REVIEW – In The Fog (2012)

InTheFogFilmJuice have my review of Sergei Loznitsa’s historical war movie In The Fog.

Based on a short story by the renowned Belarusian author Vasil’ Bykaw, In The Fog is a slow, moody and atmospheric exploration of what it was like to be alive during the Nazi invasion of Belarus. The film revolves around two childhood friends who are thrown into conflict when one is sent to execute the other on suspicion of aiding the Nazis and betraying his countrymen. While the film’s glacial pacing may initially help to introduce a note of tension, this tension soon dissipates once the film moves onto a more conventional character study… at which point it collapses into mind-boggling boredom:

While glacial pacing is quite common in European art cinema, the purpose of the long drawn-out pauses and shots of scenery is usually to draw attention to ambiguities and provide the audience with breathing space in which to reflect upon what it is that they have just seen on the screen. The problem with In The Fog is that while it may be littered with awkward pauses and shots of Belarusian forests, the film contains neither the ambiguity nor the complexity that might require these extended periods of contemplation. For example, the film’s opening sequences do a great job of establishing that the railway worker is a calm and noble man but rather than using that character’s flashback to explain or complicate his saintly demeanour, the film simply contents itself with re-iterating the same basic character beats: A man who is calm and noble in a forest is evidently just as calm and just as noble in a German prison cell. Had Loznitsa dared to introduce a note of ambiguity into either his plot or his characters then all of those (admittedly decorative) shots of Belarusian forests would have been welcome, instead they merely feel like padding. Loznitsa’s literal-mindedness is even more evident in the final act when he attempts to step back from his character studies and broaden the film’s themes out into a wider discussion of wartime morality. However, rather than introducing some fresh plot element that might have encouraged the audience to reflect upon the characters in a wider context, Loznitsa simply has his characters sit around in a forest wondering out loud about what their experiences say about the morality of war.

Readers with long memories will doubtless take this review as yet another chapter in the on-going epic known as Jonathan Complains Bitterly About the State of Arthouse film. Previous chapters can be found here, here and here. My problem with In The Fog is the same as my problem with many contemporary art house films: It is a beautiful dolt. It is easy to see that a goodly proportion of European art house directors working today have been deeply influenced by the great art house classics of the 1960s. However, rather than emulating L’Avventura‘s willingness to challenge norms and break rules, they emulate the style: The non-linear narrative, the ambiguous plot points, the extended pauses and thus what was once revolutionary is now little more than pastiche.

REVIEW – Burnt by the Sun 2 (2010)

Burnt_by_the_Sun_2FilmJuice have my review of Nikita Mikhalkov’s five-hour Second World War epic Burnt by the Sun 2.

Burnt by the Sun 2 is one of the most demented films that I have ever come across. Way back in 1994, Mikhalkov co-wrote, co-produced and directed an elegant historical drama named Burnt by the Sun. Set in the run-up to World War 2, the film tells of a complex love triangle comprising an aging hero of the Russian revolution, his beautiful young wife and a concert pianist who spent the revolution on the side of the White Russian aristocracy. Coming relatively soon after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Burnt by the Sun’s nuanced vision of Russian history brought not only considerable critical and commercial success but also the rare accomplishment of winning both an Oscar and a Palme D’Or.

Twenty years later and Mikhalkov has used the international success of Burnt by the Sun to re-invent himself as both a big budget film producer and the man who reportedly leads the institutions of Russian cinema in much the same way as Putin leads the institutions of Russian government. Reportedly one of the most expensive films in the history of Russian cinema, Burnt by the Sun 2 is:

Best described as a five-hour version of Saving Private Ryan directed by a Stalinist Michael Bay. The film opens by taking the complex web of political and personal betrayals described in the original Burnt by the Sun and reducing it down to someone attempting to drown Stalin in an enormous chocolate cake.

The comparison with Bay is quite deliberate as Burnt by the Sun 2 is not only a Russian attempt at making a Big Dumb Summer Blockbuster, it is a damn sight more entertaining than most of the Big Dumb Summer Blockbusters that have graced our screens in the last couple of years.

Oh… and I wasn’t joking about someone trying to drown Stalin in an enormous chocolate cake:

StalinE

StalinD

StalinC

StalinB

StalinA

REVIEW – Zaytoun (2012)

ZaytounVideovista have my review of Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun, an almost impossibly idealistic film about Arab-Israeli relations.

Set during the 1982 Lebanon war, Zaytoun tells of an Israeli fighter pilot who is shot down over a refugee camp. Locked up in a cell, the fighter pilot only frees himself by agreeing to help a Palestinian teenager to return to his family’s land in what is now Israel. Essentially a road movie, the two travelers make their way through a number of tricky encounters growing closer and closer to each other with each new mile. More symbolic vehicles than actual characters, the boy and the fighter pilot seem to represent the two sides of the conflict suggesting that if two fictional characters can make friends then surely the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships should also be able to make friends… yeah.

