Tuesday, February 28, 2017

INTERROGATION (Visaranai, 2015)

The poor are always in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's the message of the mononymous Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaaran, who adapted a novel based on author M. Chandrakumar's personal ordeal at the hands of corrupt police. Chandrakumar's ordeal took place sometime in the 1980s, but Vetrimaaran updates the story to the present cellphone age and adds to the story, having the author's analog make a timely exit to avoid the worse fate suffered by his friends. The actual main character of the film is Pandi (Dinesh Ravi), a Tamil shop clerk working in Andhra Pradesh, a Telugu-language state neighboring his Tamil Nadu home. Pandi and his Tamil buddies, some of whom can barely speak Telugu, are poor, despised objects of suspicion, as Tamil criminals have been committing robberies, possibly to raise money for the Tamil Tiger terrorists of Sri Lanka. Pandi has a glancing encounter with the real robbers, but is shortly arrested in a sweep of Tamils while the actual perpetrators apparently get away.

For the cops the top priority is closing the case. Catching the actual culprits doesn't matter so much. The main idea is to get Pandi and his pals to "accept" the charges against them. The interrogation process consists of repeated beatings, their only security being the cops' desire to have living suspects confess in court. When the prisoners start a hunger strike, the cops use psychological warfare. They pretend to give in and treat the prisoners to a hearty meal before they return to headquarters to sign their release forms and receive compensation for their inconvenience. Of course, once the hunger strike is broken it's back to the beatings. Finally, cajoled by promises of light sentences and aid finding jobs afterward, the Tamils agree to confess, only to double-cross the cops by protesting to the judge, with timely help from a Tamil translator. Fortunately they've found a judge with integrity who doesn't take crap from the cops, but Pandi and friends soon learn that they've escaped from the frying pan directly into the fire.

Their translator was a policeman from Tamil Nadu who's in Andhra Pradesh investigating a corrupt Tamil politician. Eager to repay his favor, Pandi's crew help this policeman, Muthuvel (Samuthirakani), snatch the politician and take him back to Tamil Nadu. They end up at a Tamil police station, where our earnest protagonists go to work on a clean-up detail to further repay Muthuvel for his benevolence. To their horror, they see the politician getting treated much as they were in Andhra Pradesh. Pandi has a cellphone and, having been given one by a sympathetic policewoman in Andhra Pradesh to call his boss and ask for help, he pays it forward by giving the politician his phone. If anything, that makes things worse for everyone. The politician is tortured to death (without Muthuvel's okay) as part of a high-stakes party intrigue, and a cover-up is hastily arranged to make him look like a suicide. But what about these dumb dudes who've been wandering through the building cleaning stuff? Did they see something or hear something they shouldn't? No one's certain, but why take chances? As Pandi and his buddies realize that they're being set up for death, they argue over whether to try to run for it, until events leave them no more choices....

You won't see many more blatant exposes of official injustice than Visaranai. It's a no-holds-barred assault on our compassion that has no time for western stoicism. If anything distinguishes Asian film in general from American cinema it's Asians' willingness to suffer abjectly and vocally. To some western ears these Tamils may seem like big babies given how they scream and cry all the time, but films like these almost certainly present pain more honestly than Hollywood or Europe often do. Few films I've seen convey the terror of unjust confinement as convincingly and compellingly as Visaranai does. At the same time, I think the actors did a decent job of crafting distinctive personalities for the hapless Tamils, Dinesh Ravi especially, so that the characters become more than objects of our vicarious masochism. If they were nothing but victims, nothing but receptacles for torture, we might not feel for them as much as I expect any viewer will.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Lots of comic book fans hate Batman. I'm not just talking about Marvel Comics partisans -- though Lego Batman apparently hates them in return -- but also many DC comics fans who resent the idea, articulated by Lego Batman, that DC is "the house Batman built." For some fans the cult of Batman is a betrayal of everything superhero comics should be about. The idea that Batman, without super powers, can take down the entire Justice League of America singlehandedly --I've seen it done in comics -- really rankles these fans. Batman is a big buzzkill for them; the fantasies that fuel his popularity are antithetical to theirs. For many people the superhero idea is a fantasy of transcendence; what appeals is the idea of overcoming human limitations, to be able to do things literally impossible for humans. Yet here comes Batman to burst all those bubbles. His most hardcore fans, for the most part, like the leveling idea of someone who isn't naturally gifted (unless you count inherited wealth) being able to take out anybody, no matter how gifted they are. The important thing isn't what you (or your fantasy figure) can do, but that anyone and everyone else can be beaten. This Batman is an implacable nemesis, a black hole of ressentiment that sucks in and crushes other people's fantasies. But not all Batman fans see Batman that way. Many, at least a vocal minority over-represented online, have opposed the darkening of the Batman myth since the 1980s milestones of Frank Miller's comics and Tim Burton's blockbuster movie. The Lego Batman Movie is a critique of the "dark knight" myth from the perspective of an older alternate fandom (which acknowledges the character's nearly 80 year history in its sometimes embarrassing entirety) for whom a big part of Batman's appeal was the evolution around him of a "Batman Family," to use the title of a pre-Miller comic. But it's not really a satire of the Dark Knight, which is all too parody-proof, because Lego Batman -- analogous but not really identical to the character from The Lego Movie -- doesn't behave like the largely humorless Batman of modern comics and movies. Instead, Chris McKay's cartoon, from a story by Seth Grahame-Smith, satrizes those Batman fans who, in the view of their critics, have reduced Batman to the stunted creature on display here.

