Monthly Archives: August 2013

Big Brother and Don’t Bother: “Closed Circuit” and “Getaway”

Alfred Hitchcock would have loved today’s surveillance state and the ongoing war against terror, with the endless opportunities for exploring voyeurism, treachery, paranoia, and the predicament of innocent bystanders caught up in conspiracies beyond their control and comprehension. But in lieu of his genius, director John Crowley (“Boy A”) and screenwriter Steven Knight (whose screenplay for David Cronenberg’s 2007 masterpiece “Eastern Promises” was a lot better) and their “Closed Circuit” will have to do. And it looks positively Hitchcockian compared to that third rate video game that passes for a movie, “Getaway.”

Crowley’s fitfully engrossing but mostly routine espionage thriller shows promise at first, opening, as befits the title, with multiplying rows of closed circuit TV screens showing a busy London marketplace. Then there’s a flash and all goes dark. Those of us in Boston a few months after the Marathon bombing can only grit our teeth.

Over a hundred people are killed in the attack, and the authorities have in custody Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a Turkish immigrant whom they believe is the only surviving perpetrator.

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But after Erdogan’s court-appointed defense lawyer commits suicide by jumping off a roof (sure he did; this is a film in which the audience is always at least two moves ahead of the characters on screen), barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) is asked to take his place.

gogo 10 closed bana

One look at Rose’s unshaven, hung-over face, his suit looking like he’s had it on since the night before, and it’s clear he wasn’t picked for his legal-eagleness. As is disclosed through wispy flashbacks and exposition-heavy dialogue, he’s still recovering from a divorce and a messy custody battle for his teenaged son. And making matters worse, who should be his partner in the trial but Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall),

Film Review Closed Circuit

his ex-lover and the “other woman” in his marriage break-up? Well, the film needs a little spice as a diversion from its implausible, predictable plot.

Perhaps in order to mirror the multiple surveillance camera screens of the opening, a motif repeated throughout the film, Crowley favors parallel editing, intercutting bits of two or three or more simultaneous, ongoing events. Unfortunately, the resulting narrative unfolds as randomly as those closed circuit broadcasts. In it Rose and Simmons-Howe ignore not-so-subtle warnings and investigate inconsistencies in the official story.

To no one’s surprise but their own, they discover that nothing is what it seems – though it would appear from the get-go that Jim Broadbent’s bemusedly sinister Attorney General

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isn’t on the up-and-up. The usual suspect, MI-5, Britain’s equivalent of the CIA, is to blame. Cornered, a member of the agency whines, “You want the freedom to attack me but without me you wouldn’t have any freedom at all!”

That old story. A word about MI-5, at least as depicted in this film: what’s wrong with these guys? Maybe after watching Jason Bourne handle battalions of assassins with just his bare hands, a book of matches, and an aerosol can, we’ve gotten spoiled. Yet how is it that these agents can be foiled by a bureaucrat armed with a water glass, and a kid with a hair drier? Are they just incompetent, or too paralyzed by moral fine points to get the job done? Anyone who has watched the BBC TV series “MI-5” would expect better – this film would rank as one of its lesser episodes.

Nonetheless, when it comes to recent films about the inexorable intrusion of Big Brother into our lives, “Closed Circuit” runs circles around “Getaway,” a film that is quite content to run circles around itself. It’s Christmas in Sofia, Bulgaria, a city known apparently for its cheapness as a movie location and, judging from the film, its inept police force. Haggard, washed-up racecar driver Brent Magna (an anagram of “Bran Magnet,” among other things), played by a haggard Ethan Hawke, who will be washed up as a credible actor if he keeps taking on pictures like this one and “The Purge,” returns home from whatever work an American ex-race car driver does in Bulgaria, to find his house ransacked and his wife missing. A phone call from “the Voice” informs him that unless he performs certain dangerous, illegal, and uninspired assignments not only will his wife be killed, but he will keep pestering him with his nagging, hectoring phone calls.

First on the agenda is stealing an armored super muscle car, a Ford Shelby GT500 Super Snake to give credit to the product placement that may be the sole reason for the movie’s existence. This he accomplishes, but as collateral damage he takes on an unwanted passenger, “the Girl” (Selena Gomez).

