Friday, February 28, 2014

Blood Will Have Blood: The Tyranny of the Past in The Act of Killing

Movie Review: The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Reviewed: 16 February 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer's astonishing interpretive documentary featuring killers in Indonesia revisiting the scenes of past crimes, narrating their own crimes, and, most shockingly, reenacting them with extras and camera crews in tow.  History as we are often told is written by the victors, and the ruling power expeditiously uses its power to anoint its heroes and demonize its villains. Yet as Shakespeare wrote in the great tragedy Macbeth over five hundred years ago, "What's done cannot be undone." Yet, what does it mean when those who committed atrocities are lionized by the ruling powers? What place can guilt have in a consequence-free totalitarian state?

Anwar Congo, now an aging, grandfatherly figure, shuffles around with a banality that belies his untold sins; a soldier in the anti-communist forces in Indonesia, Anwar speculates having committed over a thousand murders himself. A self-titled gangster, Anwar cites Hollywood films such as The Godfather as influences for his actions, and his meticulousness in recreating past crimes is extraordinary.  Oppenheimer asks him to act out moments of violence from his past, and Anwar gladly does so. Herman Koto is another former soldier, eager to don make-up and outlandish costumes to go into colorful dreamscapes connected to his past crimes.  Another man seems like the prototypical dad with his children at the mall, but is now a part of the power structure in Indonesia and assured of all that he did to get there.

The film's unflinching look at genocide also stares into the dark abyss of power.  I knew nothing of these atrocities in Indonesia, and I knew nothing of the current government's endorsing of these atrocities. It is impossible not to think of other genocides and the notion of history while watching this film.  A recreated battle scene is especially terrifying as young children are employed as actors and are overcome with emotion by the dramatic power of the recreation. For a movie that includes a lot of older people sitting around and talking, The Act of Killing is audacious in its use of art to reinterpret the crimes of the past. Oppenheimer has crafted a film that is undeniably powerful and upsetting, and it is unlike anything I have ever seen before and probably ever will. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris serve as producers, and the conceit of this film makes it remarkable.

The Act of Killing should win Best Documentary Film on Sunday at the Academy Awards, and it has lingered in my mind for over a month after viewing because it is simply unshakable once it has been experienced. I think it is a film that a college professor would use in a syllabus on 20th Century World History, and anyone interested in the intersection of memory, guilt, power, and ruthlessness should see this important and disturbing film.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

O Captain, My Captain: The Shifting Authorities of Captain Phillips

Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass

Reviewed: 23 February 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" states the famous ruler in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II.  When you're the captain, people look to you for answers, and the sense of responsibility has a palpable weight. The weight of millions of dollars worth of shipping containers and food combined with the lives of his twenty crew members on the MV Maersk Alabama weighs upon the eponymous captain as he spies a skiff with four armed men rapidly approaching his vessel off the Somali coast. The weight of landing this valuable cargo vessel and its treasures as well as the pressure from warlords at home weighs upon Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirate with the will to power to seize the moment and distinguish himself from his peers with his bravery and ruthlessness. Paul Greengrass's exciting new film Captain Phillips purports to be about the events of a 2009 hijacking of a U.S. ship by four pirates and the subsequent rescue efforts on the part of our government. However, much more subtly, Greengrass has woven a tale of leadership and authority into what could have been a strict adventure-thriller. Yes, the film is breathlessly thrilling and suspenseful; we are always in the capable hands of the director of the Jason Bourne sequels and the riveting United 93. But, the film also zeroes in on the stresses and the shifting authorities within scenes as the battle for supremacy must only leave one winner. "I am the captain now" announces Muse in the film's most famous scene, locking eyes with Captain Phillips, upending his world. However, the entire film is about shifting power and the search for authority. Muse looks to both another skiff boat leader and a superior to take his orders, as well as an unseen warlord calling the shots from afar. Phillips has his precise chain of command to execute his orders and his protocols to rely upon when the situation becomes out of hand. Calls to naval rescue centers have an eerie 9-11-like sense of neglect as one radio operator tells him the approaching vessel is "probably just fishermen." When the Alabama is boarded and the command are taken hostage by Muse's men, Captain Phillips continues to lead and direct his hidden crew by deferring to Muse's authority while simultaneously undermining it, quite the delicate balance. Captain Phillips's authority shows up in his ability to subvert the other and allow his men to sabotage the ship, lay traps, and evade capture. And the chain of command set in place by calling for help gives Greengrass the chance to show the machinations of the United States Defense Department at work, sending drones, helicopters, and entire battleships to rescue the Alabama.

