Was the Holocaust the worst thing that humanity has ever allowed to happen? I wish that were the case but in the grand scheme of human endeavors the Holocaust might not have been the exception that we like to think it is. Man’s inhumanity towards man has in fact been a constant though human history, but what makes the Holocaust so exceptional is just how pointless it was. When the perpetrators of the Spanish inquisition tortured and murdered people they at least did it out of some deluded notion that they were saving their victim’s souls and when the native populations were massacred across the Americas that murder at least advanced someone’s self-interest if nothing else, but the Holocaust by seemed to be entirely the result of pointless hatred. If there’s any good that’s come out of the Holocaust it’s that it is one of the few calamities in history that has been allowed to be told from the perspective of the victims rather than the oppressors. It’s also worth noting that unlike most of the human tragedies that came before it, the Holocaust happened after the invention of cinema and pretty much since Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary Night and Fog filmmakers have been trying to find the right way to use their art in order to express what the Holocaust was and what it said about the human condition. It’s become a more common subject in recent year’s but it remains an extremely sensitive subject that filmmakers cannot take on lightly.
The latest film to make a statement about the Holocaust is from a young Hungarian director named László Nemes. Unlike films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, which were set on the periphery of the Holocaust and focused on characters who managed to avoid the camps, Son of Saul is set in Aushwitz and focuses on a man who bore witness to the worst of what went on there. Saul (Géza Röhrig) was a member of the Sonderkommando, who were Jews that the Nazis essentially made into trustees at the camp. These Sonderkommandos were essentially slaves who were forced by the Nazis to help corral other Jews into the gas chambers and then clean up afterwards before later becoming victims themselves. As the film begins Saul is performing this grim duty when he encounters among the slain a child who he believes to be his lost son. The rest of the film consists of Saul desperately trying to find a way to give this child a proper burial according to Jewish tradition rather than allow him to be incinerated.
This actually isn’t the first movie to focus on the Sonderkommando unit at Aushwitz. The film actually covers some of the same historical events and even characters as Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 film The Grey Zone, but depicts it in a completely different way. That earlier film was certainly a tough unflinching movie, but it was ultimately a fairly conventionally made retelling of history. The camerawork was ordinary (it was based on a stage play, which is telling), its cast was made up of recognizable American film actors like David Arquette and Steve Buscemi and its treatment of the horrors of Aushwitz took the form of a sort of clinically unflinching staredown. Son of Saul is by contrast much more expressionistic but also far from unflinching. The film follows Saul 100% of the time and when I say it follows him I mean that almost literally. The camera is almost always over Saul’s shoulder or behind his back or generally within a few feet of his person, a bit like what Dardenne Brothers did with their film Rosetta. This gives the audience a close bond with the protagonist while also heightening his desperation and give you a better idea of what it meant to live these atrocities rather than merely witness them. Additionally, this choice allows Nemes to look away from some of the worst of what happened at Aushwitz when appropriate. A lot of the really nasty stuff is just out of frame or out of focus, not in a way that feels gimmicky or timid, but in a way that feels both organic and sensitive.
Son of Saul is different from most movies. There is a story to it, but that’s not really the main point of the main objective. Instead this is a film that operates more as a piece of visual art rather than narrative art. “It looks like a painting in motion” is a compliment that is often extended to movies that look particularly beautiful, and this isn’t a movie that I would call “beautiful” exactly given the subject matter, but there is something painting-like in the way that the film is primarily trying to make a visual statement about something and to some extent leave it up to the viewer to draw conclusions. At the very least it’s very different from movies like Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful both in form and intent. This is not a movie that wants its audience to cry and it doesn’t exist to teach history to the ignorant. This is decidedly not going to be a movie that everyone is going to want to experience, but it’s taking the cinema to some important places and doing some amazing things. I have no idea how László Nemes plans to follow this up.
