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Column Fri Jan 06 2012
In the Land of Blood and Honey
I'll say one thing for Angelina Jolie, when she selected the subject of her writing-directing debut, she didn't pull any punches in selecting the unspeakably brutal subject of the Bosnian War of the 1990s, which forever changed the face of the Balkan region, due in large part to rape being used by the Bosnian Serb Army as a weapon of female submission. Say what you will about the depiction of rape in any film, but Jolie does not flinch when it comes to not only showing it but also to making it painfully clear that any time a man and a woman are in the same room together at any point in this film, the threat of rape is in the room with them. It makes for a sickening but highly effective film-watching experience.
In the Land of Blood and Honey actually begins as a story of new love in pre-war Bosnia, in this case between Serb Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a beautiful Muslim artist, who meet in a club which is subsequently bombed while their seduction is in full swing. Months later, after the ethnic conflict has begun, they meet again after Ajla is rounded up with other women and held captive, essentially as sex slaves for the Serbian soldiers. When Danijel spots her, he immediately lets it be known that she belongs to him. He is the commanding officer and the son of an important general (Rade Serbedszija), so his underlings obey him assuming he wants to only have sex with her. In fact, he protects her, they talk, and he allows her to draw and paint in private. Because of who he is, she is extremely distrustful of him, but eventually she breaks down, and the two have something approximating a relationship, albeit a secret one.
If the whole story seems a tad bit creepy, that's because it is. In the Land of Blood and Honey is a perplexing tale in which we're never quite sure who to empathize with. Of course, we feel for the women being brutalized by the Serbs, but they are almost pushed to the side once this love affair is rekindled. I wanted to identify on some level with Ajla, who really has no choice but to submit to this usually kind man for survival's sake. I think Jolie even wants us to feel for Danijel, who is put in an impossible situation and does his best to protect this woman he cares about. But I felt little doubt that he would have sacrificed her in a heartbeat if it meant not getting caught. But perhaps this shady morality is part of what makes this movie compelling. I actually enjoyed feeling conflicted, and for better or worse, this is a film that one can never accuse of being boring or sentimental.
But other than an authentic history lesson, I'm not exactly sure what we're supposed to learn or take away from In the Land of Blood and Honey. There are vague condemnations of the outside world refusing to intervene, but the United Nations failing to act on behalf of humanitarian needs is nothing new. And by focusing on this single relationship, I think Jolie loses the opportunity to give a true sense of the scope of these atrocities.
There's a scene near the beginning of the film where a woman is pulled out of a lineup of women shortly after they arrive in the building where they are being held. With barely a change of expression, her captor rips her clothes off and rapes her on a table in front of all the other women, who avert their eyes as quickly as they can but can still hear the woman's crying and screams. It's a shocking moment that will forever be burned in my brain, but the emotional and dramatic weight of the scene is never equalled again in the movie, nor does Jolie capitalize on the stark reality she has just forced us to face. I'm not sure I can recommend the film to everyone; it's simply too harsh for even the strongest of us. But there is no denying the Jolie is a fearless filmmaker who with pure guts makes up for what she may lack in cinematic sophistication. I think she'll get better behind the camera if she continues to direct, and In the Land of Blood and Honey does what it sets out to accomplish, even if what it accomplishes is extremely difficult to witness.
The thought that kept racing through my head as I watched this week's best release, the Sundance award winner Pariah, was that everything about it felt 100 percent authentic. If there is, in fact, a Brooklyn scene made up of black teenage lesbians (in and out of the closet), it probably closely resembles the one portrayed in writer-director Dee Rees' stunning work, based on her short film of the same name. And while the filmmakers' portrayal of young Alike's life around her gay and straight friends and family members is key to the film's success as high drama, the force that pulls it all together is the performance of newcomer Adepero Oduyeas, playing a character who lives two very distinct and separate lives that inevitably come crashing into each other with unexpected and heartbreaking results.
Alike (pronounced "uh-LEE-kay") lives in the Fort Greene neighborhood with her bratty younger sister and her overbearing parents, Arthur and Audrey (Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans, yes of that Wayans family), who pressure their oldest to dress better, wear more makeup, and meet some nice boys. Meanwhile, she has a daily ritual that includes leaving her home dressed to get her parents' approval and changing clothes that make her look like a hardened hip-hop gangsta. The way Alike and her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), a shot-out-of-the-closet-with-a-canon lesbian who hits on women like the player she was born to be, is undeniably believable material. Laura is one of the greatest characters I've seen in any movie in a long time, and she encourages Alike to find a lady friend of her own, which appears to be happening with new friend Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of one of Alike's mother's work friends.
It should come as no surprise that Alike's parents are in a great deal of denial about their daughter's sexuality, despite sign after sign that she practically pins to her bedroom door. Pariah deals with so many issues at once, but it never feels cluttered or false. Remember: "authenticity" seems to be director Rees' mission statement. Alike's first attempt at dating does not go as planned, her parents' reaction when they finally face the truth is unexpected, and the list goes on and on in a series of often painful episodes. I don't mean to paint Pariah as a total downer (but with that title, I can't blame you if you do). There's some great humor, insight and soul in the piece that only add gorgeous layers to this gritty experience. Above all other things, the film is infused with hope in the face of rejection and a nearly broken spirit. I felt energized by Pariah in a way that few films ever quite do (although most of the ones of late seem to be small films telling small stories). Seek this one out, and see how it stacks up against your own thoughts on the issues raised here.
I think the last film by the great Japanese actor-writer-director Takeshi Kitano that I actually liked was his telling of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, although the man has made quite a name for himself creating movies about the Japanese underworld that feature almost experimental filmmaking and a great deal of exposition punctuated by shocking and sudden bursts of violence. As an actor (he performs under the alias Beat Takeshi), he is stone-faced and usually quiet, but when he explodes in fits of anger (often accompanied by the aforementioned violence), it usually makes me laugh because it's so unexpected.
