Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sure Shot.

In the interest of making sure one of the three people who might visit this page doesn't inadvertently read a KILL LIST spoiler as it loads, I'm adding this post. If you haven't seen it, it is pretty much the best thing of all time.

Sesame Street breaks it down from Wonderful Creative on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

KILL LIST: behind the mask. (MASSIVE SPOILERS)

Note: this is not a review of KILL LIST (short review: I liked it quite a bit, more so in retrospect), so much as a theory of what I think is going on, and as a result contains MASSIVE FUCKING SPOILERS and you should avoid it if you have not seen the film. But feel free to come by afterwards and theorize with me.

Seriously: if you haven't seen it, get the hell out.

While you can.


(Apologies for anything I missed/got wrong on a first viewing: there's a lot that's not spelled out, and a lot that seems really random on a first viewing that can't be understood until the whole film unspools.)

The key line to unlocking KILL LIST occurs after the second killing, when the two hit men attempt to recuse themselves from the three hits they have been assigned. This turns out to be unacceptable to the client, who has them in mind for something. When asked what their goal is, they explain it in one word: "Reconstruction".

Neither of the hitman, Jay or Gal, has any idea what that means. Neither did I. But my friend Mike pointed out after the screening that reconstruction was a term used historically in regards to reorganizing Christian churches. I can't find a great precis online for it in a brief scan, but this book's summary gives an idea, as does this contemporary symposium's summary of reconstruction.

Now, having seen KILL LIST, you know it's about a religious cult. (SERIOUSLY, GET THE FUCK OUT NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM!) If the reconstruction of the cult is occurring, it means it's fallen upon hard times in some way. And so they need an agent for this reconstruction - a "chosen one" - who will lead the cult into the new era. One who, by blood sacrifice (a not uncommon religious practice), will bring about greater religious heights.

Meet Jay, our main character.

When I immediately walked out of KILL LIST, I took the final scene, where Jay kills his wife and son (who are masked and portrayed as a hunchback and fighting Jay with a knife), as merely a person put into a disturbing situation that got really screwed over, and perhaps a mere audience provocation.

But, I don't think it's just a provocation. See, there's this.

Jay's first two victims both thank him. The first, the priest, in passing. Easy to dismiss at the time. The second, the librarian, at great length, in one of the most darkly funny scenes of the film. Before this, when Gal leaves the room, the librarian says to Jay, "He (Gal) doesn't know who you are, does he?"

He doesn't. And neither does Jay. Not yet.

While Jay is slowly torturing the librarian, Gal discovers a safe that has pictures of them, not just from a failed mission in Kiev, but from their surveillance of the first killing. Why?

Well, Jay and Gal have been chosen for this mission especially, that much is obvious. And it's been in the works for a while, from Fiona (cult member) seducing Gal to the Kiev reconnaissance. But forget about Jay's life for the moment. Let's talk about the priest and the librarian.

I believe both are cult members - the latter seems dead cert, the former has less evidence but the "thank you" is pretty strong hint. They know Jay's face.

They know Jay is coming - maybe not for them specifically - but they know he will make a blood sacrifice for the glory of the religious organization. (His photos from Kiev are enough to share his image. His current photos, perhaps, proof of his doings as religious text for a future age.)

(Also: Jay for Jesus? Is that too much of a stretch? Maybe. Maybe not. He does sacrifice his only son, so perhaps it's not a Jesus figure we're looking at; it's a Christian God, come back to the Earth in a low-budget Revelations-style housecleaning.)

So at the end of the film, when Jay kills his wife and child, it is a completion of a prophecy. He takes off his mask - and the cult see the arrival of the chosen one.

What Jay's feeling about all of this is a bit hard to know. Not that he's ever been the most open guy, but the look on his face (the last shot of the film) is indecipherable. The cut on his hand that refuses to heal (OH HAI STIGMATA REFERENCE) has perhaps also caused him to go a bit crazy? Perhaps the wound is infected with some chemical from the knife, or perhaps not.

But here's a question: if you'd done what Jay did, and were in his shoes, would you kill yourself? Would you try to kill those around you? (Good luck, you're surrounded by madmen.) Or would you choose to live as a hand-appointed messiah of the rich and powerful - assuming that you survive long enough for that privilege?

