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This is just the (unpleasant) aftermath, definitely _not_ a blueprint for making it better
Yep, the girl we see could be termed "self-loathing" or "mad". And yep she sometimes behaves in strange ways that irritate both her on-screen friends and us viewers.
What we never see is what she was like _before_ "the trauma". What we see is that "the trauma" has permanently scarred her, so that all her attempts at rehabilitation are self-destructive, and her friends attempts at healing uniformly eventually fail.
The skewed behavior we see is definitely _not_ what's recommended. If there's an (implied) "feminist message", it's something like "our sexist culture results in some individuals that are permanently so screwed up they not only can't help the culture, they can't even help themselves very much, like this one".
What we see is the disaster resulting from "the trauma". Reading what we see as some sort of "recommendation" fundamentally misses the whole point.
Watching a thoroughly screwed up person may be "educational", but it tends to not be all that much fun. So what else does this movie deliver? The first "what else" is that quite a few little bits are very funny, for example showing up to a porn shoot wearing a tongue-in-cheek skin-colored outfit (rather than a "birthday suit" as intended) and seducing the other model into playing along with the joke.
And the second "what else" is quite a bit of truly interesting art. It's unconventional, and a lot of it is vaguely disturbing. Yet at the same time it's undeniably beautiful.
This film is squarely in the "mumblecore" tradition: low production values, tiny crew, amateur actors, about the concerns of thirty-somethings, little or no music, and very naturalistic dialog. (I personally am not a big fan of "mumblecore" in general, and my rating reflects my generic dislike more than it does anything about this film specifically.)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
oldie but goodie morality play
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" is well over half a century old. Both visuals and sound have been thoroughly restored, so that current electronic prints are quite nice.
It's a "war film" ...and it's also an "anti-war film" It's about individual characters more than the larger conflict. In both these regards it seems to me most similar to "Apocalypse Now" ...except ending with "Madness, Madness" rather than "The Horror, The Horror".
It's a ripping good yarn. Even though many individual moments and scenes seem "hokey" these days, somehow they all add up to something that will hold your attention for hours.
Although it's not an "epic", and although it's shot on standard 35mm film, there are already suggestions here of what we'd see in "Lawrence of Arabia". Even half a decade earlier, here David Lean showed that he was enamored of shooting on location, shooting huge vistas, and shooting in a very wide format.
I think one of the reasons the film still speaks to us is its considerable ambiguity. Did Nicholson fall accidentally on the plunger, or did he do it intentionally in a last cry of remorse? Did Saito intend the knife for a possible but unlikely ritual suicide, a certain ritual suicide, or to kill Nicholson once he'd fully served his purpose? Did Warden throw his weapon in a temporary fit of frustration, or as the first sign of a permanent decision to have nothing more to do with war? Did the women express revulsion at the deaths of men they were fond of, or at the realization of just how violent war was? ...and many more.
The film was adapted from a book, except with the ambiguity ramped up, a character added, and different subplots emphasized. The book in turn was _loosely_ based on some real events the French author had no first hand involvement in (and may have even wanted to portray the British in a poor light).
There are many things that one may accept in the moment, but that after a bit of reflection can't possibly be real: Temporary reassignment of a soldier to the army of a different country - A British medic running his own hospital with no supervision, having his own building, and making his own independent decisions about who could work and who could not - The Japanese not having sufficient engineering talent to design and build a permanent bridge - Prisoners often allowed to whistle a tune that was very derogatory to the Axis - Inmates in a Japanese prison camp appearing in good health, with good uniforms, and at normal weight - Inmates in a Japanese prison camp arranging their own entertainment ceremonies - Nicholson staying alive in an unventilated corrugated steel box in full sun in that torrid climate for many days - The Japanese commandant giving in to the British prisoner officer without any advance agreement on getting something in return - The very first detent between jailers and prisoners being in a lengthy joint meeting around a conference table, and with the prisoners controlling the agenda - A soldier with serious doubts about killing being selected as part of an elite commando unit - A sailor suddenly knowing how to handle a gun and how to be a commando - and more.
In fact there are so many such departures from reality I can't imagine how anyone could possibly think this film is in any way trying to pass itself off as portraying historical events. To me, it's very obviously more of an imagined morality play than a portrayal of actual events. Nevertheless there have been public questions about its historical accuracy right from the beginning. Despite its adaptation from a book, which was in turn loosely inspired by some poorly reported events, some of the characters in the film could be identified with real individuals. And some of those people were still alive. And some of them complained noisily.
Stories We Tell (2012)
the ultimate self-referential documentary
Simply put, this is one of the best and most arresting documentaries I've ever seen. I find it surprising that it's not very well-known. It's quietly enjoyable to watch, is thought-provoking, and is the kind of multi-layered deep meditation I expect critics and film schools to analyze closely. It's not like anything else I can think of. In fact my main reaction after my first viewing was WTF? What did I just watch?
This is the most "self-referential" movie I've ever watched. Yet it's done in such an understated way some could watch the whole thing and still not even be consciously aware of it. And it's not just one grand loop between two adjoining levels, but rather a whole bunch of small recursions all over the map. Once you become aware of it, it's likely that you too will find the recursion like nothing you've ever seen.
There are many different ways to read this film. Each of them is complete and self-contained, so you can enjoy the film in one (or more) ways without having to also "get" all the others. Possible readings include:
reading #1] a true story about slowly unearthing biological parentage (i.e. "is my father really my father?")
reading #2] a meditation on how we tell stories and on how different people relate the same story somewhat differently
reading #3] an experiment in just how far the "self-referencing" conceit can be pushed without the whole film collapsing
reading #4] a deconstruction of what "documentary film" means - What is "truth"? What is "accuracy"? Is it even possible?
reading #5] a film about filmmaking, in the tradition of "Day for Night" or "8 1/2"
The audio is mostly interviews and storytellers (where a "story" is a sort of one-sided extended interview). The video matches the words. Sometimes it's the speaker's face. Sometimes it's the action the speaker is describing. Sometimes it's very similar to the event the speaker is relating. Sometimes it's related science - for example when the voice talks about DNA the microscopic picture show chromosomes separating during a cell's Meiosis Anaphase. (Perhaps this was motivated by the science talks in "Mr. Nobody", which Ms. Polley was acting in about the same time she was thinking about this film.) And once in a while it shows the _opposite_ of the words, probably to let us know something isn't quite right.
Nearly half of the film is "flashbacks" on what is initially assumed to be home movie footage ...and some of it really is old home movie footage that's been found and edited in. But we start to become dubious. There's so very much of this footage, and it seems to match the needs of the modern day filmmaker eerily well, and much of it does _not_ follow the stylistic pattern that's mentioned explicitly early on. We're eventually told when the camera first appeared; then it can be carefully noted that some of the footage is from _before_ this date. It also seems odd that the camera filmed so many things that the camera operator couldn't possibly have been present for or even known about. We keep seeing fragments of a clip with Mom and a male on a footbridge - careful examination reveals the male isn't always the same person. Finally we see some really explicit clues: the nowadays director appears in one of the clips, the director is seen giving acting instructions to her Mom, some of the people in the clips are seen getting their film makeup applied, and one camera actually shows another filming one of these clips. A few minutes later it's made even clearer to those that have missed it so far: the exact same scene switches back and forth between the appearance of one of these historic clips and the appearance of the modern day film, then we see Ms. Polley herself both inside that scene and also filming at the same time, and finally realize what she's holding is an old Super 8 camera. The end credits confirm that while some of the flashback clips are authentic, many of them were recreated.
Already at the very beginning "things are not what they seem" is thrown in your face. Pictures of interviews are purposely mis-framed to give away hidden wires, mic booms, light reflectors, tripods, and so forth. Later, interviewees occasionally break the fourth wall, primp on camera, or say outrageous things. We eventually realize the entire family is deeply embedded in the Canadian show-biz world, so deeply that some of the main characters actually had careers as stage actors at one point, and many of the rest were involved in other aspects such as producing or casting. Sure enough, it eventually becomes clear that the "honest" interviews with the main characters are in fact acted. There's even a comment about somebody "falling in love" with the stage character he was playing rather than with the actor himself.
The line between "in front of the camera" and "behind the camera" is shown to be overly precious. It's not even all that well defined; what does it mean when at the same time the visual is in front of the camera, but the audio is behind the camera? At some points a character on camera gives a suggestion for how the film could be edited at that point, then that exact thing really happens. Name any "rule" of documentary filmmaking you like, or any "theory" of how documentary films should guarantee they're presenting "the truth". It's mentioned here, then gleefully flouted or debunked. This film is so clever and so thorough (in its understated, un-obvious way) that it feels like nobody else should ever again make a "self-referential documentary", because the last word has already been spoken.
Kaguyahime no monogatari (2013)
animation of the decade
The animation masterpiece of the decade. Takahata is going out on top. The fabled north American distribution deal between Disney and Studio Ghibli (apparently) applies only to the works of Myazaki; north American distribution of this is being handled by GKIDS. So the heavyweight marketing of Pixar/Disney isn't behind it. But don't be fooled by its "art-house" distribution or its relative obscurity - this is a really big deal.
It's an "epic", having taken eight years to produce and clocking in at well over two hours. I haven't seen the words "production committee" in credits since 'Akira' - that means it was too big for any one normal producer, so several companies had to form a "consortium": Studio Ghibli itself, a TV network, a foreign corporation, a movie studio, and three others. And the animation work itself was so large that parts of it were farmed out to _nine_ other studios.
There are two versions: an English dub of the soundtrack with most things written in English characters (although in general dubs suck, animation is often an exception); and a Japanese soundtrack with written English subtitles and most things (including virtually all the credits) written in Japanese characters. If the names of the voice actors you hear sound vaguely familiar, that's the English dub version. In fact, if you're viewing this in a theater, unless the theater is pretty sophisticated, you won't even have a choice - you'll see only the English dub version. And that's okay.