His latest work, Outrage, is a return to both form and subject matter: the yakuza. The actual plot of this movie is nearly impossible to follow (I think deliberately so), with a seemingly endless number of clans and gangsters vying for power, seeking revenge for previous wrongdoings, and just cutting people up because they piss somebody off. It's awesome with two helpings of blood. Two-bit thugs are practically tripping over each other to kill or maim somebody to gain the favor of their respective clan heads, and in the middle of it is Otomo (Kitano), a higher-up soldier who just wants things to settle down so business can run without trouble. But this is a new age for yakuza, in which success in legitimate business is as or more important than the previous generation's illicit work.
And even if it sounds like it might turn routine after a while, Outrage stays fresh and fun thanks to some ridiculously original and graphic kills, followed by meetings and truces, followed by more slaughtery fun, following by allegiances and deals, followed by slashing and shooting and stabbing. Hopefully, you're picking up on the pattern here. The film is ruthless, often ugly, but always captivating and (to my tastes) so damn entertaining, thanks in large part to Kitano's deep dark sense of humor about the nature of criminals or the almost privative ways they handle their business and disputes. I don't get a sense he admires these men at all, but that makes watching them all the more interesting. If you aren't a fan of weirdly paced movies, you may find it troubling to hang on to Outrage. Otherwise, you'll likely dig this bizarre spin on a classic story. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Remember Oliver Stone's film W., which was released while its subject, President George W. Bush was still in office? The Conquest is a better and far more probing work than W., as it tackles France's current President Nicols Sarkozy (elected in 2007) and his five-year rise through the ranks of power, using paths crooked and straight. What's interesting about director Xavier Durringer's take on Sarkozy's story is that he makes it clear that not everything in this film is real; some of it is flat-out made up to make the story more interesting, which it does. He even casts an actor (Denis Podalydes) who doesn't particularly look like the diminutive leader, who spent his career outthinking the opposition and knowing exactly what the public would respond to.
The Conquest is a film that succeeds in making politics feel alive, electric, and actively devious in a way that, for example, The Ides of March never quite captured. Sarkozy's enemies are wonderfully drawn, buttoned-down, over-privileged, career politicians who think they can squash him. But no sooner do they swear "The Energizer Bunny" (Sarkozy's nickname) will never advance, there he goes right past them. The film shows us how some of his more intelligent enemies anticipated the changing tides and sided with him early enough to not get trampled.
The film's greatest strength is in showing the strong bond between Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia (Florence Pernel), who guided and advised him though many a tough spot, but ended up cheating on him with a hired media advisor. Sarkozy is heartbroken but the way he keeps this infidelity from crushing his campaign is magnificent. Again, I have no idea if any of this is true, but it doesn't really matter. By confessing up front that this is partly a work of fiction, director Durringer is free to make the best story he can rather than get held back or bogged down by the facts. If you accept this film as gospel, you have no one to blame but yourself. Focus on the great performances and the way the plot bobs and weaves through the hallowed halls of French politics, which I have never understood; I still don't, but The Conquest still make it seem like fun. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
The Love We Make
This remarkable time capsule of a film does a far superior job of capturing the turbulent emotional aftermath of 9/11 than just about any documentary I've seen on the subject, and what makes that even more remarkable is that 9/11 isn't really even the primary subject of The Love We Make. From directors Bradley Kaplan and the legendary Albert Maysles, this movie chronicles the month or so between the attacks and the all-star benefit event The Concert for New York City, organized in great part by Paul McCartney, who happened to be on the tarmac at JFK Airport ready to take off when the World Trade Center towers were hit; he could see the smoke from his window seat.
This all-access, behind-the-scenes account of the October 2011 show is a fascinating glimpse that goes far beyond simply parading famous faces in glorious black and white before the camera. Far more fascinating is watching the laid-back McCartney stroll down New York streets, wanting to take it all in again, and naturally being accosted by well wishers and autograph hounds. McCartney clearly feels at home pretty much anywhere he goes and can talk to anyone with an ease that a lot of folks in his tax bracket probably don't possess. His rapport with his limo driver is particularly engaging.
In addition to the music rehearsals, we also see McCartney on the publicity circuit, being subjected to interviews by everyone from Mike Wallace to Howard Stern. The Stern interview is particularly fun if only for the greenroom run in McCartney has with Ozzy Osbourne, whose adoration of the former Beatle is unbridled and quite touching. I also love that McCartney doesn't miss an opportunity to introduce various celebrities to Maysles (who also shot much of the film), the man who documented The Beatles' first visit to New York City in 1964.
Rather than simply show us performance after performance from the concert itself, the filmmakers wisely opt to show us McCartney's dressing room, where he watches the event with his band and has a constant stream of dignitaries visit him, including his daughter Stella, Bill Clinton, David Bowie, Elton John, Steve Buscemi and Harrison Ford; McCartney's conversation with one-time Apple Records artist James Taylor is really sweet and revealing as these two old friends reminisce. I sometimes had to keep reminding myself that all of these events were 10 years old, which wasn't hard to do whenever McCartney came into contact with one of the many police officers or fighter fighters with whom he crosses paths frequently in this film.
It nearly impossible not to get caught up in some aspect of this film. It was the more personal encounters that pulled me in. But for some, simply playing "spot the celebrity" backstage at Madison Square Garden as McCartney makes his way to the stage might be the reason to see it. For many in attendance that night, it was the beginning of a long healing process, and Maysles and company capture that reality quite beautifully. The Love We Make is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Jan. 6 at 8pm and Jan. 10 at 6pm.