August 25, 2009

Five from August



The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008): The self-styled Red Army Faktion, or Baader Meinhof Gang, always make me think of that Godard line: "The children of Marx and Coca-Cola." Is that why Moritz Bleibtreu as Baader seems to be channelling Belmondo here and why Edel ramps up the daredevil sex appeal, with the West German terrorist group presented as the loutish Bonnie and Clydes of left-wing radicalism? The set pieces -- assassinations, protests, bombings -- are as boldly and excitingly staged by Edel as they were by the actual RAF/BMG itself but I suspect the film has bitten off more than it can chew. There's a lot to get through and a blow-by-blow, page-by-page rendering of journalist Stefan Aust's rigorous and clear-headed account might not have been the way to do it. A better movie might have given us the story of Gudrun Ensslin or Ulrike Meinhof as a through-line, or stuck to 1977's "German Autumn" which is a rushed climax here; as it stands, this version is so jammed that I'm not surprised it's struck some as incoherent. But the key problem is this: it lacks its own point of view. Meaning that Aust's journalistic balance and clarity -- good qualities on the page -- becomes a kind of remote, dispassionate fairness. Really, it made me want to see some of the German films that were made closer to the period and were struggling in a more heated way with the group's politics, morality and meaning: Fassbinder's The Third Generation (1979), the multi-director film Germany in Autumn (1978) and Margarethe von Trotta's Marianne and Juliane (1981), which fictionalises the Ensslin story.

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, 2009): Every single one of the approximately 12 billion discussions about Quentin Tarantino that have broken out since Inglourious Basterds opened hangs on this point: can a film-brat who makes films about films ever manage to incorporate emotion that feels real, that suggests a life spent on the same planet as the rest of us? But since 1997's Live Flesh -- at least -- Almodovar has been doing exactly that: mining and restaging the artificiality of film noir and melodrama, and stressing the falseness of film time (he's become the master of the long flashback), while also giving us genuinely affecting human stories. Broken Embraces isn't the boldest or most complex of his mature run -- see Talk to Her, All About My Mother or Bad Education -- but it could shine a light on the real problem with Tarantino since Jackie Brown. He might be writing interesting dialogue but he isn't creating interesting characters or working with strong enough actors. Where in Kill Bill, Basterds or Death Proof are performances to match those of Buscemi, Keitel, Travolta, Roth, Willis or Jackson in the first two Tarantino films? Or characters like Penelope Cruz's Lena, Luis Homar's Harry Caine or Jose Luis Gomez's Ernesto Martel here?

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007): Herzog in Antarctica, musing on insanity in penguins and looking for eccentricity in humans. This is minor Herzog, running like a companion film to the more imaginative but less successful Wild Blue Yonder, not just in its use of under-the-ice footage -- which doesn't look quite as otherworldly as Herzog thinks it does -- but in its thoughts about what this planet will look like when we're gone. You can sometimes get the feeling that he might even be looking forward to it -- it's something he's rehearsed for since Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009): The easy thing to say is: The Office meets Robocop meets Cronenberg's The Fly meets Starship Troopers. Just as Verhoeven in Robocop and Troopers filtered his satire through the glossy entertainment conventions of the 80s and 90s -- advertising soundbites, showbiz news shows -- South Africa's Neill Blomkamp blends reality television and corporate video with war-on-terror and surveillance footage while treading surprisingly lightly around the obvious "issues" his alien-camp storyline raises: racial segregation, refugee hopes and fears, the outsourcing of war and security. But to what degree was sponsor and patron Peter Jackson -- whose backing got this very enjoyable film the support and media attention it needed -- reminded of his own aliens-on-earth low-budget action-comedy Bad Taste? In both cases, alien landings don't happen where they "should" -- New York, Washington DC -- which could be taken as a metaphor for making movies in Wellington or Johannesburg rather than Los Angeles. I'm also tempted to say that this film might say more "about" post-Apartheid South Africa than Steve Jacobs' carefully faithful Coetzee adaptation Disgrace.

It Might Get Loud (Davis Guggenheim, 2009): The axemen cometh. Or, three guitarists get together for a gear-nerd and collector-geek convention. Best moment: a view of the once-privacy obsessed Jimmy Page's record room as a grinning Page plays air guitar to his 7" of Link Wray's "Rumble". The mood is convivial, respectful, gentlemanly, so Guggenheim didn't dare explore the idea that Page's blues riffage and long solos was exactly the kind of stuff that The Edge's minimalist style -- which owes a big debt (sadly unacknowledged here) to PiL's Keith Levene -- originally defined itself against. No one wanted to re-start the punk wars on a LA soundstage in 2008. Especially as Jack White was probably on Page's side.