That time is upon us — 2013 is coming to a close. As tends to happen this time each year, there’s a pile of screeners of year-end picks beginning to pile up that I’ll need to watch as much of before voting for the Detroit Film Critics Society in early December and prior to my annual end-of-the-year list. With new releases also adding up in the coming weeks , there’s no way to list detailed thoughts on all of the movies I’ll be watching (not with a full-time day job and a wife and son at home, at least). So, as I did last year, I’ll be posting my thoughts on these in smaller chunks, a few movies at a time, a few times a week. This week has some pretty good stuff in there–along with a theatrical release I just didn’t have the time to write up. Enjoy!
The Act of Killing
I really wish I’d seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary earlier so I could have ample time to write up everything I want to say about it. But I’m sure there will be more time to revisit it down the road, as The Act of Killing is a film that shook me in ways few films have.
In the film, Oppenheimer and his crew visit Indonesia, where gangsters and paramilitary officials carried out the murder of nearly 1 million people suspected of being communists in the 1960s as part of a military overthrow of the government. The men who carried out this genocide were never held accountable and a formal apology has never been issued — indeed, the men have folk-hero status in the country. In the film, Oppenheimer asks the men — most notably gangster Anwar Congo — to restage their murders as a movie of their exploits. The result is something that is almost incomprehensible; at a certain point, I lost the ability to process what I was seeing.
This isn’t the first time moviegoers have been asked to look at evil that is beyond our understanding — indeed, this year’s 12 Years a Slave asks us to do something similar. And yet the documentary approach puts us up close not with actors, but with men who readily admit their brutality. One man boasts about how much he enjoyed raping teenage girls. During a scene where the men burn down a village, a government official asks them to tone it down, even though he admits their exploits were even more vicious than what is captured that day — the cries of children and past victims traumatized by the re-creation is chilling. But even more disturbing is Congo calmly taking the crew to the roof where he slaughtered hundreds of men, and then walking us through a method he devised to strangle them without getting too much blood on the floor–when he watches the footage later, his only comment is “I never would have worn white pants.”
It’s a surreal film, and yet it’s not just about shock value. For a country that has long held the truth from its public, it’s a canny away to hear the perpetrators of these atrocities finally confess what they did (Drafthouse Films has made the film available for free in Indonesia — the government has tried to ban it). It’s an insight into just how the truth becomes distorted by the victors — “war crimes are decided by the winners,” one man said, defending why he feels no guilt for his actions. As we listen to Congo and his cohorts explain how they were influenced by Hollywood movies, we see just how art can influence brutality. And yet, Oppenheimer’s film is also a deft defense of film and, like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, an examination of how our attempts to re-create and talk about our past often bring about greater understanding. There’s a telling moment where the film’s participants discuss the danger of the movie they’re making — they’re well aware it will damn them in the eyes of the public. They don’t seem concerned with guilt, but with their PR cred. But as they delve deeper into the movie and revisit their past, it’s fascinating to watch old demons haunt these men. The film’s final 10 minutes are the most chilling, wrenching and amazing I’ve seen this year. I agree with “Filmspotting’s” Josh Larsen, who called the film “an exorcism.”
The Act of Killing is not an easy or pleasant film, but it’s an important one. My brain almost broke trying to comprehend the evil on display here, and Oppenheimer doesn’t leave us with any moments of catharsis or promises of change. But in revisiting these crimes, he brings to light a secret kept from the majority of the world, and has the rare opportunity to put the men who committed this evil on the spot. This is one of the very best and most impactful films I’ve seen all year.
Short Term 12
If The Act of Killing is about staring into the abyss and walking away slack-jawed, Short Term 12 is about looking at brokenness in our world and finding moments of healing and hope. Destin Cretton’s micro-budget indie is remarkable in the way it authentically portrays the life of troubled kids, managing to be unflinching and uplifting without ever venturing into bleakness or cliche.