You get what you're used to from Studio Ghibli: powerful and independent women characters, a strong bond with the natural world, seamless switches back and forth between reality and fantasy, rootedness in tradition and folklore, and the music of Joe Hisaishi. Add to that some themes I associate specifically with Takahata: portrayals of "reality" even when it's quite sad, nostalgia, an acceptance and open portrayal of the concept of the "cycle of life", and ambivalence toward tradition and especially patriarchy (respecting and illustrating the good, while at the same time poking fun at the bad). Finally add a new twist I haven't seen in animation before: whole scenes where all the dialog, the visuals, and even the music, point to one interpretation ...only to recast the whole thing in a different light at the end to reach a totally unexpected conclusion.
The animation is 2D and very intricate, but still appears hand-drawn. Outlines vary in thickness and density, and colored areas don't always reach exactly to an outline. It could be computer-drawn (as many apparently hand-drawn animations actually are these days) only if the computer made an awful lot of "mistakes". Interestingly, the figures and the backgrounds look exactly the same (not different styles of animation as is often the case). It's all colored with pastels. The end result looks somewhat as though 'My Neighbors the Yamadas' had been used as starting sketches which were then finished.
I thought my evaluation of "hand drawn" was vindicated when a whole screenful of the end credits was occupied with the names of all the in-betweeners. But then just a bit later the whole screen was again filled with one category of names, this time all the digital ink and painters. Sometimes what you'd expect to be computer-generated is in fact clearly hand drawn, as when shadows move just a bit awkwardly between the beginning and the end of a scene. Other times the effect really seems computer-generated, as when a character is seen in a side closeup crashing through vegetation with lots and lots of branches flying much faster than anyone could draw them, or as when there's a cross-fade between scenes. I could never even guess though how it had been done when occasionally I could see what was behind a bit of translucent cloth.
Hei yan quan (2006)
a window into a different place
"I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" is stylistically very different. It's composed of very long takes with an unmoving camera, has almost no dialog, no non-diegetic music, mostly either very long shots or closeups (few medium shots or sorta-long shots), and pacing often described as "extremly slow".
Its two interwoven stories start out separate, then slowly combine. The actor Lee Kang-Sheng plays the "Homeless Guy" in one story and the "Paralyzed Guy" in the other. Although both stories start out hyper-realistic, by the end the Homeless Guy story shows noticeable gaps and even seems a bit supernatural.
The film is "about" more than just one thing. For example the English title "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" and the Asian title literally translated as something like "eyes circled in black" are completely different ...but both refer to some central theme of the film.
Much attention is paid to bodily functions -including sex. There's little in the way of bare skin or conventional love scenes; it's not reminiscent of the "soft porn" of a few art movies. The attention isn't especially lascivious; in fact it's sometimes either a bit silly or just plain funny. The emphasis is definitely there though; is it really all in service of the stories, or has it been exaggerated (maybe for shock value?)?
The marvelous last shot is so long, slow, mysterious, and moody I immediately thought of Andrei Tarkovsky. (It requires many tens of seconds just to figure out where the heck you are and what you're looking at.) It sums up the entire film in one unforgettable image.
The DVD I got from Netflix -which seems to be the only version available to English speakers in Region 1- is awkward, but adequate. The subtitles are burned in, and have even more than the usual difficulties with slang and with song lyrics. Worse (and unfortunately like _many_ DVDs), the subtitles give no hint of what language is being spoken (Malay, Chinese, Bangladeshi ...maybe even Hindi?), not even when that's central to the story. There are no "bonus" materials. And aspect ratio jumps around oddly between Academy, letter-boxed, and fullscreen widescreen.
Because the style is so different, it's easy to jump to the mis-conclusion the stories too are "just plain weird". The truth is after just a little help with cultural translation, the stories are actually rather prosaic. You should know:
1) In many Asian countries with significant Chinese minorities, their stereotype is overly concerned with money, disconnected from the local culture, and morally stunted. This negative stereotype appears in the movie many times, beginning with the scam artist's apparent direction that anyone that doesn't speak Malay should be treated as a second class citizen and beaten more severely, and the comment that "the Chinese landlady would be very upset if she knew". It continues with the callous treatment of the nurse/waitress, and the almost exclusive focus on money -downplaying even possible emotional ramifications- when selling the house. It _might_ even account for a sexual attraction of the Chinese grandmother to her own son ...or at least to someone else who looks very similar.
2) The Malaysian economy was vigorous and developing rapidly for several decades in the last century, so much so that many young males from Bangladesh arrived as foreign workers. But that economy was wrecked by the Asian financial crisis beginning in the late 90s. Buildings in progress were abandoned (hence the flooded shell). And most of the foreign workers were stranded, unable to afford the transportation to go back home. And because many of them lacked either language skills or identification/permit papers, and had a different appearance, they were unable to "assimilate".
3) Not long after, a very nasty fight between politicians who used to work together was front and center in Malaysia. The former prime minister Anwar Ibrahim faced trials on trumped-up charges of sodomy. Because of police violence, he once appeared in court with black eyes (hence the Asian title of the movie). And introduced as evidence during the trials was a mattress, supposedly stained with his semen.
4) From everything seen in the film, the relationship between the Homeless Guy and Rawang can appear to be entirely platonic. But almost certainly the opposite was intended. A homosexual relationship could be hinted at only _very_ obliquely, partly because of censorship threats in Malaysia and partly because the actors were unwilling to be more explicit.
5) Many of the songs are either entirely western, or have clear western influences. (For example the busker's song lyrics seem to have originated in the old four-and-twenty-blackbirds nursery rhyme.) It's unclear just what this really means though. Maybe it's just hyper-reality. Or maybe it's meant to show the continuing pervasive influence of western culture. Or maybe it's nothing more than a shout-out to those paying the bills - the film was "commisioned" by the New Crowned Hope festival, Vienna's celebration of Mozart.
6) Haze and wafting smoke in Kuala Lumpur (in fact in much of Southeast Asia) because of huge forest fires in Indonesia is not "symbolic" - it really did happen in summer 2006. Fortunately Tsai Ming-Liang was able to incorporate it seamlessly into his stories, as otherwise he might have had to suspend filming for months.
7) An interpretation of the structure of the film is that Paralysed Guy is real, but the stories about Homeless Guy are his dreams. This immediately makes the duplication of the lead actor meaningful. Clearly Tsai Ming-Liang really wants to tell the Homeless Guy story, as it's far too lengthy and detailed and embellished to be "just a dream". Yet the thematic connections are actually there. Even though some of the details don't fit all that well, as an overarching schema this view makes more sense than anything else.
The Homesman (2014)
still not an (anti-)Western fan
First a warning or disclaimer: I'm _not_ a good audience for this movie. My tendency is to not appreciate Westerns, so I don't see very many of them, and as a result I'm relatively unfamiliar with their conventions (and unwilling to accept most of the bits I do understand). Thus even when a movie like this one plays with -even plays against- those conventions, I often don't "get it".
I was intrigued by the story line and the possibility of character development. And I really liked one of Tommy Lee Jones previous directorial efforts: "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada". So despite my reservations I went to see this. Unfortunately it didn't work _for_me_ (your mileage may vary:-). Here are some specifics:
What first put me off was the wildly unrealistic portrayal of mentally ill people. Suddenly turned violent? Mute (and more generally uncommunicative)? Unable to maintain even their own bodily functioning? It felt like I was eavesdropping on the residents of Bedlam "acting crazy" in order to get bigger donations from their slumming visitors. Seeing some Indians portrayed as silly and even stupid felt like nothing more than the second punch from the same pattern.
There were too many shocking and sexual scenes for no particularly good reason. It felt as though the director had been given a list of required scenes (an uncompleted hanging, a completed hanging, an unromantic sex scene, a rape, a supporting actress fully nude, the starring actress fully nude, etc.) and "checked off" each one. Some were so disconnected from events I couldn't even decide whether they were flashbacks or hallucinations.
The mores felt muddled. Was this a "feminist" film or an "anti-feminist" film? Was the character Mary Bee Cuddy a stand-in for today's sensibilities, or a historical person living in a time that thought quite differently?
Many characters and scenes seemed so exaggerated they were "cartoonish". The dinner visitor felt more like a stereotype than a man: falling asleep only a couple minutes into the music after his dinner ...and moreover audibly snoring? The drifter who tries to make off on horseback with one of the women was so smarmy I wanted to punch his lights out right there. The card sharps seemed overly concerned with respect/manners/propriety for where they were. And the hotel was ridiculous. In the middle of nowhere and with no obvious clients at all, yet expecting "investors"? With a table groaning under a load of pastries and other delicacies that weren't even available around there? An owner and his posse with such poor attitudes I looked for their "bad guy" badges?
Character development was largely absent. In particular Mary Bee Cuddy's actions near the end seemed to come out of nowhere and be quite inconsistent with the character she previously displayed. I'm told it actually made a lot more sense in the book, as she herself changed quite a bit over the course of the journey, so that by the end things that would have seemed inexplicable initially flowed from her new character. Sure George Briggs had some second thoughts, a "what the heck, be a nice guy" and even an "I actually care" moment, but they were so predictable and stereotypical I couldn't take them seriously.
I wished the production values were a bit higher. Several scenes in various open wooded places supposedly hundreds of miles apart all looked too much like they were shot in the very same small patch of woods. The "day for night" scene of Mary Bee Cuddy lost by herself on horseback was a little too obvious. And most of the costumes didn't have the expected "worn" look.
an absurdist comedy masquerading as a drama
Some grownups will really like this movie, especially those with an absurdist sense of humor (or of style); kids probably won't "get it".
