later revealed to be a refugee from Fukushima. But wait: if this has the markings of a damp-eyed coming-of-age drama, it really isn’t. Koji Fukada’s contribution to the seishun eiga genre opts for naturalism over melodrama, and if you’re willing to give yourself over to its softly-softly approach and meandering, sometimes inconsequential dialogue (confession: I found the first half-hour tough going), it’s quite a charmer. Recently seen in Sion Sono’s riotous Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Nikaido is an equally radiant lead here, even if the material doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. There are some weighty themes lurking just beneath the surface: not only the ongoing Fukushima situation, but also prostitution, infertility and adultery, though none of them are overly dwelt on, and even the potential big scenes feel deliberately underplayed. It’s a slight pleasure, leaving a lingering glow rather than a deeper, more lasting impression.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

A Prayer For Rain

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (Ravi Kumar)

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, a gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killed more than 10,000 people. In depicting the worst industrial disaster of all time, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain manages at least not to trivialize the tragedy. Heavy on the archetypes but relatively light on the melodrama, it’s elevated from TV movie-of-the-week level mainly by the quality of its production values. Ravi Kumar’s film is clearly designed for an international audience, which means shoehorning Indian history into pre-dinner banter, introducing a fictitious and wholly superfluous foreign journalist to the story (Mischa Barton), and getting Martin Sheen to channel a little of the old West Wing magic as CEO Warren Anderson. But in its determination to take an even-handed approach, the film ends up saying very little.

Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam)

Part Haneke-esque home invasion drama, part macabre modern-day fairy tale, Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman is a splendidly nasty headfuck. Turfed out of his underground lair by a shotgun-toting priest, the scrawny, hirsute protagonist (Jan Bijvoet) goes in search of a new hideout. His attempts to ingratiate himself at the luxurious home of TV producer Richard (Jeroen Perceval) ends with him getting a sound hiding, though Richard’s wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity on the stranger, allowing him inside for a bath and something to eat. But there’s something odd about this drifter, whether it’s the way he manages to slip through the house unnoticed, the pair of dogs that follow him around, or his increasing hold over Marina and her children, especially the youngest daughter, Isolde. The supernatural elements at play in Borgman are just one complicating factor in a film that keeps its secrets closely guarded. While the rakish interloper and his associates work with a meticulous, sick logic, their intentions remain opaque even once the credits roll. Borgman is content to bewilder, but it’s quite a ride.

With its working class setting, all-enveloping nihilism and lovingly filmed sex scenes, Disregarded People feels like a throwback to the golden age of Roman porno. The anti-hero of Woman with Red Hair was a charmer compared to Yusuke Mamiana, a middle-age lowlife who returns to the scene of a troubled childhood in the Goto Islands. “I’m a survivor, like a cockroach,” he tells the virtuous Kyoko – great body, shame about the enormous birthmark on her face – after her bicycle collides with him. She’s the only person who’s smiled at him since his arrival, so he rewards her by raping her, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Kyoko admits that she found inspiration in the endlessly forgiving heroine of Crime & Punishment, but try as I might, I couldn’t find any such depths in Disregarded People. It seems to wallow in, even celebrate, the inadequacies of its protagonist, whose only redemption comes through the revelation that the people around him are nearly as bad as he is. Nao Omori gives it his all as Yusuke, leering at butts and slouching as if he was bearing the world’s consternation on his sloped shoulders. But why should we care? Even Kyoko’s eventual moral corruption, depicted in an extended coda, doesn’t reveal much, in that her character was never believable in the first place. And Yusuke? His problem lies in the asset that he considers his most valuable: at the end of the day, he’s just a dick.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

The Double

The Double (Richard Ayoade)

There’s a lot going on in The Double, maybe too much. Richard Ayoade’s loose adaptation of the Dostoevsky novella locates the action in a drab, dark retro-future of indeterminate nationality (though it looks most like London). The director has mentioned AlphavilleEraserhead and Kafka’s The Trial as influences, a list to which I’d add BrazilBarton Fink and Jam (whose Chris Morris makes one of a number of distracting cameos). Our hero, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, playing to type), is a smart but socially inept office worker at a data processing firm presided over by a faintly ominous patriarch known as The Colonel. While his colleagues can’t remember his name and even the office lifts seem to be working against him, he attempts to derive small pleasures where he can, not least by creepily spying on neighbour Hana (Mia Wasikowska) with a telescope. But his life gets upended when his office employs a man who appears to be his mirror image, right down to his name, James Simon (Esienberg again, playing very much against type). Where the original is bumbling and awkward, this interloper is gregarious, confident and unashamedly lazy, getting his lookalike to do all the work while he fools around with the manager’s daughter (Yasmin Page). There’s enough here to sustain a stylish existential thriller, and The Double kept me guessing. But it feels overburdened by its eccentricities: the quirky setting starts off charming and later becomes merely distracting. I wonder if this might have been stronger – and more sinister – if Ayoade had ditched the quirk and located the action in a more grounded reality: one whose mundanity felt tangible, rather than like an affectation.

Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)

Vivacious, flirty and with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for craft beer, Kate (Olivia Wilde) is the kind of person your girlfriend probably hates. She’s maybe a little too close to Luke (Jake Johnson), the bearded charmer who works with her at a hip Chicago microbrewery, though when they go on a double date to a lakeside cabin, it’s their respective others who end up taking things too far. Drinking Buddies isn’t the first film to ask whether “just friends” can really stay that way, especially when you want to retain canoodling privileges, but it’s seldom been done this well. Writer-director Joe Swanberg has a good feel for relationships: his characters are fickle, uncertain of what they really want. But his canniest ploy is getting the cast to improvise the dialogue themselves: the conversations overlap and trail off in the way that real people talk, rather than the constantly wisecracking characters that populate most indie rom-coms. Wilde and Johnson deliver impressive performances as the will-they-won’t-they pair at the centre of the action, though I also enjoyed Anna Kendrick’s sweet, ever-so-slightly dorky turn as Luke’s other half.

Forma (Ayumi Sakamoto)

There’s an easy crack waiting to be made about Ayumi Sakamoto’s Forma, a film where form is exactly what’s lacking. There’s probably a taut 90-minute psychological drama hiding within the blubber of this needlessly drawn-out flick, in which even the big reveal takes nearly half an hour. Sakamoto worked on a number of Shinya Tsukamoto films, though the director’s preference for brevity clearly hasn’t rubbed off. Ayako (Nagisa Umeno), a single office worker living with her father, has a chance encounter with former schoolmate Yukari (Emiko Matsuoka), who’s managed to snag an eligible fiancé despite working as security at a construction site. When Ayako offers her a job at the same company, Yukari takes it, though it soon becomes clear that her old friend’s intentions may not be altogether charitable. Forma derives much of its power from implication: key moments are played out off-camera, motivations left unclear, while the non-chronological structure allows it to withhold key information in a way that makes its effects on the characters feel all the more disquieting. But the pacing is too languid for it to sustain tension across its 145-minute running time; all those long-distance shots sap the momentum even before we get to the film’s big, exhausting set-piece. There’s plenty here to suggest that Sakamoto might be a name to watch, but for her next film I’d suggest drafting in a stringent editor.

Jîn (Reha Erdem)

It opens with rugged mountain vistas, intercut with close-ups of insects and animals at play, and then… BOOM. Gunfire and explosions strafe the forest, aimed at 17-year-old Jîn (Deniz Hasgüler) and her Kurdish separatist comrades. Reha Erdem’s film, one of two screening at TIFF this year, offers two hours of sweeping landscapes and Thomas Hardy-grade strife, as our eponymous heroine attempts to survive in a world populated by men who seem only interested in either raping her or blowing her up. Very little is explained here: when she descends from the craggy peaks and attempts to leave the area, it’s never entirely clear if Jîn’s cover story about visiting a sick grandmother is really true. In Erdem’s conception, the Turkish troops who threaten the heroine’s existence take on the same elemental quality as any other force of nature; partly because of budget constraints, the army helicopters and planes are heard rather than seen, with the gunshots and explosions seeming to come out of nowhere.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)

The most inspiring argument for the importance of ambition and inspiration in moviemaking at this year’s TIFF came from a film about a film that you’ll never actually be able to watch. In retrospect, it seems bizarre to consider that Alejandro Jodorowsky might ever have been handed the reins of a big-budget sci-fi picutre; back in the mid-’70s, pre-Star Wars and with memories of his lysergic masterpiece The Holy Mountain still fresh, it probably seemed even stranger. But the Chilean celluloid messiah wasn’t just approaching studios with a hazy concept: he had the whole thing mapped out in detail, with storyboards by Moebius, artwork by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, music by Magma and Pink Floyd, and a cast including Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. Frank Pavich’s sublimely enjoyable documentary makes the sensible decision to let Jodorowsky himself do most of the talking, and the 84-year-old is on hilarious form. His description of the games he played with Dalí in order to get the artist on board – the surrealist agreed to take part if it made him the most lavishly paid film star of all time (oh, and he wanted a burning giraffe) – is just one brilliant anecdote in a film that’s full of them. Storyboard animations recreate some of the intended sequences from the film, while its would-be director and many of the other key players recount the years that they spent producing a staggeringly detailed treatment. (One can only hope that this document, packaged in a hefty coffee table book of which only a few copies now remain, is eventually made available to a wider readership.) Jodorowsky’s tale is one of almost messianic vision and extraordinary good luck – at least, that is, until he headed to Hollywood in an attempt to get a studio on board to finance the project. It’s a crying, if not entirely surprising, shame that this film never got made, yet Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is utterly infectious.