Lego Batman (Will Arnett) isn't much different from the overgrown manchildren of so many live-action comedies, except that he's explicitly even more adolescent in his flailing tantrums defying father-figure Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), who desperately encourages his charge to connect with the world, make friends, and take steps toward an adulthood equated with emotional intimacy. Lego Batman, who'd wear his cowl everywhere he went like El Santo if Alfred didn't prompt him to take it off for Bruce Wayne's social engagements, is entirely absorbed in his hobby of crimefighting, but remains detached even from those who share the hobby, including he criminals he fights. This is a Batman who doesn't get invited to Justice League parties; who breaks the Joker's (Zach Galifianakis) heart by refusing to acknowledge the clown prince of crime as his greatest enemy, or even to work up enough emotion to hate him; who so takes for granted his ability to defeat Gotham's small army of costumed antagonists, even when they all team up against him, that he never bothers taking them into custody. The story of the film is a three-front war to break Lego Batman's shell. Joker escalates his merry war by contriving to be sent to the Lego Phantom Zone, where the big bads of many a mythos are confined (including some shrill "British robots" whose name apparently couldn't be mentioned), so he can lead a mass breakout and invasion of Gotham City. New police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes a more confrontational attitude toward the local vigilante than her retired father, but only in order to make him cooperate with rather than overshadow the police. Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), adopted absentmindedly by Bruce Wayne and encouraged by Alfred, simply wants to bond with his new father, or with his "second father," Batman. Enemies and would-be friends alike batter away at Lego Batman's emotional barriers, rooted in the founding trauma of his parents' murder (thankfully not reenacted yet again in this kiddie movie). Lego Batman's weakness, as many comics critics and fanfiction writers have long known, is his fear of forming ties that might abruptly be cut, but this only becomes a weakness once he faces a threat that he absolutely cannot defeat on his own, so long as he refuses to acknowledge that. Only when he lets his allies show their colors by wearing costumes as he does -- a "Reggaeman" costume shorn of its trousers becomes the traditional Robin uniform, for instance -- and only when he can own up to this true, deep hatred of Joker can the day possibly be saved....

The Lego Batman Movie adopts the visual style of The Lego Movie -- unlike various made-for-home-video Batman Lego movies, the characters move in the herky-jerky manner expected of Lego objects, and clouds, explosions etc. appear to be made of Legos -- but only intermittently exploits its Lego-ness, as when Batman acts as a Builder to make weapons and devices out of the landscape, or when characters exploit their inherent interconnectivity to make themselves into "human" bridges. Almost inevitably it's more Batman than Lego movie, though it's unique among Batman movies in its critical-though-loving take on the character. Anti-Batman comics fans and anti-"grimdark" Batman fans will enjoy the send-up of the stuck-up mainstream Batman and his pretentious antisocial fans, but both groups may leave theaters feeling that the film shot its wad in a way that makes a sequel difficult to imagine. To be fair, the filmmakers may not have planned on a sequel, but I'm sure Warner Bros. will want one. Only now they've used up Batman's entire rogues' gallery with the exception (I think) of Ra's al-Ghul, who isn't exactly the stuff of a Lego movie, and left it impossible for us to take any of them seriously, even in the context of a cartoon comedy. It always feels like a waste when someone makes an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink movie like this using all the characters in a "universe" at the same time, and I'm sure the particular fans of many classic villains will feel this more acutely. The right thing to do actually might be to spin this off into a TV show of half-hour adventures with individual villains, but the more likely thing is a Lego Justice League movie to make up for the underutilization of Batman's peers here. As an open-minded Batman fan who's enjoyed comics and movies with many different approaches to the character, I enjoyed Lego Batman, even though it probably was impossible for this new film to be the revelation or statement its predecessor was. I doubt it will change many people's attitudes toward Batman. Fans who'd like to see an expanding Bat-Family in comics and movies probably will be disappointed by DC and WB's continued pandering to the isolatos who buy most of the comics, and those buyers probably will dismiss this movie as stupid kid stuff. Given that the very idea of Batman can all too easily be dismissed as stupid kid stuff, that's not really much of a critique, but the fact that Batman's nature and what he means to readers or movie audiences can be so hotly debated suggests that neither the character nor his Lego incarnation should be dismissed quite so stupidly.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (Kraftidioten, 2014)

