POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 4, 2013:
Two Great Flicks in One Spot
Doc, coming-of-age flick coexist
Let's just get this out of the way right up front. The Act of Killing is the most memorable, bizarre, disturbing and enlightening documentary I've ever seen. Between the combination of subject matter and execution (no pun intended), it isn't a stretch to say that there is nothing else like it.
The human toll of the conflicts regarding communism in Southeast Asia during the '60s and '70s has been the subject of many films, perhaps most notably Roland Joffé's searing 1984 drama The Killing Fields, which detailed the rise of the communist Khmer Rouge and the deaths of millions of intellectuals and peasants by murder, forced labor and starvation under the orders of their insidious leader Pol Pot.
But nearly a decade before, the communists were being purged from neighboring Indonesia. In the wake of the failed coup of then-sitting president Sukarno, the Sumatran military and allied Muslim religious forces used straight-up gangsters like Anwar Congo (the "star" of The Act of Killing) to cleanse the region of communists and alleged sympathizers during a year of mass murder between 1965 and 1966 aimed at eliminating Sukarno's power base.
It worked, helping to install President Suharto, who ruled for the next 33 years. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 500,000 to over a million, the descendants of whom still live in fear of the executioners.
Because they still exist. Anwar Congo and some of his living cohorts enjoy a place of power, influence and infamy in Indonesian society. And they will never be held accountable for their actions.
If that were the only subject of director Joshua Oppenheimer's amazing debut, it would still be compelling. But The Act of Killing doesn't stop there, crossing over from traditional documentary to something closer to a surrealist, unnervingly comedic nightmare.
Following Anwar Congo in the autumn of his life, The Act of Killing introduces a man who has taken the lives of over a thousand people with his bare hands. Inspired by Hollywood gangster films, the young Congo and his band of wannabe gangsters, validated by a shady political hierarchy, rounded up and executed thousands -- tweaking their techniques to out-brutalize the Don Corleones of American cinema -- getting rich on running protection scams amongst Chinese immigrants that would have made Al Capone proud.
Now, over 40 years later (and after having founded an orange-and-black-camouflaged, three-million-strong, scary-as-fuck, right-wing paramilitary youth army called Pemuda Pancasila), Herr Congo is having nightmares. Being a film fan, he figures maybe he can work out his bad dreams by making a movie about his experiences. Enter Joshua Oppenheimer, ostensibly to help.
And that he does. But he also chronicles modern life in Indonesia in such a way as to bring us into a deeper world. In a chilling example, Congo and his sidekick, the horrifically good-natured, Herman Koto, a classic gangster bedecked in Halloween camouflage, go on a casting call amongst the peasants (for a scene involving them burning their houses down). The palpable distrust of the citizens, who still fear persecution, and their barely faked fear when they begin to "rehearse" the scenes speak volumes about the power these two men still hold over them. That they are casting a film to glorify their exploits reveals an even deeper indignity.
As Oppenheimer follows them, and abets their poorly thought out hagiography (since none of them feels like they did anything wrong when it came to eradicating commies) we see how the political classes of the region, and even the country's vice president, explicitly approve of utilizing criminals to do the dirty work of government, openly revealing that violence and corruption are legitimate means to their political ends.
All the while, the "production" of Congo's film reveals deeper layers of personal conflict for its maker and the cast. As the "recreations" take on a more and more realistic tone, we meet a local reporter, being shamed (in real life) for his incompetence in breaking the mystery of so many disappearances, when many of the kidnapped were being violently murdered directly above his office. Congo makes his grandchildren watch dailies of his film, aiming to impress them with all the garroting, torture and fearful respect. Meanwhile, Herman Koto amps up the weirdness just by being Koto, much less when they dress him up as a woman for some of the film's more esoterically weird sequences. It's hard not laugh a little at their vanity and obliviousness; at how completely fucked up their station in life really is (only on Earth, people).
Until you think about what they did. The pride they still have in it -- to the point that they don't even want to apologize because they know they are hated anyway, so why admit fault? One unrepentant lieutenant even hopes for an international trial, because he would become famous. None of them seems to want to have lived any differently, and they still stand behind the defense of just being muscles that were told to flex.
The German linguist and political theorist, Hannah Arendt dubbed this "the banality of evil." Yes, Congo is having nightmares and losing sleep. Deep down, he knows he's been a bastard -- to the point that he gently encourages his grandson to handle a duck with a broken leg with the utmost care. But even while he gets physically ill at the thought of what he's done, he still respects himself with the narcissism of a sociopath. It might seem like the film is justifying him, but it's not. Congo is just creepy on a level that you can't make up.
It's all shot with an "I can't believe this exists" aura. The morbid revelations and ominous improbability of The Act of Killing aren't easily forgotten. Nor should they be.
The Spectacular Now
I wouldn't recommend doing a double feature of The Spectacular Now and The Act of Killing. They are wildly different experiences, though at least The Spectacular Now would make for a thankfully effective palate cleanser. What they both enjoy is a nearly bullet-proof level of excellence.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, Footloose) is an 18 year-old on the verge of graduation. The opposite of socially maladjusted, Sutter is funny, personable, down-to-earth, and seems to be well liked by everyone. He has a sexually available girlfriend (Brie Larson, Rampart) and a mostly good relationship with his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Existenz) and his older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World).
But Sutter is also adrift. Convinced that living in the moment is the end-all-be-all of life, he drinks like a sailor; he's failing his geometry teacher (Andre Royo, Bubbles from The Wire) and he even eventually loses his girl to the class president because that guy is clearly going somewhere. He doesn't see the point in worrying about the future. Sutter is unwittingly becoming his long-absent and barely remembered father.
He befriends Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants), a nerdy, good girl he meets when he wakes up in someone's front yard. Sutter decides to take geometry lessons from her in order to pull off the minimal expectation of graduating high school and finds that his easily given feelings, penchant for hard liquor and Amiee's inherent sweetness (and burgeoning sexuality) clumsily pull the mercurial slacker into a relationship that changes everything.
It's the lovely character work and the unfolding connections -- crafted by some excellent young actors -- that make The Spectacular Now such a funny, sincere, sexy, and entertaining film. Adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, based on the Oklahoma-centric book of the same name, and directed by James Ponsoldt (of the less-nuanced Smashed), The Spectacular Now never seems heavy-handed in its themes or plotting. It's no Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Sure, it's easy to see that Sutter has a problem with the booze and, as it is with life, the people that are attracted to him somewhat adopt his priorities; be it getting drunk or laid or confronting their personal obstacles -- despite Sutter's denial of all his own problems in that regard. But when the consequences eventually arrive, the film never feels like it's trying to prove a moral point, as opposed to letting the characters genuinely exist and grow before our eyes with an uncanny ease.
While Sutter acts like his perception of an adult, to the admiration of his less-mature peers, he doesn't really want to be one. When he's asked to confront his future, despite his clear charisma and intelligence, he recoils because he doesn't want to let down anyone he cares about. That's just one aspect of the theatrical depth with which all of the characters of The Spectacular Now are drawn.
The performances bind the adept writing, the organic narrative, and deft construction together. Teller particularly shines in a film that is a nearly flawless entry in the rich tradition of contemporary cinema for the young -- one that never panders to a demographic and maturely engages audiences of any age.
The Spectacular Now is currently running at the Circle Cinema. The Act of Killing opens on September 6th. For ticket information visit circlecinema.com.
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