Love is the Perfect Crime (Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu)

Mathieu Amalric – short, nervy, bulgy-eyed Mathieu Amalric – is irresistible to women. Teaching creative writing at an Alpine university, Marc has pert young students lining up for a taste of the action, though unfortunately one of them has the temerity to die post-coitus. When the girl’s distraught stepmother (Maïwenn) turns up at campus, he attempts to seduce her – while at the same time trying to resist the advances of a persistent student, fob off the detective investigating the case, and stop his department head copping off with his sister, Marianne (this being a sibling relationship that, let’s say, goes places it probably shouldn’t). Love is the Perfect Crime draws inevitable, and not especially flattering, comparisons to Hitchcock and the more noirish Coen brothers films. Amalric is an immensely watchable actor, though I just couldn’t believe that he’d be an industrial-grade chick magnet, and his character here is resolutely unsympathetic to boot. The plot’s twists are mostly pedestrian (particularly a final reveal that you’ll probably see coming way in advance), and it’s only intermittently tense. On the plus side, Amalric’s isn’t the only engaging performance here: Karin Viard is on particularly fine form as his incestuous sibling.

Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson)

This blackly comic ensemble piece crams more incident into its 81 minutes than I would ever have expected from an arthouse film set in rural Iceland. The barren countryside provides the setting for a series of interwoven tales of accidental death, horse shooting, local rivalries and simmering middle-aged passions. It’s like The Archers with better scenery. The film is amusing in places and frequently attractive to look at, and the 300-strong cast of horses is impressively marshaled. Would that we were given time to care about any of the humans involved. Director Benedikt Erlingsson is working in the Short Cuts mould, but at less than half that film’s running time, it’s hard for any of the stories in Of Horses and Men to gain much traction. Scenes that might have marked the emotional high point of another film are tossed off every 10 minutes or so, and by the time one of the characters disembowels his steed to take shelter inside it during a snowstorm, I was pretty much past caring. The closest the film comes to finding a running thread is in the relationship between the prim, kind-of-handsome Kolbeinn (Ingvar E Sigurdsson) and his neighbour Sólveig (Charlotte Bøving), which is complicated somewhat when her stallion forces its affections on his prized mare. There’s pleasure to be had in watching how this one-sided romance gets resolved, with its implication that human relationships aren’t really any more complicated – or tidier – than between horses.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

“Patema Inverted” (© Yasuhiro YOSHIURA/Sakasama Film Committee 2013)

Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura)

Up is down and down is up for the protagonists of Patema Inverted, a plucky fantasy that should provide a brief pick-me-up for anyone mourning Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. After an experiment to extract energy from gravity goes horribly wrong, much of the planet is sucked into the sky, while the earthbound survivors huddle together in a comforting authoritarian state where people go to school and work on oh-so-allegorical conveyor belts. But there’s a whole different world lurking just beneath the surface – one where physics has been flipped on its head. When Patema ventures to the surface, everything is upended: ceilings become floors, and the sky is a terrifying, gaping void, waiting to carry her off. Fortunately, she immediately runs into Age, a sympathetic youngster who discovers that this inverted, gravity-defying girl comes in handy as a human air balloon. But can our topsy-turvy twosome conquer the forces aligned against them, chiefly the refusal of their respective worlds to acknowledge each others’ existence? Patema Inverted skips along at a brisk pace, and though there are plenty of rote anime elements (off-the-rack characters, generic production design, self-aware in-jokes at the expense of atmosphere), the ingenious concept and occasionally inspired visuals were enough to compensate. And while some modern anime feels incredibly jaded, this one keeps its sense of wonder throughout.

Red Family (Lee Ju-hyoung)

The eponymous Red Family – a quartet of North Korean agents living undercover in a suburb of Seoul – have been embedded for so long that their squabbling, feckless next-door neighbours have begun to resemble a paragon of domestic contentment. Other comedies have thrived in less likely scenarios, but this Kim Ki-duk-penned production never really gets off the ground. The opening minutes make it abundantly clear that Red Family won’t be a work of realism, but it’s too clumsy in its sloganeering to pass for satire, and too nasty to work as a knockabout farce. (Does a film this broad in its stereotypes really need to be so realistic in its violence?) It’s worth sticking around mainly for the finale, where – having resigned themselves to execution by their shadowy overseers – the agents role-play one of the domestic tiffs that they overheard between their neighbors earlier in the film. It’s a scene of such weirdness, and conducted at such a hysterical emotional pitch, that I found it genuinely cathartic. If only the rest of the movie had yielded even a glimmer of that originality.

Rigor Mortis (Juno Mak)

First-time director Juno Mak’s tribute to the Hong Kong vampire movies of old, Rigor Mortis is so desaturated that even the mortal characters have a deathly pallor. Haphazardly paced and sometimes downright confusing (a working knowledge of the genre might help, but then again maybe not), it works mainly on the strength of its visuals and some strong performances from a cast of predominantly veteran actors. Chin Siu-ho (playing himself, kinda), is a washed-up screen star who moves into what must be the least densely populated apartment block in the city – too bad that he’s picked the scene of a gory murder-suicide as his new abode. Before long, he’s had a pair of ghost vampires attempt to occupy his body, mid-suicide attempt – though it turns out that there’s a far wider range of spooky happenings taking place in the building. Mak (who also wrote the screenplay) prefers to explain via flashback, and sometimes not to explain at all, meaning that there are significant stretches of the film where – if you’re anything like me – you might find yourself wondering what on earth’s going on. The climactic showdown is undoubtedly impressive to watch, but I’d struggle to tell you what actually happened; ditto the twist ending. Veterans of the original Mr Vampire series appear – not just Chin, but also Antony Chan as a past-his-prime vampire hunter who struts around all day in a gown and underwear. But it’s Nina Paw who leaves the most lasting impression, bringing real depth and vulnerability to the role of a bereaved widow who goes to desperate lengths to bring her spouse back.

A Street in Palermo (Emma Dante)

Rosa (writer-director Emma Dante) and her girlfriend, Clara (Alba Rohrwacher), have been having a heated argument when they come nose to nose in a narrow street with a car driven by Samira (Elena Cotta), the mute, long-suffering mother-in-law of Saro and his extended family. When both women refuse to back down, the situation escalates to farcical extremes, as the street’s residents first implore the outsiders to move along, then start placing bets on which of the drivers will budge first. It’s too bad that the titular street in Palermo is clearly wide enough for two vehicles to pass, because otherwise this is a wickedly satirical window into Sicilian culture and the extents of human stubbornness. While the brutish Saro (Renato Malfatti) and his male cohorts assume they’re in control of the situation, it’s the women who end up taking the upper hand; there’s a brilliant little standoff at one point, where Rosa and Samira leave their vehicles to toss away the food that’s been brought out to them, then watch each other pee in the street. Dante films most of the proceedings in restless close-up shots that seem to cling to the action, supplying momentum even when the narrative sags halfway through. Stick with it, though: the closing shot is absolutely glorious.

The Tale of Iya (Tetsuichiro Tsuta)

The publicity material for The Tale of Iya makes much of the fact that it was shot on 35mm, as if the medium was what made golden-age Japanese cinema so good. It’s a distraction (though I’ll say it: the visuals have a texture and richness that’s been far too absent in Japanese cinema since the indie crowd went digital). Director Tetsuichiro Tsuta may be a disciple of the masters, but he’s done more than just mimic their techniques here. This is a big, bold, shaggy picture, part Naked Island realism, part fantastical eco-parable. In the opening sequence, a lone mountain man stumbles upon a crashed car and its sole survivor, a baby girl. Flash forward and that girl is now an impossibly plucky high schooler who the locals compare to Princess Mononoke. Living together in an isolated mountain house, they go about their lives with steadfast devotion, doggedly hauling supplies and water up the slopes every day. Meanwhile, a group of predominantly foreign tree-huggers are waging a campaign against the construction of a mountain tunnel that they claim will disrupt the valley’s ecosystem (or something like that – this is by far the weakest segment of the film). And then there’s the idealistic Tokyoite with zero back story (Shima Onishi) who gets it into his head that mountain farming is cool. The Tale of Iya seems to change its mind a few times about what it wants to be, which only really becomes a problem during an extended, Tokyo-based coda that verges into science fiction territory.

