Friday, November 27, 2009

Max Manus

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The eponymous hero of Max Manus was one of the more notable Norwegian resistance fighters in World War II, operating out of Oslo. After the fighting stopped he survived quietly in business until 1996. He's a figure undoubtedly still generating national pride, perhaps explaining the high praise accorded the movie from local sources. That's not to say this is a bad film by any means, but ultimately Manus' biographical wartime experiences, at least as translated to screen here, play out as something of a Boy's Own adventure, rather than a ruthlessly honest warts-and-all biopic despite the hero's final drunken introspection and occasional doubts. It's a film where the participant's have-a-go attitude and laddish enthusiasm for adventure keeps the action flowing smoothly from one escapade to another, with courage under duress, noble sacrifices, love interest and final victory almost a given.

As a portrait of continental wartime resistance shown through the increasing travails and vicissitudes of a group it belongs in the same category as the recent Female Agents (aka: Les Femmes des Ombres, 2008), Verhoeven's Black Book (aka: Zwartboek, 2006), or further back, the Dutch director's Soldier Of Orange (aka: Soldaat van Oranje, 1977). Incidentally, the latter also includes a scene where the hero meets royalty as a moment of great pride, but in place of Manus' relatively black and white view of events it offers a narrative altogether more complex and ironic, a world where loyalties are far more confused. Soldier Of Orange and Black Book both show both good and traitorous amongst the occupied - characters perhaps engendered by Verhoeven's presence as a child during the troubled times it represents. Even The Heroes Of Telemark (1965), Anthony Mann's snowbound film about the Norwegian resistance, featured a traitor or two as well as emphasising the painful, but necessary sacrifice of civilians. Those behind Max Manus are from a different generation presumably with no imperative to draw out such contradictory truths, although danger still lurks everywhere.

Of course a dose of revisionism is not the only way to make a good war film. One of the more interesting things about Max Manus is that it sandwiches the main action, set amongst the Norwegian resistance, between scenes of the hero fighting earlier as a soldier - one action in particular, a short, bloody encounter fought out in 1940 against the Soviets, before he was fighting back in Oslo. Perhaps intended to contrast the 'clean', if nervously exhausting, war on the front with the shadowy deceptions and suspense necessary elsewhere in Manus' career, these moments also serve to remind us of the type of the hero Manus was, in his own way, before fighting the Nazi occupation back at home. This is useful as, when we first see Manus in action away from such brutal certitudes of combat, his actions against the occupying forces are almost amateurish - initially working on an underground newspaper, posting flyers and plotting ludicrous assassination attempts - all with little professionalism, a fact noted by more experienced resistance fighters. Gradually however he makes his mark, notably with one daring escape from a hotel window for which he gains a small, slightly humorous reputation.

Using an escape route via Sweden, he find himself in Scotland, part of the first Norwegian volunteer force of saboteurs, being given his first assignment, now better trained and equipped when sent back home on assignment. Norway is now occupied, run by a puppet government, and something has to be done. Soon our hero is blowing up ships in Oslo harbour with limpet mines, dodging the efforts of the determinedly adversarial local Nazi Gestapo commander Fehmer (an intense performance by Ken Duken, incidentally, which at times reminds one by Ray Liotta) in locating him, as well as resolving some growing romantic issues of his own. In contrast to the earlier combat scenes it's noticeable that Manus is now more assured and calm as a fighter; in one notable moment, which might have escaped from a James Bond movie, he fires backwards at his enemies with a machine gun while escaping on a motorbike. Elsewhere the action and suspense are more convincing - including a moment when the hero accidentally shoots himself - presumably staged around documented true events. The hero's chief romantic interest is 'Tikken' Lindebraekke (Agnes Kittelsen), the resistance contact at the British embassy in Stockholm, but here emotions remain somewhat enigmatic and, to its credit, the film avoids any stereotypical resolution to their mounting tension.