American movie fans nowadays will most likely recognize Stellan Skarsgaard as dear, dotty old Dr. Selvig from the Thor and Avengers movies. Closer to home, apparently, the 65 year old actor is a Scandinavian Liam Neeson, at least for this one film by his frequent collaborator, Hans Petter Moland. He'd have some credibility with home audiences in such a role, as he'd played the "Swedish James Bond" Carl Hamilton in a couple of movies back in the Nineties, among other heroic parts. But unlike the typical Neeson character in his post-Taken vehicles, or even Michael Caine's Harry Brown, Skarsgaard's aged vigilante in Kraftidioten -- that Google Translates from Norwegian to "Power Idiot," though I like the translated from Swedish option, "Power Jerk," better --  doesn't seem to have a background that would give him the very special skills required to wage a one-man war on crime. Instead, he's the Swedish snowplow driver and Man of the Year of a snowy Norwegian town whose son ends up as collateral damage during a bit of gangster discipline. The kid was left propped up on a park bench to look as if he'd overdosed, but Nils Dickmann knows that his boy wouldn't do drugs, and so deduces that he was murdered. When the boy's buddy, the gangsters' intended victim, tells him the true story, Nils goes on the warpath.

Since Kraftidioten is described as a black comedy, we probably shouldn't ask how Nils manages to get the jump on supposedly badass gangsters so often. We are, after all, dealing with idiots led by "The Count" (Pal Sverre Hagen), whose most formidable antagonist seems to be his ex-wife until a mystery man starts bumping off his flunkies. He counts as a "Count," presumably, because he's tall, thin and evil-looking, somewhere between a John Carradine Count and a Christopher Lee type. Understandably not suspecting a civilian vigilante, the Count convinces himself that the local Serbian mob (he keeps confusing them with Albanians) must be trying to muscle in on his territory, despite their agreement to share the local airport. Nils thus inadvertently starts a gang war.

Ironically, once Nils tries to think like a gangster, he begins to screw up. Realizing that he's unlikely to reach the top man in the organization, he goes to his brother, a onetime minor mobster nicknamed "Wingman," for advice on hiring a hitman. Once Nils pays him in full up front (Wingman advised only half), the hitman takes him for an easy mark and sells him out to the Count, only to be killed for offending the mob leader's sense of honor. Unfortunately, the hitman only knew his employer as "Dickmann," and the only person of that name the Count knows is Wingman. In short order, Nils has more to avenge, while the Serbs (led by the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz) go to war to avenge their own, wrongly blamed for Nils' rampage.This escalating conflict actually gives Nils some breathing space. He and the Serbs have the same idea of kidnapping the Count's son, but when a round of negotiation stalls the Serbs staking out the boy's school, Nils has an opening to snatch him. Conveniently also, once the Count finally figures out who's been plaguing him, he can't take proper revenge on Nils, or get his boy back, before the Serbs come charging in for a final bloody showdown....

