Category Archives: Film Review

The Games People Play in “Force Majeure”



Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” begins with a postcard perfect image of bourgeois life. The screen goes pitch black, polite voices discuss a photo opportunity and suddenly emerges a foggy white expanse of snow that reveals an attractive young couple and their children posing for a picture, the sublime French Alps looming behind them in the backdrop. The husband Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are on vacation at an upscale ski resort. If this were a Luis Buñuel film (think “Exterminating Angel” or “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), the human rot at the center of the bourgeois ideal would be savagely attacked with surrealist humor. But instead of goats and bears and suicides in closets and dinners at the funeral of a restaurant owner, we get the crashing movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and echoes of Michael Haneke movies.

No doubt the film could have been much better. Not because it needed to be more like Buñuel’s movies but because it could have been shorter, perhaps ending at 10 minutes instead of turning into a meandering, 120-minutes psychodrama. (Philippe Orreindy’s short film “J’attendrai le suivant…” springs to mind as an example of what can be done with less time.) The dramatic center of the film is on day 2 of the family’s five-day vacation. Tomas and Ebba and their children are sitting at an outdoor café with breathtaking views eating lunch. Their lunch is interrupted when they hear a rumbling and then see an avalanche roll towards them. At first, unperturbed, Tomas snatches his iPhone from the table to immortalize the spectacle in pixels (for whom? I would imagine envious friends back home, or just as well the viewer). Struck with the peculiar millennial inclination to selfie every waking moment, Tomas ignores his wife and kids’ worries and keeps on beaming an easy smile enthralled as he is by the photo opp. Enthrallment turns into the brute instincts of self-preservation when fearing that unlike the other controlled avalanches this one is real, Tomas and other diners’ survival instincts kick in, and they bolt for safety. As he prepares to flee, Tomas grabs his iPhone and gloves, leaving his wife and kids behind alone. Nothing happens, but the family, while physically unscathed, will never be the same again. The rest of the film explores the psychological fallout of Tomas’s unmanly actions.

On the surface, the film might be said to explore the patriarchal fantasies of valor and heroism women have come to expect men to fulfill (case in point: Ebba staging a scene for Tomas to rescue her in front of the kids to restore their father’s honor) or to offer insight into the foibles of a bourgeois marriage in crisis, neither of which would be inaccurate. But I think the film also explores the elaborate lies we tell ourselves, and those closest to us, to keep up a façade of well-adjusted bourgeois normality. Therein lies the problem with the length of the film. The psychodrama that unfolds after the scene at the café somehow obscures the scripts the characters perform to reassure each other in the games they play to sustain a false but predictable life. Take Mats (Kristofer Hivju), Tomas’s friend, who upon watching video evidence of Tomas running away from his family rationalizes an explanation for his friend’s cowardly behavior. The general consensus, from Grand Turk to the French Alps: a man is not supposed to abandon his family. Rather than admit that Tomas did just that Mats comes up with an elaborate exculpation for the actions his friend took instead of questioning the very premise underlying expectation for Tomas to behave heroically and selflessly. These are scripts that at first become habits and routines and, overtime, unquestioned norms. Once they become scripts, people adapt them to whatever suits their purpose thereby entering into games not dissimilar from the role of victim Ebba plays for Tomas to come to her rescue. Every victim needs a perpetrator and a saver.

Tomas, Ebba and their children, the nuclear family society holds up as successful emblems of middle-class stability and security, are ultimately revealed, in the course of the film, as frail and deceitful. The closing scene with the vacationers stranded on a road leaves the viewer not convinced that Tomas and Ebba have survived and emerged renewed from an internal dystopian wilderness but rather more solidly rooted in the delusions of domesticity and conventionality. The scales have not fallen from their eyes.








The Post-9/11 World in “A Most Wanted Man”

500px-Spy_silhouette“A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt aptly noted. Equally dangerous, I might add, is the romantic functionary who believes s/he can single-handedly outmaneuver the machinery that makes an unjust system run ever so smoothly.