And could you delude yourself into thinking you ever, really, had a choice?


- WTF is going on with the scene with the doctor? He refuses to treat the hand and says some mystical stuff about the present. Presumably he's with the cult. But what's the greater significance, and why doesn't Jay go to another doctor?

- Is the cult logo (that begins and ends the film) online anywhere? I vaguely remember it having four lines, which would match the four killings, but I don't want to go too far down that road without seeing it again first.

- I have assumed that neither Gal nor Shel (Jay's wife) are in on this. I'm not 100% sure, though, particularly on the latter; Fiona's spending a lot of time with her, and her reaction to the cat seemed strangely muted. But she certainly doesn't seem on the inside as the cult is closing in on their house.

- As for Gal, he makes Jay go in the storage space for the librarian, which opens the puzzle more deeply. My gut is that this is a decision made for exposition/backstory purposes, so as to motivate Jay's more out-of-control aspects, but there's the small possibility that Gal's doing that because he knows what they'll find. I really don't prefer that - I like to think that Jay goes off list, but it doesn't really matter to the cultists in the larger narrative. He can try to restore order and justice, in his own chaotic matter, but as the chosen one his destiny is pre-ordained.

- I presume that it's the MP that's shot in the cult scene, but I'm not sure if there's textual evidence for this. I'd be curious to know if he knew it was coming. My feel is that the cultists we see there are perhaps an offshoot that's being decimated for the reconstruction, but I think it could be read either way.

- To be honest, my biggest question in the movie and biggest frustration with the movie (apart with certain camera/editing choices that weren't to my taste, albeit perhaps a natural offshoot of the improv-y nature of the filming, and problems picking up certain dialogue lines, which is simply an accent interpretation issue) is this: WHY DO JAY AND GAL NOT TURN THEIR FUCKING HEADLAMPS OUT WHEN THEY'RE HIDING IN THE TUNNEL FROM THE CULTISTS? This completely jarred with me and took me out of the film entirely. These are pros. Find a place to hide, snipe your enemy as they're coming. Interestingly, while this took me out of the movie, it was also the sequence that a couple people mentioned as the high point of the final act of the film. And technically it's a well done sequence, and if I can find it in me to accept that there's a reason (other than, you know, you need light to see your actors) for them to leave their lights on, I might come around on it.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Alternative interpretations?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

ten NZFF suggestions.

So, maybe you're like me, and for months, you've been doggedly tracking every festival over the past year, from Toronto to Sundance to Cannes, seeing what the big films are, hoping they'll come to Auckland for the two week winter holiday we know as the New Zealand International Film Festival. Then, after following every news release dripped from the web site and email list, you pick up the schedule the day it goes on sale, and spend hour after agonizing hour figuring out how to schedule them all in, which titles to drop, reshuffling things as you hear about yet another film that suddenly becomes unmissable.

Or, maybe you have a life.

If you're the latter, but still want to seem all "cultured" and shit, or just want to see some awesome films that you might miss out on otherwise, well, I'm here for you! Herewith, ten highly regarded films (in no particular order) you might want to check out, and some short reasons why. (I've left out films that will likely get theatrical releases, most notably THE TREE OF LIFE and SUBMARINE, because you'll get to see them elsewhere; some of these may never turn back.) And if you want to hear more about them, well, let's just say I might be able to help you out soon ...

aka "that crazy Greek film"
Athina Rachel Tsangari is a relatively unknown quantity as a director, but she produced the surreal, controversial, and masterful DOGTOOTH that played two years ago at NZFF. ATTENBERG doesn't reach for the more uncomfortably provocative moments of DOGTOOTH, apparently, but still explores similar subject matter - characters who are estranged from "normal" humanity as we know it, trying to make sense of the world in funny, sad, and uncomfortable ways.

aka "that dark as fuck Korean film"
Kim Jee-Woon is most highly regarded for A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, one of the highlights of Korean cinema and horror filmmaking alike. He's a bold stylist who hops between genres - A BITTERSWEET LIFE took on gangster films, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WEIRD took on the Western. Now, he takes on the revenge film, in a movie so bloody that Korea censored it locally. Not for everybody, but I can say confidently: this will be a very, very memorable film.

aka "that really talky Korean film"
As Kim Jee-Woon hops genres, his fellow countryman Hong Sang Soo does the opposite - his films are so of a piece stylistically and content wise, it was a big deal when he started using the zoom lens. His stories of self-absorbed creatives struggling in matters of the heart make you smile and cringe by turn; it's low key, but there's something uniquely honest, and his films are next to impossible to see outside of a fest setting (most aren't even in print on DVD). They're not for everybody, but his films have an additive power that have made me a lifetime fan (I've seen them all); if you really want to dig in, you can get a double dose this year, with THE DAY HE ARRIVES also screening.

aka "that British film where ... oh, wait you haven't seen it? I'm not saying anything"
I'm not saying anything.