As you'd expect at a high end ski resort in Europe, people mix languages all the time, and when people from different countries that don't share another language want to socialize, they all comfortably use English. So the subtitles come and go every sentence, depending on whether English is being spoken.
It will keep you chuckling inside the whole time, but there will probably never be a laugh-out-loud moment. Everything's presented totally deadpan, as though the filmmaker wasn't aware of just how odd things appear (right:-). It's fairly likely you'll even see this movie advertised as a drama - true, it's not anything like a traditional comedy; and true, it has aspects of a drama; but... Over and over your reaction to the screen will be "that doesn't look quite right" or "you've got to be kidding" or maybe "it must be just me". It's a little like reading Lewis Carroll: very funny in hindsight, but you're never quite sure when to laugh (or maybe from a different viewpoint it's very serious and you shouldn't laugh at all:-).
Visually it's _very_ reminiscent of Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel". A whole lot of the same visual motifs show up: mountains, snow, things moving across the snow like some sort of demented chase scene, cable cars, fancy hotel, endless balconies, very obviously fake miniatures ...but no black and white scene. A new touch is the skillful use of the "whiteout": snow will blow, the screen will go all white, but then you'll glimpse something looming up out of the whiteness, but then it's back to all white again as though nothing happened. Something you probably haven't seen before is a long-distance cameo of what appears to be a UFO ...but for no apparent reason at all and with no subsequent references. Yet another new touch is showing actual avalanches in progress (not the gouge and the pile afterward, but the wave of snow _during_. There's more than one, and one of them is among the largest ever filmed.
There are a few huge scenes and breathtaking vistas that will make you appreciate the big screen. But my guess is all the comedy will resonate equally well on the small screen. So let your personal tastes dictate whether you see it in a theater or on disc.
The skiing scenes are quite realistic, what you'd actually see on a skiing vacation with little kids. Of course there's the obligatory slalom down a fresh face, chair lift, and back-country powder. But there's also ill-fitting helmets, quick release skis that won't release, rope tows, flags, red plastic snow fencing, the sudden need to pee half way down the slope, ill-maintained lifts and ramps that screech and groan and give jerky rides, oversleeping, spots where the chair lift is suddenly _above_ the tops of the trees, awkward and uncomfortable boots, skiing only a half day, almost getting hit in the head by the safety bar on the chair lift, piles of pizza boxes, the continual swish-swish-swish of cold dry waterproof fabrics, complaints about Internet access, even loosening all those ski clothes in order to go to the bathroom.
A trope that appears over and over is what I call "yank your chain". A scene will be inter-cut with some other visuals that -using your movie reading skills- you conclude means A happened. But then a character half hidden in the snow resolves into somebody different than you expected, suggesting B happened instead. But then an off-screen voice of somebody you thought was dead is heard, meaning C happened. But then there's what looks like a wrap-up with D happening. But then the dialog and action make it clear that something else (E) happened instead.
There's another throwaway subplot (not just the UFO one) that is never completed or resolved. (It does provide the setting for some odd philosophizing though.)
And there's a huge amount of ambiguity. The key event that everybody struggles with doesn't look like much when you see it actually happen; it's so unclear you'll wonder why some of the characters think it's so significant. The "friend" that shows up doesn't play just one role, but switches unexpectedly and rather dramatically between: old hippie, therapist, diplomat, playboy, insecure male, buddy, shaman, and faux parent. The ending has everybody walking down a road (a tip of the hat to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"?) - their walking positions are sufficiently weird it's obvious something is being implied. But exactly what?
definitely see this one
Likely judgment by history will see it as a "near miss" rather than a "masterpiece" ...but so what: easily one of the best movies of this current season.
The physicist was actually involved in the project _before_ any of the movie people. So you needn't worry about accuracy. Some of the physics though is quite speculative - for example who knows what the edge of a black hole's event horizon really looks like. There are no obvious whoppers (although if you think hard enough about it later, there are just a few things that don't quite seem to add up).
To humanize the story -so it's not just a physics lesson- there are themes of i) romantic love, ii) parent<->child love, and iii) humanity always actively pushing the boundaries rather than ever passively accepting anything. None of the themes are presented in an overwhelming way -this is not a "message movie"- ...but they're definitely there.
I saw lots of similarities to "2001: A Space Odyssey": unseen superbeings, scenes that make little sense on the first viewing, scenes that are downright mystical, and bits of special effects that are as much "light show" as "movie".
There are a lot of different things crammed into one movie: a positive description may be something like "sprawling", and a negative description of the same thing may be something like "undigestible mass".
The director is very interested in picture quality, and has arranged a bewildering array of distribution formats so every theater can show it in whatever way is best for itself. There are so many different formats, advertising of particular formats is rare (probably because theaters are afraid of all the confusion), and so it's not always easy to find out which format a particular theater is showing. My recommendations are either the "real IMAX" format or the "4K digital" format. "Real IMAX" uses the old giant film, and is most likely found in the older IMAX theaters often attached to some sort of Museum of Science (_not_ the same as the "IMAX-lite" found in many multiplexes). The "4K digital" format is common either in theaters that were converted to digital only in the big push a couple years ago, or in theaters that have enough money to constantly upgrade their projection equipment. Most likely theaters capable of showing the "4K digital" format have either been displaying "4K digital" on their splash screen before every movie for months, or have a plaque that says "4K digital" on the wall by the theater entrance. And no question, if the theater can play it, they will almost certainly have it. ("IMAX-lite" theaters may put on a really good show too - I simply don't know.) There's quite a bit of explication, some on the more esoteric aspects of the physics and some to set up plot points. However the explication is notably brief. In fact sometimes a single sentence will appear to be just a throw-away for atmosphere, but will turn out to explain a scene that happens an hour or two later.
Be prepared to settle in, as this film is almost three hours long. That allows it to have lots of little climaxes, rather than the typical movie structure of just a couple big ones. Sometimes I was glued to the screen for tens of minutes, while other times a bathroom break seemed like a good idea. And it kept flipping back and forth. The freedom from a rigid typical structure also means the film has a separate ending for each subplot, rather than trying to tie up all the loose ends all at once.
For some people when it's over it's over. But many will find it flickering back to life in their thoughts hours later.
The special effects use CGI only occasionally (but spectacularly); many of the special effects were done some other way. There were lots of unusual camera setups, special photography, sets, and models (informally called "maxatures" rather than "miniatures" because they were so big - for example the space station model was 23 feet across). Having seen plenty of real NASA footage on TV in my youth, it was too easy for me to write off the weightlessness and space travel effects as "of course it looks like that". In fact the effects are astounding - for example I've never seen a realistic portrayal before of space travelers transitioning from weightlessness to standing as the circular space station spins up.
You won't see it in any credits or any advertising, but one of the characters is played by Matt Damon. This is described as a "cameo", which I find rather silly; the part involves more complex characterization and more screen time than some of the credited characters, which is not my conception of a "cameo". Fortunately it only matters to movie freaks anyway.
The Congress (2013)
wild and wide exploration of the psychology of modernity ...and heavily animated too
An unusual movie, but one that will be of considerable interest to some, especially those with either a philosophical bent or an interest in adult animation. Stir together the celebration of animation and the looniness of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?', the animated philosophical speculations of Richard Linklater's 'Waking Life', and the view from inside the movie industry of Altman's 'The Player'. Then turn the volume way up to more than double any of those precursors. The philosophy centers on what it means to be an actor (or more generally to make movies), especially in this age of CGI; and also provides healthy doses of speculation on the relationship between the movies and life in general, and of plain old "what's the meaning of life?" angst. It's sort of an adaptation of the story 'The Futurological Congress' by the Polish Science Fiction master Stanislaw Lem (who also wrote 'Solaris').
There are also a lot of secondary references to Naziism, including the pageantry at the Nuremberg rallies. The whole core of 'The Manchurian Candidate' is reprised, as is Slim Pickens riding an H-bomb down from the airplane in 'Dr. Strangelove'. Questions are raised about how physical disease (blindness, deafness) and oddball mental processing (merging of kites and airplanes and weather) are related, and when does a chemical "cure" for a syndrome become just "masking" the symptoms of that syndrome. And I doubt it's an accident that the analog of Toon Town looks like a fantasy in the middle of a desert, just like Las Vegas.
It's far more "out there" than even Ari Folman's previous 'Waltz with Bashir'. If you know you're prone to the "Whaaa?" reaction to unusual movies, you might plan ahead to watch this one twice.
The line between "fiction" and "reality" is thoroughly blurred. When an actor plugs a movie, is that further "acting"? The question of "what's acting?" versus "what's not acting?" is addressed over and over; perhaps the most pointed is when actress Robin Wright --whose storyline is similar to a common (mis)conception of her real life-- pauses in a hallway to gaze at an old poster of 'The Princess Bride' in which she actually played the title role of Buttercup.
It's very imaginative, but don't just relegate it to the 'trippy' category. There are enough big ideas and fertile juxtapositions and oddball sights to fill twenty normal movies. It isn't anywhere close to the usual "3-act movie structure" (in fact in sometimes it borders on inchoate), yet in its own unusual way it's engrossing and powerful. Throwaways come so fast you certainly can't keep up in the theater (and probably couldn't even freeze-framing): Was Sinatra in that queue? How did Botticelli's Venus get in this crowd? And wasn't that his Athena too, and with her Centaur? Which Picasso cubist painting is that guy from? And didn't I see Elvis? ...and on and on.
