REVIEW – Rebellion (2011)

rebellion-quadFilmJuice have my review of Mathieu Kassovitz’s political thriller Rebellion (a.k.a. L’Ordre et La Morale – which is a much better title).

Based not only on historical events but historical events involving French politicians who have only recently left the stage, the film tells of how a group of political activists protested the continued French political control of New Caledonia. Hoping to catch the attention of the media by occupying a French gendarmerie in the run-up to the 1988 French general election, the Kanak protesters accidentally killed a policeman resulting in the French army being sent to reassert ‘order and morality’ on what is still considered French soil. Kassovitz himself plays a French gendarme who is sent to negotiate a settlement only to discover that both the French military and their political masters are dead set on violence resulting in what has become known as the Ouvea cave massacre.

As with La Haine, Kassovitz jumps into the political elements of his narrative with real zeal and understanding. Using Legorjus as a viewpoint, Kassovitz crawls around inside the Ouvea massacre and shows not only the cowardice of the separatist politicians who failed to support their own activists but the complete moral bankruptcy of a French political class who used a real-life hostage situation as an opportunity to grandstand on the eve of a national election. However, unlike many political films that are content to bewail the system and blame impersonal forces for the ills of the world, Rebellion goes out of its way to name real-life politicians and speculate about their motives. Why did Jacques Chirac close the door on negotiations? Because he wanted to attract the votes of the French National Front and he knew that brown bodies meant votes. Why did the separatist politicians fail to support their own activists? Because they were afraid of being associated with dead police even though the plan to occupy police stations was theirs to begin with. Rebellion is a blisteringly angry film and watching it will make you angry too; if Western governments behaved this badly in 1988, what do you think it says about the people in power today?

As I say in my review, I think that Rebellion is a real return to form for Kassovitz. While I’ve enjoyed almost all the films he has directed, I remain of the opinion that La Haine will be the film for which he is remembered and Rebellion shows a real desire to return to the same levels of anger and political engagement. Possibly one of the best-made and more courageous political thrillers of recent times, this film really puts all of those terrible Iraq War films in perspective. All too often, political stories stress the cultural dimensions of their analyses resulting in a snapshot of a particular moment in time that blames nobody by exaggerating the inevitability of it all. This type of analysis that focuses on systemic forces rather than individual personalities is alarmingly common in American politics where perpetual warfare, the brutalisation of the poor and the rich getting richer are all seen as just shit that happens. By naming names and placing the blame not just on ‘the political class’ but on particular people within that political class, Kassovitz is reminding us that politicians are responsible for the offices they are elected to fill and who is in office at a particular time really does matter. Had Jacques Chirac not been eager to secure the votes of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s followers then chances are that the hostage takers would have walked away unharmed and ready to face justice.

REVIEW – Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood (2012)

diaz-2012FilmJuice have my review of Daniele Vicari’s topical ensemble drama Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood.

Set during the 2001 G8 protests in the Italian city of Genoa, the film tells the real-life story of one of the most outrageous abuses of police power in European history. The action focuses upon a pair of buildings that served as both a media center and a dormitory for people who happened to be in Genoa during the protests. Believing the buildings to be full of black bloc anarchists, the Italian police stormed in, beat everyone to a pulp and then dragged a number of people away to jail where they were humiliated, assaulted and tortured by not just police but also police doctors.

The structure of this film is faintly reminiscent of such ensemble dramas as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Fernando Meirelles’ 360 (Which I recently reviewed for Videovista). However, while these Hollywood productions are very similar to anthology pictures in so far as they are collections of more-or-less self-contained narratives, Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood departs from this model by using the different strands of the the narrative to explore the same event from different perspectives. Rather than resorting to anything as clunking as a time-stamp, Vicari allows history to unfold up to a single moment — someone throwing a bottle — and signals our return to the past by having the bottle re-assemble itself and return to the hand of the person who threw it. Aside from being incredibly elegant, this narrative technique works brilliantly in context as it allows Vicari to explore the extent to which the shared spaces of the protest mean different things to different people: For an elderly man trapped in Genoa overnight, the buildings are a safe place to sleep. For the journalists covering the protests, they are somewhere to file copy and conduct interviews. For the Black Bloc, they are a place to hide and draw up plans. This plurality of experience and perception is both brilliantly handled and intensely refreshing in a medium that all too often either avoids ambiguity like the plague or confuses it with evasiveness. Diaz Don’t Clean Up This Blood is a wonderfully ambiguous film because it presents you with several incompatible and yet entirely consistent viewpoints on the same series of events. Then the ambiguity goes away:

