Red Cliff(11/25/2009)

            Much the way the Indian film industry has kept the musical alive long after Hollywood stopped caring, Chinese filmmakers have been keeping alive the large scale swordplay epics that Hollywood’s abandoned in favor of superhero-fare and movies based on toy-lines.  The Chinese Wuxia genre, characterized by beautifully photographed fight scenes set in ancient China, has been one of the most popular genres of world cinema.  Some of the most popular examples of this genre are Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero and The House of Flying Daggers.  I’ve got to say that I’m a sucker for these movies; they’re action movies that have some real ambition being made in a time when Hollywood action movies seem to be made by people who don’t really seem to take their craft seriously.  I’m not sure if John Woo’s Red Cliff strictly qualifies as a Wuxia movie, but it has all the elements that have made me dig the genre to begin with.

            Set at the end of the Han Dynasty (around 200 C.E.), this film tells the story of the legendary Battle of Red Cliff.  Ostensibly this is about a civil war between the Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), whose taken power through brute force, and a pair of southern warlords named Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen).  The movie opens with Liu Bei trying to defend civilian refugees from the oncoming army of Cao Cao, he’s able to escape but with massive casualties including his own wife.  Knowing that he cannot beat Cao Cao alone, Liu Bei sends his chief strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to convince Sun Quan into an alliance.  Eventually Sun Quan agrees to the alliance and the forces decide to hold fort at the City of Red Cliff and prepare as Cao Caos massive naval fleet slowly approaches.

            There is of course a lot more to this; in fact I didn’t even bring up Tony Leung’s character, Zhou Yu, who’s a warrior who takes part in a lot of the action scenes.  The film is not meant to be a historically accurate take on the battle; it’s more like the recounting of an exaggerated legend.  It also isn’t exactly a complex study of the politics at hand, it’s basically a battle good guys who are really good and bad guys who are really bad.  This is old fashioned storytelling in many ways, which is just sort of something that has to be accepted in order to enjoy the movie.  While this material isn’t exactly Shakespeare, there also isn’t anything about it that’s irritating, I don’t mind an action movie story that exists just to string together action scenes as long as it isn’t actively bad, and the story here is mostly decent.

            What’s really important here are the battle scenes which are some of the best of their kind since Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.  Woo does need to uses some middling CGI for the wide shots of massive armies, which are not really the movie’s fortes, but for a lot of its duration the movie uses real people for its action scenes and during the medium shots the action is very strong.  The fighting is very stylized with warriors able to engage in elaborate combat in the midst of the battlefield.  That said, the fighting is not quite as stylized as it is in some of these movies like Hero, in which the characters are able to engage in extra-super-human moves like bating arrows out of the air with swords and you won’t see much wire-work either.  This is a war movie first and a martial arts film second, there are scenes where great warriors will pair off and fight mano-e-mano, but for the most part this is about fights between large armies. Also, because the Chinese had access to gunpowder in their ancient warfare, some stuff blows up really good towards the end.

            The film was released in two parts in China, and the first part’s release was made to coincide with the 2008 Olympics so as to show the world the country’s power in filmmaking.  In this sense they’ve mostly succeeded, the action and production values in this are every bit as good as anything coming out of Hollywood.  For its international release the film’s two parts have been spliced together into a single film, consequently, more than two hours have been cut from the film.  These cuts are not invisible, there’s an English language voice over at the beginning that sets up the conflict, and captions have been added to help audiences keep the characters straight.  The movie does feel rushed and the cuts may explain the simplicity of some of these characters, but I think the story mostly holds up.  I hope to someday see the two part original version which will inevitably be available on DVD and Blu-Ray, but this is a movie that should be seen at least once in theaters and I understand the problems with bringing the original version to western theaters.  This version will have to do.

            This is the first movie which director John Woo has made in China since he left for Hollywood since his 1992 magnum opus Hard Boiled.  I don’t think Woo’s best Hollywood works are really as different from his Hong Kong movies as some people think they are, in some ways I think he was the victim of the higher standards people seem to have for American action movies than they do for the exotic Asian ones.  Still, his last couple of projects in Hollywood were undeniably poor, and he clearly was never allowed to make anything on this scale by the studio system.  This is a return to form.  I’m not going to call this a perfect movie, and if Hollywood had been making something other than half-assed CGI-fest as of late I might not have been as enthusiastic about this, but the movie delivers everything you’d expect out of it.