Film directors love to stage violence in wintry landscapes, for they make the ideal ironically immaculate backdrop for the darkest dirtiest deeds. Kraftidioten will certainly remind American viewers of Fargo, but there are plenty of Japanese films, Sergio Corbucci's Great Silence, Tarantino's Hateful Eight and no doubt some Scandinavian movies that do the same things. Moland has an ace collaborator in Philip Ogaard, who really makes the most of the Norwegian locations. Together, director and cinematographer make Kraftidioten a constantly picturesque film with plenty of screencap opportunities. The way their picture really reminded me of a Japanese movie was the way they recorded characters' deaths, with an obituary title card for each victim and a rather crowded one after the final shootout. This gimmick, which presumably inspired the film's English-language title, put me in mind of Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity, but for Moland the effect is meant to be more comically distancing than appalling. It's really not that comic a film, however, unless you agree that violence is innately funny. One of its comic climaxes comes when the stressed-out Count finally lashes out and KOs his ex with one punch. That may strike some people as politically incorrect, but I think the joke is that he knows no other way to deal with her, not that she's a bitch who got what was coming to her. However, I can't really make an excuse for the joke that ends the film, a poorly executed payoff to a gag that had been started and presumably forgotten a long time before. It just looked like a desperate attempt to end the film on a jokey grimdark note and put one more obit card on the screen. Overall, though, Kraftidioten is pretty entertaining, always fine to look at and sometimes genuinely funny as far as black crime comedies go, even as Skarsgaard plays his avenger utterly straight like a killer Keaton. Don't take it too seriously and you may well enjoy it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

DVR Diary: THE NEW LAND (Nybyggarna, 1972)

Jan Troell's two-part naturalist epic about Swedish immigrants in the U.S. was some kind of weird, only-in-the-Seventies phenomenon. Part one, The Emigrants, was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film of 1971, and returned in a edited-down English dub (it played with subtitles instead in some markets) and got a flat-out Best Picture nomination in 1972, while New Land (the original title translates to "The Settlers") was up for Foreign-Language Film. Most freakishly considering the grim content of these films, they inspired an American New Land TV series in 1974, but at last reality reasserted itself and the show died a quick death opposite All in the Family on Saturday nights. Troell shot the two films simultaneously, adapting a tetralogy of novels by Vilhelm Moberg, Nybyggarna being the third book. New Land thus resumes the saga of Karl-Oscar Nielsen (Max von Sydow), his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann) and his brother Robert (Eddie Axberg), who struggled their way from Sweden to Minnesota in The Emigrants. Like that film, New Land is episodic rather than strongly plotted, probably in keeping with the Moberg novels. So a lot of stuff happens. Robert grows impatient to strike out on his own and finally leaves for the California gold fields, only to return flush with cash. Kristina battles homesickness and keeps having kids until a doctor says to stop, but then keeps on trying. Karl-Oscar makes constant improvements to his farm, deals with new Swedish neighbors who threaten to bring the old country's religious conflicts to Minnesota with them, volunteers for the Civil War only to be rejected due to his limp, and sits out the suppression of a violent Sioux uprising to tend his ailing wife.

Troell may have been depending on his superstar leads, king and queen of Swedish thespians, to dominate the film, but the most interesting things happen to other people. To be specific, the most visually interesting things happen to other people, perhaps Troell felt he had to be more creative as a director when von Sydow and Ullman weren't on screen. The main case in point is the long flashback telling the truth of Robert and his buddy Arvid's (Pierre Lindstedt) misadventures en route to California. Scored with modernist percussion, the sequence is an increasingly delirious montage climaxing when the Swedes get lost in a desert chasing a mule. Arvid dies after drinking from a poisoned stream while Robert contracts yellow fever (or some variant on the blood-coughing Movie Disease) tending his dying Mexican guide. He strikes gold quite by accident by inheriting the guide's savings in gold coins, but foolishly exchanges them (I assume he thought they'd prove he didn't literally mine gold) for Southern Bank of Indiana notes that are worthless back in Minnesota, where he presents them to his brother and sister-and-law as triumphant gifts. While most of the two films are paced and shot so they seem like windows into the actual 19th century, Robert's story feels very much like a Seventies movie, and it's the closest Troell gets to making the Swedish equivalent of a spaghetti western. The other major sequence, the Sioux uprising, feels more like an American revisionist western of the period.That's not to say Troell sympathizes with the Sioux, though Karl-Oscar is told by another immigrant that, while he may not personally have stolen land from the Indians, he definitely purchased stolen land. Instead, the uprising is introduced with an atrocity sequence, the massacre of a Swedish family, that arguably tops anything similar in American films of the time with its gruesome exclamation point of an impaled human fetus. Then, skipping over the war against the renegades, Troell just about tops that, measured by pure horror rather than raw gruesomeness, with the mass hanging of a few dozen Sioux, one swing of an axe dropping the platform under all of them while the director holds the camera to let us watch them swing.