Ok, that's not quite fair. It involves hitmen, and it's playing the Incredibly Strange section, and it goes through at least three different genres in its runtime. I know more about this film than I'd like to; there's a film I could compare it to, but to do so would give up the game. If you like your movies dark, smart, and surprising, buy a ticket now.

aka "that really fucking slow Hungarian film"
I'm already fast forwarding to the future, where someone has punched me in the face for recommending this. It's easily the most arty thing on this list; black and white, long takes, and so slow it's in the "Slow Cinema" section. In my defense? Bela Tarr is a legendary director, this may well be his last film (at least, he's claimed it will be), and on the big screen, for those whose nervous systems are willing to adapt to its pace, this will be the masterwork of the festival.

aka "that one about the cults with an Olsen twin"
A dark drama about cults may provide an instinctual revulsion reaction from a country recently traumatized by THE CULT, but curb your hostility. It's been a standout at both Sundance and Cannes, it's got a brilliant supporting cast (including John Hawkes, who stole WINTER'S BONE at last year's festival), it's from the same filmmaking team that did the little-heralded but stunning AFTERSCHOOL, and I'll be shocked if it's not in my top five for the festival.

aka "that documentary about the insane woman"
In a just world, saying that TABLOID is the new film from Errol Morris - responsible for THE THIN BLUE LINE, THE FOG OF WAR, FAST CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL, and so many more - would be all you need to know, and the resultant stampede to the box office would leave TRANSFORMERS 3 bruised and bloodied in the distance. Meanwhile, in this sad plane we call reality, how do I lure you? Maybe like this: I'm reasonably confident that this exploration of a sex scandal will be the most entertaining and most well-directed doco in the fest this year, with a subject so crazy she's now stalking sessions in disguise and crashing Q & As.

aka "that Japanese one with the amazing action scene at the end"
Speaking of TRANSFORMERS 3, if you want to watch a movie that ends with an astonishing, visionary 40 minute action sequence, but don't want the shame and embarrassment of having seen TRANSFORMERS 3, the hyper-prolific Takashi Miike has a present for you. A love letter to samurai films (a personal favorite genre of mine), 13 ASSASSINS promises to be both a career highlight for Miike and one of the most electrifying films of the festival.

aka "what the hell was that Ukrainian film about?"
I have a huge bias towards what could be called "anti-realistic" filmmaking: to me, one of the glories of art is that you aren't constrained by the rules of reality, so why follow them? Films as diverse as CERTIFIED COPY and RUBBER, or YOU THE LIVING and DOGTOOTH, all fit into what for me into that camp. Proudly flying the "anti-realistic" banner, and hopefully deserving of being listed in the same breath as those films, the first dramatic feature by documentary director Sergei Loznitsa promises to take us on a dark ride through contemporary Russia; shot in a documentary style, it's nonetheless often described as a horror film, and names like Bunuel and Kafka have been invoked.

aka "that haunted hotel movie"
Amidst an especially bloody Incredibly Strange lineup, along comes a quieter film that might be overlooked. It shouldn't be. Director Ti West has made the best horror film of the last few years with THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, so anything he's up to next is worth a look; this ghost story, inspired by experiences making DEVIL, promises to be a endearingly creepy journey, particularly suitable for those who want to check out the Incredibly Strange section but have no taste for gore. And furthermore, he's here in person!


For more info, check out the NZFF page!

EDITED TO ADD: Also, fellow Auckland cinenthusiast Jacob Powell and I have recorded a two part podcast previewing the best NZFF has on offer this year as we inaugurate the Best Worst Podcast and explain the Circle of Quality. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. 2+ hours all up. Yes, we talk a lot.