Friday, September 19, 2014

Movie Review: The Drop

The Drop
Directed by: Michaël R. Roskam.
Written by: Dennis Lehane based on his short story.
Starring: Tom Hardy (Bob), Noomi Rapace (Nadia), James Gandolfini (Cousin Marv), Matthias Schoenaerts (Eric Deeds), John Ortiz (Detective Torres), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Detective Romsey), Michael Aronov (Chovka), Morgan Spector (Andre), Ann Dowd (Dottie).

I have read most of Dennis Lehane’s novels, and one of the things that always strikes me as I read them is how often they sneak up on you – how the start out as little more than genres stories, but end up at a much deeper, darker place that illuminates some darkness in humanity. With the exception of Shutter Island (which is perhaps Lehane’s worst book, but was made into the best adaptation of his work by Martin Scorsese), this gradual darkening doesn’t come in the form of a twist ending as much as a slow descent into the darkness of the material that eventually becomes clear. I haven’t read the short story that The Drop is based on, but the film version does the same basic thing. It starts out as seemingly a movie about a bar used as a drop for mob cash, and the men who work there – who are on the fringes of criminal activity. But the last few scenes take this seemingly straight forward story into some very dark, disturbing places.

The film stars Tom Hardy, in another of his string of remarkable performances, as Bob – who has worked in Cousin Marv’s bar for years, and tells anyone who asks that he's just the bartender – nothing else. He's a big man, but is seemingly gentle and kind – the kind of guy who when he’s walking alone at night and hears a dog whining, he stops to investigate. He finds a pit-bull puppy in the garbage can outside of the house of Nadia (Noomi Rapace) – who had no idea the dog was there. The dog had been badly abused, but Nadia cleans the dog up, and soon Bob is taking care of the dog – who he falls in love with. Nadia also loves the dog – and is soon hanging out with both Bob and the dog – who they name Rocco. The relationship between the two develops slowly. Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) used to own that bar, and was a low level gangster and loan shark, but 10 years ago, he sold out to the Chechens who wanted to move into the Brooklyn neighborhood, and who Marv decided not to go to war with. It’s a decision he still regrets. He used to be someone, and now he’s nothing – and that makes him angrier than anything. Then two things happen that set the plot of the movie into motion. The first is a robbery at the bar – one that the Chechens and the Detective Torres (John Ortiz) are suspicious of. The second is the appearance of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts) – Nadia’s ex-boyfriend, who shows up on Bob’s door, and tells him that the dog is his – and Bob doesn’t do what he says, he’ll take the dog back.

Hardy has slowly become one of the best, most interesting actors working today. Already this year, he delivered a stunning performance as a Welsh-man in Locke – where he spent the entire movie in his car, by himself, talking to various people on the phone. His accent in that movie is precise and memorable – and his Brooklyn accent here is just as memorable. Hardy never seems to sound the same in any two movies – think back to his work in Bronson or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Lawless – to see what I mean. He plays Bob as a sort of gentle giant – calm, quiet, at times he almost appears to be a little slow. But from the beginning we sense something not quite right about him – he doesn’t get flustered by a rather grisly delivery, and while he goes out of his way to avoid conflict, we sense you don’t want to get on his bad side. Gandolfini, in his final screen role, delivers one of his best big screen performances – he is quiet too, his shoulders hunched from carrying too much weight. He’s more bitter than anything else – bitter that after everything he’s gone through, he is still broke, still working at the same bar, and is being pushed around by people he hates. It’s a brilliant performance by Gandolfini. Schoenarts, who like Hardy is becoming one of the more interesting actors working today, is also great as Eric Deeds – a somewhat unhinged, violent man who wants everyone to know he is unhinged and violent – but for all his talk, we don’t actually see him do anything. Unfortunately the film basically wastes Rapace – who is good in the role – but unlike the three men in the movie she isn’t given much depth to play – there’s not as much going on beneath the surface of her character – she is precisely who she appears to be.

This is the second film by director Michael R. Roskam, following the Academy award nominated Bullhead (for Foreign Language film) also starring Schoenarts. That film and this one share some things in common in their portrait of wounded masculinity. But I think The Drop is the better, stronger, deeper film. The film is low on plot, and moves at a rather leisurely paced right up until its rather shocking ending. But that’s because the film isn’t really a plot driven movie – but a darker film about these men and the things they do. It’s not an overly original film, but with its performance, its dark visual look, and its effective ending, it’s still a knockout.

