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Actors have been known to sit on their laurels. Some would argue that,
with Oscar, Emmy, and Tony as best mates on the mantelpiece, Al Pacino
can do just that. Do we respectfully think that all his truly great
performances are in the past? Godfather, Michael Corleone? Or Scarface,
Tony Montana? Happily we can think again. Seeing You Don't Know Jack,
we know it's the film Pacino fans have waited for.
Opening scenes give us Dr 'Death' Kevorkian. Before he invents his famous assisted suicide machine. I look closely at this point. I have to reassure myself it is indeed Pacino, not a docu-drama cut-in. For Pacino looks more like Kevorkian than Kevorkian does. Face, body language, tone of voice, the works.
The first achievement is to captivate with the character himself. Not the divisive issues he represents. Bypass the hazards of predictable biopics. Or monotonous 'message' movies. This is quality mainstream film-making and at its best. It doesn't seek to change views, and the spiky Mr Kevorkian leaves plenty of room to disagree, isolating himself often from even his own supporters. This is a passionate man who has little time for other people's views in any general sense. "Who cares what other people think?" he exclaims. "It's what my patient feels." This is not the first time director Barry Levinson has astounded audiences. Slick approaches shaking up accepted thinking. Wag the Dog was to be a wildcard that would embarrass Clinton's government. The Oscar-winner, Rain Man, was criticised for creating a misleading stereotype (Is every autistic person a closet savant? Of course not.) But what Rain Man did do was raise awareness. Make it OK to talk openly about autism. And perhaps this is the secret You Don't Know Jack could have a similar effect just because it is just as funny, just as entertaining, just as engaging and just as challenging. We so get many different emotions in fast succession on the screen, until we're primed to consider , "How do I really feel about this?" Real people (including death scenes with Kevorkian's patients) are more gutsier coathooks for feelings than the vague ethical constructs debated in every high school.
If movies learn anything from TV, it's how to keep audience attention. And You Don't Know Jack is suitably punchy. It dismisses any thought of getting up for coffee. No boring arguments for or against euthanasia. None of those Clint Eastwood, long and meditative, 'Million Dollar Baby' moments. Susan Sarandon even brings some of her own caustic lines to a film that often brims over with dark, surreal humour. "Is that Santa Claus stepping on a baby?" she asks casually at an exhibition of Kevorkian's bizarre paintings.
There are powerful performance in abundance, not least from the underrated Danny Huston who plays Fieger, Kevorkian's larger-than-life attorney. (Immediately after the movie first aired, the real Geoffrey Fieger announced he will 'maybe stand again' for governor.) Fieger is a colourful, over-the-top character in real life, perfectly suited to Huston's strengths. After watching Danny Huston's talent wasted in lesser films, such as the well-intentioned Boogie Woogie, it is a joy to see him shine.
Bare-knuckle scenes in You Don't Know Jack are explicit. Both in the physical acts of assisted suicide and in their emotional intensity. Kevorkian recalls his own mother's death to Janet Good (Sarandon). "She told me, 'Imagine the worst toothache in the world now imagine that toothache in every bone in your body." He is almost penniless (for he never charged) and, with scientific precision, he at one point tries to save on lethal gas. He places his emphysema patient in a plastic hood (to catch the gas, rather than using a face-mask). But the patient panics and it is nearly the last straw for friend and assistant Neal Nicol, played effortlessly by John Goodman. Such scenes are not for the squeamish.
The sense of sincerity and conviction which Pacino gives the role could make it rather uncomfortable viewing if you disagree outright. But this intense, yet sidelong glance at a deeply polarising topic, seriously tackled but deftly relieved with a sharp witty screenplay, might just give new life to a debate that suffers from political hubris set against rather static public opinion.
You Don't Know Jack reveals a person a long way from popular conceptions. Even if you read his autobiography and see him in interview, as I have, he was and still is, a hard person to fathom. An egocentric or to use a word he suggested himself a zealot it often seems that Kevorkian believes in himself to the point of being inaccessible. "You're gonna need some business cards you know!" chides his sister. For this driven man who is happy to live on a pittance and then go on hunger strike, the importance of such details can, it seems, easily be missed.
At over two hours long, the movie occasionally verges on repetition. Levinson, back on form after several also-rans, maintains the pace with intelligent humour and inventive cinematography. "You understand what prison is?" Judge Jessica Copper asks Kevorkian, who seems oblivious of the potential consequences of his actions. "Did you see The Shawshank Redemption, Sir?" During the hunger strike, a fast montage of slamming doors and uneaten foodtrays makes an impression on our ears and eyes faster than any amount of words and also provides a welcome change of tempo.
This is cinema of the unexpected. With subject matter that should have been unbankably inauspicious. Yet You Don't Know Jack triumphs to take your breath away. Even without a plastic hood.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With its many stars and connections eminently qualified to speak about
the art scene, I was well-primed to enjoy Boogie Woogie to the utmost.
It's based on a successful novel by author and screenwriter Danny Moynihan. The movie is a sexy black comedy set amid the hustle-bustle of fine art acquisition, dealers and galleries with concomitant affairs, in contemporary London. Characters slyly draw on real people. Critics and art experts have consequently been falling over themselves to show their knowledge of closely-linked actual persons and events. Whatever the disclaimer says.
