It has been a long time since I have managed to do this - I need to get back into the habit. I could blame my Russian class int he spring, and have been inclined to blame the heat lately - but there is no excuse. Time to write! Time to write about films - since the end of June, these are.
Starting with the most recent films I saw, two extraordinary documentaries about the evil than men do and the good they would do. Both utterly heart breaking films:
Don't Think I have Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll - 12/15 - Documentary about Cambodia's rock and roll scene of the 60s and 70s, and also Cambodia's history through its pop music, Sinn Sisimouth on. Start with Cambodia's independence - France let them go without a drawn out war - and continues through the 50s and 60s, as they tried to find a place to survive in an increasingly perilous world. Follows the music - the influences from outside - Afro-cuban, French, later British, American soul, American rock - showing how these outside styles influenced their music, and how the music itself evolved. The European and American music fed into Cambodian styles, especially gtheir singing styles and melodies, to create something really cool. There's quite a lot of detail, digging into the artists, the development of the music, the business and so on. This story is poised against the political history - Cambodia's attempts to thread a neutral path between its enemies - which can't hold. You see the dangers gathering - you see the bad decisions by Cambodians (Sihanouk's flirtations with both sides, the coup that overthrew him, his flirtation with the Khmer Rouge), the casual villainy of the United States, the opportunism of the Chinese and Vietnamese - leading to the final horror of the Khmer Rouge takeover. And the killing fields - which wiped out not just the music, but many of the musicians. Seeing them bac to back, you can't help notice the parallels with Look of Silence - in Cambodia, communists killed anti-communists; in Indonesia, anti-communists killed communists - though the actual targets of both seem eerily similar - artists, intellectuals, small time labor leaders, teachers.... At the end - the film does justice to those who survived - letting them speak, of the joys of their youth and the horrors of the 70s - and is a fine tribute to them all.
Look of Silence - 13/15 - This is the follow up to one of the films of the decade, The Act of Killing - again examining the anti-communist bloodbath of the 1960s in Indonesia. This time, Joshua Oppenheimer approaches the killings from the victim's side, particular one Adi, the brother of a man killed in the massacre in 1965. Adi was born later, 1968 - he grew up without the direct memory of the killings, though unable to escape their effects. He is an eye doctor, and uses this as a hook to talk to many of the people involved in killing his brother - he meets them and tries to get them to apologize, not heavy handedly - just telling them who he is, and asking if they have regrets. These interviews are the spine of the film. There are several of them. A thin old man who talks about drinking blood to not go crazy, and asks why Adi wants to talk about politics. The leader of the paramilitary, who brags about the killings until Adi mentions his brother, then tries hard to avoid the responsibility. (Oh, the army ordered us! he says.) There's a politician who as much as threatens that they will do it again if Adi keeps asking questions. Then another old man with his daughter - she talks about being proud of her father, but then the old man tells his version of the story of drinking blood to not go mad, and she cracks. Indeed - she is the one person on the side of the killers who does so - she apologizes, begs forgiveness, tries to reconcile. Adi talks to his own uncle, who was in the army, a guard at the prison camp - who tries to avoid responsibility for his part And finally, Adi confronts the widow of another of the leaders, a man who had been seen bragging about it on archive footage, showing off a book about it and bragging about killing Ramli (Adi's brother) by name. Ramli died hard - running away, being recaptured, being stabbed repeatedly without dying, finally being castrated and bleeding to death. Adi asks his widow and children about it, and they deny ever knowing about it - he shows them the book, with a drawing of Ramli being taken away from his family and they deny ever seeing the book. So Oppenheimer plays the clips from earlier, showing the man talking about it, showing the book to his wife and others. The man's sons get defensive and even turn on Oppenheimer. These visits are interwoven with scenes with Adi's family - his parents (father ancient, blind, crippled, mostly deaf, thinking he is 17, forgetting everything else - his mother, also old though not that old, and seeming to have forgotten nothing - and his children, growing up learning the stories of the killings, that still praise them as defeating evil communists. The film ends, finally, with Adi and his parents visiting another survivor - the father is lost, he doesn't know where he is; the mother falls into the man's arms weeping.
In the end, this is less formally thrilling than The Act of Killing, but even more gut wrenching. And it is a picture of the sheerest courage - Adi's interviews with his brother's killers might be the bravest thing I have ever seen on film. More than once, you know that all that is standing between Adi and death is a Danish film crew and an American with a camera. (An impression borne out in Oppenheimer's description of the measures they took to ensure their safety.) In a way, this film works like a sane, pacifist version of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches on - Adi confronts people who did heinous things, trying, over and over, to get them to acknowledge what they did, and that it was heinous - without any luck. But he does so peacefully, gently even, calm and direct in the face of the past - as quiet as Kenzo Okuzaki is ferocious. Paired, especially, Oppenheimer's films rank with the very best documentaries.