Max Manus is staged with a confidence and with assured flow by its co-directors, and this, the most expensive Norwegian production to date is highly engaging. Adding considerably to this is the performance by Aksel Hennie as the hero; Hennie makes of him a very likable character, with convincing weaknesses and belief in his own mortality - a trait considerably humanising what could easily just become a nationalistic action figure. Towards the close of the movie, peace newly restored, this introspection comes to the fore as the surviving hero ponders his own moral culpability - even if the smile breaking out at the end of Max Manus for this viewer at least is less complex by way of implication than that which concludes, say, Once Upon A Time In America.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bakjwi (Thirst)

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Chan-wook Park's new film is a complex film that is not easy to classify. Nominally a horror movie, the central character is a vampire, the film actually has elements of comedy, theology, melodrama, cultural invasion (and its analog of viral invasion of a body), romance and few other things as well. It's a film that has almost too much on its mind. The film takes its own matters and mixes them with classic European literature, in this case Emile Zola's "Thérèse Raquin". It's an odd mix that doesn't always gel, but none the less has an incredible power. Here it is almost 24 hours since I saw the film at Lincoln Center (with a post film discussion by the director) and I find my cage is increasingly rattled. Its not so much what happens is bothersome, its more that its wide reaching story and its themes ring a lot of bells in retrospect.

The plot of the film has a will loved priest deciding that the best way to help mankind is to volunteer for a medical experiment to find a cure for a terrible disease. Infected with the disease he eventually succumbs and dies, but because of a transfusion of vampiric blood (its not explained) he actually survives. Hailed as a miracle worker the priest returns to the hospital where he had been ministering to the sick. Unfortunately all is not well. The priest finds that he needs blood to survive. He also finds that he has all of the typical problems of a vampire, and its no not possible for him to go out during the day. Things become even more complicated when he becomes reacquainted with a childhood friend and his family. The priest, some of his animal passions awakened becomes taken with the wife of his friend. From there it all goes sideways.

An ever changing film, this is a story that spins through a variety of genres as it tells the very human story of a man who finds that his life has been radically altered by a chance event and finds that he is no longer who he thought he was. It's a film that you have to stay with to the end because the film is forever evolving into something else. Its also a film that has a great deal on its mind and the themes its playing with are constantly being explored in a variety of ways

The film has enough going on that one could, and people probably will, write books discussing the film.

The two of the strongest parts of the film are its vampiric elements and its romance The vampire part of the tale is brilliant. There is something about how it lays out the ground rules and the nature of the "affliction" that makes such perfect sense that it kind of pushes the old vampire ideas aside. Sitting in the theater last night I found myself amazed at how impressed how well it worked. I think the fact that it played more or less straight is what is so earth shaking. Here is a vampire who just wants to have a normal life. It's contrasted with what happens later, it makes clear that living an existence of hunting humans really isn't going to work. Its not the dark world of Twilight or Lost Boys, rather its something else. I personally think that the film changes the playing field from a hip cool idea or dream into something more real and tangible. (The sequence where the powers kick in is just way cool) The romance is also wonderfully handled. Sure the sex scenes are steamy and well done, but it's the other stuff, the looks, the talk, the gestures outside of the sex that makes this special. I love the looks, the quiet stares as the forbidden couple look at each other hungering for each other and unable to act, the disappointment and heartbreak of betrayal both real and suspected, and the mad passion of possible consummation. This is one of the great screen romances of all time. It perfectly captures the feeling and emotion of deep passionate love (and lust). If you've ever loved deeply I'm guessing you'll find some part of your hear on screen, I know I did. The statement "I just wanted to spend eternity with you" has a sad poignancy to it. It's both a statement of what was the intention as well as the depth of emotion. The tragic romance will break your heart.

I won't lie to you and say that the film is perfect and great. Its not, as good as the pieces are and almost all of them are great (especially the actors who I have unjustly failed to hail as amazing) the whole doesn't always come together. The various genres, thematic elements and tones occasionally grate against each other. Frequently I was wondering where the film was going. I hung in there even though the film seemed to be wandering about aimlessly.

I liked the film a great deal. I loved the pieces more than the film as a whole. Its been pinging around in my head since I saw it, and I'm guessing that it will do so for several days more. Like or love is irrelevant since this is a film that really should be seen since it has so much going on that it will provide you with enough material to think and talk about for days afterward. One of the meatiest and most filling films of the year.

