Posts Tagged ‘review’

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My MIFF 2013

August 17, 2013
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I attended 19 actual screenings (bolded), 1 of which was a pairing of two shorts bordering on featurettes (italicised). That’s half the number I saw in 2012. The greyed out entries are those that played at MIFF this year but which I saw externally. Sorry for the lack of comments. The ranking:

  1. A Touch of Sin (2013, Jia)
  2. Stranger By the Lake (2013, Guiraudie)
  3. Passion (2012, De Palma)
  4. The Dance of Reality (2013, Jodorowsky)
  5. Computer Chess (2013, Bujalski)
  6. Everybody in Our Family (2012, Jude)
  7. Bastards (2013, Denis) I wrote a review here
  8. The Act of Killing (2012, Oppenheimer)
  9. Starlet (2012, Baker)
  10. Paradise: Faith (2012, Seidl)
  11. Omar (2013, Abu-Assad)
  12. Tip Top (2013, Bozon)
  13. Museum Hours (2012, Cohen)
  14. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013, Côté)
  15. The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012, Rodrigues & da Mata)
  16. Viola (2012, Piñeiro)
  17. Stories We Tell (2012, Polley)
  18. Tiger Tail in Blue (2012, Ross)
  19. Leviathan (2012, Castaing-Taylor & Paravel)
  20. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013, Hong)
  21. Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013, Rasoulof)
  22. A Field in England (2013, Wheatley)
  23. Gloria (2013, Lelio)
  24. Lesson of the Evil (2013, Miike)
  25. 3x3D (2013, Greenaway/Godard/Pêra)
  26. The Capsule (2012, Tsangari)
  27. Drinking Buddies (2013, Swanberg)
  28. The Past (2013, Farhadi)
  29. The Missing Picture (2013, Panh)
  30. Oh Boy (2012, Gerster)
  31. Cutie and the Boxer (2013, Heinzerling)
  32. Closed Curtain (2013, Panahi)
  33. Harmony Lessons (2013, Baigazin)
  34. Magic Magic (2013, Silva)
  35. Ginger & Rosa (2012, Potter)
  36. differently, Molussia (2012, Rey)
  37. Child’s Pose (2013, Netzer)
  38. East Hastings Pharmacy (2012, Bourges)
  39. In a World… (2013, Bell)
  40. Upstream Color (2013, Carruth)
  41. Prince Avalanche (2013, Green)
  42. A Werewolf Boy (2012, Jo)
  43. Blue Ruin (2013, Saulnier)
  44. Gebo and the Shadow (2012, Oliveira)
  45. Blancanieves (2012, Berger)
  46. Rhino Season (2012, Ghobadi)
  47. V/H/S/2 (2013, various)
  48. Stoker (2013, Park)
  49. Ilo Ilo (2013, Chen)
  50. Outrage Beyond (2012, Kitano)

I have not included the retro titles that I have previously seen, nor Paradise: Love which first played at MIFF last year.

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Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995)

December 12, 2012

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I enjoyed the absolute shit out of this movie. This was not so surprising, as Verhoeven at his worst is unfailingly entertaining, and at his best among the most unique film artists working today. Granted, irony is common these days, but rarely is it employed with such dedication; rather than fits and bursts of irony delineating it from the more casually sincere, Verhoeven risks the entire product (and being misunderstood) with it. As such his key progenitor is surely Douglas Sirk, likewise a European who worked within and incisively critiqued America, sharing as they do a subversive streak, targeting the satire squarely at the audience paying to see their movies. But where Sirk generally examined the middle and upper classes, Verhoeven often takes on generic movie narratives and exposes their falsehoods. Showgirls is not just a spit in the face of the American Dream, but the movies that perpetrate the myth. Nomi Malone’s (No me? Alone?) attempt to start a new life from scratch is corrupted and she becomes both victim and player (repeatedly, it becomes the film’s rhythm) of the game until her strength wins out and she ends up on top—a monster, heading for Hollywood.