There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of (Hisashi Saito)

To say that not much happens in There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of would be an understatement. Hisashi Saito’s film is a tender, well acted and beautifully lensed portrait of a married couple with lives even more mundane than mine is. Eri and Fumiya are a young, happily married couple whose lives together seem like a model of domestic harmony (he even gets up early to make breakfast) – and, though they don’t make a big deal about it, they aren’t about to let kids screw things up. While he gets up late and comes home even later from his unspecified salaryman job, she works at an arthouse cinema (which should give you an idea of where the flick expects to find its audience). I found it hard to dislike There’s Nothing…, because what it does, it does well. It’s just that there’s so little dramatic grit here; what could have been a pivotal scene comes too late, and then seems not to have left as deep an effect on our protagonists as you might think it would. In a recurring motif, Eri reads aloud from a storybook she’s borrowed from a colleague – something that initially seems like a symbol for the couple’s unborn child, though I later began to suspect it was just because it was more interesting than what’s happening onscreen.

Those Happy Years (Daniele Luchetti)

“Can we at least smash the car outside?” Guido’s sons ask as he turfs them out of his art studio so he can cavort with an attractive model. “Sure,” he replies, “here are some tools.” Daniele Luchetti’s autobiographical Those Happy Years draws on his experiences growing up in the 1970s, and the not-so-watchful eyes of a self-obsessed artist father and a mother increasingly exploring her own independence and sexuality. These two wouldn’t win any parenting awards, but they’re depicted with genuine affection, even when Guido is punching an art critic who savaged his lousy performance piece, or Serena is getting rather too intimate with a female friend at a feminist camp in France. The period detail is subtly done (the soundtrack only features a few songs from the period). It’s a warmly nostalgic work, funny and sexy, with a commanding performance by Micaela Ramazzotti.

Tinker Ticker (Kim Jung-hoon)

Tinker Ticker is a stylish executed low-budget thriller based around a conceit so implausible that I was longing for the whole thing to self-destruct. Life hasn’t been kind to Jung-gu since he blew up an abusive teacher while at high school, but he’s trying to get things back on track with a respectable university job, even if it means he has to sleep in his car every night. Oh, and he also makes bombs that he offers to people for free on the Internet. Eh? After running into a headstrong student with a surly pout worthy of a K-pop group, Jung-gu anonymously gifts the kid with one of his creations, so helping his latent sociopathy bloom. This begins a cat-and-mouse game between bomb maker and bomber – only with the former giving the latter his tools. It might somehow make sense if the script explained why Jung-gu behaved the way he does, but it’s awfully fuzzy on the psychology. Is this a budding bromance? Is he using a surrogate to enact his own violent urges? Without that key piece, Tinker Ticker is hobbled; worse, it just ends up seeming rather silly.

Notes on Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

“To Live and Die in Ordos” (© Inner Mongolia Blue Hometown Production Co., Ltd)

To Live and Die in Ordos (Ning Ying)

Genuinely virtuous characters present a challenge to filmmakers; if it’s a real-life character, you’re practically opening yourself up to charges of hagiography. To Live and Die in Ordos doesn’t quite manage to avoid that fate itself. Hao Wanzhong (Wang Jingchun), police chief in the resource-rich city of Ordos in Inner Monoglia, drops dead at the tender age of 41, leaving behind him an apparently unimpeachable legacy. When a po-faced, sceptical political journalist (Sun Liang) is assigned to write an article about him, he initially declines the job on the grounds that anything he produced would be ripped apart by China’s millions of netizens. But could it be that Hao was actually as unblemished as his reputation suggests? The journalist’s investigations are mixed with flashbacks to Hao’s life, sometimes jumping from one to the other in ways that are formally ingenious, though which never seem to imply that there’s a gap between the reality and people’s accounts of it. At the end of the day, Ordos doesn’t reveal much about its subject other than that he cared more about his work than his family and could be a bit bossy, and its wider critiques of society are muted at best. Fine performances and respectable production values make it an agreeable watch, but as the realisation dawned that it wasn’t inching towards any deeper insights, my attention waned.

Unbeatable (Dante Lam)

Friday night entertainment doesn’t come much finer than Unbeatable, Dante Lam’s pummeling, unapologetically ripe tale of buff men finding redemption through MMA. MM what? Don’t worry: it’s nothing that a couple of montage sequences can’t prepare you for, and they’ve got ringside TV commentators to explain tactics to the audience without being too blatant about it. Nick Cheung is Ching “Scumbag” Fai, the former boxing champ turned indebted ne’er-do-well, who ends up sharing an apartment in Macau with an emotionally troubled mother and her cute, precocious daughter. (To its credit, the film doesn’t sidestep the issue of mental illness, and this potentially tricky plot point is handled reasonably well.) Fai finds work at his friend’s gym, where – between conducting boxercise classes with dumpy middle-aged women – he ends up training Qi (Eddie Peng), the son of a disgraced businessman, who’s searching for meaning of his own in the ring. If this sounds over-familiar, there’s still pleasure in seeing tropes done well – and the story takes enough unexpected turns to hold the attention. Cheung’s considerable charm helps carry things, of course, though the depiction of him and his cohabitants fumbling their way towards something like contentment aren’t as cloying as they could be. Then again, it’s in the ring that the film really comes into its own: shot cleanly, without the shaky camerawork and flurry of edits that seem to pass for fight sequences in most Hollywood films, the MMA scenes are electrifying to watch. It helps that Lam’s cast clearly know their way around a fistfight and are in peak physical condition; as a friend commented, the 45-year-old Cheung’s rippling muscles are the most impressive visual effect he’s seen in a fair while.

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (Mouly Surya)

This dreamy Indonesian drama isn’t as Carver-esque as the title might suggest. Set in the hermetic (though alarmingly loosely supervised) world of a special needs school, it follows the contrasting efforts of two female students to find love. While Diana (Karina Salim) pines for a fellow student, Fitri (Ayushita Nugraha) is courted by a deaf-mute punk who seduces her by pretending to be a ghost doctor. The musical number that opens the film suggests that it’s going to be a real original, and the remainder doesn’t quite live up to that promise, even if it’s peppered with arresting moments. Some of the best bits just hinge on a smart mise-en-scène, as when Diana listens to a radio drama while her roommates preen and pray around her. The loose, impressionistic structure means that it drags more than it should at this kind of running time, and the side plots can feel more like distractions, but there’s still plenty to like here.


Click here for our a rather more concise Tokyo International Film Festival 2013 report

James Hadfield writes about music, film and other stuff. You can find him at @JamesHadfield

Bling, Babes, and the American Way

Bling, Babes, and the American Way

Sometimes the facts of the matter just don’t add up. The sum of human knowledge being what it is, the Internet benefiting us near total access of poetry, literature, philosophy, and music, and yet Kim Kardashian is among the most famous Americans on the planet. Triumphant geeks in apotheosis boast of their roles in the Information Age, and that said product is now our nation’s largest export. What does it say about our society when the most famous people in America are merely famous for being famous? I know politicians are liars and crooks, athletes dopers and cheaters, movie stars knuckleheads and pop stars vain divas but pretty, plastic women lounging on tacky furniture and behaving vacuously are hardly an ideal alternative. The state of heroism in America has never been in such dire shape. Does our fascination with “reality” stars reflect our own base qualities, that of unbridled consumerism, obsession with material wealth, and mediocre humanist ambitions? Will “keeping up” in our hyper-capitalistic society be now and forever making enough chump change to appropriate the latest fashions instead of to understand evolving thoughts and ideas? Accepting this spiritual vacuum while sucking down our venti foam-free nonfat lattes, should we ironically tweet this quiet longterm apocalypse on our iPhone 5 or just Facebook “like” it?

Bling, Babes, and the American Way

The Bling Ring Film Poster
These questions are explored but not answered in Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, which depressingly enough is based on a true story. The narrative, sadly, is pathetic, our characters hapless victims of the glossy sheen of fashion rags and TV gossip riffraff. Set in Calabasas, California (embarrassing disclaimer: this is a five-minute commute from the author’s hometown in Los Angeles’ West Valley), High School transfer student Marc (Israel Broussard), a quiet, sexually ambiguous teen with ruffled handsomeness, abandons new-kid-in-town pariah status for a friendship with Rebecca (Katie Chang), one of the said victims of target-market trash, but also a bit of a bad girl. At a party they steal a car and joy ride, taking the cash and credit cards with them. Later upping the ante, the break into an acquaintance’s residence making off with the house Porsche.