While the most spectacular sequences are only tangentially relevant to the Nielsen saga, Ullmann and von Sydow are powerful enough actors to make their family scenes just about as compelling as the more violent moments. If New Land has a unifying plot it's the Nielsen's struggle with a homesickness that Kristina never really overcomes, each horror or other setback merely renewing it. Her final scene gives the film a crowning irony. Kristina's astrakhan apple tree has at last blossomed, and Karl-Oscar offers her its first ripe fruit. Barely able to bite into it, she's enraptured by the smell of it. "I'm home!" she says, but the tragic truth is that, in her delirium, "home" still means back in Sweden. There's a further irony in the denouement: by the time of Karl-Oscar's old age, his children have fully made themselves at home in the new land, but in doing so they've ceased to be Swedes. An old neighbor has to write to the old country of Karl-Oscar's death because his children don't know the language. An American superpatriot might say that's just as it should be, but the loss that goes with the process is still tragic, while Troell, still observing from a Swedish perspective, leaves viewers questioning whether everything really was worth it. In a sense he isn't telling the full story because the Nielsen children get short shrift in the last half of the picture, but it may be the same way in Vilhelm Moberg's novels. In any event, Seventies cinema tended to question the purpose of almost every endeavor once taken for granted, and in that respect Troell's immigrant films are quintessential Seventies movies.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Too Much TV: THE YOUNG POPE (2016 - ?)

HBO calls The Young Pope a limited series, implying that the "The End" we see at the close of the tenth episode is pretty definitive, but Wikipedia reports that the show's production company is planning a second season, which leaves us with quite the cliffhanger and a lot of questions about the show's future direction. It's the brainchild of Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director of Il Divo, The Great Beauty, Youth, etc. On a TV budget and schedule Sorrentino can't be as consistently "visionary" here as he's been with his more recent pictures, but overall you'll recognize it as the director's characteristic work. I couldn't help wondering whether Sorrentino originally envisioned a young Italian Pope, but with HBO investing, and with Sorrentino having worked in English before an American Pope may well have been the idea from the start. But as is often the case with American television, the American Pope Pius XIII, born Lenny Belardo, comes from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Putting on an American voice, Jude Law's delivery reminded me of Bill Murray for some reason -- perhaps because Lenny/Pius has Murray's air of aloof smugness despite an avowed seriousness of moral purpose.

Chosen as a compromise candidate to thwart Lenny's supposedly more reactionary mentor (an envious James Cromwell), Pius proves quite the rabid conservative in some respects, and as a supposedly underqualified, abrasive boor he's been seen in some quarters as a prophecy (the series was filmed in 2015) of President Donald Trump. Some people will see Trump everywhere for the next little while. Anyway, the homophobic new pope is determined to purge all gay priests from the clergy, even those genuinely celibate. He enters into tough negotiations to strengthen the Vatican's position vis-a-vis the Italian government. His most provocative idea, however, is to turn himself into a kind of anti-celebrity. Believing that many of the most fascinating artists of modern time were recluses, e.g. J. D. Salinger and Stanley Kubrick -- and a series set in Italy might have been expected to mention Elena Ferrante -- Pius thinks that he can increase the glamor and mystery of the Catholic church by making a mystery of himself. Departing from the standard set by John Paul II, the young Pope shuns public appearances and refuses to authorize the usually-lucrative marketing of the pontiff's image. When he addresses the crowds in St. Peter's Square, he stays in shadow. On other occasions, he remains invisible while speaking over a public-address system.