The final third of the film is spent exploring the mistreatment and torture meted out to the victims of the raid by police and police doctors and it is here that the film ultimately stumbles. The problem is that, while the bulk of the film is intensely humanistic and diverse in its exploration of different perspectives on the same events, Vicari’s coverage of the aftermath of the raid abandons nuance in favour of stark moralism: These are not the over-emotional and ill-informed police officers of the opening scene, these are cold and calculating psychopaths who humiliate and torture people because they know that they can do so with complete impunity. While there is no reason to doubt the brutality of the Italian police or the veracity of their victims’ claims, it is jarring when a film about understanding suddenly transforms into a film about condemnation.

One of the interesting things about Diaz that I did not have space to touch on in my review is the fact that while Vicari feels quite comfortable portraying the police as psychopathic Nazis, he is almost flawlessly even-handed when it comes to portraying the actions of the Black Bloc. In Diaz, the Black Bloc are a bunch of kids from all over Europe who descend on protest areas, stir shit up and then promptly retreat before the inevitable government response. Indeed, while the Black Bloc did indeed use the buildings that the police raid, Vicari goes out of his way to show them hiding in a nearby cafe while innocent by-standers get beaten to a pulp.

Why are we allowed to sympathise with the Black Bloc’s cowardice but not with the anger of the police?

One to this question is that while the Black Bloc’s actions contain enough moral ambiguity for there to be differences of opinion about them, nobody in their right mind would consider it acceptable for a police doctor to sexually assault a left-wing activist while the police singing fascist battle anthems. Indeed, one of the problems with liberalism and tolerance is that it’s very difficult to make any kind of moral judgement once you allow for the fact that all humans are fallible products of their environment and most people do what they do because they think it’s the right thing at the time. Diaz is an intensely humane and liberal film and yet its problematic final act shows that there must be limits to even the most pluralistic and tolerant of personal philosophies. I’m not convinced that Vicari handles the movement between ambiguity and certainty all that well but it is nice to see a film that attempts to address those types of moral problems.

Passive Incoherence and How to #Occupy The Moral Highground

We are the products of the long, drawn-out process known as evolution by means of natural selection. Regardless of whether or not you buy into the memes and methods of evolutionary psychology, there is no point in denying that we stand forever on the cusp of the future, shaped by the depths of the past. One troublesome product of our evolutionary history is the desire to see the world as a binary opposition between the goodies and the baddies. From an evolutionary standpoint, this kind of reductionism makes perfect sense as our lives once depended upon the capacity to instantly distinguish between friend and foe.

As educated adults, we know that such reductions are simplistic fantasies. We know that the real colour of the world is not black or white but an ugly beige, a vast moral greyness tainted by the blood red of guilt and atrocity. We know these things and yet we still hanker after certainty and when our mind cannot find certainty in the world, it cuts corners by blinding us to the moral shortcomings of our allies and the unexpected nobility of our opponents. The world is a complex place and we can only make sense of it by choosing a line of best fit and sticking to it come what may.

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BG44 – The Shameful Joys of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column devoted to Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.

A lot has been made of this game’s boss fights and the myriad niggles and irritations that conspire to make its game-play something of an uphill struggle. I will not deny, this game inspired more rage-quits than any game in recent memory. However, rather than seeing these irritations as products of genre-confusion and outdated game design, I decided to consider these problems as part of the game’s central aesthetic and sub-text. I conclude that, whereas the original Deus Ex games were all about empowering the player, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is all about claustrophobia, prejudice and being forced into a position of willing servitude:

Taken together, these racial and economic narratives combine to create an almost intolerable atmosphere of disempowerment. Whereas Deus Ex sought to empower its players, Deus Ex: Human Revolution constantly reminds them of how worthless and incompetent they really are. Playing DXHR is like spending an afternoon with a depressed and alcoholic mother who is not only disappointed with what you have made of yourself, but also insistent on letting you know how she feels about your failure as an individual. However, as unpleasant as DXHR can be, it is an intensely enjoyable game. Indeed, the game’s real thematic power lies not in its narratives of disenfranchisement and oppression, but in the fact that it keeps us coming back for more in spite of them.

All too often, reviewers tend to assume that any mechanic that is not fun is broken. I simply could not disagree more, all mechanics tell a story… you just need to open your mind and play the story that the game wants to tell.