Teenagers, while bored and sulky, can also be enterprising, and googling the address of Paris Hilton (out of town in Vegas), they locate her house in the Hollywood Hills. Paris has no alarm system, and bright as a falling star disintegrating in Earth’s atmosphere, has conveniently left the key under the doormat (remember: based on a true story!). The two then romp through her digs, the dresses, the shoes, the unbelievably awful decor (being Paris Hilton’s real crib this is arguably the film’s major meta moment). Later at a nightclub they boast of their audacity to beautiful loser babes Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). They want in on the bling and further burglaries are undertaken with minimal regard, not only to moral considerations but also humdrum ones like keeping a clean trail so as not to be apprehended by the police.

You know they are going to get caught. But this isn’t a film about thieves’ derring-do or slick detective work. It’s about our present-day culture and the pathetic turn our values have taken. The girls worship celebrated non-entities, but failing to be as famous or glamorous as them, seem to believe the Chanel handbags and Ferragamo heels have some talismanic power. That the luxury goods were pilfered in the celebrities’ homes conspires all the more intimacy onto the acquisitions. But a bag is just a bag, even if these kids are too naive to understand it. There could never be enough designer swag to fill their lives because the emptiness that they’ve glimpsed is too vast for them to begin reckoning.

Corrupted bubbleheads the bling ring ladies might seem, I’d argue they earned their notoriety better than the Kardashians and Hiltons ever did. Click To Tweet

I am not sure how to interpret Sofia Coppola’s handling of the events. She tells the kids’ rise and fall quite straightforwardly, never quite judging the girls even if she makes it okay to laugh at them. There is no arc to the characters– they don’t learn from their mistakes or evolve as human beings. They are without meaning or purpose, and when your heroes fail basic tests of humanity, it means your film fails too. That said, The Bling Ring is not a bad movie. And it is not necessarily forgettable. It exists as a mile marker on our collective road to lamentable insipidness. It’s well-made, a nice little package of popcorn fluff with a hint of salty social commentary. Nevertheless, beautiful banality is still, in the end, banality.

The ill-conceived attempts to have designer label goods is hardly an American phenomenon. Famously, for several decades, teenaged girls in Japan have blemished their reputations with “compensated dating,” entertaining lonely lackluster salarymen in karaoke bars so they might have their own beloved Louis Vuitton purse. Rank materialism is not even an American invention– aristocrats the world over throughout thousands of years have been doing a lot worse to serfs, slaves, and laborers in order to finance their privileged extravagances.

The Real Bling Ring...For Real Son

The Real Bling Ring…For Real Son

American society is more stratified today than it has been for almost a century. With the death of the middle class accelerating, so has one of the pillars of American belief, mainly the one that declares hard work lays the foundation for success and respectability. That concept, though always more a myth than a reality, has never seemed less true when the average citizen considers today’s corporate hegemony and our declining status in the power structure. It’s telling then that the girls being home-schooled in the movie are not being taught the five paragraph essay or complex algorithms. Their main instruction comes from the bestselling self-help blather, The Secret, and its dubious, unprovable argument that positive thinking is the difference in life between success and failure. But believing you deserve success because you’re special is not exactly how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.

The real life Bling Ring gals are quite famous now, infinitely more so than you or me, no matter how much work we’ve put into our careers. Very few of us can boast of being the subject of a Vanity Fair feature and biopic made by a Hollywood auteur. Many of the girls have their own wikipedia pages. And if they play their cards right the silly creatures might even coast on those fifteen seconds of fame a good twenty years on low-standards cable networks, making enough dough so they won’t ever have to heist their bling again.

The American Dream is a malleable, personal vision, best described by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 as “the pursuit of happiness.” Corrupted bubbleheads the bling ring ladies might seem, I’d argue they earned their notoriety better than the Kardashians and Hiltons ever did. At least they took some chances and did something, as wrongheaded, misguided, and rapacious their actions might have been, it wasn’t nothing.

That’s more than you could say about plenty of American heroes today.

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Spaz-Be

In America, our cultural institutions tend towards blowing shit up — think Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and various buff villain-thrashing superheroes. Yet for all our notorious bubblegum philistinism, we read too, and there are certain literary characters that are quite beloved: Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield, Ignatius Reilly, and Captain Ahab, to name but a few, all of whom are so peculiar to our imaginations, it would be offensive for any filmmaker to appropriate them in some caricatural form. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is another such character only the most audacious artist would hazard to interpret in cinematic light.

The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel for no small reasons. The story’s titular character makes good on the American Dream, accomplishes the most spectacular romantic gesture in all of literature, and dies tragically, his rise and fall and all too brief happiness narrated in exquisite prose by a fair and compassionate friend. It doesn’t just define the Jazz Age generation, but America itself: our material obsessions, class divisions, brutal selfishness, careless violence, and yet, also our occasional noble impulse towards doing the right thing. Published almost ninety years ago it remains extraordinarily readable, and in fact, every generation is introduced to it in middle or high school. I myself have read it at least a half dozen times, coming back to it every few years as one returns to a refuge well known and thoroughly loved. If Gatsby is not sacred, it is at the very least, a national treasure.

The Great Spaz-Be


The stars of Gatsby getting Bazzed

Enter Baz Luhrmann, an Australian filmmaker with a boom boom aesthetic. From his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge, he tends to lobotomize his audience with bombastic anachronistic dance numbers performed uptempo by shrill ninnies, manically spliced together with attention deficit MTV-style jump cuts that leave many muttering WTF and contemplating four hits of aspirin. His style is so over-the-top, Australians have even adapted his name into their lexicon in the event something is performed with too much intensity, as in, “OMG, he just bazzed the shit out of that.”

Full disclosure: I was horrified when I first saw the film trailer for The Great Gatsby. To put it in contemporary idiomatic terms, I was bazzed out of my mind. Worst of all was the revelation of a 3D version. How dare an Australian, especially one as obnoxious as Luhrmann, treat an American masterpiece as a dumbed down Cliffnotes-condensed soul-free blockbuster, tailored to summer vacation adolescents with rapid-fire mouse-click attention spans? Sure I played with GI Joe and Transformers as a kid, but their adaptations by Hollywood as disposable spectacles never bothered me; on the other hand, messing with Fitzgerald was tantamount to sacrilege, to pissing on a legend’s grave. Not only would I hate Luhrmann’s effort, I was ready to take real pleasure in my loathing.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t love it either, the operative word being “pleasant.” It’s no masterpiece but it’s not exactly profane either. It’s mostly a loyal rendering of the novel, much of Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose intact, well acted, and rating relatively low on the Baz scale of migraine-inducement (perhaps though I wouldn’t be so generous had I not watched it in 2D). On the most important scenes, Luhrmann hits some right notes, so that loyal Fitzgeraldians (such as this writer) are entertained by his riff. It’s definitely not great, but it’s good enough.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. Click To Tweet

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

It is never easy adapting any book into a film, especially one as beautifully written as The Great Gatsby, so Luhrmann and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce, establish a narrative conceit in which Nick Carroway, the story’s narrator (Tobey Maguire), is reflecting on his friendship with Gatsby from a sanitarium in in the Midwest. It’s a rather bold liberty taken by the director, but a competent, perhaps necessary trick to not only frame the story but incorporate its most lucid prose (though it was a leap to have the character Nick Carroway compose his thoughts into a novel so that we have suddenly a cheap little happy ending– the struggling writer’s redemption, one more American Dream coming true?).

Maguire makes a good Nick Carroway, a greenhorn New Yorker working in bonds, an above average everyman with a trusting face that invites the divulgence of rather personal confidences. He lives in a little cottage next to a grand (albeit digitalized) fairy tale castle inhabited by a mysterious man who throws lavish parties, as it turns out, with the singular hope that a woman he once loved and now married in her own palatial residence across the bay, might attend and perhaps recover the past with him. The story then, roughly described, is a ménage à trois involving Jay Gatsby and the Buchanans, Tom and Daisy.

Australian actor Joel Edgerton nails millionaire simpleton Tom Buchanan’s rough self-centered posturing. His Tom is Old Money petulance, threatened equally by new money parvenus like Gatsby and “the colored races.” Tom, seemingly incapable of love and trust, lives in a very small, disenchanted world. I didn’t think British actress Carey Mulligan — best known for playing ingenues — could pull off Daisy Buchanan, a bitter scion’s wife, but Mulligan musters just enough vapidity to conjure Daisy, whose bubbly, banal non-sequiturs are so telling of the pampered, vacuous life she has accepted with her philandering husband. Her Daisy is pretty, not beautiful, and exhausted before her time.