***1/2 out of Four

Precious(11/20/2009)

            Lee Daniel’s film Precious is a movie that has been heavily hyped by a number of critical forces since its debut at this year’s Sundance film festival.  In spite of all the good marks the film has been getting, the prospect of actually seeing the damn thing is something I’d been dreading all year.  There were a number of elements to this movie that had me apprehensions, chief among them being the movie’s title, which seems to set the movie up has some kind of kindergarten level self-esteem exercise about how everyone is “special” and “precious.”  Even the film’s producers seem to be embraced by that title as evidenced by the awkward way they’ve been attaching “based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” to the back of it every chance they get.  The bigger force in making me dread this viewing experience is the film’s trailer, which sells the movie as exactly the kind of inspirational sappiness I was afraid it would be.  The fact that Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, two people who are hardly adverse to the saccharine, were attaching their names didn’t boost my confidence either.  My one hope was that the last prestige movie I dreaded this much was Brokeback Mountain, which looked like pure cheese from the trailer featuring the  trademark “I can’t quit you” line, but that movie proved to be a extremely well done and expertly restrained work.  Knowing how bad trailers can make certain movies look when they’re being sold to the public, I held out hope that this was just a case of problematic advertising, that this really was as good as all the buzz would have me believe.  Trust me; I really wanted this to be good, but for the most part this proved to be a sad case of truth in advertising.

            The film centers on Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), who goes by her middle name and who is in a really bad situation.  She’s a sixteen year old living in a squalid Harlem apartment with her mentally and physically abusive mother (Mo’Nique), who gets all her income from welfare. Claireece is illiterate, she gave birth to a mentally disabled child after being raped by her own father, and now she’s pregnant again with another of her father’s children.  So what is the point of focusing on someone who is in this bad of a situation.  If the not-so-subtle naming of its main character, the “inspirational” quote the movie opens on, its tagline (Life is hard. Life is short. Life is painful. Life is rich. Life is….Precious.) and its website URL (weareallprecious.com) are any indication; the hallmark card-like goal of this movie is to prove to its audience that everyone even, if they are in  dire straits, is precious.  This is a message in search of an audience to convince.  Does anyone really think a person is any less “precious” simply because they suffer in life?  I find it rather insulting that the filmmakers feel the need to prove this to the audience to begin with.  What’s worse I don’t think the film even follows its own mantra.

Let’s think about all the problems that the filmmakers have saddled Caireece with.  It obviously isn’t Caireece’s fault that her mother is abusive, her mother is also implicated as the source of Claireece’s problems in school, and her parents are also the cause of her pregnancies either by direct action (in the case of her father) or from failing to prevent the situation (in the case of her mother).  Sapphire and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have basically constructed a character who is completely blameless for the situation she’s in, every one of her problems are without a shadow of a doubt placed squarely on the shoulders of her screwed up family.  This, too me, is the root weakness of this movie. It’s very easy to generate sympathy for someone who’s had all their problems thrust upon them, its simplistic.  Had they decided to create a character that was in a situation like this because they themselves made some bad decisions in life, and then established them as someone who was “precious” it would have made for a movie that was significantly more challenging, provocative, and true to life. 

As such, I found myself significantly more interested in Claireece’s deeply flawed mother than I was in the blameless martyr for whom the film is titled.  But the film isn’t really interested in exploring this mother either, or in adding many nuances to her character.  She’s basically as evil as Claireece is sympathetic.  This mother is pretty much everything that Ronald Reagan had in his head when he coined the term “welfare queen.”  She’s a fat, lazy woman who spends all her days watching game shows except when she occasionally leaves in order to play “the numbers.”  She constantly abuses and discourages Claireece, threatening to beat her whenever she fails to do everything she’s told and actively preventing her from furthering her education.  Later in the movie she proves to be such a moustache twirling villain as to actively insult and toss a baby.  But let’s hold on a second.  I thought everybody was supposed to be precious.  Therefore, shouldn’t that make Claireece’s mother precious too.  I don’t think the content of the movie would support that, it produces a pretty simple dichotomy of the blameless child and the evil mother.  In essence this is a movie that has a great deal of sympathy for people who are born into bad situations, but very little sympathy for those who have created a bad situation for themselves.  This rather conservative message is a fair enough point of view, but I find the film’s endless claims of having a compassionate and non-judgmental world view to be disingenuous.

