2013 First-Time Viewings: August Week 2

Blue JasmineBlue Jasmine

After devoting his last two films to love letters for famous European cities, one successful and the other not, Woody Allen returns back to the States and to more dramatic ground. The focus this time is on the fascinating character of Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett as a shallow New York socialite forced down several pegs after her businessman husband’s various illegal activities bubble to the surface. Penniless and alienated from her privileged life, Jasmine retreats to the home of her less-well-off sister in San Francisco and attempts to come to terms with her new prospects. Blue Jasmine is arguably one of the more overtly political films of Allen’s career, with its cynical portrayal of wealthy lifestyles and the separation between the upper class and the working class in America (Jasmine’s former husband, played with duplicitous relish by Alec Baldwin, lectures his son on the importance of charity while secretly engaging in illegal business operations and multiple affairs on the side). The comparisons that have been made just about everywhere to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire are appropriate, but perhaps slightly overblown. Sure, the trajectory of the film and some small details will resonate with those familiar with Williams’  famous play, but I think Allen adds enough of his own touch that it shouldn’t be labeled as simply a modern-day reinterpretation.

The film has a wonderful structure, alternating between Jasmine’s current situation in San Francisco and flashbacks to her life in New York, revealing crucial information on her character at several key moments. Jasmine is a dynamic creation, the kind of person you constantly find yourself reevaluating, and Blanchett invests in the character and gives a forceful performance. She’s backed up by a string of great supporting roles too; Allen has always had a knack for getting the most out of his ensembles, but I can’t think of too many other films of his where the supporting cast is as strong as it is here (only Louis C.K. feels a little underused, his role amounting to little more than a cameo). Admittedly, I’ve always been something of a Woody Allen apologist, usually eager to focus more on the good than on the bad even with the director’s least inspired efforts. With Blue Jasmine though, I have no need to make any kind of apology. A strong endorsement is more appropriate in this case. 8/10.

The Act Of KillingThe Act Of Killing

This one is going to stick with me for awhile. Executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, this documentary from Joshua Oppenheimer provides a disturbingly-close look into the minds of those responsible for genocide. The filmmakers place their focus mainly on Anwars Congo and Herman Koto, two Indonesian former death squad leaders responsible for the killing of thousands of communists in the 1960s. Oppenheimer and his crew follow these two and a handful of others around as they talk freely about their pasts and the current political climate in Indonesia. As if interacting directly with these people wasn’t enough, Oppenheimer encourages them to stage reenactments of their murderous actions, a prospect to which they agree all too willingly  (the title has a double meaning, referring to the literal act of killing and the frequent “acts” of killing the participators restage). Through these reenactments, the men are unwittingly forced to come to terms with everything they have done.

My memories of watching Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah are still fresh in mind, and there are parallels to be drawn between that film and Oppenheimer’s work here, particularly in how both films directly confront the harbingers of evil and death. In Lanzmann’s film, when he interviews former Nazi officials, the most frequent response he receives is that they were completely unaware of the horrors that were being carried out around them. That kind of implausible denial surfaces again in Oppenheimer’s film, during a backstage discussion while everyone is preparing to shoot a scene. One of the participants tries to explain away his past, but the others around him quickly jump to dismiss his claims. From their perspective, their past slaughters are not only defensible but worthy of celebration. It’s a sobering revelation,  a warped mindset promoted by an Indonesian regime that looks back on its history of genocide with pride. Oppenheimer’s film is remarkable not only for that unflinching look into the darkness of modern Indonesian society, but for its forceful examination into the nature of genocide and its quest for catharsis from those responsible, no matter how small it may end up being. 9/10.

GenocideGenocide

The fourth and last film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection When Horror Came To Shochiku, a collection that is remarkable for its wide variety of topics covered over a relatively-short period of time. The title of this 1968 effort signals a more serious endeavor, and to a certain extent that’s true here, but perhaps not in the ways you’d expect. The previous three films in the collection focused on extraterrestrial and supernatural forces. Genocide, however, is a killer bug movie.  When they realize the human race is guiding the world down a road to complete annihilation, the insects decide to take decisive action. Yes, the bugs are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Before long, they’re repeatedly chanting “genocide,” attacking anyone that dares to stand up against them, and taking down planes carrying hydrogen bombs. All that may sound like the recipe for an exercise in high camp, but director Kazui Nihonmatsu, who was also behind the camera for The X From Outer Space a year earlier, plays the material straighter and more downbeat than expected.

Despite the silliness of the premise, there is nothing silly about the film’s socio-political subtext, and that seriousness is reflected in the apocalyptic trajectory of the narrative. Also, for someone like myself who already has something of a phobia towards insects, there are moments in this film that made me uncomfortable, particularly the uncompromising death of one character and the many shots of insects biting down on human flesh. When it comes to tone and overall impact, Genocide is a more assured piece of work than The X From Outer Space, but remnants of that film’s clumsy approach still remain. Some of the filmmaking decisions are remarkable in their wrongheadedness, especially the casting of a beach blonde American actress to play a Holocaust survivor, who also is revealed to be the film’s primary human villain. A creepy subplot involving a lecherous landlord also seems to come and go with surprisingly little consequence. There are certainly moments where the film stumbles, but the impression it leaves at the end is mostly positive, and it serves as a worthwhile conclusion to Shochiku’s experiments with the horror genre. 6/10.

Trailers:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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