Boogie Woogie has gone to great lengths for authenticity. Real masterpieces are cleverly interwoven with fictions. Even the title work is so closely allied to the real thing that it makes you wonder. (Boogie Woogie is the name of a series of prized paintings by Mondrain, and the central artwork in the film is an accurately fictionalised piece, only destroyed afterwards at the request of Mondrain's Estate).
Dealer and gallery owner, Art Spindle (Danny Huston), wants 'Boogie-Woogie.' A painting he covets above all else. Its current owner, Alfred Rhinegold (played by Christopher Lee), is desperately ill. Rhinegold's wife (Joanna Lumley) wants to up the ante by encouraging rival bidders. Especially Bob Maclestone, a collector incisively played by Stellan Skarsgard. The plot is further complicated by everyone jumping into bed with temptingly wrong people and for deliciously wrong reasons. The BBFC, after a spoiler alert, goes into not inconsiderable detail over the somewhat singular sexual content. So I won't. Fans of funky erotic subject matter have no fear: you shall find out for yourselves.
Boogie Woogie brims over with great actors. Nobody needs to be ashamed of performances here, with or without clothes. They are cast in great roles and throw themselves into performances in a way that belies their love of art and desire for the picture to succeed. And so if its reach is slightly greater than its grasp, I nevertheless feel a bit uncomfortable explaining why it doesn't put woogie back into my boogie.
Comedy, like abstract art, is to an extent subjective. But Boogie Woogie tilts at both windmills without embracing either. 'Ripping the lid off the art world,' is a great and noble concept. But the result here, for one reason or another, is uneven, woefully ill-judged, and a squandering of talent that borders on sacrilege. Gags aren't very funny, it doesn't arouse our passion for art, and most of the 'in' references are pointlessly unintelligible to anyone not already familiar with finer details of the respective power-brokers' sex lives.
Danny Moynihan has relocated the story of his novel from New York to London: this is where some of the problems arise. Lines sound inauthentic, unconvincing, as if desperately trying to persuade us that this is Real Cockney Art-World. Subtler tones of any backstory also seem damaged. Mondrian's last painting, for instance, 'Broadway Boogie Woogie,' represents the restless motion of Manhattan. Its grid-like patterns suggest New York's ordered chaos. It has a prominent yellow which is the yellow of New York taxicabs. And a metaphor to jazz in the title echoes the movement and rhythm that are seen as analogous to Mondrian's painted marks. There are even deeper studies about the art referred to, which relate to the nature of perception, but the film seems to have lost these at the word go. Any eponymous substance has long been abandoned before such thoughts could kick in.
We are, however, treated to a constant (and at times intrusive) jazz soundtrack. And much arty chat. All delivered at a speed guaranteed not to detract from the sight of Gemma Atkinson (or Gillian Anderson) treating us to glimpses of their more tangible assets. As both Moynihan and director Duncan Ward have been intimately involved with art, not to mention Damien Hirst being present as consultant, one might be forgiven for wanting a little more meat on this bone than provided by the purely, if you'll excuse me, pornographic aspects of such a pun.
Joanna Lumley reprises some of the flavour from her hit TV series, Absolutely Fabulous. The familiar clash of taste and gobbiness is in full flow. But whereas Ab Fab scored with visual gags and highly developed comic characters, Boogie Woogie's attempt to lampoon style-over-substance seems injudicious and hollow. Whereas Mondrian's actual work bristles with luminous colour, the film tries too hard to be bright and ends up lacklustre. In a word, inadequate to the task. Leading parts are not charismatic enough to command or sustain appeal for the full hour and a half, even with such great actors. Timing of jokes seems rehearsed rather than spontaneous. The overall effect is ironically artificial.
One of the best things about Boogie Woogie is that it might inspire you, as it inspired me, to read the original novel. The book is not everyone's cup of tea but it is undoubtedly original, well-written, quite often shocking, and does everything the movie set out to do and doesn't.
Strangely, for a film I have to admit I didn't like very much, I am strongly drawn to watching it again. I want to imagine it as it could have been. Should have been. A film that makes us care about art. Laugh about the shenanigans. Feel shocked or excited by sex and drugs and jazz. And I desperately, desperately, want to see a note at the end-credits that reassures me: "No actors were harmed in the making of this train wreck." Boogie Woogie is an oddity. Not quite bad enough to be good, and not good enough to wholeheartedly recommendable. But, like a painting where the oils contained the wrong amount of linseed, the effort that has gone into its ill-fated brushstrokes is nevertheless sadly commendable.
When have you felt most alone?
Milan. Winter. Upper-middle classes,Northern Italy. A dizzying array of people who all know each other and we don't.
Speaking about I Am Love, Tilda Swinton remarks, "Overcoming the idea of oneself, as created by society, has been one of my main interests since Orlando." In that earlier film, which was based on a novel by Virginia Woolf, Swinton's character self-reflected by seeing how society views her through different time periods and even a gender change. In I Am Love, Emma (Swinton) connects with love as a revolutionary force and throws off the shackles of a persona forced on her by circumstance.
