SIFF Review: The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing is a chilling and powerful documentary. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, this film examines former death squad leaders in Indonesia. In 1965, there was a coup, and the military sought out and killed anyone and everyone suspected of Communism. This film interviews several of these individuals regarding their prominent role in these events. They have long been celebrated and lionized (while simultaneously feared) in Jakarta for the role that they played in the purge.

This isn’t a standard talking heads doc. Instead, Oppenheimer combines traditional interview footage with footage of the subjects reenacting (with much theatricality) the events from that time period. The result is incredible.

Listening to them talk about these murders is fascinating (and sometimes horrifying). This is a culture where not much has changed in the last 40 years, and what these men have done is still viewed by many as heroic and as a strike against oppression. They have never been punished or called out for these acts of genocide, and likely never will. So to hear them discuss these murders so candidly (one of our subjects, Anwar Congo, was rumored to have killed over 1,000 people himself) and without remorse is unnerving, to say the least, but also fascinating. Particularly when they begin to talk about how the memories of these atrocities have affected them over time, and they way each subject has internalized and dealt with the lingering effects.

One of the things that struck me during The Act of Killing was how much this film blurred the line between fantasy and reality. I love horror films. I love the feeling of being scared, the feeling of suspense and of shock. I love seeing the amazing work that the FX guys do behind the scenes to create horrific images out of latex and foam and paint. And while I know that everything I am seeing is not real, I love being swept up by the story and allowing myself to forget that fact for a few minutes and just enjoy the experience of confronting these emotions in a safe environment. I do absolutely believe that horror allows us to deal with psychological fears.

But this film muddled that. And it did it in ways that I wasn’t anticipating. Because even though the men onscreen were using props and costumes and even though we had seen them block out the movements only a few minutes earlier, this was different. Because it wasn’t completely fake. Knowing that these guys were acting out events that not only had actually happened, that they had not only witnessed, but that they had perpetrated and controlled offered a different viewing experience entirely. Even though my brain knew that what I was seeing was fake, it still felt more real that most of the much more graphic and extreme stuff that the horror genre has to offer. It felt dangerous. It felt unsafe. Not only for the people onscreen, but for me in the theater. This is a film that definitely pushes comfort zones.

But that’s important. And it’s one of the reasons that I love film so much, and one of the reasons that this film hits as hard as it does. Because sometimes you need to push yourself outside of your comfort zone in order to understand and appreciate something new. And this film is challenging. On paper, these men are monsters. But you spend some time with them and you watch them interacting, and you start to realize that they are human as well. They are capable of tender moments and of humor, and you might even find yourself kind of liking them a little bit. The humor, actually, kept the doc from being two hours of uncomfortably dark. And you wouldn’t think it from the description or the trailer, but there are some honestly hilarious moments in this film.

As fascinating as the story onscreen is, I am really interested to learn about the filming process. Oppenheimer had to have put himself into a dangerous position to make this film, and I am curious to learn more about what the experience was like. A lot of what was caught on camera had to have been serendipitous and couldn’t have been planned for. He had to have made calculated pushes to get some of the amazing and uncomfortable scenes that we saw, and I am very curious to see how he went about doing that and what some of these subjects were like when the cameras weren’t rolling. Because while the initial coup is over, Jakarta is still a volatile area. I am curious about how this film came together.

The Act of Killing is definitely a challenging film, but it also an amazing one. It will be released by Drafthouse Films later this summer. I highly highly recommend it.

SIFF Review: Frances Ha

As much as the grey-hairs have been bitching about the Millennials lately, it’s important to realize that a person’s 20’s aren’t what they used to be. Growing up, kids are told that they will graduate from college and get a good job and happily start their adult lives. The problem is that the job and the stability level we had envisioned doesn’t actually happen until we’re about 30. What happens in the interim are often are series of gigs that just (or barely) pay the bills, that are probably not remotely the kind of work we had anticipated doing, while we slide among a continuous succession of roommates and financial crises, peppered with the occasional help from the parents. We hover somewhere between the neverland that is college and the adult world, and it feels like we have all of the problems from both, but none of the perks. (And I am happily out of my 20s now, so for those of you still slogging through, it gets way better. I promise).