The credits list "Toon Boom" animation software. Toon Boom software is world-class, yet off-the-shelf (i.e. not "customized"), and more often used with 2D than 3D animation. So the result is consistently eye-catching and interesting and smooth and quite varied, but without being groundbreaking. My guess is the "quaint" appearance of the animation is due more to the conscious effort to work in the style of the '30s Fleischer Brothers than to the use of Toon Boom. As is common in my experience when Toon Boom is involved, the animation was done by a remote collaboration of a lot of small studios. The total number of people credited with having some sort of involvement with the animation is easily well over a hundred.
individual reactions to what it was like
I saw this last night (late summer 2014, in Salem Massachusetts) and really liked it. It comes across as impressionistic, almost as much of a "tone poem" as a documentary. There's plenty of story once you start digging a little, but that wasn't the central focus of the film itself. There's a fine line in filmmaking between "I feel it too" and "unfocussed and wandering", and we celebrate those who challenge that line and sometimes win (Aleksandr Sokurov, Terrence Malick, ...). This film comes down firmly on the right side of that line.
There's quite a variety of images and content: old photos, talking heads, very modern scenes, conversations, the act of painting, individual reminiscences, performances, cosplay, and so forth. It's fairly short, but certainly not for lack of content. It seemed to be compressed about twice as much as typical documentary films these days.
One aspect that particularly intrigued me was the frequent filling of the screen with multiple tiled images. Sometimes the wings showed a historical image while the center showed current time. Sometimes one side of the screen showed one person and the other side showed a different person acting out a very different philosophy of life. And so forth. Asked, the filmmaker said there was both a technical reason and an artistic reason for the tiled images. The technical reason was simply that most of the footage was in narrow aspect ratios but the finished film needed to use a widescreen. The artistic reason grew out of the filmmaker's experiences with a dance ensemble: he realized that audiences often quickly flipped their attention back and forth between a wide view of the whole stage and a narrow view of some central action, and thought films about the arts could profitably do the same. I agree.
"the best of" kick-ass (maybe straight-ahead, but maybe tongue-in-cheek)
"Lucy" is worth seeing on the big screen. Probably it's a straight-ahead "summer" movie which could be (awkwardly) categorized as an action thriller ...or maybe it's an attempt to break new ground ...or maybe it's a massive tongue-in-cheek send-up of current multiplex fare. Although it has sci-fi elements, focusing too much on the sci-fi aspect will be disappointing. It's a bit more thoughtful than most "action thrillers", but just a bit; certainly it's not something to look forward to sinking your intellectual teeth into.
It's reminiscent of many other films. Some that come to mind are "Fantastic Voyage", "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Tron" (the original one), "Chunking Express" (the first half), "Baraka", "The Matrix", "The Tree of Life" (the abstract part), and "Home". Originality isn't the point - taking good ideas (sometimes even actual footage) from lots of places and pushing them even further is.
Before going on, let me directly address the premise that "we only use 10% of our brains". In a completely objective world, this idea would be no sillier than the idea of telepathically controlling a suit of armor which projects force fields. But, probably because of the history of the 10% idea, right now many people recoil from it. Don't. Leave your scientific/analytic hat at home. If you insist on getting hung up on the "un-reality" of the 10% idea, you're certain to not enjoy this film. (The film even jokes a bit with this idea, labeling a U.S. college student studying abroad as using not "10%" of her brain power but only "1%":-)
I understand why many professional reviews are tepid. The science is somewhere between implausible and laughable. The philosophy is sophomoric. And the ending can feel unsatisfying, even abrupt. That's partly because the logic motivating the sequence of events, even though actually quite simplistic, can be hard to follow on the first viewing. And it's partly because it's pretty hard to ratchet the "climax" even higher when the volume has already been up all the way to 10 for so long. In other words, judged only by small-screen criteria, the movie is indeed mediocre. It doesn't help either that the movie doesn't fit all that neatly into any existing "genre", so professional reviewers are uncertain what to do with it.
The acting is first-rate. It's not just pretty faces; the characters are engrossing. The main character's development from quite emotional at the beginning to completely flat at the end comes through very well. It might sound like a downer that for the lead role Angelina Jolie was replaced by Scarlett Johansson. In fact it was most likely an improvement. One's reaction to Jolie kicking ass might have been "again?", but when Johansson kicks ass one really sits up and takes notice. The technical aspects of the shooting must have been outrageous: there are some outdoor scenes that appear to move far beyond any imaginable boundaries of a "location" or "set"; some perspective shots that make you think you're either flying or high; there's excellent wire work where you'd never expect it; and it's quite difficult to separate what's a stunt, an in-camera trick., compositing, CGI-enhanced, or full CGI (for example the outrageous car crashes that you would think must be CGI are in fact stunts).
But where the movie really shines is as a visual spectacle (or perhaps as a primo example of "style"). Go with the same mindset you'd use to watch a movie with cartoon characters in a cartoon story. Hang loose. And just let the images wash over you.
There's some of the best nature photography I've seen. There's plenty of blood and gun-fu and random deaths (but that's not the whole movie). The extended car chase scene is the wildest I've ever seen bar none. There's simulated micro-photography (things like cells dividing). And there's simulated macro-photography (things like interplanetary nebulae). There are shots inside airplanes that quickly switch from things you've always dreamed of to matter disintegration. There's improbable mixing of different contexts (for example a woman in a black dress sitting in an office chair, which in turn is hovering on the surface of a swamp). There's an epic battle inside the Sorbonne. There's wide scenic vistas. There are famous landmarks. Time sometimes speeds up, and sometimes slows down, and sometimes runs backward, showing us both fully realized cityscapes a hundred years ago and the birth of the earth and moon. And so much more. And the extremely rapid editing shoehorns all of it into less than two hours.
I admit I had to see it twice to fully grasp it. The first time the story was a bit jumbled, and just letting all the fantastic images wash over me was everything. The second time though the story was fully coherent (if rather simplistic). My suggestions are to use all the movie and TV reading skills you've got, and to not look too deeply for a complex story or philosophy. And if you still don't "get" the story, don't worry about it, just sit back and enjoy the visuals.
The Empire in Africa (2006)
First a disclaimer: I have no independent source of information about Sierra Leone and can offer no judgments on the accuracy/inaccuracy of this film. All I have are some generic background/stereotypes about African nations and about international interventions.
This film does present some lessons about "nation building" in general that I feel have been under-emphasized for too long, suggesting some overdue behavior changes of the "international community".
Most important is that "men with guns" _no_matter_what_side_they're_on_ are always very hard on civilians. Troop discipline (it seems especially troops from poorer countries) is guaranteed to break down at least occasionally, and atrocities against civilians will result. Infrastructure will be destroyed, something that economically developing countries can ill afford. Mexico is a current example where what began as an apparently laudable effort to diminish corruption has resulted in intolerably high levels of violence, and where eventually it was the "good guys" (the federal troops) who were committing many of the civilian atrocities. It may (and here's what I feel the "international community" needs to learn) be better in the long run for a country to have a low level of violence but the "wrong" government, than a higher level of violence even though it eventually results in the "right" government being in power.
Another important point is that "democracy" shouldn't trump everything else. "Democratically elected" governments can be authoritarian, highly corrupt, or illegitimate, as well as incompetent. Governments that came to power -and stayed in power- in ways that aren't fully understood or sanctioned by the west sometimes do all the right things. Take Singapore for example: it has a very high level of economic development (in fact it's sometimes called a "middle power") and a very low level of violence. Yet the country was essentially controlled by one man -Lee Kuan Yew- for a quarter of a century (1965 to 1990). Why does the west care so much about the trappings of "democracy" in third world countries?
Yet another point is that regional forces (some but not all economic) can so consume the inside of a particular country that trying to stop the tide purely from inside the borders of one country simply isn't possible. The larger regional forces need to be dealt with in some way. As noted by several other reviewers, the situation in Liberia with Charles Taylor spilled over into Sierra Leone. It didn't work to deal with the issue as purely a Sierra Leoneian one. Too much money and motivation was coming across the borders. The Liberian situation needed to be at least completely insulated (better solved altogether) before a solution in Sierra Leone was realistically possible.
Lastly, to call a military force a "peacekeeping" force is just dangerously fooling ourselves. Military forces, no matter what their provenance or charter, always result in higher levels of violence. Typically when other nations send in a "peacekeeping" force, they've had to choose between democracy but with violence, and significantly less violence but no democracy. That choice isn't so obvious or simple as the word "peacekeeping" makes it seem.
Undeniably western journalistic coverage tended to be overly superficial anyway, and undeniably most western journalists were easily and thoroughly manipulated. Undeniably this film had far more "access" and far more opportunity to do deep reporting than was typical. So then I was quite disappointed that this film didn't seem to me to make its case all that well. The coverage is deeply disturbing (it may occasion hushed conversations and flashbacks and even nightmares). It seemed to me the lessons listed above were portrayed very clearly. But as far as any larger meaning, I simply didn't "get it" from watching the film.
What was the economic state of Sierra Leone at the beginning of the civil war, and just how much did its GDP change by the end? Just how much economic inequality was there compared to other African nations, third world nations outside Africa, and first world nations? Did economic inequality grow or shrink during the civil war? What exactly were the original demands of the RUF (just saying "economic independence" without any specifics is far too vague)? Specifically which natural resources were being exploited at the beginning of the civil war, and which contracts/concessions were egregiously unfair? What was the context of the history of Sierra Leone, at least back to the beginning of colonialism? If the year by year level of violence in Sierra Leone and in Liberia were plotted on the same chart, what relation between them would be suggested? What are the principal tribes and tribal boundaries in Sierra Leone? How did tribal frictions contribute to governments, coups, and the RUF?
I was also confused by some of the material that was presented. For example, the signing of a peace accord was shown once early in the film and again a second time late in the film. Did that event happen near the beginning of the civil war or near the end of the civil war? Why couldn't a time-line graphic be shown at least briefly? Also, some of the presentation felt incomplete. At one point an agreement resulted in a power sharing government with several RUF ministers. At a later point all of those RUF ministers are in jail. This was significant, something dramatically contrary to the terms of the peace accord. So there must have been some sort of explanation. Maybe it was BS. But I'll never know, because it wasn't presented at all.