Daisy only really snaps to life once she rekindles her love affair with Jay Gatsby. Now I’m not sure Leonardo DiCaprio was the right choice for Gatsby. I don’t dislike DiCaprio, but I’ve never understood his continuing fame. He’s definitely an intelligent actor, but I’ve always found his intensity somewhat forced or overdone. There also remains the aura of the child actor about him — he never seemed to grow up, or at least I cannot seem to separate the adolescent DiCaprio from the adult one. Moreover, he is Leonardo DiCaprio, one of those actors so famous it is difficult for the audience member to ignore his celebrity, suspending belief. Thus I had a problem with his casting as Gatsby, a by-his-bootstraps success story in the black market economy. It goes contrary to Hollywood’s economic logic, of course, but the film might have been better with a talented theatrical unknown. (Watching The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t help feeling that DiCaprio was reprising his role in Titanic. It’s a similar character in remarkably similar circumstances, a charming riffraff in love with a wealthy debutante, romance thwarted by a wealthy rival suitor, culminating in a tragic death.)

DiCaprio as Gatsby is a metaphor for the film’s overall artifice, in which everything is just plain unreal. Gatsby’s famous parties are indescribably hyperactive productions emceed by a Cab Calloway ripoff, the dancers choreographed to Jay Z tunes sung by Beyonce and Andre 3000 (even Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is anachronistic, having been written two years after the story takes place in 1922). Luhrmann’s song and dance scenes are always very camp, as if he is doing a feverish homage to the most egregious cliches of Broadway musicals. His interpretation of the Roaring Twenties is that of squawking peacocks prancing on Ritalin-laced champagne. It’s a fun party, sure, if you played hooky from school only to spend all that freedom watching MTV’s Total Request Live.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. And though it tries too hard to filter a historical New York for a modern and easily distracted audience, its fantastical environment has some magical elements. The film, like the novel, is rife with awkward moments shared between people who don’t really like or respect one another. Luhrmann, while probably the last person you’d want to share a double cappuccino with, does seem to have a deft touch with his actors. Their heartfelt aspirations and disappointments (even DiCaprio’s Gatsby) manage to transcend the green screen effect. There is just enough pathos in the performances to balance the enthusiasm of CGI effects artists.

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby Baz Luhrmann

So what you have in our generation’s Gatsby is not a work of art, but competent entertainment. Fitzgerald was a thoroughly successful writer — the voice of his generation — because he was very au courant. I couldn’t help wondering whether he would condone or condemn this very modern take on his novel. Would he have been embarrassed by the spectacle? Or proud of its terrific box office success and its marquee stature? It’s impossible to say, of course, because F. Scott was a very complicated artist, infinitely more so than the Hollywood philistines attempting to profit off his name recognition.

Of course, directors don’t spend a year or two of their lives just making anything. What was the allure for the Baz? Does he see something of himself in Gatsby, a misunderstood self-made genius who brings people together (actors and audience) to celebrate what he envisions a beautiful bacchanalian vision of existence? It seems like all of Baz Luhrmann’s movies, in their very peculiar noise levels, are more or less about Baz Luhrmann. I am obviously not a fan, but I’ll go so far to say this for him: at least he has a personal vision, so much so that his name has become part of our vernacular. He doesn’t fail altogether. His adaptation is low grade irreverence — it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

Nevertheless, I would like to finish this review with an appeal to Mr. Luhrmann: we’ll give you a free pass now, but word to the wise, attempting to baz Holden Caulfield with your lurid hyperkinesia and faux musical numbers denouncing “phonies” will not be forgiven as clever irony. Any more tampering with our beloved classics is done so with considerable bodily risk.

Gene Hackman The Conversation Best Spy FIlms

Best Spy Films

Best Spy Films

Is Michael Caine really the greatest spy of all time…?

What is the allure with espionage? Where does the public fascination come from? Is it the admiration of the lone man (or woman) who, using his (or her) advanced tactical survival skills, against all odds, manages to find the right combination of intelligence tidbits, which added up, end the evil machinations of runaway discretionary programs of the CIA’s leader elite? That’s the gist of the Bourne Trilogy (the film versions anyway): if you awakened and realized you were a straight up CIA-trained ninja, would you continue to assassinate just anyone for the clandestine wing of your country’s not-so-clandestine intelligence agency? Or would you go rogue and become the rugged individualist we all pretend to admire and aspire to be? Because at the heart of it, that’s what it’s all about: Survival & Individualism. The eschewing of the Social Contract for the greater good. Usually anyway. Patriotism tends to get convoluted and mired in bureaucratic red tape.

So did the CIA's longterm planning foresee such a cause and effect? Is there unbiased longterm planning at all? Click To Tweet

Best Spy Films

The Art of Intelligence – Even the cover is intelligent…

Henry A. Crumpton, in The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, reveals the human side of the clandestine service. His title is taken from two books: The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Craft of Intelligence by longtime CIA Director Allen Dulles. His thesis, that the heart of intelligence is “human espionage,” is not so much anti-techno-bureaucracy as it is revelatory of the importance of human emotion. “Emotion, of course, can undermine and destroy human relationships and lives, especially in the espionage world.” He goes on, “At its most elemental, spying is about understanding and influencing the scope of behavior, from evil to exalted, and maneuvering through this emotional labyrinth in pursuit of valuable information otherwise unavailable.” Espionage is access. And wherever you go, depending on whom it’s directed, it’s illegal as hell.

Look at what happens when the tables are turned on the establishment, from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange (designated as an “enemy of state” by the U.S. government) and Chelsea Manning to U.S. authorities charging Edward Snowden with “theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person…”, the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act. And now there is Edward Snowden.

It is naive to say that we don’t need a clandestine service, but how much and to what end? Is it not our obsession with espionage that necessitates it? The CIA-trained Mujahideen fought a proxy war against the USSR and were then split up in a grueling civil war for twelve years when the Cold War ended and financing the American spy state dwindled as discretionary budgets dried up and U.S. dollars and infrastructure failed to follow up our initial mission. The Taliban eventually rose to power, thus enabling a terrorist state that gave shelter to Al-Qaeda. This, according to the Obama-commissioned report produced by the CIA on how arming rebels does not work, is the greatest success story. So did the CIA’s longterm planning foresee such a cause and effect? Is there unbiased longterm planning at all? With all the taxpayer money spent abroad, shouldn’t there be? Does the innate fear that the American people, and people in general, are not sufficiently mentally equipped to handle the hard truths of how the world really works, still function? Has it ever? Whence this real-world apathy on the one hand and this film spy-mania on the other?

In his recent book Sincerity, R. Jay Magill Jr. talks about how “sincerity has a lot to do with our religious traditions. America was founded on the church…they were these wacky Puritans who wanted to create an absolutely transparent society. (They believed) there should be no secrets, personality should be transparent, we should reveal all motives at all times to all members of the community — because that’s what God wants. And that led to a miserably crushing and horrible society where everyone was afraid. They were afraid not only of being spied on, but also that they were not of the elect.”

Best Spy Films

Best Spy FIlms

Harry Caul is about to discover the worst thing ever in the toilet…

While today it is a combination of Thriller and Action genres, its roots as a mixture of Film Noir to Suspense and Murder Mystery, the Espionage genre too has been taken to its penultimate in story-telling before anyone else got a chance, by the director most obsessed with the subtle twisting of human emotions under duress: Alfred Hitchcock. A good portion of his filmography reads like a spy-lover’s guidebook on how to inadvertently get into the spy game. Beyond the genius of 39 Steps and whether it’s faking your own death as in Secret Agent (1936), uncovering a terrorist plot as in Sabotage (1936), vacationing Africa with your family as in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1939, remade in 1956), being accused of a terrorist plot as in Saboteur (1942) or a case of mistaken identity in North By Northwest (1959), Hitchcock used the espionage trope as a means of exploring the myriad persona of human emotion we embody, often simultaneously, to the extent that we actually come to embody the mask we are given. i.e. we are all actually some measure of the spy.

...we couldn't survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie Click To Tweet

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), filmed during the Watergate era, centers around a sound surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) with his own mind-boggling privacy issues, who discovers more than he bargains when his recording of a conversation in a crowded public square makes Caul think twice about what he’s involved in. The ultimate depiction of the conflicted American techno-pro who finally discovers what it means to be human, including arriving late to the party.

The ostensible sequel to The Conversation, Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998) is better than his own Spy Game (2001), but not by much. And mostly due to Gene Hackman’s energetic portrayal of retired NSA agent-gone-underground Edward Lyle. So true to life is Enemy that Former NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden “was appalled” by the portrayal of the NSA and responded with a PR campaign (ostensibly the worst PR campaign ever), as written in State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration by James Risen (2006). “I made the judgment that we couldn’t survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie,” he told CNN in a 2001 segment “Inside the NSA: The Secret World of Electronic Spying”.