Brie Larson gives one of the most fully realized, nuanced performances of the year as Grace, a worker at a foster home for at-risk kids. She’s good at her job — she knows when to be playful and when to be strong, and she has begun a romantic relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). When a new girl comes to the facility, it reawakens old wounds for Grace, who has to begin dealing with her own past traumas.
That plot could go in a number of predictable directions, and perhaps the most refreshing thing about Short Term 12 is that Cretton avoids stumbling into cliche, letting the plot dictate the characters or piling on needless manipulation. Instead, the film feels authentic and organic, and from the opening scene shows how a day working with these troubled kids can involve major triumphs and heart-breaking setbacks, often within the course of a few minutes. Cretton also takes the time to let the kids show distinct personalities, giving us windows into their struggles and successes without making them feel shoe-horned in. The kids are well-rounded and nuanced, each struggling with something different — and the film doesn’t make it a point to heal them all or give all closure to all of their problems. It simply sits and observes, letting us revel in their triumphs and cry at their setbacks. “We’re not here to solve their problems; we’re here to give them a safe place,” Grace advises a coworker at one point, and the film shows the impact that simple acts of compassion and humanity can have on troubled lives. It never overplays its hand, but shows how exhausting, frustrating and tiring the work of these social workers is — and through that, we see the true heroism they display each day.
At the heart of it all is Larson, an actress I’ve enjoyed in films like Scott Pilgrim, The Spectacular Now and 21 Jump Street. Grace is a complex character, required to be strong in front of the kids but holding back years of trauma, insecurity and pain that inhibit her outside relationships. Larson is fantastic — Grace is a fully realized, nuanced character, and Larson brings to life all the character’s emotional pain, physical exhaustion, compassion and professional competency. The story of the caregiver being more screwed up than the wards is old-hat by now, but Larson makes Grace feel fresh and real, not forced into some pre-planned arc. Even in the film’s final third, when some of the plot machinations start to show, her vibrancy and immediacy keep the story feeling authentic and true. I also really liked Gallagher’s patient and humane work as her coworker/boyfriend, and the way their relationship struggles are depicted without devolving into theatrics is refreshing. Also, major kudos to the actors playing the children, who all feel fully realized — particularly Keith Stanfield as Marcus, a young boy whose story has its own surprises.
Short Term 12 is a small film that got a tiny theatrical release this year, but it shouldn’t be missed. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting, hopeful and realistic at the same time. It’s one of the year’s best films.
“I’m sorry; I’m not a real person yet,” the title character — played by Greta Gerwig — apologizes early in the film. And that simple statement sums up everything you need to know about Frances.
Noah Buambach’s lightweight indie — and second collaboration with “Greenberg” co-star Gerwig — is about a young woman trying to figure out how to navigate life and find out where she belongs. It’s a frothy little comedy, anchored by Gerwig’s likable, magnetic performance.
Frances is a bit of a mess — her and roommate Sophie are still stuck in that time of early adulthood where weekends are made for immature fun, romantic relationships are casual, and being broke is all part of the adventure. But when Sophie moves out, Frances has to learn to grow up and survive. The film is light on plot, following her from residence to residence, back home for a visit with her parents and then off on a last-minute, badly advised trip to France. Some of these episodes work better than others — I enjoyed Frances’s lonely Parisian weekend and another sequence where she feels out of place among more well-to-do friends; I was less fond of her stint staying with two rich-kid New York artists.
And yet, that’s the point — Frances doesn’t know exactly where she belongs, and some stops are just a bad fit. She’s in that awkward stage where flights of fancy have to be sacrificed for budgetary concerns, practical demands have to take precedence over childhood dreams, and wondering whether you have $3 to pay the ATM surcharge can be nail-bitingly suspenseful. Gerwig is funny and light, and I loved watching her awkwardly try to fit Frances into social settings where she just doesn’t belong. But the film’s lightness is also deceptive — there’s also great growth in Frances that Gerwig subtly weaves in, so that that Frances we see at the end is slightly changed from the one that opens the film — more mature, confident and hopefully less neurotic.