In “A Most Wanted Man,” the unjust system is all too familiar– extraordinary rendition and entrapment, the whole bureaucratic apparatus of anti-terrorism covert operations and the societal fear that gives moral cover to violating the human rights of those suspected of being terrorists. Günther Bachmann, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his most haunting performances, is our unlikely hero of sorts. Bachmann is a seasoned spy in the German intelligence service. Heavyset, morose and disheveled, he is no James Bond. Bachmann’s true merit as a spymaster rests on his tactics. Unlike the brash and counterproductive methods of American operatives, Bachmann attempts to run a more humane and efficient operation. He bids his time when monitoring a potential terrorist or ideological sympathizer and, through coercion and manipulation, even enlists a suspect’s relatives in his surveillance work, the better to lure in the true masterminds with the financial wherewithal to fund terrorist cells.

Bachmann is stationed in Hamburg, Germany where 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and his co-conspirators lived a decade before that fateful day. The air is rife with anxiety and the overzealous desire to track, and foil, even the slightest threat to Americans or their European allies pervades the atmosphere. We have entered the nebulous world of George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Bachmann has been sent to Hamburg as a form of punishment for exposing agents working under him in a previous case. A wan world-weary despondency hangs over Bachmann as he scrambles to enact a moral code in a system that has so far outpaced his capacity to outwit the duplicitous machinations of higher-ups in the intelligence bureaucracy.

No doubt Bachmann is a man waiting to get played. The opportunity to throw into high relief the conflict between Bachmann, the cog, and his superiors, the holders of the levers on the machine, arises when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) turns up in Hamburg seeking political asylum after being tortured at the hands of his Russian captors. Karpov also arrives with a letter of introduction that grants him access to millions of Euros his Russian Mafiosi father deposited in the vault of a Hamburg bank. Sure enough his appearance in Hamburg raises red flags for intelligence agents. The Americans and Germans take a keen interest in Karpov. Half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim, Karpov is a man of split loyalties. Or so American and German spies perceive him to be. Indeed, he is an emotionally unstable man. He alternately evinces a crazed intensity, an affecting sensitivity and childlike innocence, all of which make it easier for the viewer to empathize with the brutalization and torture he has had to endure while also lending credibility to the fears of his incognito pursuers.

These contradictory sentiments could have assumed a greater saliency and poignancy when expressed through the actions of the idealistic naïf Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights activist turned mole, who becomes Karpov’s trusted guide. Richter is Bachmann’s counterpart to the extent that they both have moral codes that will become undone as the system exerts its ruthless power. But while Bachmann played by Hoffman dominates the screen with his vital presence, McAdams doesn’t truly rise to the occasion. One moment she is a seemingly trusted friend to the immigrant family that offers refuge to Karpov. Next she is collaborating with Bachmann to use the traumatized Karpov as bait for a sting operation targeting a prominent Muslim scholar and philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) with possible ties to terrorists. For someone with liberal credentials in the world of human rights, Richter strains plausibility with her alacrity to collude with Bachmann. Even when Bachmann illegally holds her in a clandestine prison cell, it doesn’t faze her. Ideally, Richter’s moral code would have been informed by her activism, but whatever political work she’s done is never fully explored, much less acknowledged. She is a cipher in the film aside from the function she plays to advance the plot.

Director Anton Corbijn’s isn’t interested in character. He wants to offer the viewer a vision of the new normal we inhabit in the post-9/11 world. Based on John Le Carre’s book of the same title, “A Most Wanted Man” depicts a brutally austere and efficient system that will ultimately go unchallenged despite the best efforts of the so-called good guys on the inside, romantic fuckups like Bachmann who seek to steer the system’s power brokers toward rational thinking and pragmatic decision-making. One way of understanding the film is as an ineradicably unjust system marshaling all its power to discipline and make an example of an internal dissident. Once Bachmann’s liberal faith in deliberation and persuasion runs up against the blatant disregard for these shibboleths and outright betrayal displaces the guessing game with which the Americans and Germans have entertained him, he has only one option at his disposal: go rogue, down the righteous and courageous path of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Except that the film withholds this possibility of social redemption through  personal ethics and instead provides in its place a dark, hopeless fatalism.

The images Corbijn has carefully selected bring us into a violent world sparing in its exploration of human suffering and death; all the subjective violence is elided, and what remains is objective devastation, the contrasting allure of open offices made of Plexiglas and whirring fans in holding cells. Torture, for the most part, is left out of sight. And rightly so. What is in plain view, however, are the calculated maneuvers to keep the system running as smoothly as possible into perpetuity. And that invisible exercise of power is what needs exposure more than anything else to raise the question not of individual acts of resistance à la Manning or Snowden but of collective politics and struggle for systemic change.