To wit: a tense Hollywood spy thriller depicting rogue NSA agents reading emails, intercepting phone calls, and persecuting innocent citizens. The then-director of the NSA categorically denies this depiction in the Sunday morning talk circuit of the mainstream media. The NSA then creates (a) program(s) that more or less does this exact type of thing (minus Jason Robards killing senators). As Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Indeed. The more realistic spy thrillers become the higher the expectations of the viewer. Showing the NSA bugging peoples’ lives at will in 1998 doesn’t work in 2013. What’s next? Independent para-military contractors deployed as NGO workers in disaster areas? Computerized drone strikes occur at random on American soil blamed on terrorist militia cells? Brad Pitt as zombie infiltrator to help fight armies of the undead? Or do we go back to zero and show how the boring and bureaucratic the system really is?

Best Spy Films

The spies populating John le Carre’s novels are every quiet man you pass on the street

“When I first began writing,” the realistic spy-thriller author John le Carré relates, “Ian Fleming was riding high and the picture of the spy was that of a character who could have affairs with women, drive a fast car, who used gadgetry and gimmickry to escape.” Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley – super-schlub rather than super-spy, opts for the methodical and the mundane — believability over design. Among the number of his novels which have been filmed, the most recent (although A Most Wanted Man is set for release this year) is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) directed by Tomas Alfredson (Låt Den Rätte Komma In– 2008). Though what may have projected the spy novel as billion dollar film goer fanfare would be The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, le Carré’s 1963 Cold War era novel (he wrote the screenplay as well) that starred Richard Burton as the troubled Alec Leamas on one last mission. If you know le Carré’s style and have chanced to have seen other lone hero films directed by Martin Ritt (Hud – 1963, Norma Rae – 1979), you know how this one ends. Other films include The Deadly Affair (1966), The Looking Glass War (1969), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Russia House (1990), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005).

Does our obsession with espionage have anything to do with anything other than advancing and protecting American Business Interests, i.e. securing the world of free radicals so that free markets may reign? Click To Tweet

What about Michael Caine as the ultimate anti-Bond archetype? It seems that before he began starring in films about World War II and the criminal underworld (Play Dirty, The Italian Job, Get Carter), he was a notoriously effective spy (although gauche by today’s high tech standards), he embodied a nice mix of both Sean Connery’s blue-collar ruggedness and Roger Moore’s professional effeteness (he does his own shopping at the grocery store, but he buys imported items). If you can find them, the entire Harry Palmer Series (based partially on Len Deighton’s novels), especially The Ipcress File, deserves note, as does Don Siegel’s The Black Windmill (1974), originally the Clive Egleton novel Seven Days to a Killing, with Caine as MI-5 operative John Tarrant. John MacKenzie’s action-spy thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), by Frederick Forsyth, featured Caine as British intelligence agent John Preston and Pierce Brosnan as bad-guy Russian agent Major Valeri Petrofsky.

It seems the 60s and 70s were particularly pregnant with overly-long and circuitous spy thrillers. And mining the Nazis for proportionate enemies remained a particular goldmine up through the Indiana Jones series. The Quiller Memorandum (1966) directed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run) situates itself in 1960s Cold War-era West Berlin, where Quiller (George Segal) is sent by controller Alec Guinness to investigate a neo-Nazi organisation, yet everyone seems to be aware of what is happening except for him. The prolific author Fredrick Forsyth figures heavily in the military-politico-espionage realm, having penned director Fred Zinnemann’s political thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973), about an attempt by the assassin named “Jackal” on the life of French President Charles DeGaulle. Forsyth also wrote the political thriller The Odessa File (1974), with Jon Voight as a German reporter searching for missing Nazi war criminals who have incorporated in 1963 Hamburg, to continue their plan for the downfall of the Israeli people, with Maximilian Schell as the evil villain. Marathon Man with a young Dustin Hoffman who plays a paranoid runner to perfection is a great example of using ex-Nazis as narrative expedients. Tough to get through Laurence Olivier’s gruelling dental work, but great shots of Central Park in New York make this more than worth watching.

Best Spy Films

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others

What happens on the other side of the curtain? The debut from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), focuses in on the monitoring of East Berlin citizens by agents of the Stasi. The Stasi, the GDR’s secret police, one of the largest “clandestine” forces ever, rivals China’s MSS (Ministry for State Security) for employing one half of the population to spy on the other half. The Spy (Шпион, 2011) is a Russian thriller starring Fyodor Bondarchuk based on Boris Akunin’s spy novel set in an unbelievably beautiful 1941 Moscow. In one of the most expensive Russian films ever made, the lead up to the outbreak of WWII is reimagined as part futuristic fantasy and part historical reenactment with high production value. Steven Spielberg’s Munich tells of a contemplative Mossad agent played by the appreciably low-key and astute Eric Bana leads a team to hunt down and kill the Black September terrorists responsible for the slaughter of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 Munich games. The terrorists think they’ve gotten away with it, and the disavowed Mossad agents have no idea what kind of emotional torture they will be in for. Spielberg proves that he still has some talent left with suitable pacing, decent action sequences and a less than heavy handed and overly-sentimental approach to depicting such a horrible ordeal, at least through the first hour anyway.

Enter Cold War military industrial espionage writer Robert Ludlum, famous for The Bourne Identity brought to the big screen by Doug Liman, who decided to forgo the Cold War era plot by updating the retrograde amnesiac super-seal-team assassin Jason Bourne to modern-day CIA infiltration warfare and guilt-plagued hand-wringing. With a good soundtrack and interesting POV cinematography (often handheld by the director himself), Liman manages to pull off a coup. The sequels, directed by Paul Greengrass, are notable for their flash-cut fight scenes and Matt Damon brooding over the mystery of his identity and the death of his German kidnap victim-turned-lover. Not, as most of these 10 Best Spy Movies sites claim, the best of the genre, but not bad for nursing a rainy Sunday morning hangover with bloody marys. However, one of Ludlum’s novels-turned-film worth watching — the plot-twisting CIA-centric The Osterman Weekend (1983) — despite the fact that Sam Peckinpah hated the script to his final film so much, he made it almost nonsensical, leaving gaping holes in the story. Still, like sex and pizza, bad Peckinpah is pretty good.

Sydney Pollack’s box-office hit Three Days of the Condor (1975) — based on James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor (apparently they couldn’t afford to film the three extra days…) — starred Robert Redford as a targeted US CIA-intelligence researcher on the run from the always creepy Max Von Sydow. Notable for Redford’s character kidnapping an innocent woman and holding her hostage in order to survive, and eventually coming to love her (Jason Bourne anyone?). This portrayal could have opened the door for Redford to star alongside Sydney Poitier in the Phil Alden Robinson thriller Sneakers (1992), which details a ragtag olio of ex-intelligence professionals trying to obtain a code-breaking machine that could penetrate any computer system on Earth.

Best Spy Films

David Mamet’s Spartan

The best, should a few have to be lifted above a solid selection of cerebral action thrillers, would have to be David Mamet’s Spartan. Though the film is fast-paced and intelligently written — in typical Mamet fashion — and offers what may be one of Val Kilmer’s best roles ever in his portrayal of Delta Force Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Scott, the film feels almost purposefully flawed. The ending is a touch too cliche and neat for Mamet, who later went on to write and produce the outstanding television series, The Unit, based on similar clandestine army ranger activities as Spartan: One Riot, One Ranger. Mamet is the ultimate in paradoxical writer/director in that he is so good at cutting out the unnecessary bits, yet requires at least four seasons of a television show (unfortunately, it was cancelled by the idiots at CBS) to develop something up to his own standard.

Also written by David Mamet is Ronin, the final film from John Frankenheimer worth watching. Starring Robert Deniro in an understated role as CIA agent-turned-mercenary leading a team of unknown quantities into a job that has nothing to do with the real target, the action is taut and well-paced. This should have been Mission Impossible, but alas the Hollywood experiment has failed us all. Frankenheimer also directed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the ultimate in mind-bending double-agent morality plays, which works so well because of the impeccable acting from Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and even Frank Sinatra. Terence Young’s The Triple Cross (1967), based on a true story, ups the ante on the double-agent genre, starred Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman, a safe-cracker who joined with the Germans during the war, and then became a British double-agent. Double agents are not typically thought of in the sense that the Hong Kong crime-thriller Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (2002) creates where the police have infiltrated a large local crime syndicate and the same crime syndicate has infiltrated the police. This stand out trilogy was remade as The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006).

Notable for their staggering amount of pure technical information (making the State Department somewhat nervous) and their popularity with middle America, need we mention the 1990s? Must-not-sees are Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller novels centering on all-American hero and CIA agent Jack Ryan: in The Hunt for Red October (1990) with Alec Baldwin, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) with Harrison Ford, and The Sum of All Fears (2002) with Ben Affleck. Watch Argo and encrypt your email instead.