Part of his idea is that Catholicism should be more difficult for people, that they should have to earn the right to see the Pope, and that more disciplined and positively fanatic Catholics will result from his strictures. But the true plot of the series shows us that Pius' authoritarian reticence also has much to do with Lenny Belardo's uncertain sense of self. He's an orphan, having been abandoned by his hippie parents for reasons that remain unknown and raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who becomes an important, worried adviser for the new Pope. There's more orphan bonding in this show than we've seen since The Dark Knight Rises; Pius even uses the "orphan sense" explained dubiously in that picture to deduce that Sister Mary herself is an orphan. Another of her charges, and Lenny Belardo's closest childhood friend, has also risen high in the church, but Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) doesn't share Pius' fanatic preoccupations. He's actually lived a fairly carnal life in Honduras that will come back to haunt him, and for that reason, perhaps, he objects to Pius raising the bar for priesthood to a nearly-impossible high level of celibacy that drives a spurned would-be priest to suicide. Few in the Vatican hierarchy share Pius's alienating vision; fearing the consequences for Catholic congregations and Vatican revenues, the Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) soon begins conspiring against the young Pope, sometimes with the conflicted cooperation of Sister Mary. His enemies try to lure Pius into an affair, but instead he gets credited for making a barren wife he'd befriended miraculously pregnant. One of the tricky elements of the series is that Lenny Belardo really does seem to have some sort of supernatural power. As a boy, he healed a terminally ill woman with prayer, and as Pope he will intercede with God to have an evil nun in Africa struck dead. Sister Mary sees Pius as a living saint but can't help also seeing him both as a surrogate son and as a threat to the future of the Church. Her response is a kind of psychological warfare, teasing Pius with the prospect of reuniting with his still-living parents in the hope of calming his turbulence and distracting him so that Voiello can slip through some modifications to the strict new church policies.  Pius sees through this pretty quickly, but over time he comes to see the personal consequences of his imperious attitudes, some of which strike pretty close to home, and proves himself capable of moderation. He entrusts an investigation of a powerful U.S. archbishop, an alleged pedophile with potential blackmail material on Lenny Belardo, to a homosexual priest (Javier Camara) whom he eventually names his personal secretary despite knowing his sexuality.

On a deeper personal level, there seems to be some linkage between an understanding that his parents, if living, probably don't want to make themselves known to him and a brightening of his attitude demonstrated in his first open-air homily, which just happens to be punctuated by a cliffhanger heart-attack. The moral of that story may be simply that Lenny Belardo smokes too much, but given the supernatural potential of the story the Pope's seizure could have much more significance. Of course, the show itself warns us almost every week not to vest too much significance in its fantasy. To an instrumental of "All Along the Watchtower," Pius marches through a gallery of sacred paintings, each of which is ignited by a passing meteor. At the close of this tour the Young Pope winks at us and the meteor escapes from one last painting to knock over a statue of John Paul II. The wink probably means, "It's just a show" more than "It's all a joke," but it may also mean that it's about both more and less than it seems on the surface -- less about theology and more about fame, family, etc. I'm actually glad to learn that there's going to be more, not because I'm sure it'll be great but because it felt incomplete and abrupt in its current conclusion. If everyone's coming back for more, then Young Pope still has a chance to live up to people's hopes for all the talent involved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

THE INNOCENTS (Los Inocentes, 2015)

Not to be confused with the Hollywood ghost story adapted from Henry James, Mauricio Brunetti's film puts a supernatural spin on the slavesploitation subgenre and is ultimately more effective as a horror film than a slavery expose. Argentina managed to abolish slavery without civil war in the 1850s, but Los Inocentes, like a miniature echo of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, shows a generation paying in blood for the blood drawn by the lash.

The screenplay by Brunetti, Natacha Caravia and Andres Gelos is flashbacky in a manner appropriate for a film haunted by curses. The main story, set in 1871, sees Rodrigo (Ludovico Di Santo) return to his father's plantation with his pregnant bride Bianca. The plantation is pure South American gothic, with Rodrigo's mother Mercedes, after whom the place is named, a madwoman whose moaning is muted only in the Madonna's presence, while the old man (Lito Cruz) is a brutal boor dripping with contempt for his son. Some of the old slaves have stayed on as servants, despite the plantation's horrific history. The flashbacks show how Rodrigo's childhood slave playmate was hanged for daring to play on a swing, and how a slave woman was burned at the stake for the double offense of getting raped by the planter and burying a statue of the Blessed Virgin in a superstitious attempt to end the drought that the planter blames on persistent slave paganism. These dead haunt the present but seem to target Rodrigo and Bianca more than the old man.

Los Inocentes isn't EC Comics-style American horror in which the dead avenge themselves on the truly guilty. It's more effective as a horror movie for having its curse reach out indiscriminately at the plantation family. The suffering of innocents is precisely what should be horrible about a curse, but to the extent that Americans expect the guilty to suffer, or assume that those who suffer are guilty of something -- like all those teenagers Jason Voorhees supposedly punished for premarital sex -- those who watch the Argentine film on Netflix may be taken effectively and shockingly by surprise by the direction it takes toward the end.