Welcome to the story of Frances Ha. I saw the latest from Noah Baumbach as part of the Seattle International Film Festival last week, and completely fell in love. This story is so real, yet so charming, that it is impossible not to connect with it.

Greta Gerwig stars as the titular Frances, an apprentice in a modern dance company, trying to get to the ultimate milestone of graduating to fully-formed dancer and enjoying all of the perks that come with it (like regular paychecks). In the meantime, she lives with her BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner). These two are not your typical roommates, and are more two halves to the same person. They interact like a married couple, finishing sentences, sharing inside jokes, and generally preferring each other’s company to that of other friends and significant others. Life is glorious until Sophie reveals that she is moving into a beautiful, coveted Tribeca apartment with another girl. This is the first in a series of events that shift Frances’s comfortable meandering into not-so-comfortable languishing, as she tries to figure out what comes next.

Frances Ha is the story of stepping from semi-adulthood into being a full-on grown-up. It explores the point at which you have redefine your plans and expectations. Growing up, we are told through movies and songs and stories that we can achieve our dreams and have anything we want if we work hard enough for it, and that giving up our dreams is the fail condition. Frances Ha explores the real-world reality not of giving up your dreams and expectations, but of redefining them. Of working with them to create something new. It’s the story of what happens when you get to a point where your plan isn’t happening the way you expected it to, and you need to make some changes. So you take the things you love about yourself and about your life and make them fit together in a new way. It’s about taking those final steps into being a fully-functioning adult, rather than someone floundering in a sea of reality. And the journey is incredible.

Greta Gerwig is phenomenal in this film. You spend two minutes with her, and you instantly want to be her best friend. She is so charming and believable in the role of Frances. The character is just silly enough, just charismatic enough, and just bumbly enough that you can’t help but fall in love. Sure, you wince a little as she makes her way through this complicated time, making all of the mistakes that you wish she was smart enough to avoid, but you are always on her side. Nothing about this performance feels forced or fake. It’s charming, without being overly twee. It’s just weird enough to be a little silly, without completely pulling you out of the story.

Baumbach choosing to film it in black and white really adds to the aesthetic. It gave the film an air of no-frills and simple truth. The black and white added to the simplicity and the intimacy of the story on display. No unnecessary adds – just a girl in New York trying to figure things out. And visually, it really complimented the New York neighborhood setting. Simplistic and stunning at the same time.

It’s really really well-balanced writing and performances that make this film work. If this is a testament to the writing power of Gerwig and Baumbach teaming up, I hope we see more projects from them in the future. The world and the characters that they built are so real and so charming – I really can’t wait to visit this film a second time. Frances Ha is currently in limited release. If you get the chance to check it out, take it!

SIFF Review: Stories We Tell

I kicked off the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival with a documentary that I have been very excited about since I first read about it – Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell.

Sarah Polley has been an onscreen presence over the years, starring in such films as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Go, Dawn of the Dead, and Splice, but in recent years, she has begun working behind the camera, directing Away From Her and the phenomenal Take This Waltz. Here, she switches gears a bit delivers a documentary on a very personal topic. The subject of this film is her own family. Specifically, the mysterious past of her deceased mother. This film explores family, relationships, memory, and how and where various viewpoints intersect. Through a series of interviews with the various immediate and extended members of her family, she begins to explore long buried secrets of the past, and ultimately, her own story.

The various interviewees are instructed to tell the events of the story from beginning to end. While they are all telling the same story, they often remember it a little differently, offering varying versions of the same events – sometimes strikingly different from one another. Events might be remembered differently, details might vary depending on the importance they have to one storyteller as opposed to another, and each individual’s personal feelings and reactions slightly color the way they experienced and recall the events in question. Each version is intercut and woven in with the others, creating a tapestry of memory that tells this one family’s story.

What I love about this film is that it explores how we experience and recall events, and while we might all do it a little differently, it doesn’t change the the fact that events can bring us together. It’s impossible not to feel connected to this very human story as you watch the members of the Polley family share their recollections and feelings regarding their family’s history. They offer very open and candid thoughts on a very personal subject – a subject Polley herself expressed hesitation in speaking about so publicly during the making of the film. While the events in question are certainly not unheard of, they are also not the norm in every family dynamic. Yet, she brought them out into the open with such a level of grace that you can’t help but feel connected with both the story and with the various people telling it.