I Am Love is unusual as an art film in that it is set in a world of exquisite luxury and good taste. It is not the simplistic attack on bourgeoisie we might at first expect. Working out the underlying moral fabric requires effort (but is richly rewarded). Love, or Emma, is no martyr to idealism. Revolution (of the social order) or love can only be justified by its success. Even the cinematic temptation to tragedy will extolled and then dashed through with a sword.
Russian-born Emma is Tancredi's wife. Tancredi co-inherits the family textile fortunes with his son Edo. Emma, although head of the household, is something of a show wife. With style and authority, but no clearly defined role in terms of business or of culture. The traditions and values of Tancredi's father for the former have maybe skipped a generation to the untried Edo. For the latter, to his sister and artist-photographer, Betta.
Secondary characters quickly provide clues to the theme. Edo's friend Antonio is an innovative, high class chef. Cuisine elicits a life-fulfilling passion in him for perfection and meaning. And Betta has a life of her own of which the parents suspect little. "Only you love me for who I really am," she tells Emma.
A superficial reading of I Am Love could leave the viewer with the impression of tragedy in which love has terrible consequences. It is essential to analyse what one actually sees (rather than a Hollywood ending that would have emphasised different points entirely). One can then imagine conversations over glasses of chablis, berating the section where the film goes 'oh so Lady Chatterley,' oblivious to how the film attacks that very same self-satisfied air of culture without visceral involvement. Even an interest in Swinton's breasts disguised by trappings of intellectual analysis. More lowbrow cinema-goers could feel even more frustrated at the 'missed opportunities' for histrionics, the emotional 'involvement' that comes from more manipulative screen writing.
I Am Love is social melodrama in the best traditions of Italian cinema. It lines up, surprisingly, more with works like L'avventura and that film's quest for self, than the compassionate criticism of an elite class in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). In I Am Love, good taste and refinement is simply the medium for those with an ability and wherewithal to appreciate it epitomised by Tancredi's father, his son, but perhaps not Tancredi himself. It carries no moral connotation. Empty shells on the other hand, form without substance, ultimately and unknowingly seeks its own destruction.
Tilda Swinton's career has forged a extraordinary path. In mainstream cinema, she has been hailed for work like Michael Clayton which, while impressive, hardly shows her skill in portraying worthwhile values (compared, say, to her portrait in Stephanie Daley). Or her powerhouse as an actress, in challenging cinephile gems such as The Man From London. I Am Love has potential to reach a wider, discerning audience, than her Bela Tarr movie, being shown not only in art house but as least one multiplex chain. It has an arresting, and rather beautiful romance at its heart, and one that becomes a striking metaphor for finding one's true course in life. It is ascetically 'thinking person's cinema' yet lovers of fine things can luxuriate in the sumptuous sets and costumes that inhabit art history and couture (Silvia Fendi, third generation of the famous luxury brand, was also an associate producer on the movie). Music is by Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams, and the perfectly choreographed closing scenes have almost operatic intensity.
One of the pleasures of writing a review is the opportunity to think a more deeply about the film - when one has to put words to paper. Only when forced to analyse the story, to separate the expected from what really happened, did I truly appreciate it. Swinton's Emma is no modern-day Madame Bovary. Style, plot and execution is far less predictable than it seems. Clichés of rich-poor, virgin-whore, as well as cinematic tropes that have become stale are effortlessly avoided. Confusing feelings are not indicated by fast cuts, but by unrelentingly staring at the character struggle in a long take.
I particularly like Swinton's power for creating interiorisation. This is visual acting at its best, showing what is going on in her head without having it spelt out. There are moments of exultation when she can barely contain herself. And moments when she struggles to stay on course as we should, if we want to keep up. We find ourselves transfixed by her face in the bathroom. A place of privacy, where she can almost admit to herself the jubilation at a stolen kiss. And, like the art book she forgets to pay for, full of future portent. Or the moments when she is torn, at the climax of the film. The difficult self-examination in the midst of events. When Tancredi summons damnation in the words, "You don't exist," she has passed the point where she might cling to merely existing. Freedom is the power to 'go,' and to 'do.' Any avowedly lightweight cinemagoer might complain that the deaths are not dramatic enough. The cinematography not stark enough (to make us gasp in awe every few seconds at the beautiful surroundings) or the dialogue not self-explanatory enough.
If life is uncertain, what do we hold onto? And if circumstances
dictate that love will bring only pain, what can we look forward to?
Even when we know something is not quite true, it can give us comfort.
Have you ever known anyone who kept a treasured teddy-bear long past
childhood? Holding on to ideas we may do it for the warmth and
sentiment they bring. Give a pet human characteristics. Try maybe to
fill a little gap somewhere no human can fill. The religious among us
might seek solace in a being for which there is no actual proof. A
habit that is harmless yet not justified, other than by our fondness
Cambodian people, officially Buddhist, have a generation-old tendency towards animism, investing everything from a tree to a rock to a village - with guardian spirits or deities. Before we exclaim, "How backward!" let us remember that we celebrate Father Christmas, and many of us read horoscopes or avoid walking under ladders. Even though we don't 'believe' that the planets control our fate. Or that bad luck in bucketfuls will fall on us from above.