Movie Review: Manakamana

Manakamana
Directed by: Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez.

Manakamana is the third film from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) and all of them are different from each other and from anything else being produced right now. I don’t think I   was fully prepared for Sweetgrass (2009) about sheepherders in Montana – which had little in the way of dialogue, and a lot of shots of lots of sheep moving through the mountains – along with their endless bleating. I appreciated last year`s Leviathan a lot more – about life on board a fishing boat –which contained some images that I will never forget, but also lacked much in the way of speaking. The latest film from the SEL is Manakamana – and like the other two films, it doesn’t make for the most exciting movie going experience – but does show you something you cannot see anywhere else – and does so in an interesting way. In Nepal, there is a Temple dedicated to the Goddess Manakamana a top a mountain. As we learn in the movie, it used to take three days to trek to the temple. Now, however, they have built a cable car which will take you there in 10 minutes. The film is made up of 11 journeys shot in their entirety either up or down the mountain; with a variety of different people (only one couple appears twice).

It would be easy to dismiss Manakamana as a stunt – or simple, as you could argue that all the directors – Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez – had to do is setup a camera and then edit the journeys together. But that’s not what they did – they were in the cable car for each journey, although they do not interact with the people in anyway. And I understand they spent quite some time in Nepal “casting” the film. They effect the movie has is precisely the one the filmmakers want.

So in the movie we watch as the variety of people either travels up or down the mountain on the cable car. The first is seemingly a grandfather and grandson, who simply sit there and do not speak to each other. Among the other couples are three long haired 20 something’s who joke around, and take pictures, three women seemingly married to the same man – who seem happy. Two older ladies eating ice cream. A couple of tourists. Once, it’s just a few goats in their – going up for reasons neither we nor they understand. The only couple who reappear is a married couple – the wife of which talks much more than the husband.

The film is somewhat enthralling and even haunting at times. Often, these people say little or nothing for minutes on end or even the entire trip. They look outside at all the trees, the river, the old trail, the villages they pass – some of which we see, some of which we do not. Sometimes they simply sit there and stare back into the camera. The effect when no one is talking is eerie – as if as we’re watching these people, they’re watching us right back.

It’s hard to describe the impact Manakamana has. By looking so closely at these people, for so long (and yes, 10 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, but sit there and do nothing for 10 minutes once to see what the experience is like) – the movie illuminates them  in unexpected ways – and ways that no interview with these same these people would never reveal. And if you open yourself up to it, you may even learn something about yourself as well. The film reminded me of the documentary from last year Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which is about the performance’s artists exhibit, where she simply sat in a chair and stared back at whoever sat in the chair across the table from her. Putting the effect of either Abramovic’s exhibit or the effect of Manakamana into words is not really possible – it’s something you need to experience.

I will say this though – I’m really not sure we needed to go through this 11 times to get the same impact. For the first hour or so, I was enthralled in the movie, but in the second hour my mind started to wonder a little bit. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing, but movies like this are about what you think about when you are watching it as much as what’s onscreen.

So no, Manakamana is not the most exciting movie of the year – and many audiences would simply not be interested in seeing it. But to some, this will be one of the movie events of the year. Count me as somewhere in between those two extremes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Mini-TIFF Wrap-Up

If you read my mini-TIFF preview a few weeks ago, you know that unlike most years, I wasn’t able to do a weeklong movie binge this year – having a 6 month old baby at home will do that to a guy. I was only able to attend two days on the weekend, and I decided to go to the second weekend, instead of the first – and I have to say the experience was wonderful. When you go early in the festival, the media and celebrities are all over everything, everything gets delayed and the whole thing is chaos – enjoyable chaos, but chaos just the same. When you go the second weekend, the media has all but left, there are few if any celebrities still around, the whole thing runs smoothly. The lineups are shorter, the theaters slightly less packed, everything starts on time, and you get into the theaters way earlier. In short, when you go the second weekend, it’s all about the movies not the hype – and I highly suggest anyone who can to do that next year. I know I will.