There are other captains in the film, as the involvement escalates into an international incident. Captain Frank Castellano (Yul Vazquez) arrives in a U.S. battleship under orders from his Admiral to talk Muse into surrendering. And their orders from President Obama are to not allow the pirates to take an American hostage into Somalia, triggering the employment of the Navy Seals. Captain Castellano understands that his stopgap measures and attempts end the moment the Seals arrive on his ship and take tactical command. The head Navy Seal, he is the captain now. And the decision-making becomes even more frenetic and risky as the pirates take Captain Phillips with them in a small lifeboat, claustrophobic and increasingly violent.

Although I knew the ending of this film as most viewers will, I still found it completing absorbing and unrelenting in its suspense and intensity, particularly in the skiff boat scenes. Greengrass has a steady hand, always given enough surrounding context while never fully breaking our concentration on the central relationship of Muse and Phillips. I found the final scene in the film, which I refuse to spoil, to be maybe the best scene in all of movies this year: a heartbreaking look at the consequences of these violent events and Greengrass's final exclamation point on his treatise of leadership. The last character in the film takes the authority from Captain Phillips, using that leadership to help, to heal, to allow him to be weak and traumatized. That final surrendering of power to another shows the way leadership need not only be a burden and a weight that must be carried and endured. It can also be a transcendent way of transferring and taking away pain and pressure, providing calm under pressure, allowing one to feel weak because another is strong. A more typical film and director would never have considered including this final scene. I am so glad that Greengrass did.

Hanks and Abdi both give terrific performances in a very physical, confined way. Hanks has to masterfully play a number of things in his scenes: he has to be the smartest guy in the room, always thinking of about his rescue and escape while simultaneously manipulating the leadership structure of Muse and his band of disparate men. Abdi makes Muse a tragic figure, a man in over his head who knows that turning back is not an option. When asked by Phillips that there must be other options besides piracy for him, Muse responds, "Maybe in America." I found myself deeply moved by the story, and two moments at the end of the film completely overwhelmed me, provoking unexpected tears.

Captain Phillips, while an exercise in the study of leadership and power, also is about economics. Captain Phillips must take the risk of leading this vessel through dangerous waters as part of his job; Muse is accountable to warlords in his village for bringing valuable cargo back to Somalia. In today's world, more and more people must take on jobs that require sacrifice, time away from family, possibly even danger. Everyone has a boss or a captain, and the decision to be the captain often leads to isolation and unpopularity. Both Muse and Phillips find themselves in similar interactions with their subordinates. Greengrass curiously includes shots of Captain Phillips, Muse, and Captain Castellano all alone in their individual rooms, dressing and preparing for the day, loosely tied to their families through emails, pictures on a mirror, or a fleeting glimpse. But when on the job, these men are about completing the job, no matter who dislikes them. And the desire for quick, easy, and unearned power clashes heavily with the militaristic chain of command where a person ascends to captaincy after many years of toiling. Muse wants and needs his authority instantly. And, perhaps, that is one of the reasons why he fails, though the crushing inevitability of the United States military weighing down upon four pirates seems impossible to overcome.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Killing SeaWorld: Blackfish

Movie Review: Blackfish

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Reviewed: 24 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

The new documentary Blackfish has stuck with me for approximately a month since I have seen it.  I usually do not let a film sit for that long before writing about it, and there was no intention behind this delay.  However, after a month, I still find myself riveted by the footage compiled by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.  I don't think I'll ever consider going to SeaWorld after viewing this film.

Blackfish aims straight for its audience, throwing us into a shadowy world of SeaWorld corporate greed, mistreatment of whales, bitter former staff, and an assemblage of violent mishaps within their pools.  Should we keep whales in captivity?  Are we upsetting nature by traumatically separating whale calves from their mothers?  Should whales only exist in the ocean?  Some of the film suffers by never having a mouthpiece from the opposing side. But, much like some of Michael Moore's documentary work, the bringing of the case against a giant corporation is a titanic feat, and I found myself riveted.

Cowperthwaite focuses on orca whale named Tilikum's captivity and the whale's connection to three different fatalities including a renowned whale trainer. Some of the footage is cobbled together from security cameras at SeaWorld; other footage is taken from audience members at shows where whale behavior becomes erratic.  It is unsettling to see some of the behavior: shocking, surprising, and very scary. When juxtaposed against the company's commercials of floating whales and smiles, the aggressive behavior and bloody scrapes become even more upsetting.