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Take a look at the two phony-looking roadsigns that bookend the picture, the odd negative space on each seems to suggest L.A. represents a further moral descent despite Nomi’s social climb. Her Italian roots aren’t introduced for no good reason, like the Aryan Argentines with yanky accents of Starship Troopers, Nomi’s whitewash into Heather—along with the cowgirl outfit she dons significantly only at the very beginning—rather discreetly marks her as a vehicle for the modern American in this wild parable. But unlike Troopers, which took the form of propaganda, Nomi’s arc is subtextually tragic, and vaguely exposes Verhoeven’s sincerity, at least it felt so to me. Yet he is wary of viewer-character empathy, and his career is built around toying with its tradition in cinema. Is the rape scene here not so overblown that one’s reaction turns from horror to a distanced contemplation? Is his irony mean-spirited, or does it unpatronisingly allow for the viewer to negotiate his own way to the meaning?

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But there are aesthetic pleasures to delight in here as well: not merely in its gloriously garish cinematography, a bombardment of neon colours and lighting, but an equally heightened thrust, a total physicality that drives every bit of mise-en-scene. The result is something satisfyingly campy and sexy and hilarious and musical, but beyond that, a pointed display of affectations and egos rudely bouncing off each other; actors and characters performing alike. Elizabeth Berkley, whoever she is, is terrific in this. Nomi’s adolescent pride (later discovered to be a desperate defense) is superbly manifested by Berkley’s body, her gestures. At one point, as Nomi realises a dancing gig was a set-up, Berkley even manages the subtlest of lip quivers; it seems as if the actress felt this role body and soul.

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Verhoeven and Jost Vacano’s Steadicam camerawork dexterously keeps up with the backstage bustle, itself Renoir-esque. But it’s a real surprise to find Verhoeven’s musical talents shine through, particularly in the suturing of the dance numbers, the shots of which are timed to the music so precisely as to be kinetic. It’s not classy stuff, but then it obviously isn’t meant to be. Some may dismiss this film as a pointless and ridiculous All About Eve retread or even, as many did at the time of its release, overlook the irony altogether. But I see a great and wickedly enjoyable film, a female To Live and Die in L.A., and perhaps behind Robocop, Paul Verhoeven’s best American effort.

November 2011

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Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997)

December 12, 2012

Happy Together

Though anything but political, Wong’s Argentina-set pained romance premiered on the eve of the handover of Hong Kong back to the Mainland, giving the melancholic displacement of its Chinese protagonists a macroscopic relevance after several years of the region’s West-bound diaspora. Or rather, what with the final image of a train terminating warmly at a Hong Kong station, is this ultimately a poem of a cautiously optimistic return to the motherland after 150 years apart? Allegorical notions aside, the idea of home—in country and love—as absent as it is, permeates Happy Together. At its core is a bond, as rich and convincing a relationship the cinema has ever seen, that is stretched to its limits but never breaks. The two men orbit around it: Leslie’s perpetual boredom ensures as much shameless cheating as crawling back; Tony’s more conservative classiness allows for the guilt-tripping and rebuking borne of frustrated superiority, eventually worn down out of his equally conservative desire to “keep” and take care of Leslie. By all accounts this is an unhealthy love, masochistic in nature, but one with a deep desire to rise above petty bullshit and intrinsic discrepancies. This is beautifully expressed in at least two ways: the falls the couple fails to visit in the opening part become a utopian symbol of happiness they cannot reach together, the lamp pictured with said falls a constant reminder (pensive, not cruel) of their stagnation; and a woozy, chimerical slow tango that hints at a rekindling but really exists in a more pleasant parallel universe and tenderly evokes their shared disappointment.

Happy Together

More and more non-narrative passages of pure feeling take over the film, allowing Wong’s singular talents in sculpting time and spotlighting music to shine. The sense of loss and regret becomes overwhelming as immediacy makes way for increasingly after-the-fact curtailment before a rather sunny look to the future (at least for Tony). Typically, the film entire is propelled by memory, signalled by Tony’s past-tense narration. The deployment of black and white remains ambiguous, initially suggesting a flashback or like conceit, but Wong and Doyle feel out the look organically. Indeed the black and white comes to a head when our lovers decide yet again to start over; glorious colour takes over as Leslie rests his head on Tony in the back of a taxi—an image that haunts Wong’s oeuvre. Much of Doyle’s wide-angle lensing pits the lovers at a great distance from one another, as lines recede and skies loom in a fashion both appropriate and gorgeous. To be sure, Happy Together contains some of the most stunning photography ever produced. As with Godard and Malick, Wong largely “writes” his films during production, appropriating a myriad of unforseen factors (Buenos Aires’ frigid weather, Chen Chang’s whole inclusion), and especially in the editing room, as Pung-Leung Kwan’s unmissable making-of documentary attests to with its treasure of aborted footage that wafts in similarly like vague memories or visions of those (even sadder) parallel worlds.

