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The Idiots (1998)

The Idiots Screenshot

My first reaction upon watching this was this realization that I had never really associated von Trier with having a sense of humor! I mean, this film is just laughoutloud funny in parts. That starting sequence in the restaurant is a great opening to the film. Initially, I had no idea what to make of it. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and the sense of surprise once they get out of the restaurant was just so charming and disarming that I was quite ready to go along with whatever craziness the film was upto. And craziness doesn’t even really begin to describe what happens next.

I think what really gets me about the film is that most of the time I wasn’t at all sure how I’m supposed to be feeling. There were so many moments that are so ridiculously hilarious (Waterloo! and the ad agency scene for instance) but then these scenes are also funny at someone’s expense which made a little it uncomfortable. Secondly, even through these funny parts, there is something so provocative about what these people are doing that one can’t laugh without wondering if the joke’s really on us after all. In a way, I think the joke’s on everyone in this film. The film simultaneously seems to skewer the establishment that the Idiots in the film are trying to rebel against as well as the Idiots themselves.

I felt this duality (or multiplicity even) of tone through most of the film. The orgy scene for instance, feels disturbing, funny, banal even in some ways but then we suddenly move upstairs and see Jeppe with that girl and that entire sequence is so innocent and sweet and stands in such contrast to everything else that’s going on around the house.

The best part of the film for me started off with Karen’s speech when the family is about to break up. The whole idea of a ‘found’ family breaking up in that way and the realization that an ideology that seems so simple and seductive (to the members at least) cannot really survive was just so affecting. And then we have all of these scenes in Karen’s house and those came as a complete shock to me. The film just gained so much poignancy and weight in those final few minutes. The way the camera closes in on Karen’s face and we see her lips trembling, unable to bear to sit there even a moment longer – all just totally devastating. I was also left wondering just how much of the film was scripted vs. just happened to take place around the camera. For instance, all the stuff in Karen’s house?

Ultimately, the film managed to make me laugh, cringe, shed a tear and just feel completely uncomfortable and hypocritical and yet be engaging throughout. Pretty darn amazing!

Pan-Card: B+

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Il Divo (2008)

Il Divo Screenshot

I think the only thing we liked about this one is how stylish the movie is. The canted camera angles and the steadicam shots through these huge cavernous corridors of the mansion are all really magnificently shot. Everything feels larger-than-life and the film almost feels like an Italian goth horror movie set to pop music and electronica. But despite all these wonderful stylistic devices, the film ultimately feels empty and vacuous.

Pan read a comment earlier somewhere that part of the reason the audience is unable to keep track of the various characters is because the film is designed to mirror the confusion and frustration that the Italian law-enforcement agencies felt while sorting through this complicated case. It’s not that we aren’t comfortable not knowing who these characters are and what their role in the entire conspiracy is. We are fine with ambiguity usually don’t need a movie to tie up every thread ever so neatly.

But what left us so dissatisfied is that ultimately we felt like we got nothing from the film apart from a.) that Andreotti was really witty (We concede that the film has tons of brilliant lines) and b.) gosh, so much corruption in the Italian government. What we didn’t see was why this is worse than the corruption in any other country. The magnitude of the horror is conveyed not through the film as a whole but through this one scene where Guilio Andreotti talks about the number of people whose deaths he is responsible for.

So apart from knowing that Andreotti and co. were directly linked with the mafia and that everyone was willing to betray everyone else (heh, doesn’t sound too different from any other political thriller really), we didn’t get anything. The portrait of Andreotti felt like nothing but exaggerated affectation to us.

And the point of several scenes was entirely lost on us too. For instance, what is the relevance of the scene with the woman who comes to see him?. There is some verbal exposition on how to read Andreotti’s body language but why was she even there? Was that scene only to point out these mannerisms to us?

Ultimately, we weren’t sure exactly what to take away from the film. It wasn’t a scathing indictment of a man who is purportedly responsible for the death of hundreds of people. It didn’t really serve as an interesting character study either. A lot of scenes that seem to be shot as if they’re important didn’t really tie up into a whole that made sense to us.