The film raises troubling questions, but the closest it ever gets to a target are some SeaWorld executives walking out of court.  One scientist posits that the whale brain has an even bigger emotional core than the human brain, and that emotional connectivity makes captivity and separation from family even more traumatic. It is impossible not to be sympathetic to the whales, scraped and confined in small cages, starved to perform in daily shows for audiences, and the film shows the folded over fin as a symbol of a captive whale (something that never happens in the wild).  It is impossible not to be sympathetic for former trainers, ashamed of their past behaviors, riddled with guilt for mistreatment of these magnificent creatures. It is impossible not to fully believe that a corporation consumed with profit would neglect its whales and its trainers.  What takes Blackfish to the next level for me is a decision later in the film to show how Tilikum's sperm has been used to impregnate many other captive whales, possibly spreading the reach of this emotionally damaged animal.  And SeaWorld at the same time has that same capability: their training has led to incidents in less well-known locations and facilities. There are questions of responsibility and ownership haunting this film, and the ending seems to posit that the only way to enjoy a whale should be from a boat in the ocean.  Is Blackfish the logical extension of what happens when for-profit corporations own a piece of the natural world?

I love visiting the Houston Zoo, a zoo that I believe has a good track record of care with its animals.  The cages seem clean, the outdoor facilities spacious, and I have enjoyed taking my son there.  Where is the line between appreciation for nature and exploitation of it?  Both SeaWorld and the Houston Zoo charge for admission.  Is the difference that SeaWorld trains its whales to perform unnatural tricks for the benefits of a human audience?  The Zoo isn't having trainers ride on the backs of its animals.  In a digital age where documentaries and websites can take us as close as can be to animals in the wild, what is the benefit from being splashed by a whale, seeing a giraffe up close, or watching an elephant be fed?  There is something breathtaking about that transaction: seeing an animal up close.  Should there be different expectations for keeping land animals captive versus marine life?  I find myself asking way more questions in this review than I normally do.  I don't have the answers.  I appreciate Blackfish for pushing my thinking and provoking me, but I also do not know if its ideas regarding 2014 solutions to this problem go deep enough.  Their notion of ending whale captivity and shutting down SeaWorld might seem as shallow as one of the pools they lambaste in their film.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Day In The Life: All Roads Lead To Fruitvale Station

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station

Director: Ryan Coogler

Reviewed: 16 February 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

A funny thing about life is that sometimes cliches uttered have the sting of truth: "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." An optimist considers that phrase and believes in the endless human capacity for self-reinvention: we can alter the course of our own destinies. No matter who we have disappointed and let down, a new day brings with it new hope that we can free ourselves of the past and start anew. A fresh start is what the troubled protagonist of Ryan Coogler's bold new film Fruitvale Station desires. Coogler shows a day in the life of young Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an Oakland man who loves his daughter Tatiana (Ariana O'Neal), prepares for his mother Wanda's birthday (Octavia Spencer), fights to get his old job back, wrestles with his drug dealing past and time spent in prison, considers serious commitment with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and carves his own path through the world of New Year's Eve 2008. To say anything more about the film would not be appropriate; its surprises and turns make the omnipresent trains in the background deeply resonant, and to know the film's destination is to deeply imbue all that comes before with gravity. Anyone knowing little of Oscar's story is jolted right away from the film's opening sequence captured on a cell phone camera.

Besides crafting a deeply emotional film, one that depicts the pain and joy of family up close and personal, Coogler has done something else. He's elicited a marvelous performance from Michael B. Jordan, known previously to me from The Wire, capturing Oscar's rage, kindness, ability to switch from one mode to another, and his complex heart. To play Oscar as one-note would be a mistake. As Whitman said, we "contain multitudes," and Oscar's desire to change his life may remain just that: a desire. But desire is important.  Sometimes all of our actions don't make sense when put next to each other.  Jordan carries the film on his back with Coogler's camera often providing over-the-shoulder shots of Oscar walking and driving and thinking. Octavia Spencer is no less spectacular as Wanda, Oscar's fiercely loving mother, and her work here proves that she is an actress to always watch. There are troubling developments in the film that linger: Oscar's angry hand placed on his grocery store boss as he demands his old job, a near-violent interaction in a prison visiting room with far-reaching implications, and the stains of an injured dog's blood on Oscar's white t-shirt as he carries it out of the road.  Fruitvale Station's title, which is essentially its ending point, is emotional and unforgettable in its awfulness.

Violence arrives on the front pages of our newspapers everyday, and its effects ravage communities, families, and individuals. Coogler's film offers few answers to our national epidemic of violence, but in its close, dignified look at a complex person struggling to achieve agency, he has crafted one of the best films of the year, a film where the sight of a family uniting for a birthday dinner brought tears to my eyes just as much as the film's devastating conclusion.  Fruitvale Station is a film wrongly ignored by the Academy Awards that demands to be seen and felt.  There are no easy answers, though.