Anyway, onto the movies themselves. My 8 film weekend started with The Humbling directed by Barry Levinson, co-written by Buck Henry based on Philip Roth’s novel, and starring Al Pacino in the lead role as Simon Axler – an aging actor, who falls off the stage during a performance, and decides to retire. After a stay in a mental hospital, he retires to his large house in Connecticut. It’s there he meets – or re-meets I guess – Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) – the daughter of his old friends who he hasn’t seen since she was 10, decades ago. She always had a crush on him, and that has stopped all these years later – despite the fact that she’s now a lesbian. The filmmakers wisely turn one of Roth’s least novels – which is really a misery tour that borders on the comedic – into a full blown comedy. Pacino gives the role his all – and it’s nice to see that at least one of the great actors from the 1970s is still willing to challenge himself and not just coast (like DeNiro). It’s a broad performance, but Pacino hits all the right notes – and the supporting cast, from Kyra Sedgwick to Dianne Wiest to Dan Hedaya to Charles Grodin – all hit the right notes in rather small roles. A particular highlight is Nina Arianda as Sybil, a woman he meets in the mental hospital, who thinks Simon can kill her husband because he has experience killing people in the movies. The problem with the movie is that it never really figures out who Pegeen is – despite a valiant effort on the part of Gerwig, who plays like a caricature of a typical Roth woman (or actually, perhaps a Woody Allen woman) – although since the movie segues back and forth between reality and fantasy, perhaps that’s intentional. Still, it seems like her whole purpose is to destroy Simon – or at least come along and move the plot in whatever way it needs to go, instead of being an actual character. It’s still one of the better movies Levinson has made in a while – and one of the best performances Pacino has given not for HBO in a decade.

Another movie star showed up in Time Out of Mind directed by Oren Moverman. This was Richard Gere, who plays the homeless George in what is mainly a plotless movie. What little plot there is involves Gere trying to reconnect with the daughter he abandoned (Jena Malone) and navigating the bureaucracy of the shelter system, and the Government, as he tries to get some proof of who he is (he has no ID). Mainly though, Moverman is interested in re-creating the day-to-day life of a homeless man – often shooting Gere from a distance, observing him as most of the people he passes takes no notice of him. It’s a fascinating film, with a great performance by Gere, who has never disappeared this far into a role before, nor done something that doesn’t utilize his natural charm to this degree. It’s also kind of dull to be honest – but still well worth seeing to see both Moverman and Gere take an interesting step in a new direction for their careers.

I ended up seeing three blood soaked foreign films, of varying degrees of quality. The worst was Shrew’s Nest from Spain, directed by Juanfer Andres and Esteban Roel about a pair of sisters living in an apartment building. The older one never leaves the apartment, where she makes a living making dresses, and the younger one – who is more beautiful, has just turned 18, and may want out soon. When there upstairs neighbor falls down the stairs, breaking his leg outside their apartment, the older sister takes him in – he’s grateful of first as he was planning on disappearing for a while anyway – but soon he discovers she’s basically planning on keeping him in bed forever, Misery-style. The first half of the movie is restrained, but also kind of dull – because it’s clear everyone is holding back REALLY BIG secrets that will eventually be revealed. The second half of the film is bonkers, with the revelations and corpses piling up every five minutes or so in a blood soaked finale, which requires pretty much every character to behave in completely unbelievable ways for the sake of its “shocking” finale that was telegraphed almost from the beginning. It was only 90 minutes, but felt much longer.

There was also Fires on the Plain by director Shin’ya Tsukamoto, a remake of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 WWII classic about dehumanization. Tsukamoto’s film hits some of the same themes, but does so in a much more blood soaked way – including a massacre in the middle of the movie which is as chaotic, violent, bloody and disturbing as any scene of its kind – until it goes slightly too far. The same can be said of the movie, which is a weird mixture of art-house sensibilities – with long portions with little or no dialogue, with the main character on his own, mixed with the splatter film violence that Tsukamoto is most known for. The effect is surprisingly effective and disturbing – but of course, falls well short of Ichikawa’s classic, which was pretty much inevitable.

The best of the blood soaked triad was Alleluia directed by Fabrice du Welz based on the infamous Honeymoon Killers, who have had several movies made about them in the past. In the film, a normal woman – a mother of young woman – falls for a womanizing conman, and even after she learns his secrets, wants nothing else than to be with him. She poses as her sister as he seduces three other rich women for their money – but completely loses it every time she sleeps with them, leading to bloody murder and dismemberment – and even a surreal musical number. The film never really attempts to answer the question of why – why this normal woman fell so hard for the conman, or why the conman lets her keep screwing up his plans – but as a portrait of obsessive love and violence its damn good – particularly the insane performance by Lola Duenas. The film is at its best when it’s at its most unhinged and surreal – and Du Welz goes for broke.