**** out of Four
I’m not sure how Charlie Kaufman gets away with being Charlie Kaufman. If ever there was someone who wasn’t supposed to be able to function in Hollywood it’s him and yet here he is making extremely quirky movies in completely uncompromising ways and with moderately large budgets to boot. That Hollywood lets this guy make movies at all is amazing, the catch is that they don’t necessarily let him make them all that often, at least not recently. As a screenwriter Kaufman was working fairly steadily from 1999 through 2004 but things slowed down when he decided that going forward he would direct his own movies rather than allowing Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry bring his screenplays to the screen. Kaufman made his directorial debut with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, a very strange and challenging film even by Kaufman’s standards which made very little money at the box office and mostly baffled a decent number of critics. It’s taken a good seven years for Kaufman to make another movie after that and he’s returned in a format we probably shouldn’t be too surprised by in retrospect: stop-motion animation.
The film begins with a British ex-patriot named Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) landing in Cincinnati, where he will be giving a motivational speech the next day. Stone is a somewhat famous personality in the customer service self-improvement circuit, which is ironic because the guy’s personal life is kind of a mess. Eventually he makes his way to an expensive hotel and as soon as he makes himself comfortable in his room he immediately hits up the mini-bar. Eventually in his tipsy loneliness he decides to call up an old girlfriend who apparently lives in town, but shortly after meeting her he is rejected. Shortly thereafter he meets a couple of women at the hotel who are familiar with his self-help books and are somewhat starstruck. Soon he strikes up a rapport with one of them named Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and it’s unclear what this will lead to as the night develops.
The odd thing about Anomalisa is that if you look at it on its very basic story level it is both wholly unspectacular and also very tonally different than it comes off in the final film. On the surface this is the story of a lecherous borderline alcoholic married man who uses a business trip to get drunk, try to make a bootycall, and then when that falls through settle on hooking up with a frumpy country bumpkin who’s way too impressed to be in the presence of a “celebrity” like him. The only reason that this doesn’t come off like something out of Bad Lieutenant is because Charlie Kaufman makes a number of interesting execution decisions to show that it’s actually not “like that” and that this characters intentions are, if not pure, at least a little more nuanced than you might think.
The most obvious stylistic choice is of course the decision to make the film using stop motion animation even though the story would seem to be really down to earth and naturalistic on its surface. The “puppets” here are elaborate miniatures that are made to have very realistic human proportions while still clearly being 3D printed plastic things. You can clearly see where the tops and bottoms of the figure’s faces come apart (they have a seam at eye-level which kind of has the unintended consequence of making all the characters look like they’re wearing glasses) but Kaufman, co-director Duke Johnson, and their animation team do seem to render a whole lot of expression on these characters’ faces. As realistic as these puppets are they still put the audience at something of a remove from the action, and that helps them get something of a different view of Stone and his behavior than they would if they were actually watching David Thewlis have a drunken hookup with Jennifer Jason Leigh.
When I went to see Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche New York, I left the movie fascinated but also a bit perplexed. It was a movie that left me not quite sure what to think. I left Anomalisa similarly unsure what to think but for noticeably different reasons. Where that earlier film was this grand decades spanning story of huge ambition and filled with bold symbolism, this film tells an almost audaciously small scale and personal story but uses style rather than screenwriting to modify that story in interesting but not entirely clear way. I feel like there is somethings else going on here that I haven’t quite placed my finger on but which will probably require additional viewings in order to identify. Fortunately this is a movie that probably going to be a lot easier to sit and watch than Synecdoche. It’s short movie told in a fun style and with an interesting dry wit which should make this a fun movie to rewatch and study for deeper meaning, but as of right now, I’m a little hesitant to really fully embrace the film as anything more than a cool little experiment.
***1/2 out of Four
Did Alejandro G. Iñárritu run around as a child stealing future movie critics’ bikes? I’m inclined to think so since there isn’t much else to explain the strange cadre of critics who seem almost incapable of liking anything this guy puts his name on. Critics were pretty solidly on board with his 2000 debut Amores Perros, which was something of a small underdog (no pun intended) and the backlash was still pretty low-key when he made his English-language debut 21 Grams, but a cadre of critics really started to revolt when he made his 2006 film Babel which many dismissed as the second coming of Crash. Make no mistake, a sizable number of critics liked all of these movies, nothing that Iñárritu has ever made has dipped into “rotten” territory on Rottentomatoes, but the people in the backlash are loud and insistent. Few of Iñárritu’s critics question his technical skills, most focus their anger on his sensibilities. The argument is that he’s a “miserablist” who likes to make characters suffer and then wallow in their anguish and I can maybe sort of see where that sentiment comes from. I can certainly see why, for example, his 2010 film Biutiful could be seen as being a bit too dour for its own good, but I thought for sure that the Iñárritu haters would eat their words once they got a gander of his 2014 film Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film which channeled his usual intensity into a rip-roaring satire which was both funny and a great technical showcase. That was certainly his most critically acclaimed film and even went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and yet there still seemed to be a notable cadre of critics who were less than grateful for the creative and exciting film they were just handed and declared that they not only disliked but outright hated the movie. Haters gonna hate I guess, and it sounds like there are still people out there with knives out for his latest movie, a frontier adventure film called The Revenant.
