TORONTO 2012: Critic's Notebook
by Steve Dollar
Something like an unimagined—or unimaginable—mash-up of Be Kind Rewind
and The Redemption of General Butt Naked
—the British/Danish documentary The Act of Killing
presents a ruthless killer who is made to account for his sins: murdering hundreds of Communists and ethnic Chinese during the military takeover Indonesia's government in 1965. The catch here is, dapper old Anwar Congo, the movie's primary subject, its monster and master of ceremonies, is not being hauled before the world stage to atone for his crimes against humanity. He's going on TV to cheerfully recount his atrocities as his life's great accomplishment.
[Watch the trailer here.]
This would be a surreal enterprise on its surface, but director Joshua Oppenheimer (with the assistance of a local crew often identified in the credits as "Anonymous"), throws in a mind-blowing meta twist. He persuades Congo and a few members of his death squad to reenact some of their killings on camera, as actors in their own bloody-minded Indonesian thriller. The film's bizarre stroke of genius makes the essential connection between the acts carried out by these men and their all-consuming love of cinema. When they were young, they were movie-house gangsters, scalping tickets in flashy suits, striking poses inspired by John Wayne
. Once they were recruited into the death squads, they brought their B-movie fantasies with them.
Again and again, Congo—who cuts the figure of a kindly grandpa, too gray and spindly to strike fear in anyone's heart—and his beer-bellied sidekick are given opportunities to reflect on what they did, but the closest they come to remorse is to suggest that strong drink and drugs take away any lingering anxieties. They'll never be punished, so the attitude is that expressed by a gag gift fish that echoes Bobby McFerrin
. "Don't worry. Be happy." But Oppenheimer never lets up. Shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in a tighter cut than the 2-½ hour European version, the film fills in the details of the old horror with glimpses at its abiding shadow: The Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary group by which Congo is revered as a hero and role model. Though its never clear what exact movie is finally made by these aged executioners, the scenes become ever more gonzo: a Day-Glo musical with dancing girls emerging from the mouth of a giant fish (and one of the killers posing absurdly in drag), a supernatural gore-fest in which Congo is symbolically beheaded and turned into a ghost. The "Sweded" effect generates queasy laughs. Should we be treating the deaths of one million people as the occasion for these antics? And to what degree are these men being enabled in order to pull a sick-joke stunt? The tension is part of what makes Killing a compulsive experience. Stick around to the end, and then decide.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain
, Tony Manero
) throws some "Swede" into his own historical reenactment, No
. The film, based on a real TV campaign that helped defeat the Pinochet regime in a 1988 referendum, shot the whole thing on what appears to be an old VHS tape. He used a pair of vintage U-Matic video cameras, a clever notion that renders the film itself a product of what it depicts: the efforts of a hip young advertising producer (played by Gael Garcia Bernal
) to create subversive political messages using the language of soft-drink commercials. Conceptually this is sort of brilliant, a form is function approach that also reminded me of watching documentary footage from the era. The blurred, blown-out effect doesn't transcend gimmick, though. I just kept wondering where my 3-D glasses were. Aside from that aesthetic misfire, No succeeds as a straightforward social satire, pitting Bernal against his right-wing boss (Alfredo Castro
), who plays dirty tricks on him as the producer of the "Yes" campaign. The idea of a repressive military dictatorship brought low by mimes and jingles is a good one, and Bernal's performance as a single father who sticks to his guns despite ample disapproval and distractions (his revolutionary ex is continually getting hauled to jail amid police crackdowns) is graced with sly intelligence.
A lamentation for post-nuclear-meltdown Japan, The Land of Hope
is Sion Sono
) in more conventional mode. The film isn't without its Sono-esque moments: a pregnant woman who obsessively dresses herself in hazmat gear; a kindly old farmer who must slaughter his entire dairy full of cows; his wife, whose mental faculties are a bit out of order, dancing in the toxic snow by the nuclear plant. It's just that instead of reading these scenes as "crazy," they're meant as an evocation of actual life, amid forced evacuations and bureaucratic re-assurances. The director's stock company fills the roles of a family torn apart when its oldest members refuse to abandon their home after a 3/11-type event, and while the dynamic can sometimes feel a bit like a made-for-TV drama, the emotional wind-up is a heartbreaker.
Greetings from Tim Buckley
, which stars Gossip Girl
heartthrob Penn Badgley
as the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, is surprising on at least two fronts: Badgely can really sing; and the film avoids rock star bio-pic excess, focusing on the events of a few short days when the 23-year-old Buckley comes to New York for a tribute to his 1960s cult-singer father. The music's glorious, and the narrative—which is most appealing in a middle stretch that finds Badgely/Buckley pulling a new-found romantic interest (Imogen Poots
) into his orbit, while chasing (or running from) his father's ghost—remains judiciously underbaked.
Posted by ahillis at September 11, 2012 8:09 AM