The picture benefits from Hugo Colace's moody cinematography and a cast whose costumes and performances fit the period nicely. Lito Cruz's vicious patriarch is especially impressive, a secular horror of privileged vice in his own right. You feel he's done a good job destroying his family before the ghosts even get started, and his lustful attention to Bianca is nearly as scary as whatever the ghosts have in store for her. There's something inscrutably blank about his expression when we last see him, facing the ultimate fulfillment of the curse, that makes you wonder whether he understands what's happened and why. We know and wonder why he, of all people, is left standing, but it should be clear to viewers that he hasn't exactly gone unpunished.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Alexander Sokurov has become quite the cosmopolitan since his 2002 one-take epic Russian Ark made him an art-house star. Since then his subjects have included the American occupation of Japan and the German Faust legend, while his latest film is a sort of critical sequel to Ark, taking the Louvre museum in France. Francofonia strikes me as a sort of homage to Jean-Luc Godard in its mix of scripted scenes, essayistic narration and other meta elements, and while it's an homage to French cinema to that extent it also shows that you can take the boy out of Russia, but you can't always take Russia out of the boy. The nearest thing to a plot in the piece is the relationship between Jacques Jaujard, the French national museum director (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Franz von Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the German official in charge of preserving occupied France's cultural heritage. Jaujard had already evacuated most of the Louvre's contents to auxiliary chataeux by the time Wolff-Metternich arrived, but as it turned out the German took his cultural preservation mandate more seriously than his Nazi masters probably intended, eventually earning the French Legion of Honor for his trouble. Their story, punctuated for some quasi-Godardian reason with a visible soundtrack, is interlarded with a Russian Ark-style tour of the Louvre, Sokurov's Skype (?) chats with someone transporting precious art by stormy sea on a freighter, and comments on the museum's history. The museum tour is reminiscent of Sokurov's earlier triumph not in its lack of editing but by the appearance of a historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth). He haunts the Louvre, childishly pointing out paintings of himself and explaining that much of the museum's classical collection was plundered by him from the Middle East. The museum has another resident spirit, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), France's counterpart to Uncle Sam. She frolics about in her liberty cap shouting the French Revolutionary buzzwords, "liberty, equality, fraternity," but in a telling moment the tour narrator urges her to get rid of the obnoxious Napoleon after he's grasped her hand, but neither she nor we can shake the Little Corporal.

You may have recalled by now that Bonaparte was a great enemy of Russia, perhaps second only to Hitler, but it's in Sokurov's discussion of what his people call the Great Patriotic War, particularly the treatment of the Louvre and Paris compared to the treatment of Leningrad and the Hermitage museum -- the setting of Russian Ark -- that particularly Russian hurt feelings come to the surface. You get the impression that Sokurov holds it against France that Paris didn't suffer the devastation that Leningrad endured. Never mind that France had surrendered before the Germans had to consider bombing Paris, while Leningrad became a symbol of continued Russian resistance to the Nazi war machine. What really bugs Sokurov, it seems, is the idea that Paris and the Louvre were spared because on some level Germans like Wolff-Metternich saw France as part of European civilization, but didn't extend Russia the same courtesy. I suspect that Sokurov suspects that that wasn't just because of Nazi anti-communism, though that clearly had something to do with it, and to do with why he closes the film with a loud, discordant version of the Soviet national anthem. Francofonia is subtitled An Elegy for Europe, but the overall tone isn't really elegiac. It use of Napoleon links France and Germany together in a culture of imperialistic aggression against the East, in the name of a Europe defined by its exclusion of Russia. You may not like or agree with that message but at least it shows that Sokurov hasn't sold out by returning to his museum motif. This newest film isn't as good as Russian Ark or Faust, but it still proves Sokurov one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

NEXT TIME I'LL AIM AT THE HEART (La prochaine fois je viserai le coeur, 2014)

Cedric Anger's film is based on an actual crime spree in 1970s France perpetrated by a gendarme who took part in the investigation of his own crimes. The fictionalized movie murderer likes to kill with his car, either running women down or taking them on joyrides, shooting them and dumping them on the side of the road. The real-life killer lives today, having been deemed psychologically unfit to stand trial. La prochaine fois seems to challenge that verdict; at least it left me questioning it. Franck (Guillaume Canet) struggles with his impulse to kill, mortifying his flesh with barbed wire among other measures, but can't stop himself -- with one important exception. He falls in love with a woman named Sophie (Ann Girardot), or as near to love as he can get, only to learn that she's already married with no plans to leave her husband. He never kills or even attacks her. Maybe she's become too much of a distinct individual, or maybe his motives for killing have nothing to do with the anger he presumably feels toward Sophie. But you're left with the fact that he does not attack the one person he might have some reason to lash out at. For all that the film provokes empathy for the torment Franck puts himself through, even as you're repulsed by his crimes, his treatment of Sophie could convince you that the fictional killer, at least, had some capacity for self-control, at least, that makes him responsible for the crimes he did commit.