The film is set in Montana and the Dakotas circa 1823, about twenty years after the Louisiana Purchase and before the period typically associated with the “wild west.” The film begins as an American fur trapping party being led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is attacked by Arikara Indians. The ensuing battle kills a sizable portion of the hunters and the survivors soon find themselves on the run and forced to hid most of the valuable furs they managed to save. Their guide, a mountain man named Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is accompanied by his half-Indian son named Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), is soon leading them through the forest. It looks like they’re going to make it when suddenly Glass stumbles upon a giant grizzly bear who believes him to be a threat to her cubs and he is suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of a mauling. Glass survives this encounter but is seriously injured and it soon becomes clear that the remaining trappers cannot carry him all the way on a stretcher so the Captain offers extra money to two volunteers to stay behind to see if Glass recovers or dies. The two who offer to stay behind are a young recruit named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and a grizzled veteran named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and while Jim’s intentions appear to be pure it soon becomes clear the Fitzgerald is only doing it for a quick buck and when he decides to betray Glass he’s left having to fend for himself and also seek his revenge.
If I have one major complaint about The Revenant it’s probably that the characters in it generally lack complexity. Captain Andrew Henry and Jim Bridger are both unambiguously noble characters while Fitzgerald borders on being cartoonishly evil. The film does a fairly credible job of explaining the financial stakes that lead Fitzgerald do what he does but you can’t help but think the guy is a bad seed the second you see him and you instantly wonder why anyone else in the hunting party is willing to trust him for a second and the movie could have done a lot more to sympathize with the somewhat legitimate concerns that might have led him down the path he goes. If there’s ambiguity about any character here it’s probably our main protagonist in part because he’s driven by both an admirable will to survive as well as an unhealthy if understandable thirst for revenge. Di Caprio has been getting a lot of acclaim for his acting in this movie and while he’s clearly dedicated to his work here and gives a great physical performance I don’t think his transformation was quite perfect. As grizzled as Di Caprio looks, to me he still sounds like he has the voice of a 21st century millionaire, especially when compared to Tom Hardy’s dedicated rasp.
It is best not to get too wrapped up in the themes of revenge and the occasional bits of psychological character study that the film barters in. The Revenant is first and foremost an adventure story and is best viewed as such. That’s the lens through which I viewed it and the lens through which it thrives. It reminded me a lot of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which was another film that was shot like a prestige project and had certain flashes of supernatural import but was at its heart a brutal little action movie about a guy who goes on a trying odyssey of survival and revenge. As a pure action movie the film is really effective. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has always had a certain visceral quality to his filmmaking and Birdman was obviously a technical showcase but this is the first time he’s worked with a 100+ million dollar budget and the first time he’s really tried to make large scale set-pieces. He sets the tone early on with a blazing action scene where the trapping party is attacked by an Indian raiding party. Iñárritu moves his camera with that calculated intensity that the best modern action scenes tend to employ and really gets the view in on the action. There are other cool scenes throughout the film like its climactic knife fight and then of course there’s the film’s central bear mauling scene which is effectively suspenseful even if some of the ursine CGI wasn’t everything it needed to be.