I suppose the mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi could also be described as a blood soaked foreign film – there are literally geysers of blood throughout the film, and it is from New Zealand, but unlike the other three films its goes for comedy more than anything else – and the results are delightful and hilarious – it won the People’s Choice for Midnight Madness, and is a cult film in the making. The film follows four vampires who are also flatmates in New Zealand, who have to have meetings to ensure everyone is doing their fair share of the chores, and other such issues. Waititi is wonderful as Viago, a “former dandy” who is a little obsessive about cleanliness – he asks the others to put down some paper or towels before killing a victim, so as not to get blood everywhere. Clement is even better as an older vampire – once known as Vladislav the Poker. The film plays with every vampire movie cliché imaginable – from Nosferatu to Twilight – and has great fun the entire time. In a festival where almost everything else I saw was heavy, violent and disturbing, this one was a pure joy.

The best film I saw was The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his previous documentary The Act of Killing – a film that left me stunned two years ago at TIFF, where it completely surprised me as I had no idea what to expect. In this film, Oppenheimer accompanies Abi, an optometrist, as he goes to visit the men who killed his older brother during the 1965 Indonesian “cleansing” of Communists. Oppenehimer returns, repeatedly, to Abi simply watching the footage of the killers as the recount, without a hint of remorse, what they did to his brother – and to his two aged parents – the mother who still cries for her lost son, to his father, who is sick and somewhat demented, but still sad. When he confronts his brother’s killers he encounters a series of denials, excuses and threats. They don’t want to stir up the past – at least not with the family of one of their victims, as they seem to have no problem revealing to Oppenheimer what they did, and no remorse for it either – as we saw in The Act of Killing. The children of his brother’s killers are perhaps even more interesting than the killers themselves – one makes excuses for her father – telling Abi he’s old and senile and doesn’t remember much, even though this follows his rather precise re-telling of what he did. Two sons of a man who wrote a book – complete with drawings – of what he did don’t want to hear anything about, and say they knew nothing. “Can’t we just all get along like the military dictatorship taught us?” one asks Abi. All Abi really wants is to see some sort of remorse from his brothers killers – and it’s the one thing they seemingly refuse to give. As a chilling scene in his son’s classroom makes clear, Indonesia still hasn’t come to terms to the reality of what was done – and they don’t seem to much care either. The movie doesn’t have the same hook as The Act of Killing – killers re-enacting their crimes in the style of various Hollywood films – but is even more devastating. I’m not sure if Oppenheimer made the film is response to some of the criticism the last one received, but if he did it refutes it brilliantly. This may be even better than The Act of Killing – which was the best documentary I had seen in years.

I ended my TIFF experience with Goodbye to Language 3-D by Jean-Luc Godard. Any regular readers know that I am ambivalent at best about almost everything Godard has made since Weekend way back in 1967 – and I have downright hated some of them, like his last feature Film Socialism. But Goodbye to Language is my favorite Godard film is years – its more playful and less didactic than Film Socialism, even though it is definitely related to that film. The film is more accessible than that film as well – even if I still think I only understood about half of it. But even when the film left me confused, it was brilliantly filmed in 3-D – giving us images that no other filmmaker would think of doing. Godard is experimenting with 3-D – and gives us some amazing images – most notably a moment when the screen splits, the camera revolves, and then comes together again. For the most part, I am indifferent at best to 3-D – since it became the norm for large scale movies, the only ones I think truly utilized it well are Gravity, Hugo and Avatar – the rest are merely unnecessary or distracting. While Goodbye to Language isn’t the best 3-D movie I have ever seen, it is certainly the most unique use of 3-D I have ever seen – and perhaps the thing the technology needed the most – a true innovator trying to do something completely different with it. I’m not as in love with the film as many are – it comes back to that only understanding half of it thing – but I’m glad I saw it at TIFF, as I am well aware that I may never get another chance to see it on the big screen in 3-D the way it is meant to be seen. If you have the opportunity, you should definitely seize it.