Happy Together

As for the gems that did make the film: The convulsive cutting of Leslie’s passport query ending with Tony slowly placing rice in his mouth, a minor masterstroke of loaded psychology left for the viewer to colour in; another bit of quick cutting upon Leslie’s arrival at Tony’s bar by which Wong crystalises the precise point in space and time their paths cross, hearts swept up in it with possibility (and the rejection of same); the snippets of one man watching the other sleep, a kinky one-sidedness to love that briefly recalls Faye Wong inhabiting Leung’s apartment in Chungking Express; and the quintessentially-Wong legend of a lighthouse at the end of the world where heartbroken people leave their sadness—further exemplifying his status as a romantic which Wong protests and resents! But truly, screen romance scarcely comes as piercing and sublime as it does with Happy Together.

 

 

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Man of Aran (Flaherty, 1934)

October 15, 2012

Long before the Iranian masters and a dozen others of the early 21st century, Robert J. Flaherty hired non-actors to reenact their own lives in their own habitats, blurring the distinctions between fiction and documentary. Man of Aran, however, collected locals into a fictional family, which was told to carry out quotidian actions for the camera not necessarily familiar to any of its faux-members (and in the case of the shark hunting, no longer even practiced by anyone in the area). The result is something beyond even mere fiction, a timeless narrative forged from ostensibly natural images and sounds emphasising an eternal struggle between Aran man and the sea -or further yet, as with The Turin Horse with which it shares a fair amount though not its desolate finalisation, between Man and life itself. Though admittedly rather inert, the entire final sequence works to articulate this. And as he looks out reverently at the sea after it has chewed up and spat out the bones of his boat, we gauge the Man’s quiet fear and respect. Other pictures of seaside perseverance come to mind: Shindô’s The Naked Island, the Marxist La Terra Trema to a lesser extent, and the newly-restored Araya, which looked comparatively like a capitalist assembly line with its hundreds of fastidious beach labourers. But it’s almost Fordian the way Flaherty props his figures against tremendous skies in silhouette, immortalising them. Likewise, the horizon line here is uniformly high or low: looming skies, enveloping waters. In editing too the film poeticises the perennial. The capturing of the shark is a furious montage of fragmented images: ropes are pulled various ways, indiscernible men’s limbs puncture the frame, the shark’s tail whips the boat unceasingly… it’s in their shot-to-shot disconnectedness and repetition that the sequence becomes majestic. In a much more simple example, the wife and mother gazes at the son at her side, out the window impossibly to her husband off toiling in his boat which the film cuts to, and back to son -a miniscule moment that summons a well of woman’s indwelling concern. An unspoken daily grief she bears with beautiful strength.

December 2011

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4 by Erich von Stroheim

March 27, 2012

Blind Husbands (1919)

Stroheim’s first feature opens with a titlecard introducing the key theme of marriage complacency, and questioning if the third party of an affair is entirely to blame, pointing to the husband. This latter point does not so much come into the narrative bulk, as the third party pursuer (played by Stroheim himself) is never shown to have decent intentions, but is instead more of an additional, somewhat lecturing, thought. That being said, the final scene brings the ignorant husband idea full circle and is rather touching as a scene in itself. The portrayal of the wife, as in Greed‘s Trina, is awfully weepy for the most part. She’s in a moral bind, and is sympathetic as a result, but is also of that distinctly early 20th century melodrama brand of woman….rather weak and helpless. Even the waitress is a victim of sorts, despite her rampant sexuality, she obsesses over the “villain”. Compared to the complexity of extramarital affair turmoil in the Woody Allen pictures I’ve been rewatching lately, it comes across as simplistic indeed. Although the central plot and its emotionality dulls a bit, the film is still noteworthy in other ways. Outside of the wordy aforementioned titlecard, the film does not rely on them for superfluous exposition. In fact, Lillian Ducey’s titlecards are poetic as well as succinct and infrequent. One particularly astute use of dialogue cards has, firstly, Stroheim wooing a young woman with two sickly romantic lines, a pause between the two, and then later Stroheim using the same exact lines on the wife character. The pause the second time around invites an expectation for the follow-up come-on, and when it comes it does as a punch, highlighting the treachery of his falsity, albeit amusingly so. This is a more nuanced way to convey his ignoble intentions for the wife of the story proper: directly via trait of character.