The bottom line for me is that despite the great access and much deeper digging than typical western journalists, I felt I didn't learn anything.
Mr. Nobody (2009)
I happened on this fantastic film yesterday having never heard anything about it in advance. Similarities to my mind: The old film "Slaughterhouse Five" from the Kurt Vonnegut story about an individual who's 'come unstuck in time'. The not widely seen Alain Resnais film "Je t'aime je t'aime". And the interview/narration by a very old man with which Jack Crabb bookends "Little Big Man".
What are the themes? Real and deep (for a movie) and current science, especially about motivations, behavior and habits, and the physics of time. The importance of (fragmented and nonlinear) memory. Ennui once you meet all your life goals (goal too low? too materialistic? too silly and unrealistic? ...?). The obstacles of people and emotions that don't quite fit overcome for now, yet resurfacing in baleful form years later. What if some of the possible freak accidents all around all the time actually happened? How the most trivial incident can determine an entire life: 'how would my life have been different if I'd missed that train?'. So long as one doesn't choose, both possibilities remain open. What we call reality is really just someone's imagination - an author typing away, or a child mapping his future. What's the purpose of time's arrow? Now stir them all together so nothing predominates.
The film is endlessly visually inventive. Sudden close-ups, episodes of slo-mo in the midst of the action, showing things backward. Even a self-referential display of a DVD freezing and skipping was so realistic I was about to summon the theater staff. Sometimes the effects are unobtrusively motivated by the story line, other times they call attention to themselves. Sometimes they're physics stills come to life, as in the rather famous freezes of a drop of water hitting the surface of a pond here shown in full motion. Sometimes they're unique: although I've seen lots of sex scenes, I've never before seen a closeup of skin hairs standing up indicating arousal. Every scale and sensibility is probed: from the mundane smallness of an auto instrument panel to huge structures careening through outer space. Moving displays routinely occupy any large flattish surface -even clear or curved ones; an interior wall becomes a soothing pattern of constantly moving ocean waves. After a while, as an elaborate joke, we see helicopters submerging those wave walls back into the real ocean.
The astounding makeup is much more than the convincing age of the protagonist (including a few long wispy white hairs growing out of the baldness). Television announcers have microphones surgically embedded in their cheeks. We see the protagonist with an injured face immediately after an explosion - later his face carries a slight scar in that same place. Along with traditional tattoos, we see believable 3D ones. A seriously injured hospital patient has a bruise around his trach tube.
Much is very funny, in a cool ironic way that passes right by. Different couples explaining why they wanted a baby had me in stitches. The parody of live news is priceless. Non sequiturs and double entendres abound, making mulling the dialog a delight. A lost sneaker reappears later at giant size.And there's lots of subtle unreality. Accents come and go. Immediately after a pool rescue the pool is covered.
There are special effects galore. But they're unobtrusive to the point of being invisible. A few in service of the storyline are fairly obvious: an auto accident, an explosion, space travel, etc. But most are hidden. Just one example: a couple will be pouring morning coffee in their kitchen, hug, and in one continuous movement fall on the bed in their bedroom. It feels and looks so natural, until you think 'there was a wall there!' and 'that bed headboard was a kitchen table a moment ago!'. Counting all those, this movie has more special effects than any other I've ever seen.
Visual themes recur. A slick leaf on the pavement is responsible for at least three different accidents and life paths. And we see that leaf yet again as a child contemplates it. A bad dream about space travel shows up again much later as reality. A promise between teenage lovers seems hopelessly romantic at the time, yet many years later it's really carried out. Sometimes we see the same event from a different point of view; other times the event starts exactly the same, but then turns out differently, an alternate reality. Locations recur too, again sometimes from a different point of view. An imagined accident happens at a railroad grade crossing, a train station platform is shown several times, and a child trying to decide which way to run on the railroad tracks winds up running down the road instead. Near the end the camera pulls back and we realize they're all the same place.
Although sometimes tongue in cheek and almost never calling attention to itself, the science seems accurate. For example transport from a spaceship to the surface of a planet is shown by 'space elevator'. Yet it's never called out or named or explained, and mostly we only see parts of it. It's just assumed. The animal behavior experiments seem pretty current. The time the characters live in seems consistent with some interpretations of quantum physics. The wildest futures -suspended animation for example- are thrown in with the rest, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Then, just when you think this might be an episode of Mr. Science, something truly goofy appears: when the 'big crunch' happens, clockworks stop, then restart, except backward!
It sounds crazily fragmented, but marvelously it all hangs together emotionally. The film must have been created as much in the editing room as behind the camera. Never before have I seen an end credit thanking all the participants in scenes which were cut and never made it into the final movie.
a sober presentation of actual events
Lots of archival footage and reminiscences by the people involved are deftly inter-cut with voice-overs and current interviews. From a technical point of view, this is a very well crafted documentary.
It focuses on Angela Davis herself and on the political events she was involved in. Although it mentions the larger milieu (things like academic philosophy, American social change, the civil rights movement, and Viet Nam) in passing, it doesn't focus on or drill down into that. Also, it's obvious some of her commitments were more than just political; they had some very personal and emotional aspects. And again, this isn't covered directly at all.
History will probably appreciate having this record. On the other hand rank and file interest will likely be limited by the "preaching to the choir" problem. This is not presented with "good guys" and "bad guys"; it's much more nuanced and clinical than that. Nevertheless, potential viewers with a pronounced conservative viewpoint may have a hard time watching it.
One of initial criticisms I remember is that Angela Davis's academic focus was so wildly out of sync with then-current U.S. academic fashions it was hard for a reporter to even take it seriously. It turns out she lived in Europe for quite a while, including doing her graduate studies there. As a result she absorbed a European academic focus, which was quite different from what went on in the U.S. at the time. In particular a focus on the philosophy behind "communism" was almost part of the furniture in Europe, but was very foreign in the U.S. Her having a different focus was a main reason UCLA recruited her, as they were having a hard time finding academics qualified to teach subjects like "Marxism".
I also learned that initially she had a very hard time breaking into any "revolutionary" organizations in the U.S. Her background and credentials were so un-revolutionary that most folks strongly suspected she was some kind of plant or informer. Often she was more than just not taken seriously; she was actively excluded.
This is certainly better than faded memories of old (and perhaps "spun") news reports. As with many documentaries, it focuses on the actual events, and doesn't delve into or speculate about motivations.
Serious yet Very Light
One of the best films I have ever seen! I followed a rather obscure reference to an indie film I'd never heard of, and found this fantastic movie. It captures the spirit and the magical realism of Virginia Woolf's novel. Every scene brings up the same question: is this ironic satire, or absurdist black comedy, or a tweaking of conventions, or just plain bizarre? And always the answer turns out to be the same: _all_ of the above ...and all at the same time too.
Describing briefly what it's about by saying it's about a person who lives 400 years, half as a man and half as a woman, mostly misses the mark. Saying it's about the history of England, from both the vantage point of an inside participant and the vantage point of an outside observer, gets a little closer. I didn't find any discernible "narrative arc", but it doesn't feel like a collection of disconnected scenes either. It's one of the few more-or-less mainstream films where the label "postmodernist" seems accurate and even helpful.
If you wait for the "meaning scene" (or even for a cogent explanation of much of anything) you'll just keep waiting. It's subtler than that. A constant subtext of ambiguous gender and sexuality runs through it, so much so that the role of the first Queen Elizabeth is acted by a famous drag queen, and the film is bracketed by the falsetto singing of a former member of the Bronski Beat, at the beginning as the queen's herald and at the end as a rather fake-looking angel.
The photography, sets, music, and costumes are all out of this world. It's so detailed that Tilda Swinton wears a different color of contact lenses in each period. It would be an aesthetic experience even if you didn't understand a word of English. Nothing is exactly similar, but the first films that came to my mind are "Barry Lyndon", "Zelig", "A Single Man", "The Tree of Life", and the recent "Much Ado About Nothing".
A couple decades old and never widely released, it's been remastered and is easier to find than ever in 2013.
Lemale et ha'halal (2012)
in-depth look into the world of the Orthodox
Gets _way_ further inside the world of the "Orthodox Jew" than anything I've ever even heard about before. The director and some of the actors really are Orthodox, so the portrayals of both home life and ceremonies that are seldom photographed are truly accurate, not just informed guesses. Yet this is not an "ethnographic record", it's a feature film. And the cinematography is excellent, about as far from an "amateur home movie" as you could possibly get.
The glass-half-full description is "a character study" - the glass-half-empty description is "slow boiler". Those prone to getting fidgety will probably be tested beyond their endurance. The psychological nuances aren't trivial - this film is the official submission of Israel to the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards.
The treatment of women looks "old-fashioned" to us: separate rooms, hair covering, emergency health care workers restricted if they might see something they normally wouldn't ...all the horror stories we've heard. This deeper look though shows us the considerable adaptation and flexibility around those rules-- architecture modified so those separate rooms aren't all that separate, a spinster covering her hair on the advice of her rebbe even though she'd never been married so people wouldn't ask so many awkward questions, the wife controlling the money in a rebbe's household, arranging clandestine peeks at potential mates via cellphone. The clumps of women standing in doorways reminded me powerfully of the clumps of servants in those Manor House period piece films like Gosford Park. The blocking of access to females in physical distress reminds me of stories out of Saudi Arabia. And the photo I saw later of a "fashion designer" Muslim hair covering looked so much like what these Orthodox women wear I did a double-take.