I loved the way this film unfolds. Every so often the it turns and becomes even more complex than you initially thought and manages to do so while still preserving the integrity of the story and the people telling it. It’s never unnecessarily dramatized or cheapened for shock value. Instead, Polley utilizes several storytelling techniques to enhance the words of her interviewees, but ultimately, lets their recollections speak for themselves. The film challenges us to consider that while we all might have a different viewpoint of memories, we are all affected by the events that created them. While two people may recall an event in two rather different ways, does that lessen the emotional impact that the event may have had on them? Are they affected differently by their memories?

Polley does an amazing job of telling the story and meditating on the nature of story itself, without too firmly injecting her own perspective. While this doc is exploring a topic very personal to her and the story is as much hers as it is anyone else’s in the film, she takes care to let everyone’s version of the events carry equal weight, and doesn’t attempt to supplant the other versions of the story with her own. As they say, truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Stories We Tell is playing in limited release, opening in more theaters this week. It is a fascinating documentary, and I highly recommend it.

Review: The Great Gatsby

This weekend opened Baz Luhrmann’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. Opinions after the opening weekend are varying pretty wildly. And why shouldn’t they? The Great Gatsby is a beloved classic, and opinions are going to vary wildly from person to person based on expectations. Fans of this story have a very specific idea of it in their heads, and it can be difficult to watch something that deviates from that. So, ultimately, the question becomes what are you looking for as a viewer? Are you looking for the book to be faithfully translated from page to screen, detail for detail? Are you looking for a loose adaptation that basically hits the same notes, but deviates here and there? Are you here to see the latest Baz Luhrmann film? Are you simply looking to show up and stare at the pretty costumes and the glitter? All of the above?

So just so you know which person I am – I went into this looking for a gorgeous Lurhmann film. Lots of style and glitter and beautiful imagery. I was excited when I learned that he would be offering his take on the material. I love the 1920’s aesthetic, and I couldn’t wait to see how he would interpret that time period. As for the story, I expected something that followed the most of the source material, but probably strayed a bit. I read it in high school, but I didn’t remember a ton from it, nor did I classify what was written on the page as untouchable.

So what did I think, coming from that perspective?

I liked The Great Gatsby. I thought it was an enjoyable story told in the stylish manner that I had been expecting. But I didn’t love it. There were some disappointing moments and some things that I wished would have been done differently. Frankly, I thought Luhrmann royally fucked the first act. Gatsby throws wild, extravagant parties at his Long Island palace every weekend – things of glittery excess and frivolity. Luhrmann blew the top off these scenes as only he can, drowning the scene in more glitz and glam than you would have thought possible. Yet I feel like I barely had a chance to see or experience any of it. The party scenes were what I was most looking forward to going in, and they proved to be the biggest disappointment.

The party was shot very close, not allowing you to get the full scope of the scene, and the editing was all wrong. Each shot lasted only a couple of seconds, and quickly transitioned to something else (often without much grace). I wanted to see big sweeping crane shots showing me the grandeur of a Luhrmann-ized gin and jazz era. Instead, I got a series of short, punctuated shots that gave me a glimpse of this awesome world but then cut away just as I was getting focused or left me wishing one of the members of the dancing crowd would get the hell out of the way of the camera so I could see more. I wanted to bathe in the imagery, and unfortunately, Luhrmann didn’t give me the opportunity. I could see how this technique could be used to capture the whirlwind atmosphere of this over-the-top, carefree setting, but that’s not how it felt for me – it just left me feeling cheated and annoyed.

It really hit a better pace once we had been properly introduced to our characters and we began spending some serious time with them. Things began to feel a bit less hectic, and the camera paused to let them do some of the talking.