I enjoy Baumbach’s work – and this is a lighter affair than something like The Squid and the Whale or Greenberg. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect, not only because New York looks beautiful in the technique, but also because it couples with Gerwig’s physical comedy to feel, at times, like a silent film. And it’s refreshing to see a movie about a young lady that doesn’t depend on her meeting the right guy or dwelling on her relationship status.
Yes, some of the navel-gazing New Yorkers got on my nerves, and there’s an aimlessness to the film that makes it frustrating in the early go, but Gerwig’s performance is delightful and gives the film vibrancy and effervescence. Frances Ha isn’t necessarily one of the best films this year, but it’s a highly enjoyable little comedy — and proof that Gerwig should be moving on to bigger things.
I guess we’re canceling the family trip to Sea World.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary — which earned raves this summer and recently played on CNN — is a damning indictment of the popular marine park, all the more so because of Sea World’s refusal to answer any of the allegations set forth. The film is an examination of an incident in which a trainer was killed by one of Sea World’s orcas, and alleges that Sea World knew about the whale’s dangerous history. It also examines similar incidents within the park, along with Sea World’s procedures for handling and training orcas, and concludes that the park is setting itself up for repeated tragedy and causing harm to creatures that are more social and intelligent than many give them credit for.
Using astonishing footage and information gleaned from court cases, Blackfish paints a picture of an organization that doesn’t seem to know anything about the animals it has on display; or if it does, it disregards that knowledge in favor of earning a buck. As I said, Sea World refused to answer any of the questions, which only makes them look worse. Coperthwaite refuses to sensationalize the issue, instead telling the story through public documents and the words of former Sea World employees. Despite that restraint, you can still feel the anger behind every scene.
There’s not much more to say – Blackfish is a very good film, an advocacy doc told with skill and passion. It’s definitely worth a look before you decide what to see on your trip to Orlando.
In a World…
Lake Bell’s writing/directing debut is a funny look at a section of the film world we don’t see portrayed — voice-over artists. Bell plas a woman trying to compete in this field, going up against her famous father (Fred Melamed) and a lunk-headed upstart (Ken Marino) to win the chance to narrate the trailer for a new fantasy epic.
The film is slight, but I don’t necessary see that as a dig. Bell has a very funny voice and her dialogue is frequently witty and insightful. The film can’t really decide whether it wants to fully explore ideas about gender roles or just settle for being a funny indie comedy. There’s a romance between Bell and Dmetri Martin that is superfluous but sweet, and a sexual encounter between Bell and Marino never really delivers on the complications it promises. But the cast is very enjoyable — Melamed is great as a pompous jackass, Martin has an aw-shucks sweetness to him and Nick Offerman pops up for a few funny lines. But I was more intrigued by the romantic travails suffered by Bell’s sister (Michaela Watkins) and her husband (Rob Cordry), who have a sweet and sad subplot that is at times more interesting than the main story. Only Marino feels out of place, too cartoonish and two-dimensional to truly register.
In a World… is frequently funny, sometimes insightful and contains a few moments of unexpected sweetness. More than anything, though, it announces Bell as a witty writer and capable director. This film isn’t going to set the world on fire, but I’m very eager to see what she does next.
Drunken debauchery has never looked as hellish as it does filtered through Harmony Korine’s lens.
Broke before their Spring Break trip even begins, four college girls don ski masks and rob a restaurant, and then hightail it to Florida for a week of sun, booze, drugs and sex — before the cops arrest them and they’re bailed out by a skeevy rapper named Alien (James Franco). It’s a horrifying and disturbing look at a youth culture that’s over-sexed and infatuated with violence and power, wealth and notoriety.