Apart from the soundtrack and the visual flair, we really didn’t get much out of this one.

Pan-Card: C-             Scorn-Card: D 

The Hurt Locker Screenshot

We watched this one together and then headed out to get a drink because we needed to defuse after the high intensity experience! This movie has that much heart pounding, pulse racing, adrenaline coursing action. At some points, we were practically begging for some kind of low key scene to just loosen up, let out a breath and unclench muscles. This is an unusual war movie for at least two reasons – one, it focuses on process, what the soldiers do in the field and how they go about it, rather than a higher calling or the politics of war. Secondly, it is made by a woman – director Katherine Bigelow seems in her element. It is a huge surprise to see a woman have such complete command over such a macho, muscular movie! Pan, having seen a retrospective of Bigelow’s work recently, had experienced Bigelow’s remarkable mastery over action set pieces but this was my first taste. Well, color me impressed!

The movie doesn’t really have a plot – often a good thing for us! It tracks the life of three members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad in Iraq whose job it is to deal with/disarm improvised explosive devices (IED) which are homemade bombs that are hidden in public places. The three men are a study in contrasts – Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is jumpy, nervous and verging on PTSD, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) works by by-the-book with discipline, caution and a strong sense of duty and James (Jeremy Renner) is the “wild man”, the loose cannon. Although all three are excellent and get almost equal screen time, the movie belongs to Renner. This is a terrific performance veering from arrogant, cocky, dangerous and detestable, to decisive, courageous, empathetic and tender even. The James character craves danger above all else and to him war is a drug. We get that even without Bigelow’s exposition illuminating the character’s motivation.

Where Bigelow slips up a bit is in depicting the motivation of the three principal characters. It seems like a cliché but you get the impression that depicting emotion and motivation is not Bigelow’s strength. Instead of letting that play out through the characters’ actions, we get heavy handed dialogue. My view was that perhaps Bigelow doesn’t trust in the audience’s intelligence while Pan felt that she isn’t confident in her own ability to depict the inner workings of people’s minds without obvious props. Given that Pan has seen a lot more of Bigelow’s work, that’s probably the better explanation – also the more charitable one 😉 . These are minor quibbles however, as the movie is an action fest and psychological explorations are few and far between.

The movie plays out like an amped up, realistic video game with awesome special effects and I think there is a real business opportunity there! However, it also begs the question of how fact and fiction are melded. The James character in particular seems very much the sort of renegade who is a staple of the movies. Would someone with such disdain for authority last very long on the field? In an area where life and safety are predicated on discipline, sticking to a chain of command and trusting other specialist units to do their job, this sort of characterization makes for a fun adventure on screen but perhaps a poor depiction of real life. At any rate, for the two hours or so we were transformed into action junkies and were happy to let some of the questions of realism slide.

Pan-Card: B+             Scorn-Card: A- 

Bruno (2009)

Bruno Screenshot
The Scorn Watch

As a lover of Da Ali G Show, I eagerly looked forward to Borat. My anticipation was rewarded with a film that largely bore the spirit of a show that took aim at everyone and everything. Borat had the same winning combination of low brow humor and biting satire that made Da Ali G show a success. Thusly, I looked forward to Bruno too —- in part because the character on the TV show seemed even more outrageously funny than Borat. Not surprisingly after all the hype (Baron Cohen marketed the heck out of it!) and all of the exposure the Borat got, this one was a letdown.

It still has that familiar combination of low brow humor and satire, where one isn’t sure whether to laugh or squirm in one’s seat and so one ends up doing both at the same time. However, this one comes off as being scripted rather than spontaneous in catching people making asses of themselves or revealing themselves as narrow minded bigots or both! Certainly Da Ali show and Borat, at least in the interactions with the unsuspecting person in the frame seemed utterly real , whatever one’s tolerance for the gross and crude humor of the set pieces. In Bruno I found the set piece at the end less offensive and gross than in Borat, but the interactions with people from real life were a lot more artificial and the humor was more tepid. Maybe people have wised up to the notion that anything you say has the opportunity to be lampooned before a global audience and are not as unguarded before a camera.