Prior to the second half set up in the mountains, a brief conversation takes place revealing the men’s individual stances on mountaineering, on how to conquer and even the degree to which they respect the alps, and it reads rather metaphorically as their differing approaches to women at the same time. Later, the mountain known as The Pinnacle which the husband and Stroheim attempt to conquer, is frequently described in Godly terms, and as a place where sin does not exist. Naturally, like the gold-tinted desert of Greed, it becomes the setting for the dramatic climax; a classical synergy of drama and setting. But is this snowy wilderness “without sin” merely as a convenient place for committing crime, or is it such because it is above Earth, or even beyond -a purgatory? The husband learns of his own sin: revering the mountains (and his work) so much it is as if he is cheating on, certainly neglecting, his wife. And crucially, Stroheim’s fate seems almost a punishment, or more accurately a comeuppance; the guilt of a life lived sinfully finally takes hold of his conscience. Or is he merely terrified of a hawk? Doubtful. Stroheim seems to work on a grander scale than that, and this is just the start.

January 2011

Foolish Wives (1922)

Stroheim here essentially remakes and betters his debut Blind Husbands, examining as it does the machinations of an immoral imposter (again played by the director himself) versus the goodness of the victimised married couple, even down to the vaguely didactic ending. It should be mentioned at this point the infamy of Stroheim’s struggles with producers butchering his work, leading him to proclaim of Foolish Wives that “they are showing only the skeleton of my dead child”. But regardless we could understand Stroheim’s cinema as filmed literature, his process of adaptation as exhaustive as, say, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, as opposed to what remains: Phil Jutzi’s bite-size Berlin-Alexanderplatz. No, it’s not at all as bad as that. The surviving films are still comfortably paced and effectively grand. The title is interesting: this story depicts only the one foolish wife (yet some other foolish women), the plural suggesting microcosm as per his previous Blind Husbands -two sides of the same coin. It could also be called Greed, as here we see the lust of Stroheim’s “Count” from Husbands extend from sexual to monetary and a greater sexual ravenousness. At no point does Stroheim introduce a possibility for redemption here, his Count never develops feelings for the woman he plans to woo and rob blind as we’ve seen in so many romance movies; he’s as malevolent and selfish as the man of the modern world can get, and he is disposed of offscreen and with no concern (in comparison to the servant’s delicately-handled suicide, also offscreen). The character becomes more interesting in relation to the real Stroheim, who likewise deceived the world he was a Count, who shares with his creation an exorbitance in film production the Count seeks in an upper crust lifestyle, and who manipulates the plot as his protagonist does the Hugheses. That he casts himself in such a role tempts one to see a cinematic purging or self-scrutiny taking place, but perhaps he was just playing with his public persona.