It's just the culture, the way of life. In Rithy Panh's neo-realist film, the Rice People, we look at customs and a way of life that has existed for many years among rice farmers. At times lyrical, at times frightening, we walk into a story of sadness and beauty. Different strains of rice are given different poetic names. Folklore doctors are given due respect and money; and western-style hospitals, the 'sensible' and even more expensive solution, tried if the more basic approaches don't cut it. With 'fingers crossed' we hope western medicine will work but of course, that sometimes can't perform miracles either.
The story here is nominally based on the novel, 'No Harvest but a Thorn,' by Shahnon Ahmed. It was previously adapted as a film by Jamil Sulong. Here, Panh says the backbone of the film is a woman he met in a refugee camp towards the end of the Cambodian civil war. She is Yim Om, a mother who loses everything, her family, her meagre sense of security, and even her sanity. Yet Om lives on. It is easy to read this as a symbol for the fate of Cambodia rather like some other works by Panh such as, One Evening After the War, that probe the complex balance between accepting the crippling ravages of that country from outside, and attempting to survive. But the film's beauty lies in its simplicity, in telling its story in a completely unadorned fashion.
Rice is not the easiest of crops. It needs a lot of attention as we soon discover. Tending through different seasons, protecting from natural disasters such as flooding and storms and fighting off predators such as sparrows and crab. Om's village, like many in Cambodia even today, has no running water, no electricity, and not much access to medical care. They have enough rice paddies to eke out a living - and barely that. They know disaster can come from the usual quarters or, recalling the title of Ahmed's book, something as simple as treading on a thorn. Put a foot out of action and the whole body can't perform the needed heavy work at the critical time.
For Om and her husband Poeuv (and their seven daughters) they must carry on even when life seems unremittingly devoid of hope. "I'm like a floating weed carried off by the current," declares Poeuv as one day he lies ill.
The Rice People reconnects us with a simpler way of living. A lifestyle that is hard, yet values the nobility of honest labour. We experience the simple joy of the rain. And for people whose lives depend on it, the joy is perhaps more sincere and heartfelt than that similar joy of young lovers in western movies, singing and frolicking in rain that is of little more significance than not having an umbrella.
When rice or the weather can mean the difference between life and death, not just for one's immediate family but for one's children and grand-children, is it not understandable that it begins to assume almost divine personas? In some ways, The Rice People is a meditation on place, on nature. Comparable in some ways perhaps to Bela Tarr's meditations on, and treatment of, buildings and structures: for instance, in The Man from London. Taken with the historical background of Cambodia, its endless struggles and frequent wars not of its own making, this paean to a simple food staple might be considered masterly. But how anthropological are we feeling today? Panh explores colourful facets of village life. From unusual methods of traditional fishing, rituals of cremation, or the horrific (but eminently 'reasonable') methods of handling madness. It fills in many gaps for those curious about a culture and land which is practically unknown in the West. But the downside is that, unless water-logged Cambodian rural life really floats your boat, it may be consigned to that 'worthy but forgettable' shelf of South-East Asian cinema.
Panh, who has seen the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge first hand (and with his film S21 triggered moves for implementing justice in that respect) seems almost an expression of the land that he loves rather than a director-artist 'creating' a movie himself. He is widely respected, from the Cannes Film Festival to Amnesty International, yet it is easy to see how his lesser films could leave some audiences unsatisfied. Rice People maybe makes the grade, but more by dint of the zero competition in the field of great directors from Cambodia than something that strikes a masterchord quite separate from its culture. We are, perhaps, being asked to love the rice fields rather more than the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Note: To explore the issues, this review contains spoilers after the
paragraph that starts, "Sroey is a bar girl." Up to the end of that
paragraph, there are no spoilers.
Have you ever felt that something was so out of reach, that even a taste of it would be the most magical thing that could possibly happen? Maybe you've loved and lost. Tried for a better job which didn't work out. Hoped for a miracle cure for life's ills, but knew deep inside the pill was no more than an aspirin? Perhaps not. Perhaps your glass is always half full. It's all a state of mind. Being 'content' with our lot. Either way, I hope this film will move you.
In One Evening After the War, Sroey recalls her life with Savannah, a young man who recently served with the army. It is not the happiest of tales. Yet for Sroey, it gave her a lasting vision of something wonderful. Something her life reached for and yearned for. And even if it didn't happen the way it should, it is still the stuff movies are made of.
The first thing we are told is that Savannah comes to Phnom Penh in August 1992. This is highly significant, but unfairly assumes the viewer is familiar with the history of Cambodia, which excludes many Westerners. Savannah has spent four years fighting the Khmer Rouge. Now he rides south on a train know as the 'death wagon.' So called as it is used by those 'with nothing left to lose.' Starving peasants. Soldiers with nothing. And should a landmine explode . . .
Savannah lost his whole family to the war, except for an uncle in Phnom Penh. Of his colleagues, Maly and Phal, one has lost just a leg. Savannah is intact but broke. He can maybe kick-box for a living. From his childhood on, Savannah has only known war.
Sroey is a bar girl. For lovers of Cambodian culture, there is a quaint scene of nightclub dancing where men and women dance with each other from side to side, pretending to touch. Cambodian society is quite prudish, and the dance is based loosely on a classical dance piece where men and women bang empty coconut shells to the beat - and (flirtatiously) to each others' shells. But Sroey has a reputation for only spending time with well-heeled men. (The United Nations arrived en masse in Phnom Penh in 1992 with large numbers of NGOs. They had expensive cars and paid high prices for daily needs, quickly creating a society of have and have-nots.)