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She proves to be the backseat driver from hell – the bickering of this pair recalls Hawke’s spats with Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight,”

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except with more property damage, small arms fire, explosions, and panic-stricken Bulgarian Christmas shoppers.

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“The Girl”  screams, asks dumb questions, and offers useless advice as Magna performs the tasks demanded by the Voice, which mostly consist of what seems a repeated, horribly shot and scattergun-edited loop of the same car chase in which Sofia police squad cars crash and roll over like latter-day Keystone Cops.

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Sadly, there is an explanation for this punishing, repetitive chaos. It lies in the identity of the foreign-accented Voice, who sounds a bit like the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis ads (“Stay thirsty, my friend”).

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[SPOILER] Played by Jon Voight, he is apparently that other bête noir of paranoid conspiracy theories, the billionaire tycoon whose cupidity is mixed with a playful bit of sadism. So between the ruthless omniscience of the intelligence community and the inescapable omnipotence of the super-rich, we’re pretty much screwed. I just wish someone would make a decent movie about it.

More Murderers Among Us

DSC_0271 copyDocumentary filmmakers must be ever vigilant lest their movies get kidnapped by their subjects. It’s not a question of whether the filmmaker and the subjects don’t have similar goals; they might or might not. But even the most naturally empathetic documentary director has to ward off the seductive charms of a subject who implicitly offers to exchange access in exchange for uniformity of perspective. Complicating the matter, some subjects don’t want what is conventionally regarded as sympathy. They might want the audience to fear them or even be repulsed by them. It’s the games people play.

Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s 1997 post-facto promo of a Woody Allen musical tour, is a case in point. Although Kopple had proven her ability to look at her subjects with two eyes – one admiring, one skeptical – in American Dream (1990), she got all dewy-eyed over Allen and sympatico with his apologists. The movie was a vessel for Allen’s narcissism.

With The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer pulls a double-dare on his subjects, Indonesian gangsters and militia members who led death squads in the mid-1960s. He offers to turn the movie over to them, to make the movie they’d like to see made about themselves. He provides some historical background, includes present-day documentary footage, but mostly shows the retired mass murderers plotting, rehearsing, and staging their feature film.

As cut, The Act of Killing focuses on Anwar Congo who, before 1965, was a scalper and low-ranking gangster of vague description. Then the Indonesian government, led by President Sukarno, was overthrown in a U.S.-backed military coup led by General Suharto. The coup leaders used private militias and criminal gangs to carry out a massive number of massacres, ultimately leading to the death of well over a million civilians, including men, women, children, infants and the elderly. The aim of the coup was to eliminate communist influence within the government; the aim of the massacres was to kill all the communists, with the term broadly defined to include anyone with liberal leanings, union affiliation, or a teacher’s credential, and their families. An entire village could be wiped out just by an unproven allegation of communist “sympathies.” In the United States, the press coverage played down the massacres, instead praising the new rulers for keeping the Indonesian domino from falling.

A film noir reenactment scene from Drafthouse Film's documentary, The Act Of KillingAnwar Congo led a death squad and according to someone in the film meaning to praise him, personally killed a thousand people. Congo doesn’t propose a personal death count of his own, but he does demonstrate a strangulation technique he personally developed to speed up his kill rate.

There are other killers in the movie, including an old gangster buddy of Anwar’s and the head of a still-popular militia. The culture at large has done more than protect these people; it has lauded them. In one brain-blowing sequence, Anwar appears on a local TV talk show where the smiling young host talks about his murders as if they were the recipes of the week.

It’s Anwar’s movie that is at the heart of The Act of Killing. A stop and start affair thanks to Anwar’s indecision over both the appropriateness and liveliness of certain scenes, the movie is loaded with the kind of kitsch that seems endemic to the totalitarian mind. In fact, both Anwar’s movie and the “real” movie begin and end with a musical sequence that promises comedy to begin with and then ends with devastating irony.