Along this same line is something truly remarkable and perhaps far ahead of its time: a modernism set up via a diegetic book the Foolish Wife is shown reading and from which we see passages called “Foolish Wives” by… Erich von Stroheim! Blind Husbands stated it was based on a Stroheim book that did not exist, but here the fib may have consequences on the reading of the film. The passages, and we assume the book as whole, appear to posit the same didacticism regarding blind husbands and foolish wives and greedy counterfeits of the film we’re watching. How much is the book getting through to Mrs. Hughes? According to her husband she has read the book through before, but she nonetheless becomes susceptible to Karamzin’s charms. Is Stroheim pessimistic viewers of his actual film will heed the moralism at play, or is this layer of reflexiveness enough to set it apart, a call to greater self-awareness and reflection? Stroheim may be insulating from hypocrisy his own manipulation in narrative art by pointing to it. While not engineered to guide the viewer as much as in Griffith -indeed Stroheim’s realism and pacing allows for more thought and is literary that way –Foolish Wives is a superb piece of early classical filmmaking as well. Often we are implicated in Karamzin’s lusty gaze, but in equal measure the camera turns on his overtly carnal desire and diabolical gestures with a mix of revulsion and comic delectation. As in the previous film again, evil is countered with pure goodness in the form of the “half-witted daughter” of the religious counterfeiter and in a monk whose presence prevents the Count committing a rape. When Karamzin encounters both we first see him gaze at the person, then from his perspective look upon the figure of purity with a canvas-like texture overlay capturing them in a portrait of Godly virtue. Certainly seen as something to corrupt (the girl) and as a practical bother (the monk) for Karamzin, in Stroheim’s treatment this purity in contrast to the maliciousness throughout denotes a deep moralism running within the veins of his work. It may not be the complete vision, but Foolish Wives is nonetheless an early masterpiece of cinema.

August 2011

The Merry Widow (1925)

Though lighter in tone, this is another sizeable (and lengthy) effort “personally directed” (as it states in the credits) by Stroheim, appropriating the popular operetta in his distinctive way. The most striking point of this adaptation is
that the operetta’s narrative figures into the film towards its end, Stroheim providing a great chunk of characterisation and interaction prior to Sally’s being a widow. The thrust of the story regarding the countrymen’s attempts to have a citizen marry this wealthy woman is de-emphasised, unlike in Lubitsch’s more farcical yet witty and sophisticated adaptation a decade later. Stroheim is naturally uninterested in mapping the particulars of how the royal family will lure Sally, instead it’s a simple piece of motive information pitting Prince Mirko further against our heroes. And that’s precisely Stroheim’s usual dramatic strategy, the threat of ill-intentions corrupting the naive and good, and it occasionally has the weight of a tragedy as a result. Admittedly, I was slightly bothered by the simplistically-drawn good and bad here: Mirko’s ever-maniacal grin and intentions are caricature where the Count in Foolish Wives is sinister in perceptible ways, even then it was best to perceive the latter villain as one polar extreme in a cautionary tale figuring the married Americans; there’s no such moral dilemma in Widow, the American and the good Prince Danilo are rather victims of social circumstance. Considering this, it’s interesting the cohesion with his previous work having the virtuous character be made a humble American, once more with aristocratic Europeans preying on and deceiving her. Though curiously, for part of the film at least, Danilo is a well-to-do who pretends to be an average soldier in order to woo Sally, an inversion of the imitation Counts of the previous films. Certainly the key theme of deception and manipulation carries on here. Not a vital work but a very enjoyable one.

August 2011

Queen Kelly (1932)

Although Queen Kelly was a Gloria Swanson vanity piece produced by her and then boyfriend financier, it’s a Stroheim work through and through. And although he was fired for going over-budget and in a direction Swanson did not agree with, what remains is half of his vision relatively in tact, with a prologue of titlecards expositing the lamentably unfilmed remaining plot of this epic story. There are many Stroheim staples present: marriage as dramatic impetus, the ruling elite as sociopathic or else childish, cocky lushes, a figure of purity corrupted, despicable villains who meet their demises, strong sexual overtones (usually a foot fetish, here confiscated knickers), striking long shots and luminous close-ups, glowing apple blossoms as a symbol of love, among others. Again I am bothered by the cartoonish portrayal of heroes and villains somewhat; indeed the whip-happy Queen and the reptilian Vooyheid are even trashier in nature than usual for Stroheim, and Swanson’s orphan is less of a fool than her American counterparts, as her eyes are wide open to antagonism and so too her fate which seems utterly out of her hands. Most remarkable is the fleshing out of scenes, so extensive that in duration and feeling they go beyond the perfunctory imparting of story points and create, as Rosenbaum puts it, “an emotional detachment in the spectator by making the actors and settings into purely aesthetic objects, delectable or abhorrent surfaces arranged in such a way that the possibilities of identifying with them or sentimentalizing them are decreased.” Stroheim’s (here more lurid) finesse was almost entirely absent from The Wedding March, for me his least enjoyable effort, so Kelly felt a reminder of those kinds of pleasures.