2015 has had an odd surplus of movies like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies that hardly has a thing in them that I’d change and yet they still never really felt like something particularly special despite their seeming perfection. The Revenant is kind of the opposite, there were definitely aspects of the movie that I think are flawed but they really don’t matter because the parts that work are so damn good that they elevate the whole damn thing. I’m inclined to play the “pure cinema” card with this one. Lubezki’s cinematography is so beautiful and the action scenes that Iñárritu has created work so well that I’m inclined to overlook the suspicion in the back of my mind that the film is ultimately just a shallow action movie when you boil it down. Even on that purely visual level there are things that still bug me like the CGI bear, so why did I still love the movie? Maybe there’s just something about the way Iñárritu crafts cinema that appeals to me, even when he was making something as actively unpleasant as Biutiful I couldn’t help but be sucked in by his filmmaking and seeing his take on the action/adventure genre was really cool.
**** out of Four
When we think about foreign movies we rightly or wrongly tend to immediately think of them in terms of their country of origin. This is problematic firstly because not all movies are going to fit into regional trends, secondly because it needlessly “others” movies that may well not be all that different from the domestic product, and finally because a good number of movies can’t be easily categorized as being from a single country and that’s increasingly true this year. Take a movie like Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, which is made by an Italian director but is set in Switzerland and has a predominantly Anglophone cast, and also had a good deal of French funding. The same goes for seemingly American movies like Room, which is set in the United States and has an American cast but was actually a co-production of Ireland and Canada and whose writer and director are both Irish. Then of course you have a film like Mustang, which is set in Turkey and has a Turkish cast, but was funded largely through French and German money and was directed by a woman who was born in Turkey but raised in France. If the film competes for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language film category it will have to do so under the French flag, which in many cases would be a technicality but in this case is perhaps telling. Turkey could have submitted the film themselves but opted not to and I’m suspecting that this is partly because this is not a movie that represents Turkey at its best but also because I feel like this is a movie that has been made with distinctly western values and interests in mind rather than the tastes of Turkish audiences.
The film is set in a remote village in present day (I think its present day anyway) Turkey and focuses on five sisters ranging in age from about ten or so to something like sixteen (played by Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, and İlayda Akdoğan). These girls are living with their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), seemingly because their biological parents have died by means that are never explained and are also seemingly under the care of their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). This grandmother and this uncle are both extremely conservative and believe in some very old-world traditions about the place of women in society. After the girls get involved in what would seem to most eyes like an innocent game with some boys at a beach these parental figures decide that they need to crack down on these girls’ behavior in order to protect their chastity and ensure that they can be married off when the parents see fit. Soon the parents are refusing to let the girls go outside without close supervision and are essentially making them prisoners in their own home.
The most obvious analogue to this movie is of course Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which was also about a group of five sisters living under the domineering eyes of their highly conservative parents and becoming depressed and/or rebellious as they find themselves basically locked inside their homes because their parents want to protect them from the modern world. The parallels are pretty undeniable and if anything Mustang simplifies things by eliminating the device of telling its story from the perspective of a third party. If there is a major difference between the two works it’s that the nutty religious family in Coppola’s movie appear to be fairly isolated in their society, the beliefs of this family seem to be pretty widely accepted within the remote town they live in even if the wider Turkey seems to have moved on from them. Actually, the exact extent of how pervasive conservative beliefs are in these girls life is a little unclear early on. In many ways it seems as if they’ve been living recognizable modern western lives for most of their lives until that’s suddenly cut off when out of nowhere their guardians decide to “crack the whip” and make sure they start behaving like proper ladies, but that doesn’t exactly make sense. I would think that if these parents feel this strongly about raising these girls under such rigid rules they would have been doing that from the beginning.
That Virgin Suicides parallel does bug me, it’s really hard to come out and call something “great” when it so closely resembles another well regarded movie, especially when that other movie has a premise that isn’t terribly common. That having been said, I think I liked Mustang a lot better than Coppola’s movie in a number of ways. This movie just looks really good. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven clearly has a really good eye for film and gives the film a really strong visual style that picks up on the energy and liveliness of its young teenage subjects and she also gets some great naturalistic performances out of these girls who I assume are basically non-actors. The movie has a great way of picking up these little behavioral moments that don’t really add to the plot but really help paint a picture and she also has a way of doing it that doesn’t feel indulgent or ponderous. This movie is accessible and it moves along at a brisk pace. The movie is a win overall, but it’s the kind of promising debut that makes me less excited for the movie that’s in front of me than for what the director will be doing next.
***1/2 out of Four