I thought the cast did outstanding work in bringing the characters to life. Particularly Leonardo DiCaprio. He perfectly conveyed and embodied Gatsby. This mystery man driven by an obsession, steeped in this world of excess, yet a little sad and lonely within it. He had some really amazing moments within the film, and DiCaprio was able to convey so much about this character through subtle expressions and body language. Carey Mulligan was fantastic as Daisy, giving her the token vivaciousness and spark that her character represents, but,at the same time, keeping the character minimal and hollow. You can see how anyone would get caught up by her enthusiasm, but, at the same time, she is pretty worthless. Tobey Maguire was solid in the role of Nick Carraway, our window into this strange and decadent world. While he didn’t have a ton of heavy lifting to do, Maguire perfectly embodied Carraway’s wide-eyed gaze and outsider innocence.

I went into The Great Gatsby looking to spend a couple of hours in a stylized 1920s and to get re-acquainted with one of America’s classic stories. And I got that – though, not to the degree I was hoping for. While this film definitely has Lurhmann’s sparkly fingerprints on it, I was disappointed by how he executed it. I have always enjoyed his films, but this one showed me that, while he has a great vision, he still hasn’t learned how to properly use all of the tools in his toolbox.

But I wouldn’t say that the experience was a total bust – at all. It really is worth a watch – particularly in 3D. The 3D was fantastic – more than simple gimmick – it served to both bring you into the world and to amplify the pageantry on display before you.  While the visual elements didn’t live up to my expectations, they were still very enjoyable – bright colors, sparkly costumes and a classic era in all its decadent glory dripped off of that screen. The soundtrack was stellar, the acting was solid, and while I never really felt that the story hit the emotional intensity that it was aiming for, I was still quite content to be a casual observer to the proceedings.

All in all, The Great Gatsby was an interesting interpretation that didn’t live up to expectations, but was entertaining, nonetheless.

Review: Iron Man 3

Happy Summer, everyone! Blockbuster season is officially upon us, and it looks to be the most kick-ass summer we have had since 2008. Starting off four months of awesomeness is Marvel’s latest offering – Iron Man 3.

As excited as I was for a new Iron Man film, I was also curious to see what they would do with it. It is the first film that Marvel has done since The Avengers tied all previous movies together. I wondered how they would tell a single, focused one-off story after Whedon combined all the individual threads into a spiderweb of awesome. Would the single-character films continue to float on their own?

Not surprisingly, Marvel handled it really well. Because while the events of The Avengers are referenced and are well-known and obviously play a part in this movie, they stay more in the background and don’t overshadow the events taking place here. Actually, their main purpose here serves to give us some additional development to Tony Stark’s character. He has been deeply affected by the events that took place in New York, and he is struggling to deal with them. And that’s what made it work so well – watching Tony Stark come to terms with everything that has happened and watching him deal with how the world as he knew it (as well as his role in it) have been affected and have changed. The world is a different place now that we know that we are in danger from alien life and powerful gods, and while we may try to go about our daily lives, we know that they will never again be the same. And so does Stark.

This internal struggle and the impact that it has on our hero is one of the most interesting aspects of Iron Man 3. Instead of being the biggest badass on the block with all of the cool toys, Stark is now feeling vulnerable. And trying to combat that feeling through any means necessary. He no longer feels untouchable – not to himself, and not to the audience. But it in no way diminishes his character – quite the contrary. It really deepens it. Because while Downey is still able to give Stark his trademark swagger (made all the more brilliant by some of the freaking AMAZING dialogue that Black has written for him), now we get the chance to see something brewing underneath it. Because nobody is invulnerable.

So much of what gives Iron Man 3 so much of its charm is the fact that it reunites Robert Downey Jr. with Shane Black. Black redefined action when he wrote Lethal Weapon, but it was his work on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that really made him stand out as a writer. And much of that tone and rhythm is emulated here. Downey and Black are a perfect match. Black writes fantastic dialogue and Downey knows how to deliver it perfectly. And Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is really giving Downey a run for his money as top performance of the film – he was outstanding. The trailers make The Mandarin look very much like a one-note character, but I am happy to say that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Is this a different Iron Man movie from what we have been getting so far? Absolutely. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sure, Black’s tone and direction is a departure from the previous films, but in the third movie of a franchise, you run the risk of the material being stale. Black not only manages to keep it fresh, but he brings a new angle and depth to the character, which is perhaps the most exciting part of all. I can’t wait to see it again.