Sure, the film has its funny moments – Bruno’s interaction with the gay conversion preacher or his appearance on a talk show with an African American audience. However the laughter doesn’t erupt as naturally or continuously as it did with Borat. On balance, the film is still worth a watch for Baron Cohen’s utter lack of self consciousness in being ridiculous and his gifted comedic talents. At about an hour and 20 minutes the film’s brisk pace offers some good laughs and pulls off some satiric moments.

If there is one major peeve I have with the film it is with the ending. After parodying the celebrity culture for well over an hour, the film does exactly what it seeks to ridicule. It panders shamelessly to celebrity – Bono, Sting, Elton John and Snoop Dog among others appear with Bruno to sing a song, albeit with funny lyrics, to close the film. Somehow that seems like the ultimate betrayal……………!

Scorn-Card: B

Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark Screenshot


The Pan Scape

Kathryn Bigelow makes a vampire film without having to mention the word vampire once during the movie.

I think what really worked for me here was how moody and evocative the film is. For the duration of the film, I felt totally transported to these lonely, dusty, isolated highways in the West. We start with a boy meets girl scene but things feel off right from the get go. The dialogue feels stilted and we immediately fear for our sweet and wholesome looking cowboy. I think what I enjoyed most about this film is how successful it is at evoking and sustaining this mood. Pretty much the entire film inhabits this magic hour in these small towns and it’s like being there literally. The film has shot after shot of light dying out and darkness setting in or the other way round and they are all hypnotically beautiful. Plus, the movie has a lot of things that get set on fire all the time and it’s lovely to watch – every single time.

I think the point at which I really got into the movie was the initiation sequence in the bar. It’s simultaneously intense and utterly hilarious. It’s patiently gruesome and violent and the whole thing is choreographed so beautifully, literally like a dance piece, with the music playing on the jukebox in the background and by the time we get to “Fever”, all the violence has slowed down to a languorous and bone-chilling pace. It’s really pretty perfect.

There’s a particular plot device that took me out of the film for a brief moment (i.e. the cure) but the plot isn’t really what the film is about anyway. It’s all subservient to the atmosphere and the ideas that the film does a great job conveying.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how she envisions these vampires. Bigelow’s vampire family seems full of conflicted, desperate characters (as opposed to seductive and glamorous) and I really enjoyed the casting too. Bill Paxton is just fun to watch and Lance Henriksen has the weathered look of a man who has seen it all and been here forever.

There are a ton of fun set pieces in the movie. By the time we get to the amazing sequence in a truck and the one of people going up in flames, the film had totally won me over and any niggling doubts about the plot had more or less vanished.

Pan-Card: B

Burma VJ (2009)

BurmaVJ Screenshot

This is a moving and affecting account of the uprisings in September 2007 against the oppressive military regime in Burma, captured on film by a group of intrepid video jockeys (VJs). The documentary comprises of footage shot secretly and smuggled out of the country by these amateur journalists risking life and freedom to bring to the world the state of protests in Burma.

The VJs use low-tech equipment frequently hidden in bags or on their person and consequently the footage is often shaky and blurry. However, the low-tech imagery only enhances our sense of personal involvement with the events that unfold on screen. Further, the content is so powerful that it seems only appropriate that form take a backseat to substance.The emotional impact of the film is heightened by the first person account of events by one of the leaders of the underground VJ movement , Jason, who remains a shadowy figure right through the film. His anxiety that Burma will be forgotten by the world is palpable and this seems to imbue his actions with a higher purpose. Like us, he is relegated to being a bystander, much to his dismay. However, from his hideout in Thailand he orchestrates the activity on the ground in Burma and galvanizes other VJs into action.

Our emotional involvement is ramped up as the protests gain in momentum particularly when the monks get involved. Creeping in is also a sense of impotence as we learn more about how the anti-government demonstrations have erupted sporadically for two decades with practically nothing to show for the effort. The demonstrations of 2007 which the movie tracks follow in that path of futility in terms of the end result. We are left a little deflated, wondering what purpose any of this serves. Yet, Jason remains largely undaunted and in a moving final shot, we see him returning surreptitiously to Burma to reload for another round of covert media coverage of the government’s atrocities.