The Tribe - 11/15 - A fairly standard Young Gangster film made interesting by 2 things - all the characters are deaf, and perform it all in sign language without translations; and it contains a total of 34 shots (per IMDB; I counted 28 myself, but probably missed a handful.) Those are both gimmicks, but they work. The film is a tour de force, with those long takes and silence, and the visual punch of the sign language - performed with great elan, and very well made. Clear story telling, visually engaging, and so on. The formal properties are superb: the silence, the editing, the camera movements, the use of sound, the choreography - bands of kids moving back and forth - as well as the silent filmmaking chops. The story - is old hat, probably old hat 100 years ago (one kid in a gang falls for one of the girls and gets crosswise the rest of the gang, with lethal results), but traditional genres are traditional for reasons; this one doesn't do anything new with the story, but plenty new (or newish), and all very well with the form. And old hat or not, it is engaging - a very good film.
Do I Sound Gay? - 10/15 - Documentary about the "gay voice" - where it comes from, what it is, and so on - interesting, if not revelatory. Follows the writer/director, David Thorpe, as he examines his own voice, and takes steps to change it - there is plenty of interesting material around this. Old clips of comedians with "sissy" voices - Paul Lynde, Rip Taylor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Liberace - as a potential model; interviews with speech therapists, on the gendering of speech and so on; discussions of performance, and how - and why - sounding gay is sometimes perceived as worse than being gay. (A revealing Louis CK joke to that affect...) There is a lot of interesting material here, maybe too much - lots of questions and observations are raised, but they aren't always followed through that deeply.
Tangerine - 12/15 - Christmas eve in LA, with 2 trans prostitutes, Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella. Sindee is just out of jail, and Alexandra tells her that her pimp/lover has been cheating, with a woman - so Sindee goes on the war path to find her. She tracks her down, and drags her back to confront Chester the pimp, while the film follows two other characters, Alexandra, and an Armenia cabbie named Razmik, who is having a very bad day. Annoying fares, 2 drunks puking in his cab, and finally what he thinks is a ladyboy prostitute who doesn't have anything between her legs - but he hooks up with Alexandra, and things get better. That night, Alexandra has a gig singing in a club - though only Sindee and Chester's white fish show up. And then they all converge on the donut shop (Sindee, the white girl, Chester, Alexandra, Razmik, Razmik's mother in law and his wife) to have it out. All of it adds up to a remarkable film. Shot on iPhones, taking full advantage of their size and flexibility, a really fine looking film. It's carried by the performances though - the leads (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) are fantastic - charismatic, funny, surprising. A very fine film.
Mr. Holmes - 9/15 - An entertaining and sometimes almost moving story about a very old Sherlock Holmes, losing his memory, going to Japan to get "Prickly Ash" - a plant with magical powers he hopes. He is hosted by a Japanaese man who seems to adulate him, but turns out to have lost his father because Holmes told the man to stay in England. Back in England, Holmes' health declines, and especially his memory - but he teaches his housekeeper's son bee keeping, and tries to remember a story that caused him to retire. The film jumps around between these time frames - the present in the country, the story he is trying to remember, and his time in Japan - and all come to their climax together. Roger is stung almost to death, but by wasps (one last piece of fairly obvious detection for the old man), and he remembers the story - a woman who lost two still born children loses her mind and he doesn't prevent her suicide... (Sorry for spoiling it, in case anyone is reading this... but I've spoiled better films already haven't I?) Anyway - it is sentimental nonsense - I've been reading Sherlock Holmes stories this summer and he failed rather often to save people, and while he always strove to avenge them, it doesn't seem likely to break him... But that aside - apart from the sentimentality, Ian McKellan and the kid playing Roger (Milo Parker) are fantastic. I'm sure Laura Linney would be too, if she had anything to do. But they are great and worth seeing the film for.