But the largest pay-off comes when you pay close attention to the way Anwar structures his own movies. When he’s alone with the movie crew, revisiting some of the scenes of his many crimes, he appears disturbed, talking about ghosts and guilt and even vomiting in apparent self-revulsion. But when he’s directing himself in scenes which feature his supporters and old comrades he is not exactly boastful, but he does allow himself to bask, apparently modestly, in their praise for his barbarism.

This is where Oppenheimer’s brilliance makes its mark. Plenty of filmmakers have interviewed and/or followed murderous sociopaths, but I can’t think of any who have revealed sociopathy at work.

Preparing for a reenactment scene from Drafthouse Film's documentary, The Act Of KillingAt times, it’s easy – crushingly easy – to see. Anwar’s recreations of massacres involve the impressment of locals as cinematic victims, especially women and children. But the horror of brutalism is not past. Although they naturally don’t measure up to the original crimes, these reenactments still terrify those forced to impersonate the raped, mutilated, and dead. You can see women struggle to keep their mounting panic under control; worst of all, you can see children break out into nearly hysterical crying. When Anwar goes over to calm the children after the scenes are finished, what you are witnessing is not true compassion, but the exercise of power, they private gloating of a killer pleased to see his talent for terrifying is still intact.

Those scenes where Anwar shows apparent regrets are equally troubling. Anwar isn’t overtaken by genuine grief. He is doing what deadly sociopaths do all too well: He’s mirroring, discerning what his more human audience expects to see and delivering it to him. Like his mad brethren, he is copying what we’d consider “normal” affects. Paradoxically, when he’s at his most pathetic, he’s revealing his most deadly side.

So An Act of Killing isn’t a record of a killer who had outlived his time. It’s a warning that monsters still live among us.

Upwardly mobile

 gogo 10 Matt-Damon-Elysium-Movie-Wallpaper

Remember the 99%? Hollywood does, sort of. Two very different studio releases – “Elysium” (which opens today) and “Paranoia” (opens  August  16) – revisit the oh-so-2011 issue of economic and political inequality, and explore the possibility of returning power to the people..

But first of all, what is it with these big-name, presumably fully-coiffed actors playing it bald in their latest movies? Harrison Ford in “Paranoia”

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and Matt Damon in “Elysium”

 gogo 10 bald damon

both sport the skin-head look. Just wondering, but in addition to this superficial similarity (or is it so superficial?), the two films have a lot in common.

In the tradition of movie dystopias going back to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) and even H.G. Wells’s novel “The Time Machine” (1895) – or, more recently, the ambitious but silly 2012 allegory “Upside Down” – the world in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” has taken the upstairs/downstairs arrangement to extremes.

In the year 2154, the planet has gone to pot, poisoned by pollution, wracked by crime, poverty and disease, and monitored by a brutal police force of Robocop-like automata.

But if you’re one of the lucky few to be a citizen of the title space station, an orbiting Garden of Eden featuring unlimited luxury, eternal youth, with piped-in classical Muzak and unflattering, monotone pant suits,

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who cares? But the surface does provide the parasitic Elysium with the raw materials and labor that keeps the good life going, and there’s also the pesky problem of shuttle-borne illegals sneaking in through the tight security, so Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster with an inexplicable, affected, plummy accent) keeps herself busy maintaining draconian order.

Meanwhile, back on earth in a future LA

 gogo 10 mexico city elysium

that makes the city in “Blade Runner” look like Beverly Hills (actually, it’s a CGI-souped-up Mexico City; as is also evident in his “District 9,” if there’s one thing Blomkamp is good at, it’s futuristic grubbiness and squalor), lumpen laborer Max (a bald Matt Damon) is enjoying  the fruits of over a century of government deregulation and is working in a factory under subhuman conditions. In an ironic touch, he works at an assembly line building the same robotic police robots that had broken his arm in a preceding scene. But an accident irradiates hum lethally, and he’s told he has six days to live, is given some pills, and is sent home.

Now one of the big draws of Elysium is that citizens have access to a device that can heal everything (it looks like a tanning bed); the place combines Obamacare with the miracle cures of Lourdes. So in order to save his life, Max must somehow gain entry into Elysium and get into one of the healing machines. This involves working with the quasi-revolutionary human trafficker Spider (a hyped-up Wagner Morra) who has him fitted with a mechanical exo-skeleton that combines the power of Iron Man’s armor with the excruciatingly application suffered by Wolverine for his adamantium implants.