            Putting all that aside, there are other elements that make this a pretty uncompelling movie going experience, and chief among them is a character named Blu Rain, played by Paula Patton, who is meant to be a thinly disguised version of the movie’s author (get it, sapphire, Blue Rain).  This character is a teacher at an alternative education facility that Claireece is sent to, and this school storyline is easily the most clichéd and sappy element of the whole movie.  This whole subplot basically turns this into one of those horrible movies about saint-like inspirational teachers trying desperately to reach a diverse group of “inner-city” youths.  There is almost nothing that separates the classroom elements here from garbage like Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and Freedom Writers.  I had thought that this ridiculous trope had been shattered once and for all by Ryan Fleck’s excellent 2006 drama Half Nelson, and perhaps by the great fourth season of David Simon’s “The Wire,” both works which have significantly more knowledge of the condition of underprivileged youths than this movie could ever dream of possessing.  The ineptitude of this sub-plot is magnified by Paula Patton’s less than stellar performance which is well below the standard set by the rest of the cast.  When this character says to Caireece: “your daughter loves you, I love you” it’s every bit as TV-movie worthy as the trailer would have you believe. 

            Fortunately, the rest of the acting in this movie is a lot better than the work Patton displays.  In fact I’d probably say that the excellent performances of Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique are damn near the film’s only redeeming qualities.  Sidibe, an unknown, is quite a find and is perfect for her role.  Many have made the mistake of thinking that she was simply an underprivileged young girl that the filmmakers found on the street and essentially cast as herself in the role, but this isn’t really the case, she’s an actress playing a role and she plays it really well.  Mo’Nique is even more of a revelation in her role, like Jamie Foxx before her she’s a comedian who has broken out of the “black comedy” ghetto to prove herself to be a great and forceful actor.  These are both roles that require the two thespians to inhabit very foreign roles which require a whole lot of yelling and crying, the kind of roles that are easy to give awards to, but both Sidibe and Mo’Nique do their jobs effectively and I think it is their work that has primarily tricked a multitude of critics and pundits into thinking this movie is something more than it really is.

            I wish I could say that there was another element that matched the performances of these two actresses, but there really isn’t.  I suppose some of the dialogue was pretty well written, at least outside of the Blu Rain sub-plot, but otherwise I found a lot of the filmmaking here subpar.  Lee Daniels’ direction here seems confused and inconsistent.  On one hand Daniels, whose only previous directing credit is the critically lambasted Shadowboxer, seems to want to give the movie a gritty handheld look to match the material, but he undercuts this style at all points with a variety of visual tricks and devices that are at odds with this.  The movie is filled with montages, scenes where video is superimposed onto walls, obnoxious fantasy sequences that go nowhere and signify almost nothing, and the occasional Arronofsy-esque quick cut montage.  It feels like Daniels is trying to use every crayon in his box of tricks to seeing what sticks rather than simply letting the story play out, and this is all the more problematic simply because a lot of these tricks aren’t even overly well executed. 

There’s one great scene towards the end, a confrontation between Claireece and her mother, in which the two actresses are finally allowed to talk in detail without being interrupted by one of Lee Daniel’s stupid tricks.  It’s probably the only scene in the movie where the mother is given a shred of complexity and the film’s style really accentuates the scene rather than interrupt it.  This is like an isolated scene from a much better movie and if the rest of the material here had been on par with that scene this might have been something great.  Instead this is a major missed opportunity filled with sappy material, a confused message, told by a confused filmmaker that has somehow hypnotized America’s critics into ignoring its numerous flaws.