De grønne slagtere

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With Green Butchers (aka: De Grønne Slagtere) we are in the territory previously marked out by Sweeney Todd, Eating Raoul, Delicatessen and the like: art house cannibalism. The peculiar flavour of writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen's film is partly explained by this choice of subject, as well as his involvement in the Dogme film movement, having contributed scripts for Mifune (1999), The King is Alive (2000), as well as Open Hearts (2002). The Dogme movement has made a virtue of making films to a strictly naturalistic series of rules, the severity of which, whether entirely serious or not, was intended to "force the truth out of characters and settings." Green Butchers is not a Dogme film, but some of its characteristics owe themselves to an artistic manifesto which instructed its adherents to make films by all means available, even "at the cost of good taste" if necessary.

It's Jensen's second feature film after the well-received Flickering Lights (aka: Blinkende Lygter, 2000 - a film which also starred Mikkelsen and Kaas), another comedy-drama. Jensen's sly, dry humour is much in evidence here, too, as we follow the business of his two misfit butchers, 'Sweaty' Svend and pot smoking Bjarne, into the path of making meals out of unwanted humans. As critics have observed, this is a film with two intertwined threads, with much overt, and grisly, dark comedy revolving around Sven, a man who "has never been loved." He's apparently unable to show anyone the inside of his freezer without adding them to the chilled cabinet for the customers next morning, prepared as his speciality dish 'Chicky Wicky'. Bjarne's story brings to the narrative more in the way of pathos and sweetness as, while struggling with the predations of his increasingly erratic partner in butchery, he also has to come to terms with the sudden revival of his brain damaged twin brother, as well as burgeoning relationship with the slightly naïve Astrid.

Playing both Bjarne and twin Eigil, Nikolaj Lie Kaas is remarkable in giving entirely separate performances throughout, so much so that I was going to make him a name to watch, but a quick look at his filmography reveals that he has already made 28 (including one related to his portrayal here, the notorious Dogme film Idiots of 1998) of which no fewer than 20 will have appeared in the last five years! The Walkenesque Mikkelsen, who is perhaps most familiar to British and American viewers as Tristan in the recent version of King Arthur, is also memorable, offering up Svend's characteristic, sweaty, culpability whilst sporting an unnaturally high, damp forehead (an on-screen effect gained, we learn, by a watering unit ingeniously devised by the special effects department).

In the interviews which accompany the film on disc, Jensen mentions how keen he was to "make something better than farce" out of his subject matter and, if it has a fault, it is that his film occasional teeters too far in the opposite direction, refusing some obvious opportunities to show the comedy of panic or grim humour. Instead, Dogme's metier means that Green Butchers unfolds slowly, with more natural pauses and silences, and an unforced lunacy all of its own. Such deadpan absurdity frequently pays dividends (one especially relishes Svend's quiet words to the newly returned Eigel, soft toy under his arm, that he should "point the giraffe somewhere else, so that we can talk calmly again") although there have been complaints from some that a sharper edge to the bloody proceedings, other than those demonstrated by Bjarne and Svend's knives, would have been welcome. To be sure, some cannibalistic movies, such as Romero's Dawn Of The Dead bring an apt comment on consumerism. Instead Jensen's film relates slaughter back to interior matters such as Svend's compulsive, murderous need to be loved and successful - a result he eventually achieves through his marinade - or even by placing the act of butchery in a entirely different context outside of society altogether. For instance the comment by Holger, famous for his deer sausages, that "It's mythological to kill an animal and then mock it by sticking it in its own intestine." Outraged by the role that nature played in provoking the death of his parents, Bjarne sees his work as specifically an act of revenge on animals, not people, a logic that places him apart from such characters as Sweeney Todd. While the eager consumers of Chicky Wickys queue up outside the shop eager for their next portion, obvious satire is played down. In interview, the cast and writer see the film's focus elsewhere, on "coming to terms with one's fate," or learning to live at peace with oneself.