The Unexamined Life in “Another Woman”

In Woody Allen’s film “Another Woman,” Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) has no need to elicit the approval from the professorial doyens whose ranks she’s worked her whole life to be a part of. As the chair of a philosophy department in some prestigious college in New York, she commands it. But Marion’s high estimation of herself doesn’t accord with other people’s perceptions. She is a cold, intellectual bully with no appreciable understanding or interest in other people’s emotional worlds. She has set aside the deeper sympathies and bonds people form with each other and opted instead for the unctuous self-regarding dribble of small talk at academic gatherings. And yet as she moves through the world unaware of how other people perceive her and the effect she has had on friends and family, she is poised and self-assured with no whiff of intimation to indicate what a vacuous existence she leads. Like some many films dealing with the self-doubts that plague academics cloistered in a world built on the fragile egos and power trips of colleagues and administrators, Marion comes across as a savant grappling with some terrible, unidentified sadness of the heart. In due course, we learn that behind the persona of a stodgy and priggish bore is a woman living an empty and meaningless life.

Marion has worked her whole life to become an academic luminary, a paragon of a formidable, accomplished and respectable philosopher. Yet she exhibits an air of erudition devoid of any hint whatsoever of the all-consuming, propulsive passions that make the pursuit of knowledge an insatiable lifelong obsession. The high-minded cultural knowledge her position assumes gives Marion a predictable and superficial intellectual shtick.She makes insubstantial quips about translations of Brecht’s work into English and draws attention to other signifiers of a cultured life by the mere mention of authoritative namedrops.

We have entered a world of appearances. In this world, Marion has no distinguishable marker of authenticity other than a conservative intellectual disposition joined to a pseudo-feminist posture marked by literary allusion, drab attire and life experience. She has all the makings of a left-liberal intellectual minus any semblance of concrete political convictions.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, when the ex-wife of her adulterous husband Ken (Ian Holm) barges into the party they are holding, Marion can’t help but admire how coolly Ken dismisses his visibly distraught ex-wife with the words: “I accept your condemnation,” the very words he will later utter to Marion upon her discovering infidelity and womanizing is how he feels less alone in the world. After rejecting the sexual advances of Ken’s friend (Gene Hackman), Marion compliments her husband for minimizing the drama at the party through his temperate and diplomatic handling of a potentially embarrassing situation. No real affection, much less passion, exists between them.  “I love his company,” she tells Ken’s friend. What Marion prizes most is the controlled and assured stability of her stature as a member of an intellectual club and all the assumptions and privileges that carries with it.

Her life is so controlled that she can only know how she truly feels through what might be described as transference, identifying the despair of another woman (Mia Farrow) as her own. Marion eavesdrops on the sessions with the psychologist next door to the apartment she rents to write a new book. In this way, she gains access to her emotional world, and her unfeeling self enters into crisis. The most empathy Marion is capable of showing comes through her identification with the anguish of the pregnant woman next door. The new insights into self she gleans through access to another mind crumble the insular world she’s long inhabited.

By the end of the film, Marion shows signs of becoming a self-conscious social being. And the conservative ideal of the intellectual who lives apart from the social world falls into shambles.

“Another Woman” offers a sardonic take on how people lose themselves and submit to an unexamined life.






Looking at the Capitalist Beast: “Nightcrawler”

Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo(1819-1823)The film “Nightcrawler” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a sociopath with a penchant for regurgitating the positive thinking bromides he has picked up from his autodidactic study of business school manuals. Set adrift in the visually bleak streets of Los Angeles, Lou prowls a deracinated and hollowed out cityscape in search of the next best human tragedy to earn a quick buck. Lou is a hustler; he’ll do anything to land the next gig. The problem, however, lies in the disreputable means he employs to make a living– selling stolen manhole covers, copper wire, fencing mesh and etc. In what is either the ultimate bravura move or the most boneheaded decision of all time, Lou seeks employment from the scrapyard owner to whom he peddles his ill-gotten wares. Unmoved by his elevator pitch, the scrapyard owner dispatches Lou from his office with the curt remark that no one in his right mind would hire a known thief. While a minor event in the film, the episode at the scrapyard initiates Lou on the journey that will lead to the serendipitous discovery of a gig better suited to his socially obtuse and unfeeling ways. Circumstance and opportunity converge when Lou stumbles upon a local freelancer TV crew recording a live car accident scene. Watching the veteran cameraman and future rival Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Lou cannot help but evince an enchanted glint of longing for induction into a new hustle. As if speaking in the knowing argot of a specialized field, Joe further entices Lou with a pithy zinger to characterize the key to success in the stringing trade: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

A quick learner, Lou undergoes a rapid transformation into an efficient and calculated merchant of doom and gloom for local TV news stations looking to buy footage to sate the morbid and perverse obsession their viewers have for carnage and mayhem. “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” the news director Nina (Rene Russo) colorfully puts it.