There’s been some disagreement about whether Spring Breakers is a critique of youth debauchery or if it revels in it, but I think there’s no doubt that something about this generation disturbs Korine. Sequences of partying on the beach, with the liquor flying and tops popping, feel more overwhelming and disturbing than titillating. Watching four young girls in bikinis party in hotels with overly stimulated young men is highly uncomfortable and makes me dread having a teenage daughter one day, who will be sent out into this world. And when the girls abandon the beaches and take up with Alien, there’s an ever-present dread hanging over the film. Despite dreamy voice-overs that plead for Spring Break to stay forever, the experience feels like a descent into hell for these girls.
Except when it doesn’t.
Because I think Korine is trying to have it both was. No, I don’t think he’s celebrating reckless behavior — I think he’s exposing it and trying to shine a light on something that truly unsettles him. And for the first two-thirds of the film, we’re waiting for everything to erupt into chaos and despair. And yet, the final third oddly lets two of the girls head back home and follows two who remain with Alien — and it’s in these passages that the film seems to embrace its gangster mindset, treating the rapper’s relationship with these girls as genuinely touching and romantic, and oddly ending without the main characters having to deal with any fallout or repercussions. I don’t really think Korine is embracing these things — but I think the filmmaking gets a bit sloppy as it cedes to plot machinations in its final act. I also worry about teenagers who might see this and miss the point — celebrating it the way many celebrate Scarface (a film name-checked here).
But some things are undeniable. The cinematography is beautiful here — the film is a swirl of neon and looks almost otherworldly, presented with thumping music behind it — it feels like an unholy marriage of Terrence Malick and “Girls Gone Wild.” Korine’s decision to eschew traditional narrative gives the film an elliptical, almost poetic feel. And Franco is insanely good here. Alien is a character that is bizarre and should come off as cartoonish, but Franco gives him dimension and a strange heart, even as he’s over-the-top crazy (the scene where Alien shows off his house to the girls, complete with the repeated cry of “look at my sheee-it” will be on Franco’s highlight reel). It’s an astounding role.
Techically, Spring Breakers is a high achievement, and I do believe there’s more going on beneath the surface than some might give it credit for. But I also think Korine loses the narrative thread at times and the film doesn’t quite explore its subject the way it might benefit from — also, the girls are entirely one-dimensional (but that might be intentional). I’m mixed overall on the movie, except for the fact that I felt like I needed a bath afterward.
Definitely not an end-of-year awards contender, but I saw it and figured I might as well write a bit about the latest entry from the Jackass crew.
There’s not really much to say about this film, in which Johnny Knoxville dons old-man makeup and hits the road, with the story being that he’s an old man looking to kick-start his sex life again following his wife’s death, but needs to drop his grandson off with his ne’er-do-well son-in-law first. Along the way, in a series of “scenes” that were filmed with hidden cameras before unsuspecting participants, Knoxville knocks over a corpse at a funeral, gets his manhood stuck in a vending machine, has his grandson do a striptease at a toddler beauty pageant and almost gets killed by bikers. Oh, and I forgot the scene where he farts in a restaurant and ends up defecating all over the wall.
As the Jackass films are, this is tasteless, juvenile and very stupid. If that’s not your bag, stay away. But there’s a primal idiot gene in me that saw all this and laughed hard and often. Knoxville’s always good-natured in his work and there’s a glee that he and director Jeff Tremaine have in pulling this off that is infectious. I appreciate that the cringe-inducing injury humor of the Jackass films is replaced by hidden camera stunts here — the funniest moments come from the reactions of the unwitting actors (there’s also a fun montage during the end credits of the crew revealing the truth to their marks — knowing they all took it in good fun made me feel less guilty).
The existence of a plot hampers the film’s momentum a bit — there are moments where it must necessarily stop and slow down just to explain what’s next. And while Knoxville’s a very funny and charismatic individual, the film is largely a collection of gags — it lacks Borat’s knack for using these gags to say something interesting about culture. The lone exception is the beauty pageant scene, but that feels derivative of Little Miss Sunshine.
But still, if the Jackass films make you laugh (as they do for me), Bad Grandpa’s a fun little addition to the oeuvre. You might not respect yourself in the morning — but you will laugh.