Of course interior states are always subjective rather than objective. And if the Dogme creed values strict naturalism, then Green Butchers is a film which, although related to the movement by eschewing overt dramatics, it never the less inhabits a separate, almost fantasy world of its own - another point acknowledged on the DVD's accompanying interviews. It's a place not unaopposed to the fertile and dark imaginations of Caro and Jeunet (to whose successful Delicatessen it has sometimes been compared) if without their Gallic flamboyance, and whose odd elements gradually fit into a weird whole. Indeed the last scene of the film makes the point succinctly, drawing together the principal characters in a moment that is both playful, absurd and unifying at the same time. Given the unique nature of Green Butchers (how often does one see a Danish cannibalism movie?) as well as uniformly excellent performances, it can be recommended.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hotel Rwanda

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You do not believe you can kill them all?  

Why not? Why not? We are halfway there already.

In 1994 in Rwanda, a million members of the Tutsi tribe were killed by members of the Hutu tribe in a massacre that took place while the world looked away. "Hotel Rwanda" is not the story of that massacre. It is the story of a hotel manager who saved the lives of 1,200 people by being, essentially, a very good hotel manager.

The man is named Paul Rusesabagina, and he is played by Don Cheadle as a man of quiet, steady competence in a time of chaos. This is not the kind of man the camera silhouettes against mountaintops, but the kind of man who knows how things work in the real world, who uses his skills of bribery, flattery, apology and deception to save these lives who have come into his care.

I have known a few hotel managers fairly well, and I think if I were hiring diplomats, they would make excellent candidates. They speak several languages. They are discreet. They know how to function appropriately in different cultures. They know when a bottle of scotch will repay itself six times over. They know how to handle complaints. And they know everything that happens under their roof, from the millionaire in the penthouse to the bellboy who can get you a girl.

Paul is such a hotel manager. He is a Hutu, married to a Tutsi named Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo). He has been trained in Belgium and runs the four-star Hotel Des Milles Collines in the capital city of Kigali. He does his job very well. He understands that when a general's briefcase is taken for safekeeping, it contains bottles of good scotch when it is returned. He understands that to get the imported beer he needs, a bribe must take place.

He understands that his guests are accustomed to luxury, which must be supplied even here in a tiny central African nation wedged against Tanzania, Uganda and the Congo. Do these understandings make him a bad man? Just the opposite. They make him an expert on situational ethics. The result of all the things he knows is that the hotel runs well and everyone is happy.

Then the genocide begins, suddenly, but after a long history. Rwanda's troubles began, as so many African troubles began, when European colonial powers established nations that ignored traditional tribal boundaries. Enemy tribes were forced into the same land. For years in Rwanda under the Belgians, the Tutsis ruled and killed not a few Hutu. Now the Hutus are in control, and armed troops prowl the nation, killing Tutsis.

There is a United Nations "presence" in Rwanda, represented by Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte). He sees what is happening, informs his superiors, asks for help and intervention, and is ignored. Paul Rusesabagina informs the corporate headquarters in Brussels of the growing tragedy, but the hotel in Kigali is not the chain's greatest concern. Finally it comes down to these two men acting as free-lancers to save more than a thousand lives they have somehow become responsible for.

When "Hotel Rwanda" premiered at Toronto 2004, some reviews criticized the film for focusing on Paul and the colonel, and making little effort to "depict" the genocide as a whole. But director Terry George and writer Keir Pearson have made exactly the correct decision. A film cannot be about a million murders, but it can be about how a few people respond. Paul, as it happens, is a real person, and Col. Oliver is based on one, and "Hotel Rwanda" is about what they really did. The story took shape after Pearson visited Rwanda and heard of a group of people who were saved from massacre.

Cheadle holds his performance resolutely at the human level. His character intuitively understands that only by continuing to act as a hotel manager can he achieve anything. His hotel is hardly functioning, the economy has broken down, the country is ruled by anarchy, but he puts on his suit and tie every morning and fakes business as usual -- even on a day he is so frightened, he cannot tie his tie.

He deals with a murderous Hutu general, for example, not as an enemy or an outlaw, but as a longtime client who knows that the value of a good cigar cannot be measured in cash. Paul has trained powerful people in Kigali to consider the Hotel Des Milles Collines an oasis of sophistication and decorum, and now he pretends that is still the case. It isn't, but it works as a strategy because it cues a different kind of behavior; a man who has yesterday directed a mass murder might today want to show that he knows how to behave appropriately in the hotel lobby.