So that’s it for TIFF for another year. Hopefully next year, I.’ll be back to another week long trip. But this year, despite how short my stay at TIFF was, I had a great time, some saw great films – and isn’t that what TIFF is supposed to be all about.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Movie Review: Cheap Thrills

Cheap Thrills
Directed by: E.L. Katz.
Written by: David Chirchirillo &  Trent Haaga.
Starring: Pat Healy (Craig Daniels), Sara Paxton (Violet), Ethan Embry (Vince), David Koechner (Colin).

Cheap Thrills is an extremely dark comedy that edges into gross out and horror territory as it moves along. The basic premise is simple – a rich couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) meet two strangers in a bar – Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry), who were friends in high school but haven’t seen each other in years. Their evening starts out with Tequila and innocent bets - $50 for to whoever can chug a shot first, $200 bucks to the guy who can get a girl at the bar to slap him in the face, etc. Eventually they go back to Colin and Violet’s house, and the stakes are raised. The couple has $250,000, and are willing to give it to the Craig and Vince if they’ll do whatever the couple tells them to do – the stakes quickly ramping up to challenges involving feces, dogs, sex and violence.

This could have been the material for a cheap gross out movie – the cinematic equivalent of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted which was just a series of short stories that aimed at nothing more than to make the reader vomit. But Cheap Thrills is better than that with a degree of maturity and genuine satire running through its gross out premise. It all hinges on the character of Craig – and Pat Healy`s excellent performance in the role. Before the festivities begin, we see him leave his house for work in the morning, kissing his wife and baby goodbye, before finding an eviction notice on his door. At his low level garage job, his boss calls him into the office – we don’t hear much, but we hear the word downsizing, and know he`s in even more trouble. He needs $4,500 fast to keep his family in their home – and that will just get through this month. What happens next month?

Craig is a realistic character trapped in what is admittedly a not very realistic movie. The other three characters are as three dimensional as Craig is – Vince is basically a low level greedy thug, who for most of the movie seems willing to do pretty much anything to get his hands on the money. Colin and Violet aren’t seen as anything more than thoughtless rich people – who see those poorer than them as pawns just there for their own amusement. That’s not to say that the actors aren’t good in their roles – Koechner is particular is excellent, and plays off his own screen persona as a comedic idiot wonderfully.

At only 88 minutes, Cheap Thrills moves at a fairly rapid pace for most its running time – constantly upping the ante in one disturbing, yet darkly comedic, scene after another. It moves so fast in fact that you may well miss just how smart a movie this is – and just how much is going on beneath the surface of it. At its core, this is a movie about what you`re willing to sell for money – your body, your morals, your soul – and whether it’s all worth it. It’s a satire for our age of greed, when it seems like more and more people are willing to do just about anything for money.

The final scene in the movie – after the games have ended – brings it all back to where it started though. It brilliantly contrasts the opening of the movie, and shows just how much has changed from the beginning of the film. After the movie moved so rapidly, this scene slows things enough to allow you to ponder the implications of everything that happened before.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Movie Review: Willow Creek

Willow Creek
Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait.
Written by: Bobcat Goldthwait.
Starring: Alexie Gilmore (Kelly), Bryce Johnson (Jim).

The last two films Bobcat Goldtwait directed, World’s Greatest Dad (2009) and God Bless America (2011) were daring, incendiary films that looked at the cult of death, and the state of American culture respectively. The films easily offended some, and had many ideas that even fans of the film (like myself) do not necessarily agree with – but that only made the films more memorable. So it’s a little odd to see Willow Creek, which looks like just another Blair Witch Project knock-off. And, truth be told, when the film ends that is precisely what the film has been – another found footage horror film. Having said that, it is an expertly crafted found footage horror film – one that is smarter, funnier and scarier than the rest of the found footage horror films I have seen in the last year or so.

The film stars Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson as Kelly and Jim – a couple who has been dating for a while, who travel to the Pacific Northwest in search of bigfoot. Jim is a believer – he knows all the stories and legends – who “saw” Bigfoot where and when. Kelly is basically just along for the ride – she wants to make Jim happy, so she’ll tag along with him on his trip. They get to the small town, who has made Bigfoot into a way of drawing tourists to the area to buy cheap souvenirs, eat “Bigfoot” Burgers and stay at the Bigfoot Motel. They have giant Bigfoot statues everywhere – and the locals are more than willing to sit down and talk to Jim about the legends. Gradually however, so gradually in fact many in the audience may not notice, the stories start to get a little darker, more violent, the people seem to be less friendly and jovial, and more haunted or sinister. Their last stop before heading out into the woods is another one of those Bigfoot statues where Jim jokingly gets an interview with Bigfoot himself – something that angers a local who tells him not to do that. This isn’t some sort of joke. When they get to the woods, they meet an even angrier man – who tells them to turn around and leave the woods right now – and isn’t nice about it either. But none of this will dissuade Jim – he knows a back way into the woods where he wants to go, and soon he and Kelly are deep in the woods. And strange things start to happen.