The real problem with Zaytoun is that while Riklis clearly made a deliberate choice to sacrifice depth of character in return for increased depth of symbolic representation, the fable he weaves around his generic archetypes is so trite and simple-minded that the audience is left with neither a decent set of characters nor a particularly good idea about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, strip away the pretty landscape photography, and the broadly comic secondary characters, and you are left with a film that suggests the Palestinian question could be solved if only both sides could be a little bit nicer to each other.

Another issue I raise in my review is the fact that recent years have seen a number of Israeli films that attempt to deal with the current state of Arab-Israeli relations by projecting the writer and director’s ideas back onto a vision of the 1982 Lebanon war. Aside from the obvious questions of historical accuracy and political cowardice raised by this trend, I am also struck by the fact that films like Zaytoun, Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon all treat the Palestinian and Lebanese as symbolic representations of Israel’s moral character: In Waltz with Bashir, the war of 1982 is treated as a sort of psychotic episode, in Lebanon the war was treated as a crucible of psychological hardship and, in Zaytoun, bopth the Palestinian people and the road to Palestine are treated as psychological stepping stones for an Israeli protagonist. The interesting thing about all of these films is that none of them treat the Palestinians as real people with an existence outside of their presence in the minds of Israeli characters. In fact, one is reminded of Chinua Achebe’s incendiary comments about the depiction of African people in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

The most worrying thing about films like Zaytoun is that they suggest that contemporary middle-class Israelis are falling into the same trap as White Victorian novelists. Rather than treating Palestine as a complex place filled with real and complex people, they reduce it to the state of Universal Other… a place that wandering Israeli soldiers enter at their peril. Zaytoun is clearly an idealistic film but I think it is, in the words of Achebe, ‘bloody racist’.

Like Worms in the Belly of Some Great Beast: Family Values and Crusader Kings II

0.  Video Games as Purveyors of Moral Outrage

There are two main ways in which a work can provoke a moral reaction:

The first is by using the power of narrative to encourage feelings of sympathy for a particular moral view. This didactic form of narrative usually signals its presence through a system of winks and nods designed to make a particular worldview seem far more comfortable and welcoming. For example. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is filled with nostalgic yearning for nobility in an age of encroaching egalitarianism. Waugh’s approval of the past and rejection of the present is evident in the fact that everyone in the past seems to eat, drink, dress and speak far better than anyone in the present.

The second is to embody a set of values so profoundly ugly that audiences feel compelled to react not only against the morality of the work itself but also against real world manifestations of that same more system. For example, Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel features a group of upper class people who attend a dinner party but find it impossible to leave. As the days go by and people begin to starve and die out of what is effectively politeness and fear of being the first person to leave a party, the audience cannot help but react against not only the absurd characters but also the bourgeois morality they so closely cling to.

Video games tend not to be particularly good at presenting arguments or advancing moral perspectives but they are very good indeed at prompting a moral reaction. Indeed, because virtual worlds must be created entirely from scratch, the beliefs and assumptions of the people who develop those worlds are frequently all too obvious. This phenomenon is being extensively catalogued in a thoroughly excellent on-going series of videos by Anita Sakeesian:

Though often entirely unintentional, the moral reactions provoked by these sorts of games are often incredibly enlightening. Indeed, many of America’s racist and warmongering attitudes towards China, Russia and the Middle East seemed half rational until a series of First-Person Shooters attempted to mine that particular set of popular fears and produced what was effectively a series of interactive neoconservative rants. Similarly, few head-on critiques of the culture surrounding rap music are as effective as the Saints Row series’ decision to slowly transform its gangland protagonists from a group of scrappy up-and-coming underworld entrepreneurs to the soda-shilling heads of a vast merchandising empire.

A couple of years ago, I experienced a similar moral reaction after deciding to play Civilization V and Europa Universalis III back-to-back. What I realised was that the reason liberal people behave like psychopaths when playing 4X strategy games is that those games emulate what it is like to see the world through the eyes of the state. Another moral reaction occurred while playing Paradox Interactive’s latest strategy game Crusader Kings II.

Much like Europa Universalis III, Crusader Kings II can be interpreted as a critique of a social institution in that it exposes not only the moral failings of that institution but also of the players who take control of the institution in the context of the game. However, while the Europa Universalis series demonstrates our willingness to surrender our principles for the sake of bureaucratic expediency, Crusader Kings II targets an institution that is much closer to home: The family.

In this essay I shall discuss not only what Crusader Kings II teaches us about what it means to be part of a family, I shall also consider why even the most wretched of families mean so much to us. In order to explore what the game tells us about family life, I must first discuss what it means to see the world through the eyes of an institution.

Continue reading →

REVIEW – Purge (2012)

PurgeVideovista have my review of Antti Jokinen’s Purge or Pudhistus in its native Finnish.

Based on a hugely successful novel by the Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, Purge uses two different time frames to explore the links between the rape and brutalisation of women during the Soviet annexation of Estonia and the rape and brutalisation of women at the hands of the contemporary sex trade. Clearly, this is not only a worthy subject for a film but also a potentially fascinating one. Are contemporary sex traffickers just the latest manifestation of a systemic hatred of women? Have different generations of women responded differently to this treatment? Given that this type of thing has been going on all over the world since time immemorial, what is it that is unique to the experience of Estonian women? These are just some of the fascinating questions that Purge could have taken on but rather than raising awareness and probing the darker side of human nature, director Antti Jokinen prefers to sexualise rape and suggest that it’s something you could probably get used to eventually anyway.