Savanna's initial advances are rejected. He is persistent, and one scene is suggestive of date rape. In an American film, we would probably say how ridiculous! She falls in love with the guy who rapes her?? But what can be regarded as misogynist-fantasy in Band of Angels (1957), or even True Blood (2008), here simply proves to be grounds for deeper (and very unsettling) thought; it questions the whole diatribe against the unrealistic plot device of giving the victim an arousing experience without soiling her innocence. Savannah only uses what seems to him a 'culturally acceptable' degree of force. Sroey is probably then asking herself, is it better to be raped by someone who loves her and wants to be 'good' to her, or a succession of wealthy men who don't care an iota? Savannah loves her but can hardly support himself, so his berating to leave her life of prostitution (which also helps support Sroey's family) sounds hollow to her ears. After raining love on him, she tells him he's wasting his time: "When you sell your body, you're already dead." They strain to find a momentary Elysium, but the bar owners bring a fantasy-shattering reality check.
When we lose in love, the isolation can reveal our true character. Are we tempted by our lower tendencies, give up in despair, or just somehow find the fortitude to carry on? An Evening After the War is a love story by Cambodian's greatest film director in visually beautiful neo-realist style. It offers rare insights into Cambodian culture from the houses on stilts to the strange rituals of Cambodian boxing. It is a challenging love story. It is invaluable for scholars of the complex period of history to which it pertains. And without ramming it down our throats, it is a commentary on the political plights of Cambodia and one of its biggest problems young women forced into prostitution. The expensive United Nations mission (to establish democratic elections there) failed: three months after the vote, Khmer Rouge veterans simply muscled in with a 'coalition.' Cambodia is near the bottom of the international Transparency Index (which measures government corruption). Yet its people treasure fragile peace without bitterness. It is this that injects a note of conscious irony into the title of our film. The 'fragile peace' that our heroine attains, in even a temporary way, becomes a touching symbol of the small but valuable achievement of her people.
Sroey was just 19 years old. The poignancy of her story is emotionally shattering.
A few years ago, I find myself travelling through South-East Asia, at
one point trying to piece together a baffling series of events that
resulted in the genocide of a third of Kampuchea, or Cambodia as we now
I read as much as I can, and try to speak to survivors. But the eyes of family members well up with tears. The inexpressible grief is barely contained. Out of respect, I desist.
Some time later, I see this film by internationally acclaimed human rights director, Rithy Panh. He has a better reason for asking he survived the massacre. His work, unlike my simple desire for knowledge, would provide momentum for confessions and now a war crimes tribunal. At the 'Killing Fields' outside Phnom Penh is a tree against which children had their brains bashed out. In the film, a guard explains how parents would be separated from each other, and from their children, to minimise fuss. The adults were told not to worry: they were going to a new home. They were then blindfolded for 'security reasons' and, ammunition being scarce, hit on the back of the neck with metal bars before being cast into a pit.
Executions followed three levels of torture at S.21, a school building in Phnom Penh converted into a concentration camp (and now a memorial visitors centre). Details are so hideous humans packed like abattoir carcasses, and systematic torture, that you could be forgiven for suspecting truth has been embroidered. Except for one fact. Meticulous records of every victim were kept. Each non-person, each beating, each flaying of skin, each removal of fingernails, chemical and electrical abuses, rape. Precise details of prisoners chained to iron bars to sleep, crammed together top-to-toe, living sharing a sardine-row with the dead.
Rithy Panh's master stroke brings together S.21 survivors (two of the existing three) and former guards and torturers. He encourages them to talk. To find answers. One of the hardest things, even now, is these perpetrators see themselves also as victims. They joined Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge for what seemed like all the right reasons. Once inducted, they were brainwashed, indoctrinated and trapped. Deviation meant the same fate as those they flayed alive. Most were youths at the time, easily manipulated. But, how can you forgive and move on, when no-one will admit wrong-doing? Even Pol Pot blamed the people he left in charge.
Men joined the Khmer Rouge because their villages were being repeatedly bombed. With their government's approval. The much loved Prince Sihanouk had been ousted in a coup. Lon Nol, an ineffective, U.S.-backed ruler, was forcibly installed in his place. Lon Nol gave America (under Johnson and Nixon) 'permission' for what became the largest bombing campaign in human history. Two and three-quarter million tons of bombs the revised figure released by the Clinton administration was more than the total dropped by all the allies in the whole of World War Two (which only came to two million, even including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Whole areas of the country became pock-marked, aerial chemical deforestation destroyed livelihoods and created famine and disease. Thousands killed, many more permanently displaced. The Khmer Rouge leaders kept their extreme agenda a form of rural, back-to-basics communism completely secret until they were installed in power. Then the purges started. Lon Nol supporters were followed to the grave by academics or anyone tainted with 'western' ideas. Anyone opposing Pol Pot, or whose name was elicited under extreme torture. The population was turned out of the cities, dying of starvation. With no-one else to purge, the despots found traitors to execute its own members.