The first half of Willow Creek pretty much stays in town with Kelly and Jim, and slowly (perhaps too slowly) starts to build the menace in the town and the people, and gradually the unease builds. The second half takes them to the woods, and continues to build the suspense and unease. And then there is a brilliant, nearly 20 minute single shot scene of the pair holed up inside their tent at night, as they hear strange noises outside the tent – and then more than just noises. It is a brilliant sequence, and proves that the scariest thing in a movie can be nothing more than an unknown noise in the dark. The sequence is scarier than anything else I have seen this year – and anything in any movie since last year’s The Conjuring.

After that sequence, the movie proceeds to its inevitable conclusion in a more straightforward fashion. We know it’s not going to end well – these movies never end well – yet like the rest of the movie, it is effectively handled by Goldthwaite. Willow Creek is not as daring as the last few films by Goldthwaite, although it may be a less “flawed” film. It is essentially what it looks like – yet another Blair Witch inspired horror movie. But in the years since Blair Witch broke out Willow Creek is probably the best of all its imitators – and more proof that Goldthwaite is a real filmmaker.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Fires on the Plain (1959)

Fires on the Plain (1959)
Directed by: Kon Ichikawa.
Written by: Natto Wada based on the novel by Shohei Ooka.
Starring: Eiji Funakoshi (Tamura), Osamu Takizawa (Yasuda), Mickey Curtis (Nagamatsu), Mantarô Ushio (Sergeant), Kyû Sazanka (Army surgeon), Yoshihiro Hamaguchi (Officer), Asao Sano (Soldier), Masaya Tsukida (Soldier), Hikaru Hoshi (Soldier).

Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the bleakest war films I have ever seen. Set in the waning days of the war, in the Philippines in 1945, the film depicts the final days of the decimated Japanese army who have been roundly defeated, but have not yet surrendered. The few surviving Japanese soldiers are basically split up into small groups, making their way across the island to join the last Japanese stronghold – which may or may not still exist. During the course of the movie, we will see the Japanese soldiers do the most inhumane things to each other imaginable.

Yet for all the bleakness in the film, Ichikawa infuses the film with some gallows humor as well. When the film opens, the main character, Tamura (Eiji Funkoshi) has returned from the hospital to his unit after being treated for tuberculosis. But his superiors don’t want him back – they tell him he cannot possibly have been cured in such a short period of time, and order him to go back to the field hospital – and if they refuse to admit him, then he should just blow himself up with his lone grenade. This plays almost like a scene out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – Tamura is damned no matter what he does. There are other moments of dark levity – a seemingly dead soldier who takes his face out of the mud just long enough to respond to his commanding officer, or a reference to Chaplin, when Tamura tries to replace his worn out boots with some that aren’t quite as bad. Fires on the Plain is as bleak as movies gets – but Ichikawa still sees the absurdity of it all.

Fires on the Plain contains haunting images – stacks of rotting corpses, that Tamura and his fellow travelers pass by without even noticing – as if the sight is so common its lost all meaning to them. The fact that Tamura is still alive is nothing short of miraculous, but he soldiers on. He eventually teams up with two other soldiers to make their way across the island. They consider turning themselves in – the Japanese code of honor that we often see in WWII movies about the Japanese that said they could never surrender doesn’t seem to apply here. They don’t much care anymore. They try and shoot monkeys for food – and when that runs scarce, the talk turns to cannibalism – and soon the men are not just fighting the enemy and the elements – but each other.

The film never really looks at the enemy with any clarity. The closest it comes is when Tamura considers surrendering, but witnesses what happens when one of his fellow soldiers finds the Americans to surrender – and figures he’ll be better off on his own. The enemy is hardly the point anymore anyway – Tamura and everyone else knows they have lost the war. Now, it all a matter of survival. Tamura is basically an insect who refuses to die – like the ant that crawls across his skin. But unlike his fellow soldiers, he holds onto whatever little humanity the war has left him. Those around him are giving in to their base urges – but to the end of the film, Tamura holds onto his humanity – although wherever he’s walking at the end of the movie, you get the sense that he’s unlikely to get there – and even if he does, he probably won’t see anything different than what he has already seen.