Canet was nominated for a Cesar award for his work as Franck and I'd say he deserved it. The film as a whole is pretty bleak, playing out in a blank landscape of empty roads and parking lots, with a sense of inevitable comeuppance for Franck compounding the dread you might feel every time he takes a woman for a drive. You could find yourself rooting for Franck. against your better instincts, to avoid capture during the film's big car chase, or cheering for him when he outwits the gendarme assigned with him to an all-night stakeout of his own getaway car. At the very least you feel his anxiety, his fear of getting caught as well as whatever he really feels about killing people. La prochaine fois is one of the more successful efforts I've seen lately at getting inside a serial killer's head without vicarious or voyeuristic intentions. It's a more modest and more convincing portrait of evil than many more sensational pictures.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

SARAJEVO (Das Attentat: Sarajevo 1914, 2014)

The U.S. will soon observe the centennial of its entry into World War I. With that in mind, Netflix is currently streaming Andreas Prochaska's Austro-Czech TV film, which looks to be the JFK of World War I movies. It's about the investigation by Austrian authorities in Sarajevo, the capital of Austrian-ruled Bosnia, of the assassination there of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The Archduke and his wife were killed on the second try that day by Serbian nationalists. Holding the Kingdom of Serbia responsible for their action, Austria issued an ultimatum most observers feel was designed to be rejected so that the Hapsburg empire, backed by Germany, could invade Serbia. Historians are certain that rogue elements within the Serbian government, if not the government itself, supported the conspiracy, but the assassination, given its world-historical consequences, has been an overdue target for more creative conspiracy theorists. Why, they might ask, was the Archduke allowed back on the street after the first assassination attempt, a bombing, failed? Why did the second motorcade seem to stop right in front of Gavrilo Princip, the gunman who succeeded where the bomber failed? And why would any Serbians carry out a conspiracy that amounted to national suicide?

The assassin's creed: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Prochaska and writer Martin Ambrosch go for the solution that probably seems most obvious to the modern conspiracist. Since Austria's ultimatum seemed to show that they were spoiling for war, might they not have tried to create a pretext for war themselves? Franz Ferdinand was a controversial figure thought to desire greater rights for the empire's ethnic minorities; that would make him expendable, presumably, to some in the Hapsburg establishment. But according to Ambrosch the ultimate motive is more venal. Investors wanted to build a railroad linking Germany to the farther reaches of the Ottoman Empire, reaching from Berlin to Bagdad. To be feasible the road would have to go through Serbia. Better than if Serbia were subject to the German powers in Berlin and Vienna. Serbs had reasons of their own to lash out at Austria -- they resented the perceived subjugation of fellow Serbs through the Austrian annexation of Bosnia in 1908 -- but given how obvious it now seems that Austria would punish Serbia with war, the Serbs can only seem patsies furthering what looks like an Austrian or German agenda.

A mere functionary like Leo Pfeffer can be told what to think; he has less luck convincing others.

So it comes to seem to Leo Pfeffer (Florian Teichtmeister), the magistrate put in charge of the initial investigation. He comes under increasing pressure to produce a report blaming the Serbian government as soon as possible, as if a timetable had already been determined. But as Pfeffer sees the apparent implausibilities in the events as they played out, and as he falls in love with the daughter of a Serbian industrialist who has fallen under suspicion, he begins to stall for time to get at the truths that his superiors seem increasingly uninterested in learning. As he keeps raising questions, and keeps pressuring Princip and the other Serb prisoners to tell all they know, he is made more conscious of his outsider status as a Jew who's in love with a Serb. Pfeffer was a real person who isn't highly thought of by historians who see him as an underqualified provincial. Das Attentat imagines a more conscientious Pfeffer who's forced to sign the required indictment of Serbia -- his motive here is to secure his lover's release from prison -- while continuing his own dogged quest for the truth to universal indifference. The filmmakers can change the historical Pfeffer, but their more heroic Pfeffer still can't change history. Teichtmeister gives a good slow-burn performance that permits some sympathetic suspension of disbelief as you hope he'll find something that might stop the war in its tracks. Inevitably Das Attentat must take the form of tragedy, and that tone seems appropriate to the tragic truth of the Great War, even if the filmmakers' historiography is unsound.