Kampuchea's leading doctor, Swiss born Beat Richner, adamantly told me that without American intervention which had been aimed ironically at stopping communism in the region there would have been no Khmer Rouge. No Pol Pot victory. Richner worked in Kampuchea before, during and after Pol Pot, and his coal-face assessment agrees with most historians. But it is controversial: the U.S. military claim that Pol Pot would have won anyway. Ordinary Cambodians are still grieving rather than blaming. Rithy Panh's film exposes horror without finger-pointing. There are no 'lessons to be learnt.' Millions died estimates say around a third of the population, two to three million. (And this in a country smaller than Great Britain. As a benchmark comparison, Hitler exterminated six million Jews .) While Panh documents the existence of atrocities, he does little to substantiate the bigger picture, which has to be gleaned elsewhere or from casual remarks of the former guards.
Rithy Panh's film, S.21 The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, has no real ax to grind in the tradition of best documentary, it simply tries to provide a window. While it is powerful evidence, many viewers might find it emotionally less satisfying than more box-office friendly film by Roland Joffé, The Killing Fields, which (symbolically) suggests the West's responsibility by the journalist who 'uses' his Cambodian friend for his own ends, and also has more of a story. Either way, it is a country that makes me ashamed to be a Westerner. Yet Cambodians have more to worry about than my sense of emotional well-being. Avoiding hunger, or the thousands of landmines that still litter their country. In Joffe's film, an American journalist travels to a Red Cross camp to be reunited with a Cambodian colleague he deserted to his fate. "Do you forgive me?" he asks. The Cambodian answers with a smile, "Nothing to forgive, Sydney, nothing to forgive." Although it won many awards, Panh's movie is rarely shown outside of Cambodia. There you can pick it up for about $3. From one of the many maimed or desperate hawkers that haunt the road outside Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This place formerly known as Security Prison 21, or 'S.21' for short, still has living ghosts. The film just tells us where they came from.
A short, honest review of this film might read: "A lazy, self-indulgent
waste of money, skill and celluloid. Don't go and see it."
Somehow we come to expect a review to expend more column inches than that, even on the most undeserving pile of tosh. So defending the above review against anyone that might tell you otherwise, I shall proceed. Nine is about a film director that doesn't have a story. And that just about sums up the movie. Sadly, execrably, even ironically sums it up. But not 'cleverly' sums it up. There is no scintillating intellectual self-perception here. Just a lack of story. Expensively and professionally packaged.
Daniel Day-Lewis is Guido Conti, revered Italian movie-maker. He tells himself he needs to be surrounded by beautiful women to act as his 'muse.' There are expensive (and very beautiful) sets. Perfect camera angles. Exquisite lighting. But very little story whether in the film-within-a-film or in the movie itself. As Guido plays out his fantasies with his wife, his mistress and his leading ladies, passions are presented as extravagant song-and-dance numbers.
Penelope Cruz (as his mistress) provides the largest acting role for a woman and throws herself into it with an eye-candy appeal characterised by her trademark fire and histrionics. Marion Cotillard also acquits herself well, offering a glimpse of the singing capabilities that delighted us in La Vie en Rose. Nicole Kidman pouts prettily and kisses seductively. Rather like a perfume advert. Pleasant performances also from Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, and Sophia Loren. It reminds me of a series of auditions where actresses, lighting experts, choreographers and so on, all demonstrate their impeccable skills. What is totally lacking is any semblance of a film upon which to apply them. I am not surprised my companion fell asleep before the end. There is no doubting the quality of talent. But should people really get awards for 'audition' performances? Do not actors bear some responsibility at that level, for choosing worthy vehicles? (Kidman in particular, seems to have lost all sense of direction for movies of substance, having lost the commitment to greatness wherein her 'Tom Cruise' period saw her achieve the title, greatest actress of our generation.)
Any analysis of why the 'muse' theory failed is backshelved for a whimsical kowtowing to the sacrament of marriage, providing the most miserable subtext imaginable. For a true example of 'muse,' the channelling of artistic inspiration, one only needs to look at the much healthier example of Cruz and Almodovar two artists that spark off each other as equals in their respective fields. Nine is no paean to womanhood. It extols the sleazy open-crotch of temptation, then castigates us and says the only redemption is through marriage. The afterthought ending follows the usual formula of, be a 'good' (ie god-fearing) person, and somehow everything will turn out happily in the end. Irrespective of talent, reality and everything that has gone before. The Disney salvation that is drip-fed to keep the modern masses in a state of servile beliefhood.
It's traditional to say some nice things about even the most garbage of Oscar-bait movies, so I will try. Director Rob Marshall has put together a winning package. As with the visually appealing Chicago, or the deceitful Memoirs of a Geisha, the Weinstein Money is safe in his hands. And, while you might see a superior display of terpsichorean skills on Strictly Come Dancing, you do at least see proper celebrities here instead of people trying to make a come-back. As musicals go (ie films where the songs are not very catchy), the tunes are not bad. I preferred many of them to say, the endless ditties of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it is still a collection of goodies sans a point. It saddens me that people of the calibre of Penelope Cruz put their name to films like this. While she might unite with Almodovar on a string of reputable hits, the only union on this one is a paycheck dangled from a g-string. The title never explained involves references to the life of the great Italian director, Fellini. While it might have worked more honestly on stage, here its reference to a great artist seems almost obscene.