Warning – The following passage is triggery for rape as is the rest of the review but it’s not nearly as triggery as the film itself:

While the male gaze may be distracting and insulting in the context of a film like Transformers 2, detecting it in a film about the systematic brutalisation of women is an absolute disgrace: every time Zara is stripped naked by her pimp, Jokinen’s camera lingers on her undergarments. Every time Zara and Aliide are raped and beaten, the camera pans down so as to ensure that the audience gets a good long look at their firm young breasts. In one scene, Zara’s pimp has her get down on all fours to masturbate while he takes photos, and Jokinen places his camera in the same position as the pimp’s, thereby ensuring that the audience is forced to see Zara through the eyes of a murderous rapist. Aside from being exploitative and downright creepy, Jokinen’s systematic sexualisation of rape serves to put his audience in a position of tacit complicity with rapists and torturers, which is precisely the opposite of what this film is supposed to be about!

Purge is a fantastic example of Jean Cocteau’s observation that “style is a simple way of saying complicated things”. The script and subject matter of Purge point to a film that decries the historical mistreatment of women by encouraging the audience to empathise with the victims of historical abuse. A competent director would have read the script and used cinematic technique to place the audience in the position of the abused women thereby encouraging them to not only understand what it would be like to be in that situation but also to get angry about the fact that those situations existed in the first place. Unfortunately, rather than encouraging us to sympathise with the victims of rape, Jokinen uses cinematic technique to place us in the position of the abusers who leer at vulnerable women and enjoy their bodies as they writhe in pain and humiliation. Simple stated, Purge is the most unpleasantly misogynistic film I have ever seen. Even worse, Antti Jokinen has directed two feature films thus far in his career and both of them have been about rape. I would never go so far as to suggest that this forms some sort of ideological pattern but I would urge Jokinen to take a long, hard look at his artistic output and consider how he really feels about women.

The Films of Paul Verhoeven

FilmJuice have just uploaded a piece I wrote for them about the films of Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop, Total Recall, Showgirls and Basic Instinct.

Regular readers of this site will know that I have a marked fondness for unpopular blockbuster directors like Neveldine/Taylor, Michael Bay and Zac Snyder. Part of what drives my fondness for these directors is their willingness to set aside human values in pursuit of absolute spectacle. All of these directors use violence and action to entertain their audiences but they also use sexuality and fascistic imagery in a way that many directors are reluctant to do. My view on these directors is that one cannot defend Big Dumb Blockbusters like Avengers or Spiderman whilst turning one’s nose up at films like Transformers 3. Summer blockbusters are in the business of pushing buttons and to have your buttons pushed is an inherently dehumanising process. The difference between directors like Bay and directors like Spielberg is that Bay is completely unapologetic about what it is that he does. He makes films for the sweaty masturbating homunculus in all of us:

When people talk about blockbuster action movies, their minds naturally gravitate to the works of sexless man-children such as Peter Jackson, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. The reason for this strange cognitive bias is that most people feel ashamed about watching big dumb action movies and so they need their violence to be not only bloodless but also presented in terms of absolute moral simplicity. Spielberg always cuts to the heroic working-class dad because cinema audiences need to know that their yearning for cinematic carnage does not make them a bad person. Similarly, George Lucas can neither shoot nor write a love scene because you can’t have people falling in love and then shooting each other in the face. That simply would not do.

My take on Paul Verhoeven is that he is a transitional figure in the history of blockbuster filmmaking as he spent the late 80s and early 90s building up mainstream audiences’ tolerance for sex. Without Verhoeven, people would never have gone to see Snyder’s Watchmen or Bay’s Transformers.

REVIEW – The Lost Patrol (1934)

One of the more depressing cinematic experiences I had last year was going to see Matt Reeves’ timid remake of Tomas Alfredson’s superlative Let The Right One In.  I was lured into the cinema on the promise that the American version teased certain elements out of the original text that Alfredson’s film missed but what I got was pretty much a shot-for-shot remake.  Pointless hack-work aimed at culturally insular Americans.  Some might say that this was inevitable and that there is no point in remakes, but I do not think that this is necessarily true.  Some films positively overflow with great ideas but somehow manage to fuck up the implementation.

As my review of John Ford’s largely overlooked The Lost Patrol makes, clear, I think that it is a film that is absolutely ripe for a re-make.  Set in the Mesopotamian desert during the first world war, the film tells of a group of British soldiers who lose their officer and their way in the middle of the desert.  Under attack from unseen assailants, the soldiers hole-up in an abandoned mosque and slowly go mad.  Boasting Boris Karloff, the film is rushed and has too many characters to ever settle down into the psychological register the subject requires but there are some lovely ideas hidden in this film.  They just need someone to unleash them.