Nolte's performance is also in a precise key. He came to Rwanda as a peacekeeper, and now there is no peace to keep. The nations are united in their indifference toward Rwanda. In real life, Nolte's bad-boy headlines distract from his acting gifts; here his character is steady, wise, cynical and a master of the possible. He makes a considered choice in ignoring his orders and doing what he can do, right now, right here, to save lives.

How the 1,200 people come to be "guests" in the hotel is a chance of war. Some turn left, some right, some live, some die. Paul is concerned above all with his own family. As a Hutu, he is safe, but his wife is Tutsi, his children are threatened, and in any event, he is far beyond thinking in tribal terms. He has spent years storing up goodwill and now he calls in favors. He moves the bribery up another level. He hides people in his hotel. He lies. He knows how to use a little blackmail: Sooner or later, he tells a powerful general, the world will take a reckoning of what happened in Kigali, and if Paul is not alive to testify for him, who else will be believed?

This all succeeds as riveting drama. "Hotel Rwanda" is not about hotel management, but about heroism and survival. Rusesabagina rises to the challenge. The film works not because the screen is filled with meaningless special effects, formless action and vast digital armies, but because Cheadle, Nolte and the filmmakers are interested in how two men choose to function in an impossible situation. Because we sympathize with these men, we are moved by the film.

Deep movie emotions for me usually come not when the characters are sad, but when they are good.
You will see what I mean.

ROGER EBERT / December 22, 2004

Thursday, November 19, 2009

C'est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog)

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To say this movie is disturbing would be an understatement. A massive, gigantic understatement! But it is also a display of film-genius.

The movie is filmed in Black and White and is presented as a "documentary" of a serial killer. The film crew follows Benoit, the killer, around town as he recites poetry, muses on welfare and housing reform, ponders philosophy, and ... well, kills. Totally randomly.

He explains to the film crew the lessons he has learned about killing, how to stay low key, who to go after, and what potential victims are a waste of time. For Benoit, killing is an art form, but not one that should be undertaken frivolously.

There are scenes when his lunacy are briefly pierced by humanity - he counsels one of the film crew not to kill, because once you start it becomes a habit. In another scene he laments having killed a suburban family, because they had nothing good to steal, as it turned out. He proclaims that "there should be a law against" killing for no good reason.

Those who shy from blood and killing - about the most graphical violence you'll ever see "documented" in a film - should shy from this movie. But anyone with an interest in a glimpse at the darkest side of human nature will appreciate this film, not necessarily for its story or its darkness, but for its ability to make us think, and open our eyes to human behaviour we don't like to admit might exist.

During the course of the movie you become totally numb to the act of killing (or maming or torture or rape or any violent crime). It is no longer shocking when he kills yet another victim. It has become commonplace. You just sort of scratch your head and wonder - why this one? why now? why him? why her? This mental numbness is made possible by the way it is filmed - as though it were a documentary. Not long into the movie you begin to wonder if this is real, or just a movie. I wonder if this is the kind of numbness that soldiers experienced in wars like WWI, entrenched and under constant fire - to where the violence around become the norm. I read a book once called "My War Gone By, I Miss it So" (that's a whole 'nother review) in which a war-writer kept returning to the front because after experiencing violence all around him day after day after day, he could no longer live without it. In Man Bites Dog the killing is Benoit's addiction, but we, as viewers become complacent to it. We have been numbed to where it is no longer disturbing. Makes you scratch your head and wonder: is such detachment from emotion and what's right really possible???

To add to the realism, all the actors play characters with their real names. The killer's mother and grandparents in the movie - are really the actor's mother and grandparents in real life. During most of the filming they were not told it was about serial killing, just that they were in a movie with their son. So they just act normal around the son they love, only to find out in later scenes that the whole film is about killing. Imagine the look of shock on their faces to find this out - to them the story then is no longer acting but real: they've just discovered their son/grandson made a film about brutal killings and the shock shows in their faces.

Is it real? Is it a movie? What defines the difference?

When I told him about this movie, a friend mentioned that "society,as a whole, is already numb to brutal killing and violence." He's right about that. But this movie is so ridiculously brutal and violent it is more a mockery of our society's complacence to violence, not an endorsement.