In short, Fires on the Plain is a bleak vision of hell – but one that like it hero maintains it view of humanity. The movie shows, as good as any, the horrors of war, and the suffering it causes. It is a haunting movie – one I will not soon forget.

Movie Review: Horses of God

Horses of God
Directed by: Nabil Ayouch.
Written by:  Jamal Belmahi  based on the novel by Mahi Binebine.
Starring: Abdelhakim Rachid (Yacine), Abdelilah Rachid (Hamid), Hamza Souidek (Nabil), Ahmed El Idrissi Amrani (Fouad).

Horses of God follows two brothers, as they go from poor kids growing up in the slums of Casablanca to the point where, 10 years later, they both become suicide bombers. The film believably paints their transition – when it starts, they are not religious in any recognizable sense, to the point where they willing die in the name of Allah. It does not turn them into monsters, but instead tracks their gradual progression – and sees them with pity more than anything else.

The film opens with the two brothers Yacine, who wants nothing more than to be a soccer star in goal, and his older brother Hamid, who acts as his brothers protector, and is already a little on the wild side – perhaps a little too violent for his own good. Hamid is already working on the wrong side of the law, and in the segments final moments commits a shocking and violent act. Flash forward 10 years and not much has changed. Hamid (now played by Abdeliah Rachid) is still violent, still protecting his brother, and is still working on the wrong side of the law – and drawing more attention from the police. Yacine (Abdelhakim Rachid – yes, they are real life brothers) still wants to be a soccer star, but the reality of that dream not coming true is starting to sink in. Hamid supports the family with his illegal activities – and is beloved by their mother – and Yacine is bitter that Hamid won’t let him work with him, instead making him sell oranges. But Hamid tells him he cannot do it, because the family cannot afford to have them both locked away if it comes to that. And, of course, it does – as Hamid does something incredibly stupid, and is taken away to prison. Yacine tries his best to support the family – but his mother never feels the same way about him as she did about Hamid – and working as a mechanic, he cannot bring home the same money. When Hamid returns – after two years in prison – a changed man, with new friends, it makes Yacine even bitterer. But when those same friends help Yacine, after he makes a mistake – probably motivated by his failure to act when Hamid did what he did 10 years before – the path for both brothers is set.

Horses of God is in some ways a very subtle film. All three acts in the film basically end with a shocking act of violence. The first act, when the kids are 10, ends with Hamid doing something horrific to Yacine’s friend – while Yacine just sits back and watches, too scared to do anything about it. A similar scenario ends the second act, and this time, Yacine is not afraid to act – but by acting, he allows himself to be drawn into the group that will ultimately lead to his final actions. The movie doesn’t belabor this point – it shows it, and lets the audience make the connection between the two of them. Unlike a film like Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (also very good), this is a film about suicide bombers where their reasons are never really vocalized – Yacine and Hamid (and their friends) do not have long, philosophical discussions about why they are doing what they’re doing – it all takes place beneath the surface.

But in other ways, Horses of God is not very subtle at all. When the cell that recruits first Hamid then Yacine into their ranks, and sets them on their course, enter the picture the movie beats you over the head again and again with the way these men convince the younger men to become martyrs. Finally, someone like Yacine – who never felt like he belonged anywhere – not at his home (which the film also hammers home a little too often), and not at his job, where he is facing a bleak future. He is in love with a girl, who likes him, but knows he doesn’t have a chance. She is beautiful, and her family sees her as their ticket out of the slum – they just need to fix her up with a proper man, for which Yacine does not qualify. Hamid’s character is not as well defined as Yacine’s – his transformation happens off-screen, and his third act turn towards non-violence rings slightly false.

Yet the two Rachid brothers anchor the film in their believable relationship – even when the film does hit things too hard, or doesn’t provide much motivation for their actions. And director Nabil Ayouch does a mainly fine job of grounding the action, in a most neo-realist style (one note on that – we really didn’t need the overhead shots of the whole slums, nor the intrusion of the score at key moments, which seems to work against the style of the rest of the movie). Horses of God is mainly a strong film however, despite its weaknesses, and an interesting, unique look at these doomed young men – and the violence they cause.