*1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Girlfriend Experience(11/22/2009)

            The end of 2009 is quickly approaching and in even though we still have an important month of watching ahead of us many are already jumping the gun and making lists of the decades best… everything.  I shudder at just how many of these lists we’re going to have to sort through in the not too distant future, not that my hands are clean of this, I’ve been working on my lists for well over a year in advance.  Anyway, I bring this up because many will be looking back and thinking about the various filmmakers who have defined a decade of cinema, and I cannot imagine a grouping of such filmmakers that won’t include Steven Soderbergh.  If for nothing else Soderbergh must be recognized for just how prolific he is.  In an era where major filmmakers can spend ten years and only make three to four films Soderbergh has made twelve, thirteen if you count Che as two.  Some of these movies were blockbusters (the “Ocean’s” movies), some were serious (Traffic), some were funny (The Informant), some were fantastical (Solaris), some were nostalgic (The Good German), and then there were the ones that were experimental even by Soderberghian standards.  By these I am mainly referring to Full Frontal, Bubble, and this newer one, The Girlfriend Experience.

            The Girlfriend Experience is a film about a woman named Christine (Sasha Grey) who’s recently begun working as a high class prostitute.  The title refers to a particular type of prostitution that Christine specializes in; she will escort her Johns and pretend to be a longtime girlfriend throughout the night.  She’s living with a (real) boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who knows about Christine’s job but seems to be alright with it. 

            As far as story goes, that’s about all there is to tell.  This is a movie where not a lot happens, it’s all about simply taking a peak into this person’s life for a little while.  The movie is set in a very specific time, at the height of the recent financial crisis and before the election of Barrack Obama.  Almost everyone in the movie seems to have this crisis on the back of their mind and they talk about it a lot, only without saying much of anything insightful about it.  As a matter of fact, not many people say much of anything insightful at all in this movie.  All of the dialogue is naturalistic, possibly to a fault, it is very good at capturing with complete reality the way people tend to speak to each other, but that means listening to a lot of dull and banal conversations throughout.

            The conventional wisdom today when making something as aggressively realistic as this is to shoot in a similarly naturalistic, handheld style, on cameras that are almost consumer grade.  But Soderbergh has completely ignored this conventional wisdom here and on his last film Bubble, instead he’s shot both films with some incredibly vivid widescreen cinematography.  I suppose that one of the benefits of being your own cinematographer is that you don’t need to hire a second string DP when your budget is smaller than usual. 

            The film’s star is Sasha Grey who started her career making hardcore pornography.  She is an interesting choice for the role, after all the original plan for this series of experimental films was to find a location and use local non actors to form a story, and it’s not easy to cast an actual hooker.  Grey does work in this film, though I have my doubts as to whether she has much more potential outside of the genre she’s traditionally worked in, this is a non-actor performance through and through.  Chris Santos is good too, but in the same capacity. 

            As has been said in pretty much any review of this movie, this is an experimental work and needs to be viewed as such, if you’re not interested in the experiment this movie has nothing for you.  Sometimes I think critics are a bit too excited to heap praise on experimental works simply because they’re experimental.  Often these movies will have a few interesting things going for them but they won’t really work for me as an actual cinematic viewing experience.  I’ve definitely gotten that feeling from some of Gus Van Sant’s experimental work as of late, I got it from Bubble, and I definitely got it from this film.  I won’t dismiss this, because there are some things to appreciate about it on some intellectual level, but it didn’t really elicited much from me except for a passive interest in some of the aspects of the filmmaking.  This is for Soderbergh devotees only.

**1/2 out of Four

Antichrist(11/13/2009)

            Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and while it did not win the Palme D’or, its screening at that festival will be talked about long after the premier screening of the film that did win (Michael Hanake’s The White Ribbon) has long been forgotten.   Von Trier has long been known as a provocateur but even those familiar with his work must not have known what hit them when, without warning, they were confronted by a film that so suddenly assaulted them with extreme images whose purpose were not entirely clear at first glance.  Polarized reviews and detailed analysis began pouring out and stories of the film’s hostile press conferences in which Lars Von Trier acted as an amused ringmaster added to the mystique of the film.  Some called it misogynistic, some called it deeply spiritual, some called it schlock, others called it profound art.  The whole affair harkened back to an age when film artists like Luis Buñuel and Jean Renoir would deliberately shock their audience to the point where they nearly riot.  As I far away from southern France when this was going on, I could do nothing but read story after story.  I normally avoid plot details to movies before seeing them, but in this case I couldn’t help but read the many spoilers about what it was that had horrified a number of respected critics.  Even though I’m generally not a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, all this hoopla tantalized me to the point where I hungered for the day when this thing would come to my city so I could weigh in on this international debate about a film which, love it or hate, has undeniably sparked more thought than most films ever will.