I can think of many ways you could better spend an evening than watching this movie. But I can recommend the trailer. It includes all the best bits. And, unlike the film, is mercifully short.
What do you do when you 'know' there is a very tangible threat but
cannot point the finger? Recall, if you will, Jean. Julianne Moore's
character in Crash: " . . . and it was my fault because I knew it was
gonna happen. But if a white person sees two black men walking towards
her and she turns and walks in the other direction, she's a racist,
right?" Or the dilemma of Islam in Europe. On the one hand, we are
impelled to protect the rights of the vulnerable minority. Protect
their beliefs. Their innocence. Everything decent within ourselves that
we wish to respect and preserve in others. But on the other, we are
terrified of the prospect creeping Islamic militancy. We teeter on the
brink of racism. Islamophobia. If we risk the sacred humanity in others
we attack it in ourselves. And what if all the indications are wrong?
What if all our beliefs are wrong? What if all the words led us astray?
Too late, we know we have to talk about paedophile priests. Too late,
we know we should have talked about Hitler (in the days before, yes
before, he was the Bad Guy). Or even World War One before it happened.
There are times when we cannot accuse. Times when it will do no good.
But still, as Lionel Shiver might say, there are times when we know,
'We need to talk about Kevin.' Haneke confronts the paradox of
confronting the unimaginable. Not in the Hollywood sense of 'too scary
to think about.' Just confronting something that is outside the ability
of the imagination to foreshadow. In Hidden, the format was an
intricate art house film that appealed more to the cinema geek. The
cult viewer. A brilliant film but one you would probably need to
watch at least twice before you could 'get it.' The White Ribbon is an
altogether different genre. The mystery is laid out as carefully as any
Hitchcock classic, albeit with the more restrained tones and
iconography of Luis Buñuel. There is not the surrealism of his
Exterminating Angel, but the clearly delineated social restraints that
refuse to acknowledge anything that does not fit, they are all there. A
small village on the eve of World War One. A fierce Lutheran
Protestantism that will admit no way of thinking unless it is true to
the cornerstones of its faith. Ignorance poses as innocence. And the
horrors that can spring from deeply ingrained discipline.
Somehow, within a community where everyone knows and trusts each other, a series of very unpleasant incidents occur. A wire is strung to trip the doctor's horse. A disabled boy is brutally attacked. A woman commits suicide. Unexplained arson. The seeds of deadliest emotions are there in a society that allows for nothing except goodness.
Haneke carefully details various forms of patriarchal enforcement of this goodness. It might be righteous anger or compassionate punishment. I recall my philosophy teacher at university saying how some things can be learnt but not taught. Then another professor's dismissal of Aristotle's virtue theory on the basis that it cannot be 'taught.' In this Haneke world of black-and-white moral righteousness, those characters who seek no more than a least worst option seem to come, quite logically, to an untriumphant end. A boy who wants to save a wounded bird. A schoolteacher who wants to reveal with gentleness that which force cannot uncover.
With Funny Games, Haneke shocked with intruders. With Hidden, he forced us to confront a barely solvable mystery. With The White Ribbon, his greatest work yet, a simple story takes on universal proportions. No intruders. No outsiders. We can no longer take refuge in any system of 'universal truth.' Whether it be the science of our sense or the dictates of religion. We must learn as we grow. This White Ribbon is no fairy tale story. It has no fairy tale ending. All is logical. Just that you might never, ever, be able to prove it.
When our intake of Brazilian cinema tends to be dominated by guns,
violence and exotica, it is refreshing to experience a more refined
slice of top-notch art-house.
Interlinking lives, interlinking roads, channel emotions to avoid collisions and pile-ups. And in the face of heart-wrenching loss that allows little freedom from harsh realities of circumstance.
Within this modern, teeming city of São Paulo, the relaxed warmth so typical of Brazilian communication pervades even the high tech control centre from which traffic is directed. To Enio, the swirling traffic is poetry in motion. Poetry he controls. Keep everything flowing. A blocked road, an accident, can have repercussions for a long way. He visualises pathways. Brings them to life on control screen. Issues instructions to controllers and traffic police on the ground. Tenderly looks after it all.
Across town, another caring control-freak sees pathways on the snooker board. Angles of incidence, angles of reflection. Backspins and follow-throughs. Forcing strokes and winning hazards. Like Enio, Pedro mathematically plans pathways of action and reaction. Mental flow-diagrams to help him win. But there is always an unknown factor. "Why practice a series not knowing what the other guy will do?" asks his beautiful but down-to-earth young lover.
Enio comes to a similar conclusion when reunited with estranged daughter, Bia: "We try so hard to foresee things . . . then something happens and we don't know what the consequences will be." Enio and Pedro control everything in their life. It becomes a metaphor to express their emotional outlook. But, when they both have to deal with sudden loss, their abilities to cope with the collision of emotions need something new. The structure of Not by Chance resembles the award-winning film, Crash. Though with rather subtler displays of emotion. Strangers' lives are distantly inter-related but with a gentleness that is deeply touching. Enio and Pedro must both make choices about new opportunities that life brings them.
A sudden outburst by Pedro's girlfriend recalls the righteous temper tantrums of women on all-encompassing Brazilian soap operas. Latin fieriness is institutionalised and used with crushing effect. As soon as Pedro relents, she is all soft and feminine again. His 'helpless' soulmate that gives up her more organised lifestyle and relishes flattering his male ego.