No easy answers, no "good guys" and "bad guys". There are both pros and cons. Downsides include difficulty finding a marriage partner, great difficulty keeping widows and widowers within the community, birth defects apparently from genetic inbreeding, and almost complete loss of input into the direction of the surrounding society/economy. Upsides include very strong support from both family and friends, and unparalleled community closeness. Where else do non-relatives easily call other adults by their pet names when the going gets rough? And how often do family friends feel free to proffer a word of contrary advice at any time? And although someone's decision to move away is often somewhat painful to others, where else would people literally rather die?
Beforehand I was ready to keep my distance and laugh at "those silly people". But watching it I realized the film applies equally well to _all_ communities that are "in the world but not of the world": fundamentalist Christians; even hippies who've resigned themselves to having zero political influence. There's a whole lot of space in the middle on the line with "modern society" on one end and "a cult" on the other end. Although on the surface this film is about a particular world that's about as familiar to me as living on Mars, the deeper story of gaining community but losing interaction with the surrounding society/economy still has me ruminating days later.
This is without a doubt the most fantastic visual animation I've ever seen. It brought to mind i) nature scenes on Pandora in "Avatar", ii) lush vegetation jungle scenes from "Up!", iii) the whole valley turning green at the end of "Princess Mononoke", and iv) the infinitely graded colors in "Oz the Great and Powerful". (I watched it in 2D, and don't know what 3D is like.)
But visually it outstrips all of those. The plants are real ones we're familiar with (not imagined ones); scenes are incredibly detailed (not one fern but tens of them, not one blossom but hundreds); biological growth and decay is of individual plants seen up close (not a very long shot across a whole valley); and all the vibrant yet subtle colors appear in nature (not a fantasy world). Vegetation unfurls and extends as we watch, and it all seems perfectly realistic and believable. We see the whole process of burls developing on live trees in just a few seconds over and over. We see growth meristems probing for the best direction and expanding little by little. And we see the slight shifts in color that signal the beginning of more decay or more growth.
All the animation effects technology has already conquered --fur, musculature, waves, droplets, rain, crowds, flying, moving cameras, etc. etc.-- are also deployed virtuosic-ally in the places the storyline calls for them. From my aged (about 60) perspective, it seems suitable and enjoyable for all ages (although it's rated PG) ...and not because adults will see a different film as they understand the more salacious meaning of double entendres - there aren't any. There isn't any notable music nor abstract visual patterns nor references to fairy tales either, other things frequently associated with animations.
The story is decent too. It's a seamless melding of realities (such as a brusque taxi driver) with fantasy (tiny beings riding hummingbirds?). It proceeds organically, eventually incorporating pretty much everything that happened earlier (even things that appeared to be already completed or even unrelated). The typical joke is mostly visual, developing slowly over many seconds - no one-liners here. There are not a lot of the ironic jokes that have been prominent in many recent animations. (In fact this movie is often relegated to "kids film" or "family film", which makes me feel a little silly for enjoying it.) The ending is positive but not saccharine -- there's resolution ...but not of everything.
Comic relief is provided by a tag team of a snail and a slug. A typical gag is something about "eyes inside your head" or "everybody hide in your shell" (slugs of course don't have shells). I found it adequately funny (but not laugh out loud funny). Humor is a very personal thing though, and I suspect some of the more "with it" young adults will find it painfully unfunny.
The flights, the fights, the falls are gripping. This is edge of your seat stuff. And the tiny perspective casts familiar things in a new light: a mouse becomes a threatening giant, and a looming doggie kiss would mean serious injury or even death. Pick a theater with a really big screen and a newish projector, and sit toward the front. And if you're an animation aficionado plan to attend more than once. Also, sit through the end credits, as the level of detail and imagination in the background visuals --often throwaways or repeats, but not here-- is astounding.
The Gatekeepers (2012)
an intriguing peek behind the curtain
It's very interesting to hear a portrayal of trends and events in the Israeli territories over the past almost-half century from intelligence professionals (individuals who don't stand for election and are typically somewhat wary of professional politicians). None of these six surviving former heads of Shin Bet during that period has ever participated in extensive filmed interviews before. (They are just now beginning to take on a higher political profile though, and are likely searching out good platforms. So perhaps this film isn't quite as miraculous as it's usually portrayed.) There is no "voice of God" voice-over narration. And on screen texts (more in the form of subtitles than intertitles) are very brief and sparse. What we get is the interviews themselves; the director's voice is circumscribed to the editing.
The interviews of course focus on notable successes, major failures and scandals, and significant shifts in tradecraft. What must have been extensive raw footage from multiple interviews has of course been highly edited, so we see the more tightly organized result. What we see is organized thematically, even to the point of parts of different interviews that comment on the same theme being presented together. The filmmaker has been scrupulous about accurately presenting what the interviewees actually said. They all showed up for the opening of the film, which suggests they didn't feel "tricked". At the same time, it's clear the filmmaker made it very easy for them to say unexpected and controversial (maybe even "peacenik") things.
Less than half the screen time is talking heads. Often the interview audio continues over photos and videos of the events from various perspectives. Particularly the group shots and the snaps of famous individuals look like someone spent lots of effort researching in newspaper and TVnews photo and video morgues. There are also lots of what appear to be surveillance videos, banks of computer monitors, and groups of microfiche readers displaying intriguing content. Soon enough the viewer realizes these are all mockups created by special effects wizardry. While some "documentary" films make a point of showing only the reality in front of their camera, and others have told their story partly with a few short snippets of effects (usually animations, often animations of maps), I'm not aware of any other documentary that uses special effects anywhere near this extensively. The length of the credits list too makes it clear this is an atypical documentary.
Reading between the lines, the principal criticism of the various Israeli governments these former Shin Bet heads make is that electoral considerations have frequently prevented governments from taking an action that might have resolved an issue. I noticed two other rather startling analyses in the film: One was that while most Israeli governments have made negative statements about Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, no Israeli government of any stripe has ever taken any significant action to stop a settlement. The other is that in terms of what they actually did or didn't do (not just what they said) to the Palestinians, Menachem Begin and Golda Mier were pretty much the same.
Their evaluation of their actions is almost entirely in terms of "what worked" (in the short term), and is often notably different from the common wisdom. The film overall hews very closely to this view too; it doesn't try at all to draw any sort of "bigger picture". My own view (hardly related to the film at all:-), is this "professional tunnel vision" --trying so hard to do a good job of whatever's at hand one is oblivious to any "big picture"-- is yet another example of a serious common problem in today's world. From the film, the lack of any "big picture" strategy as the Israelis have dealt with the Palestinians over the years is pretty obvious.
prepare to be deeply moved
This film really got under my skin. And it's not just me. When the end credits rolled, I expected the usual wave of viewers rushing to leave, but it didn't happen - instead nearly everyone stayed in their seats to ponder silently or whisper to their neighbor or just let it sink in. It definitely makes one think. But I'm far enough removed in age from the protagonist (about sixty versus about fourteen) that it was always possible to maintain a little distance (not much:-), and so for me the movie wasn't quite as serious a punch in the gut as it could have been.
It seemed to me to move fairly briskly. But I strongly suspect someone accustomed to visually spectacular CGI action films would find it slow. It's portrayed linearly, without flashbacks or flash-forwards or intermixed editing. Time doesn't flow uniformly (or even noticeably) though - sometimes there are only a few tens of minutes between scenes, and other times apparently days have passed, and viewers would say it doesn't really matter.
This is a "road movie" of sorts (although most of the travel is _off_ the road, and the principal form of transportation is _not_ motorized). It's a psychological portrait of a young girl growing up very fast in a difficult situation. It might be categorized as a sort of "coming of age story", although such stories don't usually involve such turmoil of and conflict with and estrangement from the surrounding society.
The camera moves a lot - many of the shots appear to use a steadicam. The POV shifts. Sometimes it's what a particular character is seeing at the moment. Sometimes its a far off overview shot. Sometimes it's an extreme closeup -from an odd angle no human would ever assume- of something visually interesting (for example lacing up some shoes, or events viewed from inside a woodpile). And sometimes the camera's extreme closeup zeroes in on something that's more the focus of attention than the center of a visual field (such as a wrist-watch on a dead body).
It's not a "gore-fest". There are no shots of horrific destruction nor dead bodies that appear to be there partly for their shock value. On the other hand, it doesn't shrink from showing the deaths integral to the story either. Such deaths are usually shown as one of the characters would actually see them. So the attention shifts, sometimes scanning very quickly, yet other times lingering on something horrible that someone couldn't look away from.
The most similar recent movie I can think of is Terrence Malick's 'To The Wonder'. It's very episodic, following psychological attention more than narrative arc. The visual impressions are at least as important as the dialog. And while the broad outlines are clear (an epic journey, while at the same time leaving childhood, a sexual awakening, and a spiritual shift),.a closer view shows many things as rather ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations.
One specific example: Near the beginning of the film Lore's mother is shown tenderly wrapping an exquisite porcelain deer miniature. Later Lore is shown placing great value on her porcelain deer miniature, only to realize nobody else values it like she does. At the end of the journey Lore adds her miniature to a collection. Then later she breaks it intentionally. Is it all the same miniature passed on from Lore's mother to Lore, or do Lore and her mother have two miniatures that look very similar? Does the miniature illustrate some sort of mystical connection of mothering? Or does the miniature embody Lore's memory of her mother? Or is the difference between Lore and her mother that her mother could preserve a part of her childhood into adulthood, but Lore cannot do the same? Or is Lore's miniature an embodiment of her dying childhood? We just don't know for sure. Another specific example: Thomas's history is vague and inconsistent, and his photos don't match. Yet he has a concentration camp inmate identification number tattooed on his arm. Again we don't know for sure what's going on.