The film takes on additional resonance given the current protests in Iran where citizen journalists played a pivotal part in bringing to us news from the streets. There too, the harsh and ruthless powers-that-be appear to have crushed the resistance.

We watched this documentary in an intimate setting – a little theater with just 10 seats all of which were taken. At the end, as the credits rolled, there was a stunned silence in the room out of respect and awe for what we had just witnessed.

This is perhaps a film that you could view quite as easily on DVD but we were happy to contribute our $10 towards the making of movies like this one.

Pan-Card: A-              Scorn-Card: A- 

Gone Baby Gone Screenshot


The Scorn Watch

I watched this film largely because of two things – it was well reviewed (I’m a serial consumer of movie reviews!) and it was set and filmed on location in Boston. I discounted the first to some degree because this was Ben Affleck’s first directorial effort. After all Affleck is more pretty boy than anything else; in contrast Damon (his congenitally joined twin in movie terms) has it all – the hunk tag, box office success and serious actor cred. I came away from the movie impressed by Ben Affeck’s directorial skills and looking forward to his next directorial venture. As for Boston, this may as well have been set in an unfamiliar city. It was a view of Boston that I’d never seen despite having lived in the city for 6 years. The cop cars, the street signs, the T, the accents all seemed familiar but it was a working class Dorchester neighborhood populated by the sort of people that I have little familiarity with.

The movie is a thriller/whodunit of the tough, gritty kind, with PIs, cops, gangsters, drug dealers – the sorts of people one knows only from the movies. In fact I’m convinced that if I meet a real gangster (god forbid!) who is different, I’d be more inclined to distrust the first hand evidence rather than correct my movie based schema of them 😉 . Despite a large and competent ensemble cast, the movie rides largely on the strength of Casey Affleck’s Private Investigator character. I don’t have a schema for PIs outside of the movies and books, but Affleck Jr. transcends that constraint. He simply is the hometown boy with a wide network of local connections who has a feel for the neighborhood, the lives, motivations, fears and hopes of its denizens. Of course, it helps that Affleck is a home town South Boston guy and he pulled me into the story with his effortless performance. I’d only ever seen him in the Ocean’s franchise although Pan has spoken of how much she liked the Jesse James movie and his performance.

The story itself seemed felt like three separate, only tenuously related segments – the story of the abduction of 4 year old Amanda, the child pedophile stakeout and the role of the cops. However when it all comes together, it seems to fit into a more conventional structure of a 3 act play – setting up the premise, unfolding of the plot and the climax. The fact that the 3 segments are distinct and not obviously related is a strength of the movie albeit one that you realize only at the end. There is plenty of edge-of- the- seat action, some gruesome scenes that I watched through the cracks of my fingers and well paced suspenseful twists in the plot. A few twists you can guess but the final one I didn’t see coming. I’m easily led down the garden path but only by a well told story; so it a testament to this story’s gripping narrative.

In the final analysis, as much as I enjoy well told stories and gripping thrillers what won me over is how this movie sets up the moral ambiguity of the final outcome. For the most part the good and the bad guys in the movie are clearly delineated although not in a cardboard cut-out, unidimensional fashion. At the end however, I felt torn – switching loyalties between Affleck’s character’s view point and that of his girlfriend played by Michelle Monaghan. The strength of the movie is that it is not preachy at all, doesn’t present the moral questions with any self-righteousness or self consciousness even but the moral underpinnings of the major characters are very much at the heart of the narrative. One of the most memorable characters in the film is that of Amanda’s mother played by Amy Ryan. At first this is a character that seems clearly set up in the role of one of the bad guys, yet she defies that stereotype as the movie wears on and in the end one isn’t sure what to make of her. The movie ends with a final rueful shot of Casey Affleck’s character making good on the consequences of his action and it really is thought provoking and ambiguous in its tone, in short – the perfect ending!

Scorn-Card: A-