Amy - 11/15 - Biography of Amy Winehouse that does justice to her, as an artist as well as a fuckup. Starts with Amy in home movies, ae 14 or so, belting out happy birtthday, and then marches through her life - singing professionally at 16, making a record around 20, winning prizes, with a kind of jazzy sound - going more pop in 2006 with a huge record - then everything coming apart. Though we also see that it was always apart - she was already a pothead at 16, etc. Her nemesis is her boyfriend and eventual husband, one Blake Fielder, a flashy club kid who takes up with her, lives an amour fou, then dumps her; when she becomes a huge star he comes back, and they sink into crack, heroin and so on (along with booze) - and - 5 years of decline as it happened, until she died. And so? I didn't think much about Amy Winehouse when she was alive - the film does a fine job of demonstrating what the fuss was about. She had a stunning set of pipes, and more talent for song writing than I had any idea of. The film dwells on her songs - maybe leaning a bit toward milking the autobiographical content from them, but still showing them clearly, showing her songwriting skills. They are good songs. I'm still not totally convinced - she's a fine singer, a master of old styles, but all of it comes off a bit to derivative, too polite - she's too much Tony Bennett, not enough Frank Sinatra. But that's a matter of degrees - and she died at 27 and was basically done as an artist at 22 - if she'd had half a chance to survive a while, she might have lived up to the raw talent. Unfortunately, her doom seems pre-ordained: she was screwed up young and stayed screwed up, and surrounded by people who wren't going to let her troubles get in the way of her paycheck. Blake might be the most obvious monster, but you feel a hint or so of sympathy for him - he's in the same state she's in, after all. But her father and her manager come off as just about as crass and oblivious to her condition - they are riding the gravy train and trying to get everything out of it they can, as if they knew she wasn't long for the world, and they wee going to make their bank before she went. The kid never had a chance.
Big Game - 8/15 - Fake 80s style action comedy - the president's plane is shot down in Finland by Walter Palmer - wait, no - but - terrorists, or big game hunters - something. But on the ground, the president (played by Samuel L Jackson, who would make a fine president) is found by a 13 year old on some kind of coming of age mission to kill him an animal in the woods. The kid proceeds to save the day. Yay! It is all amusing, sometimes very nifty - though also usually simplistic and sometimes rather dumb. It's an homage to the 80s, in a way that seems half serious and half comical - since a lot of the films it riffs on were half serious half comic the math get confusing - but it's more than enjoyable enough on its own terms.
Testament of Youth - 9/15 - This is a handsome, inteligent adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir of WWI. Brittain's book is a bit of a brute - very long and full of horrors, being about WWI - the film is not very long, and though it has its share of horrors it doesn't really do justice to the book. It starts well, this new film, but falls apart in the second half - which is probably an inevitable by product of the story. The book covers WWI and its aftermath - an in conventional terms (and this is a very conventional film), her story is very front-loaded. All the drama happens up front - she studies for Oxford - she meets Roland Leighton, a young poet on his way to Oxford - she gets into Oxford! - the war starts and all the boys go off to war - she goes to Oxford, but decides she can't be in school while men are dying in the Belgian mud, so she becomes a VAD (a volunteer nurse) - and then Roland dies in the Belgian mud. All that is by the end of 1915: there are still 3 years of war to go; 3 more close friends to die; and then it's back to Oxford and time to End War Forever. The effect is noticeable in the book (which I read for the class I've mentioned before, The Great War in Film and Literature) - it is a definite slog through the middle parts, a long march of death and pain - but Brittain knows it, and makes that part of the story. It is a story of endurance, survival - and survivor's guilt (in spades) - and maybe ultimately redemption and return to life, sort of. She makes it work by making the endurance part of her subject - treating her experiences like stations of the cross in her education: the Mediterrainean, Edward's wounding, Victor's death, her time in France and Hope Milroy, Edward's death and so on. And she makes it work by always maintaining a double perspective on the material, from beginning to end. Her voice writing in 1933 is always present, always important - along with her sense of her immediate reactions to events. (Often achieved with primary sources - letters and poems written at the time, incorporated whole into the memoir.) This film is pretty good, actually, through the first part, the dramatic part, the love story - but completely lost once Roland is gone. It never figures out how to get through the rest of the war, so reduces the main events to a couple scenes, and drops much of the material that gives the book its emotional punch: the sense of the length of the war; Vera's friendship with an older nurse, Hope Milroy; her brother's increasing bitterness as the war progresses. It speeds past things that have great resonance for Vera - her survivor's guilt, particularly, which is made worse when she leaves the VAD to take care of her mother; this happens in the film without any weight. It's probably hopeless, really - there's no way to make a conventional film out of the material without butchering the material, and this is a very conventional film. Though to be fair - even as a mini-series, it ran into trouble - it could cover the material, but they also dropped Brittain's narration, and that flattened out the material. It's a problem - that love story at the beginning makes it a tempting story to film - the rest of the story makes it very likely to come short...
Still - I wish they could have done better. The cast is very good - Alicia Vikander is especially good, Kit Harrington holds his own, and the rest of the cast is fine. But Vikander, particularly, doesn't get enough to do - Vera Brittain's character is flattened out along with the story - the politics (and it is a very political book - feminist and pacifist, and quite pointedly so in both) is mostly gone, certainly made polite. She registers suffering - she doesn't register the anger that is obvious in the book...