Many things are not what they seem - some people are not who they say they are. Every character is a mixed bag; there are no stereotypical black-hats or white-hats. Sometimes bad people do good things. Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes people are simultaneously good in one environment (like 'home') and bad in another environment (like 'work'). And the meaning of the war and of Germany's defeat is a matter of considerable disagreement and debate. Lore's attitudes do not suddenly snap to a new world-view. Rather the old and the new coexist uneasily for a long time (pretty much the whole film, and probably much longer), the contradictions are never entirely resolved, and Lore's actions make it clear she holds two contradictory world-views simultaneously and keeps flipping back and forth between them.
There are quite a few subtleties of plot that you probably won't get the first time ...or maybe even the second time, especially if you weren't prompted by some outside reading and scanned the end credits very closely. It may never even become completely clear who's really who. But it doesn't matter. The emotional impact is huge even if you don't follow everything.
This is most definitely not a sentimental tear-jerker. Nor is it mainly a good yarn. Nor does it sketch out an intellectual/philosophical approach to a difficult situation. What it does is make you feel deeply, and think real hard.
To the Wonder (2012)
philosophical investigation of "love" punches on an emotional/non-rational level
One way to approach "To the Wonder" is as an especially poetic marrying of music, moving images, and spoken words. The spoken words are free verse voice-overs by the various characters. (Here I'm using "free verse" to mean an economy of expressive words, but not constrained by any rhyming or even rhythm scheme.) The voice-overs may at first feel ubiquitous, but actually they're absent much of the time, replaced by either conventional dialog or incredibly detailed and careful environmental sounds. The amount of music is astounding. It's not too uncommon these days to see more than a full screen of music credits at the end of a movie. But here the music credits use different typography to take up less space, and even so there are way more than a couple screens full of them. And the connection between music and images and words is deeper than usual: most image sequences are specifically cut to the music that was playing in the editor's ears while he was editing.
It doesn't work very well to approach this movie as some sort of narrative or story (even though lots of critics seem to have done so). At best the movie is sufficiently ambiguous that only by paying such close attention you could take notes, and by interpreting lots of rather hazy scenes in very specific ways, could you maybe make some kind of sense out of the order of events. Most people who try to solve the "mystery" of what happens next end up with a headache ...and fail anyway. This film doesn't pay much heed to "traditional continuity" - in fact a frequent criticism of this film is it doesn't do a very good job of telling a story, which seems silly to me because that's not the point. One possibility is the movie in fact follows the "many worlds" hypothesis: every time a choice splits the future we're shown _both_ paths, and in this case it's not at all clear (even though it usually is in other movies if you pay close enough attention) what's "dreamed" and what's "imagined" and what's "real". (The publicized synopses that try hard to impose some sort of narrative coherence on the movie are extremely misleading.)
The film is very Catholic - some of the details will be noticed and understood only by those with a deep church background. But the film is by no means inaccessible to atheists or agnostics. There's so much going on on so many levels that it doesn't make hardly any difference if you miss perceiving this one particular angle.
This film is a philosophical exploration of "love". It picks up from traditions that have come before, continuing to postulate two different kinds of "love": one a "perfect" non-selfish love (often associated with God), and the other a "romantic" love (often associated with a sexual couple). This idea of two different kinds of love is explored from two different directions. One direction is Catholic priest Father Quintana, who's firmly restricted to the non-sexual sort of love, but whose service to the poor and needy is often unpleasant and leads to him having a sort of "crisis of faith". The other direction is the romance between Neil and Marina (and a couple others). They're deeply affected by their romance, and arguably eventually learn a whole lot from it, even after it's only a memory. Whether the institution of "marriage" is mostly a way of continuing a "romance" or mostly some sort of "commitment" is one of the questions.
The two directions of exploration cross several times. Neil and Marina cement their relationship with a romantic visit to Mont Saint-Michel ...which is a very Catholic place. During rocky times in their relationship both Neil and Marina strike up connections with the priest and solicit advice from him. Father Quintana officiates at at a couple of the several marriage ceremonies (some real and some imagined, some distant and some very close). And one of Father Quintana's sermons explicitly recapitulates some of the philosophical analysis of different kinds of "love".
An insistent secondary theme is how "work" affects private lives; it's not really possible to "leave everything at the office". Father Quintana's work, which frequently brings him into intimate contact with the underside of society, obviously drains him. And Neil's work as an environmental inspector, continually trying to juggle some kind of balanced quietude between wildly conflicting interests, contributes to his "closed" behavior. We see too many repetitions of both situations to just casually ignore them.
All this may sound like a graduate level philosophy course ...and in a way it is. But it's the kind of philosophy-as-art that just washes over you, completely bypassing your "rational" faculties at the moment of impact. The experience probably can't be put into words at all until a day or two later. If you're on the right wavelength to receive the message, the experience of watching the film will affect your emotions very very deeply. (And if you're not on the right wavelength to receive the message, your reaction may very well be "huh?????".)
Kokuriko-zaka kara (2011)
traditional 2D animation has plenty of "juice"
Not all Japanese anime is the "pow" "bang" of giant robots fighting. We're familiar with whimsical -often "supernatural"- stories from Miyazaki and others, and also the strong environmental themes that pervade much of Miyazaki's work. Then there's the "shoujo" sub-genre -aimed at pre-teen to teenage girls- which tends to have female leads, romantic subplots, and resolutions involving personal growth. It seems to me "shoujo" substantially overlaps with anime that emphasize nostalgia and childhood. The Studio Ghibli anime "Only Yesterday" (_not_ distributed in the U.S. by Disney, and hence perhaps not as well known) was in many ways a pioneer in this subtype of anime.
"From Up on Poppy Hill", the most recent Studio Ghibli fare, is definitely a "shoujo". It's directed by a Miyazaki too ...but not "the" Miyazaki. Hayao Miyazaki is officially credited as the writer, and seems to have been intimately involved. But the actual director is his son Goro Miyazaki. Father and son share a strong preference for the traditional hand-drawn style of 2D animation over detailed and beautiful background paintings. I found the result quite charming. It's less "realistic" and "action-packed" than the 3D fare we usually see, but more imaginative. This story is much calmer and slower and less frenetic than our usual fare, something I found refreshing.
Despite the placid surface, the story is in fact quite intricate, even suspenseful. Although not "edge of your seat" manipulative, it definitely pulls you into the story and makes you continually wonder "what's next?".
Although released in Japan well over a year earlier, the English version was released in the U.S. only in March of 2013. The distributor for this release is "GKIDS", which is not a name I'm familiar with.
Disney made an "agreement" with Studio Ghibli nearly twenty years ago which suggests they have distribution rights over much of the globe for most Studio Ghibli products. (The agreement has been "amended" a number of times in private, and its exact terms are not known to me.) It's had two important results for U.S. audiences: First, there's now a strong tradition of "no cuts"- what Studio Ghibli animates is exactly what we see, with no "fiddling" in an editing room. And second, Disney has gotten us used to very high quality English soundtracks. In fact the quality is often so high that even anime connoisseurs who don't actually speak Japanese often prefer the English audio (rather than the Japanese audio with subtitles). The traditional rule of thumb "dubs suck" has been modified to "dubs suck, except animes handled by Disney".
Given that "agreement" and its recent history, one would expect Disney to distribute "From Up on Poppy Hill" in the U.S. too. But in fact, although Disney remains the international distributor in much of rest of the world, it is not involved in U.S. distribution of this film. Most likely Disney chose not to exercise its rights in the U.S., either because Goro Miyazaki's previous effort was critically panned, or because some of the themes of a typical "shoujo" -entirely unremarkable in Japan- are considered incompatible with Disney's image in the U.S. (Another possibility is the "agreement" covers works directed only by Hayao Miyazaki himself, not other Studio Ghibli directors. This seems unlikely to me ...although to be honest I really don't know for sure.)
But even though Disney wasn't involved this time, the tradition was respected. The English audio is _very_ high quality, even to the point of translating entire songs, not only for solo voices but even for a whole chorus. The voice acting is top notch, the sync is perfect, and considerable effort has been expended on translating idioms and slang from one culture to another.
My local theater, apparently scared either by the odd distribution or by Goro Miyazaki's previous reputation, scheduled it on their teeny tiny "art house" screen. But there were lots of viewers of all ages, and they seemed to like what they saw. It's definitely worth watching.
not everything that's old has aged well
I realize I'm swimming against the tide, big-time, and so am somewhat reluctant to even say anything. But the truth is this film did not speak to me. Perhaps it's my age (about 60) or the film's age (about 65); I'm in the habit of expecting a little more subtlety. I approached this film in a straightforward way expecting a visceral experience, and I was disappointed. Perhaps instead I should have approached this film intellectually as a bit of film history. Why didn't I like it? -- 1) it seemed "corny", 2) the stereotyping seemed ridiculous, and 3) portrayal of a foreign culture was markedly uneven.
One of the supposed features often touted is how well Humphrey Bogart portrays the stages of a character slowly going mad. But what struck me was what we'd call nowadays "overacting" or maybe even "being melodramatic". Much of this is due to the scripted dialog rather than to Bogart: the character's sudden ruminations about "guilt" and "conscience" with no earlier referents felt obligatory and stagy ...sort of like walking into the last act of Shakespeare's Macbeth. The mise-en-scene didn't help either: his character disappearing into -and appearing to be consumed by- the flames of a fire was a little too obvious.
I groaned when the first Mexican bandits appeared with two bandoleers of bullets crossed over their chest, effectively screaming "bandit uniform". Some later bandits avoided that stereotype; instead they had an awful lot of of holes in their clothes and even multiple holes in their hat. Portraying _all_ bandits as overly macho, not valuing life very much, and not very smart felt too simplistic.