One must decide in what kind of world one wants to live. A world of verdant growth, trust amongst the people and in governmental and corporate institutions, and justice or a protracted world of mistrust, double-dealing and living behind any number of masks? Does our obsession with espionage have anything to do with anything other than advancing and protecting American Business Interests, i.e. securing the world of free radicals so that free markets may reign? In the end is it just good, clean (or rather, dirty) entertainment? Does it matter that we seem to be projecting a secretive and mistrustful psyche onto the world? Rather than who is a spy, should we be asking who isn’t?

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

Best Documentary Films of 2012

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

HESO Best Documentary Film 2012

The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), Dror Moreh

The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), Dror Moreh

Presumably, any moderately blog-centric “critic” end of the year best-of listing is the easiest part of the job–compiling a blurb heavy inventory of all of the films reviewed over the year. That is if said reviewer actually has access to the myriad documentaries produced and shown around the multifarious festival circuit, the breadth of which is nightmarish to imagine traversing in person. So, email queries are sent. Press kits are downloaded. Youtube is accessed. DVDs are watched on laptops. Our hypothetical critic could theoretically list the entire lineup of documentaries (unalphabetically of course) shown at the Toronto International Film Festival as the official Best of, and be sure of a comprehensive and well-endowed catalogue. As it stands, just wiki-ing, i.e. copying and pasting the prepared blurbs, seems a bit overly 2011. A dark year of documentaries unveiling the wrongs of the world, more to understand than to right them, HESO looks at the Best Documentary Films of 2012, doing our photographic duty to represent the efforts of directors and crews worldwide in their valiant attempts to document the various truths and lies, sublimities and atrocities, living and dying and everything in between, in this one paltry end-of-the-year-best-of-bullshit-attempt-to-grow-our-online-readership blog post.

Best Documentary Films of 2012

The Best Documentary Films of 2011 seemed to be mostly light-hearted and satirical in a way that the 2012 field can’t comprehend, mirroring the shadowy gloom of big feature film releases (Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln & Zero Dark Thirty). Meanwhile, women writers and directors (Alison Klayman, Marina Zenovich, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Lauren Greenfield and many others) are not just gaining acceptance and respect in the film industry, while documenting the world, they are taking it over.

Take the Middle East going full frontal with a slew of portrayals from all ends of the spectrum, including a few inner sanctum expositions on Israel’s complex workings and philosophies. Beginning with The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), directed by Dror Moreh, who interviews six former heads of the Shin Bet–Israel’s secret service–who reflect publicly on their experiences and attitudes during, and after, their service. Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, The Law in These Parts (Praxis Films), from Shilton Ha’Chok interviews the architects of the Israeli military legal system in the Occupied Territories.

5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

Contrast these with 5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), directed by Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi, a record of a Palestinian attempting to record the struggles of his community in the occupied West Bank. Preceding the United Nations General Assembly granting Palestine non-member observer State status, State 194 (Participant Media) from Dan Setton, documents how in 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad launched a plan to demonstrate that his people were deserving of statehood, inspiring them to change their destiny and seek U.N. membership.

Director Damien Ounouri describes his film, Fidaï (Kafard Films), “During the Algerian Revolution, my great-uncle El Hadi joined his sister in France and became an active member of a secret FLN armed group. Settling of scores, attempted murder, hiding, imprisonment and finally deportation back to Algeria in 1962, his personal journey tells the story of countless ex-fighters for Algerian independence, and echoes the current effervescence of the Arab World. Today, at the age of seventy, El Hadi reveals this dark part of his life for the first time.” While This Is Not A Film, (Kanibal Films) reveals director Jafar Panahi video diary travails of being banned from filmmaking in Iran, yet continuing to practice his art while under house arrest. As if We Were Catching a Cobra (Ramad Films), documents Syrian director Hala Alabdalla’s foray into the art of caricature in Egypt and Syria, and in the meantime captures insurgencies breaking out in both countries.

Despite the turmoil in Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the war in Syria, the rest of the world continues to be absorbed with its own vital intricacies. Picture the opening of North Korea to the world and Marc Wiese’s Camp 14 — Total Control Zone (Engstfeld), which tells the story of Shin Dong Huyk, who says, “Our sole purpose was to follow the rules of the work camp and then die. People on the outside call this place the ‘Total Control Zone.’ We knew nothing of the outside. All we knew was that our parents and our forefathers were guilty and we had to work hard in order to make up for it. Sometimes new people entered the camp but I never saw anyone pardoned for their crime and allowed leave. So none of us thought we would ever leave this place. Sometimes people tried to escape, driven by fear of starving or being beaten, but they were publicly executed and became the object of hate for those of us who were left behind.” The Girl from the South (Taskovski FIlms), chronicles José Luis García fascination with the story of a young South Korean student activist he met who crossed over into North Korea and what happened to her.

Ai WeiWei - Never Sorry

Ai WeiWei – Never Sorry

Fighting censorship has always been the role of the artist and 2012 has seen some of the loudest artists in recent memory. In Alison Klaymans’ Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (United Expression Media), we travel alongside the Chinese “dissident” activist throughout his dealings with the Chinese government. In the same vein is Abdoul Aziz Cissé, The Walls of Dakar, chronicling Dakar’s spontaneous mural frescos, produced by marginal painters, rappers and taggers, as one of its rare sites for free expression.

The ubiquitous face of the most obvious film for the role of the artist in society hangs on nearly every college dorm wall (next to the Che poster), Marley (Shangri-La Productions), the long-awaited Kevin MacDonald bio-pic which uses little-seen archived filmstock and live concert footage to put together a cohesive and even-handed portrait of the man everyone thinks they know. Someone you likely don’t know is the subject of Brad Bernstein’s Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, which depicts the renegade children’s book author and illustrator Ungerer’s wild, life-long adventure of testing societal boundaries through his use of subversive art. Marina Zenovich’s second film on Polanski, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, following Wanted and Desired, “explores the bizarre clash of politics, celebrity justice and the media.”

But what about ‘Merica? What ever happened to the good ol’ days? When we ruled the world…Detropia (Loki Films), directed by Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, an artistic look at the decline of the quintessential American Car city and The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia Pictures), directed by Lauren Greenfield, which shows us the 2008 financial crisis from the point of view of the 1%, won, respectively, the U.S. documentary editing award and the U.S. documentary directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer

Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer

Interviewing The Wire producer David Simon, Arianna Huffington, Woody Harrelson, Eminem, Susan Sarandon and infamous drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, Matthew Cooke’s How To Make Money Selling Drugs (Bert Marcus Productions) spends the first half of the film literally teaching the viewer how to do so, and soon offers glimpses into the lives of those on both sides of the “war on drugs.” Drugs is one thing, but what about the pimp? Told through interviews Chris Rock, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg and with Iceberg Slim himself, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp (Final Level Entertainment), directed by Jorge Hinojosa, shows us the crazy life of the man who reinvented himself from the pimp to founder of Street-Lit by authoring of seven books.

Well-known directors had another banner year in documenting the unknown abuses still happening throughout the world. The Werner Herzog, Errol Morris-produced The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer lets the Suharto-backed Indonesian death-squad leaders tell the story of their atrocities by writing the script, playing themselves, as well as their victims. Less bloody, but equally affecting is Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney’s exposition on the abuse of power in the Catholic Church. And The Central Park Five from Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, the story of how five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping the Central Park Jogger.

Men At Lunch (Sonta Films), directed by Seán Ó Cualáin and narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, tells the story behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, taken on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Building in the autumn of 1932, an unprecedented race to the sky and the immigrant workers who built New York. From New York to London – The Modern Babylon, from director Julien Temple, who tells how it was the marginalized–the immigrant and the artist–that created modern-day London.

Finally, if Vanishing of the Bees and Queen of the Sun failed to impress upon the film-watching populous that the looming epidemic of disappearing honeybees for reasons still obscure, then Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey should suffice. The tagline of Bitter Seeds (Teddy Bear Films), the final film of Micha Peled’s Globalization Trilogy (Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Bluereads) reads, “Every thirty minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” Enough said? Not even close.

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an AUdience

Searching For Sugarman – Sixto Rodriguez

As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, Indian-style, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger, hailing from the peyote and cactus lands of desert dreams.

The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Hate Street Dialogue” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Consider the prophet-tinged lyrics of The Establishment Blues,” sung with the clipped cadence of Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere. The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez has dropped the Sixto; he’s just Rodriguez now. The music itself is less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It sounds like a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won but he’s all right after all. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, like his preceding LP this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.

But this is only Act I of the story. Let’s fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which is the subject of this review. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonates with young people disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact is a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” is for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto is “bigger than Elvis.”

But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. A consensus develops that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.

In the 1990s, apartheid ends, Sixto’s music is released on compact disc, and a quest begins to solve the mystery of his death once and for all by two of his fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist. They find him via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame.

...the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Sixto Rodriguez – Searching For Sugarman

If you feel I’ve shared too much, then you better avoid the trailer, which neatly summarizes the entire story in two minutes. Needless to say, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a fantastic musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful to the end for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Instead of an aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). Rodriguez had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away”, recorded after the dismal reception of “Coming From Reality” and unreleased for many years:

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then Ill go mend all my shattered dreams.”

