Friday, December 07, 2007

Back to the Theater 2: still more robbers and killers

Redacted (2007, Director Brian De Palma)

I went to see the movie that De Palma made. But a few minutes into the movie, I longed for another another movie that existed within Redacted. Redacted starts off with two video journals, one by an American soldier and the other from two French journalists. The French journalist diary only focuses on one checkpoint that the American soldiers in the film control. We get a voice over French narration as the camera hovers around the soldiers stationed at the checkpoint. No dialogue or action takes place but enough tension is created from the simple checkpoint images because we know how incidents at these checkpoints could end up -- either innocent Iraqis will be mistakenly killed or an ordinary person could be a threat? There is a moment when the camera shows us the viewpoint from a soldier's eyes -- we can see the soldier calculating each Iraqi as a threat or harmless.

Checkpoints are a source of high drama by themselves. The purpose of checkpoints is supposed to be for maintaining security but they end up being a show of power. Those stationed at the checkpoint are in power and determine the fate of the people wanting to get to the other side. More often that not, those in power abuse the innocent. I would have preferred to see an entire film about this American checkpoint, much like the brilliant documentary Checkpoint (2003) which showed the drama that takes place daily at Israeli checkpoints. That documentary simply placed a camera on the side and recorded events as is, without any narration. Such a simple documentation gave plenty of insight into the frustration that Palestinians feel as they attempt to make daily crosses across the absurd checkpoints, whose rules change on a daily basis.

But the main focus of Redacted is not about the checkpoint. It is about another incident about the abuse of power -- rape. The movie is a fictional account of a real incident about the rape of a 14 year old Iraqi girl by two American soldiers. There is nothing nice about the American soldiers shown in the film and their actions can easily be predicated. Ofcourse, the soldiers frustration only increases when they are not allowed to go back home. It is so easy to label the actions of a few soldiers as actions of some "bad apples" but one interesting idea that this film conveys is if the leadership at the top is rotten, it filters down to the bottom at the soldier's level. So if a soldier is a "bad apple", one has to follow the trail back to the top to see how the soldier was rotten in the first place.

In a way, it is good to see an American director make such a bold statement with this movie. One can even feel the anger throughout the film that comes to a boil in a few scenes. But given the number of books and documentaries that exist about Iraq, Redacted appears to add nothing new. De Palma blends multiple formats within the film such as video journals, internet videos, mock TV interviews and video diaries. Some of these separate segments are interesting but they appear to be disjoint within the overall story of the soldiers. I truly longed for a story about the checkpoint but I couldn't fathom the loud and annoying story about a few immature men working as soldiers and looking to satisfy their primal male urges.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Director Andrew Dominik)

There are moments of beauty in this 2 hour 40 min film. There really are moments of shimmering beauty. The shots of the fields, abstract shots of everyday objects like a rocking chair. Why is no one sitting on the rocking chair? Well, Jesse James used to sit there. But not anymore. It is beautiful how a character's affair with a married woman is shown in a few shots -- she is stitching on her porch at night-time, rocking in her chair. We hear the door open behind her yet the camera stays only on her face. We can detect a hint of smile across her lips. She knows who it is and we know what will happen next. We get to see beautiful snowy Alberta which shines in such beauty that one forgets how the awful cold makes life miserable.

Yes there is beauty in the background score which dances on the smoother side, a soft peaceful tranquility. There is beauty in the calm voice over narration which leads us through the life of Jesse James and Robert Ford. A beautiful calm descends before Jesse James is killed cowardly. Any other movie would have ended there but the film's title also has another name, Robert Ford. And the movie continues as we see Ford's misery increase.

There is so much beauty in the film but the experience of watching this in a theater was a painful one. In fact, my experience was similar to the feelings I had when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 years of solitude. I was quite excited to read the book and enjoyed the first few pages. Then my sentiments went through uneven proportions of like and dislike. When the dislike was winning, I wanted to stop reading the book. But I continued. When I finished reading the final words and closed the book, I was thoroughly satisfied. I did feel that it was a good story with a perfect ending. But I didn't enjoy the process of getting to the end. Similarly, I enjoyed the ending of ..Jesse James.. but I didn't enjoy the process of getting to it. I know which shots and segments I liked and which I disliked.

Credit for all the cinematic beauty goes to Roger Deakins, who was also recently responsible for bringing some peace and beauty to the Coen brother's No Country for Old Men.

Ratings (out of 10):
  • Redacted: 6.5
  • The Assassination of Jesse James...: 7
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