            The film has only two speaking roles, that of a man and a woman who are played by Willem DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg respectively.  In the film’s prologue, the man and the woman (who are unnamed) are seen making passionate love, unaware that a tragedy is about to occur as their young child walks toward an open window.  The boy falls and dies, plunging the two into a grief that is as intense as the joy they experienced in that opening scene.  In fact intense emotions are a running theme that will be taken to an absurd extreme in the film’s climax.  As the woman wallows in pain, the man (who is a therapist) decides that he will psychologically treat the woman himself.  His goal is to discover what it is that the woman fears the most, and this quest leads him to Eden, a forest where the family had once stayed at so that the woman would have time to write her thesis on the subject of Gynocide (the study of witch burning and other such extreme forms of misogyny).  Once they arrive at Eden their relationship becomes a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from passionate lust to deep resentment and other strange things begin to occur; animals like a deer, a raven, and most memorably a fox, begin to appear who behave in ways that are decidedly unnatural and it becomes clear that this woman has a much deeper fear of this forest than the man initially realized.

            Lars Von Trier has been a frustrating filmmaker for me.  On one hand I can appreciate that he is a man capable of presenting his films in ways that are visually innovative, and I also think he’s excellent at directing actors and actresses, but all too often this talent seems wasted on scripts in which characters behave in illogical ways that are contrary to my perception of reality.  Authority figures in his films are moustache twirlingly intolerant, the women in his films are often confused children in need of guidance, and all of this is in service of stories that just don’t make a whole lot of sense.  Most of these are criticisms that could be lobbed against Antichrist, which would lead one to believe that this movie would be torturous to me, but that’s not the case.  In fact, I think this is the best work that Lars Von Trier has ever done.  The film’s extreme nature (symbolic or otherwise) seems to make a lot of the usual Von Trierisms make a lot more sense; these characters inhabit an esoteric realm and this makes the film beholden only to its own internal logic and not to the real world.

            Perhaps one of the root problems with a lot of Von Trier’s previous work was his association with the Dogme 95 movement.  I’m not completely opposed to Dogme, it’s produced some pretty good movies, but I’m not sure it was really the right mode for Von Trier, which I suppose was probably his own conclusion as evidenced by the fact that he’s only ever made one bonified Dogme film his entire career in spite of the fact that he was sort of the movement’s poster-boy.  In fact Antichrist actively goes against all ten of that movement’s famous rules; though most of the camerawork is hand-held, the lush cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle features a look that is heavily filtered and stylized.  Take the first scene for example, which is filmed on a set (breaking Dogme rule one), uses non-diegetic opera music (breaking rule two), has non-handheld camera (rule three), is in high contrast black and white (rule four), requires optical work (rule five), ends in a moment of superficial violence (rule six), is in service of what could be called a horror movie (rule eight), is in widescreen (rule nine), and comes after a very large credit belonging to the director (rule ten), oh and arguments could definitely be made that the whole film is temporally and geographically alienated (rule seven). 

So what we have here is a film that employs a degree of stylization unseen in Lars Von Trier’s work for a very long time, it harkens back to his early wunderkind days of films like The Element of Crime or Europa.  But the Lars Von Trier work I’d most readily compare this film to is probably his unfinished project for Danish television called “The Kingdom.”  Like that work, this seems to tell a story against a spiritual/supernatural backdrop the nature of which is hard to really place a finger on, and like that work this is not afraid to provide the viewer with disturbing images that one is not expecting.

Speaking of those disturbing images, they are probably the most polarizing element of the film.  You’ve probably heard about this already, but there is some really extreme violence in this film and if you are someone who’s squeamish about such material, you should probably look elsewhere.  In the film’s defense, though the violence is very graphic and disturbing, there isn’t really a large quantity of it.  The movie’s reputation is earned mainly from two isolated scenes that come pretty late in the film and these shots aren’t much bloodier than the unrated versions of some of the more extreme horror films.  What makes the material here so shocking isn’t necessarily how much is shown so much as the twisted ideas behind what is going on.  The most infamous image (it involves a scissors) is a brief shot that doesn’t have a whole lot of blood, but the idea of the action itself is very disturbing.  In this case I probably benefited from having read spoilers as this allowed me to mentally prepare for what was coming, the images that inhabited my mind from having read about the material proved a lot more disturbing than the actual images ever could have been.  This is a luxury that the Cannes audience did not have, and this probably explains why the film has been better received in subsequent festival screenings. 