At first sight, director Dan Gilroy appears to be gunning for the sensationalism of local TV news. But I arrived at another conclusion. Lou embodies a peculiar kind of sociopath that thrives on corporate boardrooms and non-profits, a kind of everyman with no discernible personality or imagination other than the rote gestures and mannerisms he’s perfected to put others at ease and create in turn the perfect image of rehearsed civility and professionalism. While I don’t think Lou ever comes close to achieving the uncanny on screen gravitas of a corporate suit of the likes of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” he does have the raw predispositions and ticks. But even these ticks– for example, the positive thinking pep talks in the car with the gullible and insecure Rick (Riz Ahmed)– don’t add up to a compelling character. What’s more, Lou has no charm. We like anti-heroes because they offer up a tantalizing invitation to revel in the vicarious freedom of notoriety. Lou is flat. With no allure, no charm, Lou is a sore loser. And no one wants to be a loser in a culture that prizes winners.

It is ultimately Lou’s quest to be a winner at all costs that drives him to blur the lines between observer and participant. The more footage he shoots, the more his ambition spurs him to top the last crime scene. To make a name for himself, Lou begins to stage the very accidents and deaths he initially only recorded. Lou’s overzealous desire to build a profitable business out of a hustle culminates with the death of Rick, his underpaid and exploited sidekick, in a shoot-out between the LAPD and a drug dealer.

The capitalist world in “Nightcrawler” divests its characters of any semblance of humanity. The moral universe of the film jettisons any possibility for social bonds based on cooperation and solidarity to emerge from the decadence of a fallen society. People are trapped. There is no escape but to become a hustler, a player in a game of mutual self-destruction.

Juxtaposed to the bleak visual palette of verdant, ochre and red hues radios sound off the impeding financial debacle in the housing market. These nameless workers who we hear through the reports of broadcasters on the radio are the toiling majority capitalism has destroyed with the promise of advancement through the purchasing of overpriced homes. Because of these workers spectral presence in the film, it is Rick and Lou who come to remind us of all vulnerable workers. They remind us of precarious workers, the ones who perform irregular jobs, sometimes underpaid, other times unpaid, without any security in hopes of staving off destitution. Lou himself offers to work for free at the scrapyard as an intern and in turn makes a similar proposal to Rick. In the closing scene of the film, we see Lou with a cadre of interns ready to hit the streets to capture the raw footage on which our voyeuristic thrills are nourished.

After all, if the film takes aim at anyone, it is the viewer. Don’t we all indulge in horror porn? Are we not guilty of creating the expectations for scoundrels like Lou to proliferate? Local TV news stations are merely fulfilling a craven need, giving us what we are hankering for. The self-flagellating overtones of that argument leave me unconvinced. Take, for example, the claim that exposure to extreme violence in film makes people inured to violence, desensitizes them, or what psychologists call habituation. I am not quite sure how that works, but I can attest to being more horrified by the opening scene in Luis Buñuel’s film “Un Chien Andalou” in which a man slits the eye of a calf with a razor than the gaudy bloodletting of the movie “Saw.” Similarly, I am more disturbed by the crosscutting of workers on strike with footage of cattle being slaughtered in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Strike” than the grisly horror flick “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Here we’ve ventured into what philosophers call the Problem of Other Minds, the world of subjectivity and idiosyncrasy. The conventional violence in “Nightcrawler” doesn’t heighten the moral conscience; it parodies it, cheapens it. In so doing, the film doesn’t make any moral demands on the viewer.

And then there is the violence that doesn’t make it on screen. The most devastating violence in “Nightcrawler” has little to do with the gruesome footage aired on local TV news and more to do with the tepid radio broadcasts of the structural devastation capitalism has wreaked on the lives of the poor and working class.