A curious aspect of Brazilian life is strangely explained. Enio shows his daughter how certain main roads are barred to traffic on special days. It might be a festival. A day set aside for joggers or children. Or simply, when pedestrians can use the extra space afforded by a main road. It is a luxury they allow themselves in a country which already has probably more official holidays than any other in the world. Brasilians know how to relax. Even in this metropolis. And it quietly suggests the idea of emotional space, the ability to deliberately prioritise it. (Something we perhaps find hard in the West to do).
Not by Chance has already won awards in the highly competitive Latin American film market. It is a deeply meditative, if surprisingly fast-moving film that allows the thoughtful viewer to contemplate the existential choices which life brings and how we handle them. Acting is first-rate without being flashy. Cinematography is also very impressive. From the google-earth style opening camera-work to subtle use of ghost images that let us into the protagonists' thoughts. Snooker never looked so exciting. Transitions from boardroom to bedroom are cleverly handled. But the ending, and the degree of control Enio exerts, seems a little improbable. We can allow it once we pick up on the symbolic nature of his actions. Or maybe even find it humorous. But a casual viewer might be left wondering, 'So what?'
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The number 174 bus may well forever be remembered as the most famous
hi-jack in Brasil. National television gave it hours of live coverage.
Rio de Janeiro police desperately tried to free hostages. The ordeal
was imprinted on the national psyche, much the way 9/11 is on
America's. First a documentary, and now this major film.
I did once experience an attempted hi-jack in Brasil. Coming off a slip road from Presidente Vargas. The same freeway where part of this film is located. About twenty young kids, none of them more than twelve years old, charge our fast-moving vehicle. They run head-on towards us in a v-formation, attempting to make the bus brake hard. Or crash. It's 2am. I'm on my way back to the apartment after late night carousing. Passengers rise in their seats. Transfixed. We wait to see what the driver will do. Instead of stopping, he accelerates towards the children. It resembles a game of dare, but with deadly intent. The phalanx of charging youngsters scatters at the very last minute. Sighs of relief. If he had stopped, the chances of being robbed at gunpoint would have been high.
The famous 174 incident ended in bloodshed. It was made into the documentary, Onibus 174, which did rather well, and also inspired this film. Last Stop 174, a feature thriller that culminates in the same event, has much to live up to.
Our action starts with Alessandro, rudely ripped from his mother's breast (quite literally). The gangsters that grab him violently are owed money by his coke-sniffing mama. Young Alessandro (Sandro for short) is soon old enough to wield a gun. His life soon intertwines with another boy called Sandro as they grow up on the streets, doing coke and doing time. They survive by armed robbery and dealing drugs. A close shave with an infamous street massacre, just off Presidente Vargas (in Rio's city centre), sees several children gunned down. Between the bloodbath of juveniles and the bus hi-jack, weave tales of maternal longing, desperate glue-sniffing, jailbreak and prostitution. Meanwhile, Church and NGOs fight to save souls among such unworthy miscreants.
As a straightforward action movie, Last Stop 174 is gritty and entertaining. The pace doesn't let up, and the central characters give a convincing demonstration of Brasil's brand of smooth-talking hustlers. But does the film have more to it than just box office returns? Our young actors do well - on many an occasion - but at other times seem noticeably stretched. It seems a good enough story; yet is really a collection of interlocking pieces rather than a smoothly flowing whole. The actual hijack is a relatively short segment at the end of the film - and it left me a little underwhelmed. I had been very much looking forward to Last Stop 174. Yet on viewing, I felt it had little new to say. In fact, very little to say at all. Additionally, my sympathies are moving towards some of the more art-house type directors from Brasil. Ones that deplore the way their multifaceted country is depicted as a violent, third-world outback.
You could imagine the anger if the bulk of mainstream film from the UK, for instance, portrayed nothing but Trainspotting and underbellies of drug orgies and football violence. The Rio city centre carnage should be shocking - since such things normally only happen, when they do happen, in underprivileged favelas, the slums of Brasil. Not in the midst of a teeming financial district. But this film sadly gives us no context to draw such contrasts. We see mostly only slum boys, sleeping on pavements and selling their heavily-cut coke. Characters outside their world of the dispossessed have little more than walk-on parts.
The plot is overcomplicated by having two boys of similar names. And there is confusion rather than mystery over who is the real mother. The mishmash result is lack of momentum for the main storyline. This should be Sandro's boyhood, culminating in a botched robbery and hijack of bus 174.
Not that there aren't fascinating details. Con-tricks used to steal a Copacabana woman's handbag. Or an ingenious ruse for the mass egress from prison, when they scam and overpower guards and staff. Earlier, Sandro loses his virginity at a tender age. To a prostitute he promptly falls in love with. Patchy performances of inspired intensity outweigh an attempt at a sustained ensemble endeavour. From the opening scenes (which have genuine shock value), the drive towards a finale is uneven at best. The film's target audience is unclear, being too well-trodden for many mainstream viewers and lacking the subtlety demanded by art-house crowds. Last Stop 174, if not quite grinding to a halt, never manages to make a smooth transition through its gears.
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