It turns out a bad guy has the same outfit, and the last hour of the movie consists of the kind of rock-em, sock-em action seen in about a dozen films this summer.

 gogo 10 Elysium-fight

So by the end I don’t think too many people will be pondering the future of class conflict, nor will the filmmakers after raking in an estimated $35 million opening weekend box office.

A more down-to-earth version of the same scenario, “Paranoia,” adapted by Robert Luketic from Joseph Finder’s 2004 novel, investigates solutions to economic disparity that are less drastic than crashing space shuttles into utopian real estate or blowing people to smithereens (another of Blomkamp’s talents – graphic displays of the effect explosives have on the human body).

At an Apple-like corporation, the loathsome mogul Nicholas Wyatt (Gary Oldman at his malice-oozing best) cans a bunch of 20-something  employees after Adam Cassidy (Liam Helmsworth), their spokesperson, gets mouthy at a pitch session. Pissed off that his generation has been disenfranchise dfrom the American Dream by a bunch of old fogies , Adam does something indiscreet, gets caught, and is extorted by Wyatt into infiltrating his rival Jock Goddard’s (a bald Harrison Ford) company and stealing their secrets.

So instead of donning a pumped up  exoskeleton and taking a shuttle to the promised land, Adam puts on an Armani power suit and drives a Porsche, infiltrates the inner circle of power, gets a taste of it, and faces some tough moral – and political – choices while sampling fine wine and the charms of his thoroughbred co-worker, Emma Jennings (Amber Heard). 

gogo 10 par girl

Among those films that “Paranoia” probably will be compared to (in addition to “Elysium,” though I think that I am, so far, alone in that). Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) offers some of the more interesting parallels. Indeed, when I recently interviewed Finder, the author of the book, he said that he had deliberately imitated elements of that film, but with key changes.

In particular, the father: in “Wall Street” the aspiring financial buccaneer played by Charlie Sheen has a broken-down working class dad (played by Martin Sheen) who is a font of wisdom and moral clarity. In Finder’s book, however, Adam’s broken down working class father is a total prick, an abusive monster dying of emphysema. You want to hand Adam a pillow and say, “Do it quickly.”

But in the movie, dad is again the font of wisdom, advising Adam about the right thing to do, and let’s say it doesn’t involve armed rebellion against the oppressive ruling class.

Which brings up another difference between the book and the movie, a change that may be attributed to the economic turmoil of the years since the book’s publication in 2004, in particular the financial meltdown and the abortive Occupy movement. Finder’s Adam is a cynical loner out to help himself. In the movie, though, he represents a generation of young people who want access to the same rewards of the system as their stingy elders. In other words, the system is fine, as long as we get included in it, too.

That’s my take, anyway. I’m still working on what the deal is with the bald guys.

–Peter Keough

Inner and Outer Space

There’s a subset of sci-fi movies whose setting is a spaceship in deep space and whose cast of characters begins small and gets smaller. They include John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972) and, perhaps in a stretch, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).

Europa Report, directed by Sebastian Cordero, is an intelligent addition to the list, particularly due to its additional dynamic, that of the group under psychological pressure, pressure that will force the group to cohere or disintegrate.

Briefly, the plot, which is told retrospectively, is about a months-long expedition to one of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Because of the possible presence of water, the moon is considered a likely home to cellular life and so a small crew of scientists and pilots have been sent out to take samples. This physically enclosed group have to endure the inevitable friction of cashing personalities, lethal accidents and, once they get to Europa, strange and deadly, if apparently primitive, life forms.

Cordero delivers all the necessaries: The stark contrast of space’s enormousness and its consequent physical and psychological claustrophobia; a shooting style which, again and again, creates a palpable reality of emotional stress and bonding; and a moody lighting scheme that manages to combine dramatic needs with plausible ambient light sources.

Europa Report is in sum a good movie, intriguing and intelligent. Fewer and fewer of those these days.

–Henry Sheehan