Friday, January 10, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE ACT OF KILLING (2013) and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

(Denmark/Norway/UK/Finland/Germany/Sweden/Poland - 2013)

One of the best films of 2013, the stunning documentary THE ACT OF KILLING is a classic of its kind, a horrifying examination of the death squads that helped overthrow the Indonesian government and secure a military dictatorship in 1965 by murdering over one million people.  Primary director Joshua Oppenheimer, with co-directors Christine Cynn and one credited as, along with numerous hands-on technical crew and production assistants who still fear retribution for their participation, simply "Anonymous," approach the story from a unique perspective that Oppenheimer has called "a documentary of the imagination."  Shot between 2005 and 2011, Oppenheimer established contact with the now-aged Anwar Congo, one of the primary figures in the genocide and, like many of his colleagues and co-conspirators, still a revered celebrity, and talks him into making a film that re-enacts the various torture and killing techniques used by the death squads, but done in a way that emulates Hollywood films. Congo and his cohorts were gangsters and killers hired by the military to exterminate all who weren't onboard with the new regime.  They previously dealt in a black market operation to bring forbidden and popular Hollywood cinema to Indonesia, and as such, became obsessed with the gangster films of Humphrey Bogart and the westerns of John Wayne.  They based their actions on what they learned in these movies, even though their brutality towards dissenters--given the blanket term "communists"--was far more barbaric than anything seen in a classic movie.  Under the direction of Oppenheimer, Congo and his associates restage their atrocities in the guise of film noir, westerns, musicals, and horror set pieces.  At first, Congo and the others gleefully recount their horrific acts ("This is who we are...people need to know the story") and enthusiastically partake in everything from auditioning to acting to the collaborative filmmaking process. Congo even gets a makeover with a dye job and dentures.  But as the set pieces go further off the rails (Congo is playing a character tortured by associate Herman Koto, who's dressed up in a Carmen Miranda costume, trying to feed Congo his liver), some of the men start to express concern that the film will make them look bad.  This ultimately takes its toll on Congo, whose exuberance begins to diminish to the point where he plays the victim in a torture scene and tells Oppenheimer "I don't want to do that again." 

Oppenheimer isn't asking the audience to sympathize with Congo as he has this change of heart, but watching it happen is a sight to behold.  The last 20 or so minutes of THE ACT OF KILLING contain some unforgettable images as Congo, haunted by the faces of his countless victims of atrocity and murder for which he's lauded as a hero, is overcome with emotion, directly addressing Oppenheimer ("Josh..."), and pitifully announcing "I never expected it would look this awful."  He wonders about the children who witnessed his heinous acts.  As the other "actors" burn a village, he looks on in shock, finally realizing the extent of his crimes.  In a finale that's hard to watch, Congo takes Oppenheimer to the top of a building (now a purse store) where much of the torture took place.  Looking around, picturing his victims, Congo becomes ill and can't stop dry-heaving.  Oppenheimer just keeps filming.  It's a stark contrast to the strutting audacity that Congo and his cronies displayed earlier.  It's also fascinating watching the celebrity culture around them, including the media.  Your jaw will hit the floor watching newspaper editor Ibrahim Sinik triumphantly crowing along with Congo, who says "We gangsters keep him well protected."  Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are among the executive producers.  THE ACT OF KILLING is a staggering achievement and a genuinely disturbing, unique film.  (Unrated, 122 mins; review pertains to 122-minute theatrical version; Oppenheimer's 165-minute director's cut is also available)

(US/France - 2013)

This remake of Jorge Michel Grau's grisly and terrific 2010 Mexican horror film WE ARE WHAT WE ARE has been described by director/co-writer Jim Mickle (STAKE LAND) as more of a companion piece to its source as opposed to a straight-up remake.  It retains the core of the plot--a family of cannibals--but changes just about everything else.  Instead of the patriarch dying and the mother carrying on with her two sons and a daughter, we now have the sudden death of the mom (Kassie DePaiva), with dad Frank (Bill Sage) left to care for his two daughters--18-year-old Iris (Ambyr Childers) and 14-year-old Rose (Julia Garner), plus six-year-old son Rory (Jack Gore).  Set in rural Delaware County, New York as opposed to a seedy Mexican slum, Mickle's WE ARE WHAT WE ARE immediately establishes a conflict in the aftermath of the mom's death in the way the daughters recognize that there's something seriously fucked-up with their family.  Rose is fiercely protective of Rory and wants nothing more than to get him away from their father.  Iris more or less agrees, but can't escape her sense of responsibility and the idea that family is family.  Meanwhile, since this is one of those films where there's numerous disappearances in the town and its vicinity over the years and the local law can't seem to do the math, we have a missing teenage girl who's probably been killed and possibly eaten by Frank, and of course, folksy Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) just happens to have a daughter who went missing years earlier and takes charge of the latest investigation in the stead of one of recent horror cinema's more useless sheriffs (co-writer and STAKE LAND star Nick Damici, who continues to morph into the second coming of William Smith). There's also a sensitive deputy (Wyatt Russell) who tries to woo Iris with expectedly tragic results.

Mickle lets the tension and dread build to an admirably suffocating level, and setting the film in the middle of a days-long torrential downpour with extensive flooding and a power outage is a nice touch that adds to the gloomy despair, but he and Damici just throw it all away for a pointlessly transgressive finale that's probably meant to be a darkly funny but just comes off as gratuitous, silly, and completely at odds with what's preceded it, as the payoff for 95 or so minutes of ominous buildup seems to be nothing more than cheap shock value.  It's too bad, because WE ARE WHAT WE ARE '13 is driven by some strong performances from Sage (a veteran of several early Hal Hartley films) and especially Parks, who checks his shopworn, twitchy Earl McGraw schtick at the door and gives us a quintessential Michael Parks characterization.  Always underrated, Parks is one of those actors who can speak volumes with just a facial expression or even a look in his eyes and he's marvelous here, especially once Doc Barrow pieces everything together and does what he has to do.  Also with Kelly McGillis in a useless supporting role as a neighbor--she only seems to be here because roles in STAKE LAND and THE INNKEEPERS have made the TOP GUN star an indie cult horror figure in recent years--and a mandatory cameo by Larry Fessenden, as required by cult hipster horror law.  Until it shits the bed in its closing minutes, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE '13 is a worthy reimagining of a film that not many people saw.  It is an interesting companion piece and a must-see if you're a Michael Parks fan, but Grau's original film is the one you need to seek out.  (R, 105 mins)

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