The two actors who are in the center of all this chaos, Willem DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, do excellent work.  Gainsbourg has the unenviable task of displaying extreme emotions without going over the top.  When her character begins shouting and screaming it easily could have come off as ridiculous, but Gainsbourg makes it work.  She has a physically taxing role and is clearly putting a lot into her craft.  Dafoe has a slightly less challenging role, but that shouldn’t diminish his accomplishments.  He gives a more subtle performance for a more subtle role, he internalizes more of his emotions and his character can be almost as violent as Gainsbourg’s albeit in a more passive-aggressive way.

The film has so much symbolism and is made in such unconventional ways that it can at times feel like a puzzle demanding the viewer to discover its meaning.  There are a number of art house movies that do this, but what perhaps makes this so special it that it actually works pretty well as a thriller even if you’re not interested in connecting the film’s thematic dots.   I’m a bit hesitant to call this a horror film, because this doesn’t really operate like a “mere” genre film, but it does achieve most of the goals that horror films try to achieve.  It establishes an atmosphere of dread early on, the tension rises steadily throughout and there is a profound sense of evil throughout which must be directly confronted towards the end.  In fact, when looked at as a thriller, the film has a lot in common with The Shining.  Like that Kubrick film, this is set in an isolated area from which escape is difficult, this location is haunted by forces that are never explained and only show themselves in occasionally, and in the ending the forces manipulate one of the family members into trying to kill the other.  Of course the violent images also link the film with the horror genre, but the images which I found more creepy were the mysterious animals which showed up at times as well as the moments in which limbs and bodies come out of the ground to turn the environment into a Bosch-like hellscape.

But to simply say that this works as a thriller is a cop-out, the themes and symbolism here clearly invites close analysis, and I’m not too proud to admit that I’m not going to be able to explain everything on display here after only one sitting.  I’m at a bit of a disadvantage with this one because almost every interpretation of it is either religious or feminist, and those are both disciplines I’ve never had a whole lot of patience for.  I’m going to avoid tackling the feminist/antifeminist material, but I’ll take a stab at a religious interpretation, this will involve spoilers.  The movie itself is a bit of a paradox as its title derives from a character of the book of Revelation (the final book of the bible) while it’s principle location of Eden is derived from the book of Genesis (the first book of the bible).  What’s more Eden is a place you leave, not a place you enter, so perhaps what we’re witnessing is the bible in reverse.  Man and woman are cast into Eden instead of out of it, and rather than being paradise it’s a hell.  As man was created first and woman second, here woman is destroyed second and man first.  So what’s the original sin?  Chaos and murder, and the animals labeled the three beggars are the voice of temptation leading the characters toward it, woman first and then man.  So, what’s the antichrist?  Evidence would seem to suggest that it was the child killed in the first scene, note the positions of his arms as he falls, also the deformity of his feet.  This would make Gainsborg’s character the mother of the antichrist, but what’s the polar opposite of a virgin?  The answer to that might have something to do with the scene with the scissors. 

Is that an airtight theory? Hell no.  In fact that interpretation has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, but I think it touches on one mode of watching the film.  One could probably sit and theorize about it for ages, it’s a bit like Cries and Whispers era Bergman in the way it forces long contemplation in order to find meaning in its stark imagery and bleak subject matter.  It may end up being one of those movies like Mullholland Dr or A Tale of Two Sisters that have people watching them a million times in order to post elaborate theories on the internet.  Whatever.  The meaning of life may or may not be encoded into this thing, but what really matters is that it’s made with the utmost conviction, it’s beautifully crafted, and it’s consistently compelling and thought-provoking.  That’s great cinema whether or not it functions as a definitive statement about the fall of man.