There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.

Even though it won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award for best international documentary at Sundance, you’ll have some difficulty finding “Searching for Sugar Man” at your local theater. It’s strictly limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and even there, playing in just a handful of theaters. For everyone else, we’re left with Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, comic book idols that aren’t telling us a damn thing about how to live gracefully. You’ve got to look hard for real life heroes. You won’t find them soaring or swinging over the Manhattan skyline. But you might hear one singing about the truths of living. You only have to find the music and listen closely.

Noah Harpster YOLO Film Project

Noah Harpster YOLO Film Project

What is this nonsense?

This is a short film about an actor named Noah (me) who is $5k short of qualifying for health insurance for his family (true) when he gets Bell’s Palsy (also true)…SO, he decides to make a short film about an actor named Noah who gets Bell’s Palsy then makes a movie in order to pay himself the $5k so he can keep his insurance for his famly. PHEW! So meta.

How will it help?

Uh, My family gets to keep our insurance and you get to laugh at silly ole me with the watery eye.

Noah’s Site

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The New World by Terrence Malick

The New World by Terrence Malick

While vacationing at my mother’s house in the Virginia countryside this summer I decided it might be appropriate to check out Terrence Malick’s The New World from the local library. Though I truly love Tree of Life and rather like his earlier films I nevertheless didn’t have high expectations. It’s almost a given that Hollywood will botch any historical event with schmaltz, sentimentality, inaccuracies, and whitewashing, especially if the area of history is something as momentous as the origins of America. The founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement on the American continent, is something the myth-makers monitoring our popular consciousness would like to let alone– after all, though it might have been the beginning of ascendance of one kind of people, it was also the genesis of apocalypse for another. This is not a narrative that lends itself easily to Hollywood and its aggrandizing temperament. But the encounter of two distinct civilizations is not just a story; it is poetry and that is what The New World feels like– dizzying and abstract, uncanny and rich. Yes, in the wrong hands, a 130-minute poem might be disastrous, but in Malick’s it feels so pure, lovely, and wonderful that the transcendence we hope for from great art lingers long after, moving me to say (albeit, quite belatedly) that The New World is the greatest film of the past decade.

One of the most provocative acts any critic endeavors to do is say a certain piece of artwork is the best of anything, because in all likelihood he is going to be called names — “philistine” or “snob”– depending on which camp the choice offends. Almost no one’s happy because human beings have an insane allegiance to personal favorites. Now I am not a fan of the Naughts in any of the major popular forms; literary, musical, and cinematic– it was a weak decade. Regarding Hollywood, it seemed for much of the era boy magicians, questing hobbits, and superhero blockheads dominated the screens, leaving mature audiences to fend for themselves. There were some good films but very few great ones so that in my occasional Top Ten listmaking with friends of similar predilections, I’d never bothered to consider the best films of the 2000s. I suppose a shortlist would include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sexy Beast, L’enfant, The Royal Tenenbaums, Irreversible, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Children of Men. But until I saw The New World I never felt “best” was a necessary qualifier.

That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. Click To Tweet

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is a familiar one to most Americans (and that fact has little to do with the Disney film from the mid-nineties). Smith is part of a group of ragtag English colonists trying to start over in a so-called new world. Of course, it is not a new world, but an old one inhabited by Powhatan Indians. While it seems there is much potential for the men as they build their fort, cooperation with “the naturals” (as they are called by Captain Newport) would be essential for survival and Smith is sent to establish trade relations. He is very nearly put to death by the Powhatan chief, spared only when Pocahontas intervenes. While Smith lives with the naturals, he falls in love with the chief’s irresistibly charming daughter. His time with the Powhatan is idyllic but he is not of the indigenous tribe and must return to the fort, with its starving, raving colonists, desperate now for food and warmth with the onset of winter. John Smith is put in charge of the colony upon his return, complicating the Capulet-Montague dynamic already inherent in his love for Pocahontas.

Normally a loudmouth, arrogant actor, Colin Farrell’s John Smith is masculine but gentle– he might slay you in hand-to-hand combat but will feel very bad about your death afterwards. Farrell portrays Smith as a man utterly melancholic that this great love of his is doomed. And we the audience sympathize because the young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, is so winning that it would be utterly foolish not to abandon the mortgage, insurance payments, traffic jams, cable TV, and the ephemeral junk that is modern life to live with her among trees, wildflowers, streams, and fields of gold. Kilcher inhabits Pocahontas with a sense of wonder that I have never quite seen in a performance. She physically manifests the trees, the sun, and the earth, but playfully and though childlike she also has the fall of the Powhatans on her conscience as it is she who instigates the tribe to gift the colonists with food in the dead of winter and who warns Smith of an imminent attack when the indigenous decide to expel the white man and his genealogical plague, that of materialistic avarice, racist exceptionalism, and ecological violence, habits antithetical to the communally organized tribe and its harmonious relationship to nature. The colonists are ready when the Powhatan attack and slaughter many with cannon and musket fire.

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

A treacherous Pocahontas (to be fair, all lovers are foolish) is disowned by her people and comes to live in Jamestown, now reinforced with more men and supplies and successfully tilling the land. John Smith, looking ever more mournful, takes an assignment from the king to lead an expedition to discover a northwest passage. He leaves Pocahontas without an explanation and has another colonist lie about his death en route so that, emotionally, she can move on. By now, her sensual summer tribe fashions have been replaced by stiff bodices and cumbersome petticoat and the forests where she’d roamed free are “there” but not “here.” The loss of John Smith forever is the vanishing of her last happiness. An alien in her own land, now she is truly alone.

Nevertheless, the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco in Virginia, John Rolfe (Christian Bale in an understated, patient performance), is smitten—it takes him some time to court her but he does and she begets him a son. Things could have gone happily ever after, were it not for Pocahontas learning the truth of John Smith and King James of England requesting their company at Buckingham Palace, angling the love triangle just so. It is natural, of course, that the woman who bridges one world to the next should be loved so dramatically by two great men.

My description of the plot may sound melodramatic but the execution is anything but. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is skilled at making us feel like participants, as if we are in the forest or the battlefield, loving and losing. The director is sensitive that we should feel this story as much as receive it—thus the sensuality, innocence and brutality alternately swoons and bludgeons. That it is extraordinarily researched and meticulous to detail (especially in regards to indigenous village life and language) makes it all the more intense. But more than a historical anecdote, this is a love story and Malick portrays the extraordinary tenderness between John Smith and Pocahontas nonverbally rather than with obvious declaratives prevalent in so much storytelling cliché. Most of the exposition is revealed not between characters but with voiceover: beautiful, poetic expressionism whispered over scenes of tribal life, elemental weather, bucolic freedom, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ravishing “Prelude to Das Rheingold.” While falling for the Chief’s favorite daughter in the forest, John Smith susurrates, “Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” To which, Pocahontas, with nature as their stage and sound (rushing rivers, crepitating leaves, warbling birdlife, singing insects), murmurs, “Father. Where do you live? In the sky…the clouds… the sea…? Show me your face. Give me a sign. A god he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? All to be given to you. And to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two than one. One. One. I am. I am.”

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

It’s hard to qualify the effect of these scenes with mere words—The New World is one of those rare films that demonstrates the cinema as perhaps the world’s most important art, so potent is the emotional, sensual effect, more dimensional than what’s possible in literature and music. I cannot watch this film without feeling tremendously affected by the messy, hopeless experiment that is mankind– our excess, our potential, our bad and our good. Though never outright polemical, Malick suggests we lost as a species with the triumph of one civilization at the expense of another—and it’s not just the egalitarian society of Native Americans but their peaceful alliance with nature as well. Malick’s portrayal of the Virginia countryside on the eve of its appropriation by Europeans is as inspiring for environmentalists as any film ever made.

But I can also feel that Malick has loved and lost. Why else would he devote several years of his life to this now mythical time in our history? The story feels like a metaphor for the joys and tragedies endured by Malick himself. You can’t tell a story this beautifully without some truth in experience. His loss, whatever it might have been, is contextualized in a work of art, winning our sympathies and affections without loosening the secrets that inspired him in the first place. His catharsis is ours too.

Released on Christmas Day, 2005, The New World barely recouped its $30 million production costs and received few enthusiastic reviews. It was snubbed by the Academy, receiving only one Oscar nomination (for Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking camerawork—he lost). The Best Picture that year was Crash, a silly, almost meaningless melodrama trivializing Los Angeles race relations. That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. It’s not Malick’s fault nor is it that of the ghosts of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians who bequeathed us our land and our tragedy. It’s our problem. After all, collective loss is something we’ve been perpetuating for four centuries now. That’s how we roll.

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