Red State (2011) – Nothing to Say and No Idea of How to Say it

It seems difficult to talk about a Kevin Smith film without also talking about Kevin Smith.  Since his debut Clerks (1994), Smith has excelled in the art of bundling himself up with his artistic output: When Smith made Clerks, he was making a film about himself, when Smith made Chasing Amy (1997), he was making a film about something that happened to him and when Smith made Dogma (1999), he was making a very personal statement about his own religious beliefs. Aside from a habit of making very personal and autobiographical films, Smith has also been very open about the experience of making films and the experience of… well… being Kevin Smith. When Peter Biskind wanted to write a book about the dark side of Miramax, Smith was there to provide him with quotes. When the critics sharpened their knives and leapt on Jersey Girl (2004) and Cop Out (2010), Smith made it quite clear what he thought about film critics and the industry as a whole. Smith is the logical consequence of the cult of the auteur: the director who makes every detail of his life available in the hope that this might somehow make his films seem more interesting. A habitual over-sharer, tantrum-thrower and general emotional incontinent, Smith is a wonderful figure to write about and when he announced that he would fund, make and distribute Red State alone, writers could not help but write about Smith’s latest project.  Which is somewhat odd given that this is arguably Smith’s least personal film to date. Red State finds Smith attempting to reboot his directorial career by moving into the thriller genre.

I adore thriller and horror films because, in my view, they come very close to being what Alfred Hitchcock once described as ‘pure cinema’. Thrillers are all about drawing upon plot, actors, dialogue, theme and cinematography to enclose the audience in a bubble of pure cinematic affect.  A good thriller drags you halfway out of your seat and keeps you crouching in the darkness, because of this, thrillers frequently demand a high standard of technical filmmaking. A thriller cannot hide behind lavish special effects, celebrated performances or noble themes… it has to work as a piece of art.  Despite containing some brilliantly realised elements, Red State is one of the most technically dysfunctional films that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.

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Treme: Season 1 (2010) – Questioning the Value of Community

One of the enduring themes of David Simon’s award-winning series The Wire is the idea of the quiet apocalypse and of a society that is drifting into terminal decline not because of war or disease or alien invasion but because of stupidity, selfishness and the fundamental short-sighted perversity of human nature. After an uneven attempt at tackling the War in Iraq with Generation Kill (2008), Treme sees Simon teaming up with fellow Wire alumnus Eric Overmyer to take another look at America’s inevitable end.  However, unlike The Wire, there is nothing quiet about Treme’s apocalypse as the end of this particular world was caused by Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the New Orleans levees that flooded the city leaving thousands of New Orleans residents, dead, disenfranchised and scattered to the four corners of a nation that simply did not care about the destruction of one of its most historical and culturally vibrant cities.  Treme is about the on-going attempts by the residents of New Orleans to rebuild their lives and their city. Treme is a story about community and returning home but, as you might expect from a series helmed by David Simon, the picture of community it paints is far from idyllic.

If I had to compare Treme to any other TV series of recent times, my choice would be to compare it to David Milch’s gritty western drama Deadwood in that both series are character-based dramas and both series are ultimately about the evolution of the community that these characters are a part of. However, while Milch’s series allowed the characters to dictate the action by effectively having them to walk out their door and interact with whoever happened to be walking past, Simon’s series is far more traditionally structured. Treme is built around a series of more or less discrete emotional communities composed of characters who interact chiefly with each other.

 

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Limitless (2011) – Mega Mega White Thing

They say that cocaine can make a good man great.

The also say that it can make him into a tedious jabbering fool.

These things are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

One of the more intriguing sequences in Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary about the credit crunch Inside Job (2010) reveals that, prior to the crash, a number of New York brokerage houses and management consultancies allowed their employees to pay for sex on their company credit cards. Ferguson uses this revelation to add a tinge of decadence to his depiction of Wall Street institutions but it also raises the question of a degree of kinship between betting large amounts of other people’s money and a lifestyle littered with cocaine and high-class escorts. Ferguson hand-waves this association with some waffling about pleasure centres in the brain but what if the link is not neurology but a question of peer groups? Are the sort of people who tend to do well in banking also the sort of people who tend to enjoy coke and hookers? Does a fondness for coke and hookers mark financial executives out as ‘our sort of chap’?

Neil Burger’s Limitless is a science fiction film about a man who discovers a drug that unlocks the untapped potential of his brain. Initially a struggling science fiction writer, the film’s protagonist soon morphs into the sort of arrogant, swaggering, bollock-talking bell-end that seem to dominate the world’s financial institutions and, as long as he keeps taking the pills, there’s a good chance that this particular bell-end will wind up President.

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