**** out of Four

The Baader-Meinhof Complex(9/20/2009)

            It’s no secret that many people view the Best Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards as a mess.  Between the country by country submission process, the process of selecting a shortlist, and the process of choosing five final films, there are a ton of roadblocks in which snubs can occur.  This was made particularly clear in 2007, when important films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days were ignored in favor of off the radar oddities like Beaufort, Katyń, and 12.  Many also complained about the 2008 lineup, but if you think about it they really stepped up that year.  Among the nominees were the Palm D’or winner The Class, critical favorite and future Criterion-laureate Revanche, the wildly creative animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, and Departures, a film whose victory baffled many but which got solid reviews once people finally got a chance to see it.  Really, that’s what the category’s major problem is, its dealing with movies which few people have actually had a chance to see and which have had no ability to get buzz stateside.  That’s probably the problem that The Baader-Meinhof Complex had when its nomination baffled many.  Had it had the stateside released then which it is now finally getting it might have been less of a shock.

            The film tells the true story of the RAF, that’s not the Royal Air Force, it’s the Red Army Faction; a group of disillusioned youths who turned to violence in an attempt to cause social change in late sixties Germany.  The group could probably be equated to The Weathermen, except that they were more violent and more active than that American group.  In short, these were left wing domestic terrorists who reaped havoc throughout Germany for about a decade, and that’s a topic that needs to be approached carefully. 

            The title refers to RAF members Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), who became the group’s most famous members.  However, the movie does not necessarily focus on either of them and they do not appear to be bilateral leaders of the organization.  Rather, this is an ensemble film about an organization that appears to have been somewhat loosely organized.  Baader is the member who more closely lives up to what one would expect from an RAF member, he’s young, angry and political.  The kind of person who’d normally just wear a Che Guevara T-Shirt but who instead ended up taking arms and emulating him.  Meinhof is a bit more intriguing.  She began her career as a respected left wing journalist, but finally came to sympathize and ultimately sacrifice everything in order to join the group. 

            These young people are raging against a lot of things around them, particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam (for which the United States has been using bases in Germany), the treatment of Palestine by Israel, and the general belief that corporations have been controlling everything.   They come to the conclusion that to do nothing in the face of all this would be as much of a sin as the conformity the previous generation showed in the face of Nazism.  That’s what drove them philosophically, additionally; they were living in a time of worldwide counterculture which is something the film shows very well.  The film has a number of montages (perhaps too many) that really drive home the environment which bread this organization and why so many of the youth in Germany came to sympathize with them.

            The group’s build is rather interesting as there is a fascinating gender equality to the Baader Meinhoff group.  Three of the most important RAF members (Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), and Meinhof), are women and many of them act as aggressively as the men.  Do not expect Baader and Meinhof to be some kind of Bonnie and Clyde style lovers in crime.  This is the late 60s and the group practices free love, a fact that does not amuse their Palestinian colleagues as evidenced by a scene where they went to a terrorist training camp and gained the reputation of being screw-ups among their peers in the terror business. 

            Of course, amidst all the 60s clothing and rock music, one must face the fact that these people were killers.  Perhaps they were idealistic and well intentioned killers, but killers none the less.  That’s what makes this subject matter so challenging; terrorist are probably the least popular people in the world today and with good reason, how do you make these characters sympathetic enough to follow without glorifying them or whitewashing their less savory aspects.  This is perhaps not unlike the challenges posed by making a serious film about gangs and organized crime, but magnified by the political elements.  To deal with this Edel has chosen to make this a straightforward film about historical events told with meticulous detail and research.  Stefan Aust’s book was clearly important to this production for far more than its catchy title, one feels like Edel was interested as much in making an accessible illustrated historical record as he was in telling a cinematic story. 

            The history here is interesting enough for such a treatment, but it’s also the movies Achilles Heel.  The material is never dry, but because this is trying to be so accurate there are developments that go against the nature of film storytelling; important characters emerge in the final act and events occur that seem separate from the main narrative thrust and in general it affair seems a bit unfocused.  One wonders if this would be perfected if Edel had been willing to composite a few characters and simplify elements.  Quentin Tarentino lovingly asserted in the finale of Inglorious Basterds that film is a stronger force than history, and while I certainly am not recommending that The Baader Meinhof Complex needed to take any departures as radical as Tarentino did, I do think Edel probably should have taken his duties as a film maker a little more seriously than his duties as a historian.  Still, the way the film steadfastly presents history in a way that is cinematically compelling if not narratively clan, does make for a very interesting film.

***1/2 out of Four.