September 2011

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Yellow (Peterson, 2006)

February 29, 2012

I was made aware of this gem’s existence curtesy of my friend Adam at Reel Time. He rightfully likens it to Ozu, with its occasional pillow shots, static interior compositions, and heeding of the quotidian, the film bears not just the Japanese master’s influence but at times overtly nods in his direction. What sets it apart is its cold inertness that betrays a more contemporary sense of awkward humour (think Roy Andersson or Ming-liang Tsai) where Ozu’s protracted scenes and inserts were warm, filled with a tipsy pleasantness or swelling melancholy -which is precisely what Claire Denis so beautifully captured in her 35 Rhums. I don’t mean this is a fault, indeed Yellow works stiltedness and its shoestring budget admirably to its advantage. This is where I should mention that it is also a musical. Thus it engages with that “most Japanese” of filmmakers and that quintessentially Hollywood genre to elucidate just how removed it is from both poles. The bittersweet family dynamics of Ozu are absent, indeed as with most truly independent American movies of this new century it features young adults messily relating to one another. Their comparatively high degree of unguided romantic freedom leads to uncertainty and procrastination.

But rather than mumble these characters deliver arch, scripted dialogue when they’re not singing their feelings in (almost) true musical fashion. The difference is the singing was recorded on camera rather than prerecorded and mimed, so one can forgive the frequently out-of-key wavering though it’s admittedly unpleasant at times. That the performers achieve the dialogue/singing fluctuations in such long takes is commendable enough, but they also possess a keen sense of mannerism and timing. And unlike classical musicals, rather than melodramas of betrayal or a complicated plot keeping lovers apart, here the two come together with relative ease and then suffer the banalities of attraction and lack thereof. Not to mention the amount of same-sex hookups and flirting present throughout, including a delightfully nonchalant revelation about one major character. Instead of mimicking Hollywood production values and coming up short, Peterson astutely plays what he’s got against those expectations, his affected but carefully designed mise-en-scene is comfortable and charming. And though Peterson certainly has room to grow, his is one of the more striking debuts in recent memory.

January 2012

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I Am Cuba (Kalatozov, 1964)

February 26, 2012

Impossibly formally astonishing; I don’t believe it contains a single boring composition, manoeuvre, or sound. It penetrates its mythic environ not violently but as if the air was liquid and the camera a fish in awe, invisible but presence felt and occasionally catered to by the citizens on display. Movement aside, even the quality of light is sublime; apparently the makers used infrared film stock, which accounts for the luminous, utopian whites. Silhouetting becomes a motif, particularly of the variety pitting figure against sky at a very low angle. The most arresting feature of the film for a time is the sense that it can do anything, cinematically, narratively -certainly by the time the fish shares in a farmer’s teary-eyed flashback of foolish optimism, consisting of no dialogue it feels like silent cinema reborn. Like the vignettes of Rossellini’s Paisan, it attempts various approaches to cover a specific place and moment in time, and certainly the injustices and heroics deemed as such by the communists. In my eyes it is yet another propaganda picture –The Man With a Movie Camera, À propos de Nice, the work of Dovzhenko -that is first and foremost avant garde brilliance, an artfulness perhaps rendering its politics inert (granted the opposite applies to the Vigo’s anarchy). Its propaganda simplifies the film a fair bit, but it’s surprising that it doesn’t always abort the turmoil of the featured characters: the silent but clear misery of the girl who prostitutes herself to “Americans”, the moral anguish of the would-be assassin, and so on. Even the US sailors are shown to be patriotic buddies, to stop chasing a local girl where a totally ridiculous film would have had them rape her into oblivion, harshly lit underneath in extreme close-up laughing maniacally and sweating onto the lens. And though it never gets that ludicrous, the sequences of revolt towards the end of the film aren’t as captivating as the less obviously political ones, despite an essayistic line of “argument” necessarily preventing the film from repeating itself over again; it’s coherent for such a sprawling movie.

October 2011