There are many good points of sensitivity to a foreign culture: long stretches of the actors speaking Spanish without much translation, knowledge of the value of different foreign coins, slightly different barbershop rituals, intimate familiarity with the ways of the local Indians, and even some plot points hinging on detailed knowledge of the ways of others. But at the same time there were several glaring exceptions. Indigenous people are stumped by a simple medical issue, and their automatic reaction is to seek help form a "white man". (Dr. Livingston anyone?) The medical help the white man offers is extremely simplistic, yet it's enough to get the job done and to thoroughly bamboozle folks. The proceedings are observed by a large tight circle of people, so large it's clearly everyone in the whole Indian village. The white man is rewarded not in any realistic Indian way, but rather with our own silly image of almost-heaven: being placed in a hammock and hand fed fruits by reverent attendants. (What, no harp?) And the bandits don't realize the "sand" is actually gold ...which of course is nonsense.
magic but not magical
The filmmaker's craft is very much in evidence here. The film is very well put together - production values are quite high.
Camera angles are interesting and expressive without being obvious. Music is well chosen. Rather stock characters develop smoothly through rather stock situations with nothing unexplained or puzzling. One never has the cringing feelings "I wish they'd re-shot that" or "I wish that scene were a little shorter/longer". There's a nice mix of serious scenes, scenes the character take seriously but which seem hilarious to us, and out and out slapstick.
The subject of "magic" is explored in considerable depth (not "movie magic" but "real magic"). One could with a quick film cut make the most amazing things seem to happen. That mostly doesn't happen here, with quite a few bits of sleight of hand presented as single takes with no obvious trick photography.
The story is a "feel good" one, with the characters growing into better people in a better situation by the end.
The one really outrageous thing in the mix is Jim Carrey's stunts, which display the combination of fearlessness, craziness, and exaggeration with which he burst on the scene twenty-five years ago. If you're really into that sort of humor, his performance alone may be reason enough to see the film.
Yet despite seeming to have done everything well, the film doesn't really work for me as entertainment ...and I can't verbalize why. The theater I was in was almost empty, and when the movie was over in my gut I too understood why.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
solid and timely ...but not magical
In the terms of a time-line "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a "prequel" to "The Wizard of Oz" (although some of its details match L. Frank Baum's books more than they match the film "The Wizard of Oz"). In more general terms, it's an attempt to build on that classic: updating it for our times and largely replacing it in our consciousness. And -despite quite a few legal oddities with specific permissions- it sorta succeeds ...just not enough.
It takes full advantage of current technology's ability to create fantastical visuals. The flying brooms and the lightning fights are reminiscent of -even better than- anything I've seen in a Harry Potter movie. There are fireworks and sizzle cannons and flash explosions. There are huge believable flying bubbles and bubble walls -an effect I haven't seen before. Fogs grow out of the ground and tumble forward on command. There are lots of marble surfaces of buildings and even furniture in the Emerald City. Fantastical landscapes fill the screen. An indication of just how much depended on CGI is the end credits. For most of the time the credits look unremarkable, the only clue to something a little different being some credits for a "previs" group. Then all the Visual Effects credits burst forth almost like an explosion all at once just before the music credits. Quite a few different studios were involved, and there are hundreds of individual names.
In fact you may enjoy watching the movie on a really big screen in 3D mainly for the visual spectacle.
There are some extraordinary non-CGI shots too. The whole opening in the circus is one long tracking shot with no cuts. There are no tracks visible, and my first thought was it was an extended Steadicam shot ...except sometimes the camera presents an overview from twenty feet in the air, and I don't know of any flying Steadicam. The only way I can imagine to get such a shot is with a very large crane moving its basket. But even then the coordination of so many actors and subplots and avoidance of any shadows would have been non-trivial.
There are many ties to "The Wizard of Oz". There are three witches, and we find out why some of them are evil. There's literally a road made of yellow bricks. The Emerald City is huge and very tall. Some of the characters in Oz are reflections of characters we've met earlier in the introduction. There's a tornado (and even a flying house caught up in it). There's quite a bit of "magic". In the throne room special effects are prepared in a little side room behind a curtain. Even the trick of starting in B&W, then changing to Color when entering Oz is repeated (and further amplified by also starting in the old narrow Academy aspect ratio, then growing on both sides to Widescreen when entering Oz). And all the lands and characters are present. (There were more "munchkins" than I've ever seen in one place before, but their motivation for being there was unfortunately a little weak.)
There are also a few new effects. In particular a "China Doll" character is cute, fascinating, and utterly believable. There are quite a few rather subtle ironic or self-deprecating jokes too. It seems a perfect match for the current zeitgeist.
And yet somehow it doesn't all come together as well as it should have. I have to lay much of the blame for that on the portrayal of Oz by James Franco. Normally I'm a fan of Mr. Franco's, both his acting in general and his willingness to take on -even seek out- unconventional roles even though they probably won't pay much. But somehow he just doesn't work in this particular film. I expect Oz to be a little slimy, and self-aware to the point of self-doubting. And if you closed your eyes and just listened carefully to the dialog, that's exactly what you'd get. But watching the character, the impression I got instead contained too much eagerness and innocence.
Don't get me wrong - this film is by no means a strike-out. It's a solid double, or maybe even a triple. (In fact, if it had been released in the pattern of "The Little Engine that Could" it conceivably could have even been a sleeper hit.) But when the filmmakers were so obviously trying hard to hit the ball clear out of the park, anything less comes off as a disappointment.
The Fall of Fujimori (2005)
not enlightening outside its original context
First, let me say the sheer amount of the footage and the editing are astounding. Often historical documentaries rely mainly on their voice-over narration, and linger a long time over their relatively few visuals. Not here. Here the visuals change quite rapidly - you might even be tempted to reach for your "freeze frame" once in a while. And here the variety and depth of the visuals are almost dizzying. Archival and new footage are inter-cut seamlessly. There are so many snippets of archival footage I started to feel sorry for the person whose job it was to obtain the "rights", then eventually realized that task would have been just plain impossible and there must have been some confluence of events that put most of these snippets in the public domain.
I particularly appreciated the portrayal of Fujimori as an ambiguous figure who did some great things. Knowing now of the human rights abuses and the corruption during his administration, it's too easy to pigeonhole him as just an "evil monster". But the film makes us face the fact this all-black portrayal is too cut-and-dried -- this was some kind of gray, and although most would now judge that the high cost wasn't worth the benefit, that's still somewhat debatable. U.S. presidents too have been known to do things that were motivated mostly by politics (for example check out Bill Clinton's "wag the dog" episode) -- how is that different from the kind of "corruption" the film shows Fujimori engaging in? Just how many shades of gray are there really?
This is a sort of "narrative newsreel", telling a story from beginning to end over more than a decade, rather than restricting itself to just breaking news. All the key events are at least mentioned. To those expert in the field, I suspect the film will seem comically simplified. For the rest of us though, the story and events will initially be mostly unfamiliar, and we'll get seriously educated. Because the time span is so long and individual events covered so briefly, a person with no background at all will probably need to watch this two or three times (at least once listening to the director's commentary on the DVD) and read at least the Wikipedia entry on Alberto Fujimori.
But, what was astounding at the time seems just a few years later to not be very relevant. The whole narrative arc of the film was constructed as a "cautionary tale" to the U.S. about how over-zealous pursuit of "terrorists" can lead to great societal evils. Fujimori is presented as a person whose goal was to suppress some serious terrorism, but who made questionable Faustian bargains to do it and wound up being hounded out of office.
That "cautionary tale" is _not_ what I was looking for though (in fact it's possible I would have been disappointed even back in 2005:-). I wanted especially to "understand" Fujimori, and that's not what I got. Here's what I was looking for:
To understand the man, start with a brief description of his parents and his childhood. (In fairness, the film does mention birth date and place. But it sheds no light on any possible psychological effects.) Also, describe some of the psychological impacts in his impressionable late teens and early 20's. The film lets stand unchallenged the idea Fujimori was formerly "just a professor", and also both shows us and tells us that he was both a polished and sensitive politician and a skilled administrator and political infighter. (Given the director's hint about how many coup attempts Fujimori survived, he must have been highly skilled just to stay in office.) If he really was "just a professor", where did this skill come from?
Then tell us something of the context of Peru. Is it really true, as Fujimori claims, that what went on in Peru in his administration was "more democratic" than in any other Latin American country? (Maybe the line between "democracy" and "populism" is less clear than we like to think.) What's the racial composition of Peru: what proportion of Asians? are the "native" and "Spanish" peoples thoroughly mixed, or still rather separate? is the urban/rural divide in Peru typical of Latin America? Why is Peruvian politics so volatile, with disgraced politicians being freshly elected only a few years later? How have previous Peruvian leaders behaved, and why were so many of them "strong" leaders? A few hints in the film suggest the urban/rural and elite/peasant divide is extremely wide, so much so it's hard to understand how the country can be governed at all - what's the real truth?
Also, tell us how Peru related to the international power politics of the time. There are tantalizing hints of connections to the U.S. CIA and to the drug wars in Colombia. The U.S. foisted its "he's an S.O.B, but he's _our_ S.O.B" attitude on the world quite a bit previously. But by Fujimori's time the Berlin Wall had fallen and the superpower struggle seemed to be over. Was Peru a victim of the hangover of older U.S. international attitudes?
Finally, try to parse Fujimori's personality while in power. His wife went from being quite happy with their marriage to divorcing him in just a few years. Why? He apparently had some serious detractors even back then. Can we hear from them?
There are hints not only Vladimiro Montesinos (Fujimori's "Rasputin") but Fujimori himself siphoned off millions of dollars into offshore accounts. And there are hints Fujimori engaged in some seriously corrupt acts _before_ his war on terrorism. Neither hint is at all consistent with the narrative arc about the over-zealous pursuit of "terrorists". Seemingly something deeper motivated Fujimori - what was it?