Archive for June, 2012

Triumph of the Will (1935)

June 19, 2012

Having made two short documentaries of the Nazi party during her early flirtation with the Nazi, Leni Riefenstahl was courted and commissioned by Hitler to make a feature documentary of the annual Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1934 – the final film would become the controversial The Triumph of the Will, a hypnotizing propaganda film that was both lauded and loathed, polarizing both critics and viewers still today.

The film opens with the following passage followed by a series of aerial shots intercut to look like being shot from the same plane that flied Hitler to Nuremberg:

On 5 September 1934
20 years after the outbreak of the World War
16 years after the beginning of German suffering
19 months after the beginning of the German rebirth
Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers

Hitler arrived at the countryside received by crowd whose elation looked genuine and not staged. The scene set the tone for the rest of the film – Hitler, a messiah-like figure, raised from the rubble of the World War I, led and liberated Germany to her rebirth. Hitler’s appointment as chancellor from less than 2 years ago led to months of chaos in his party particularly the disintegration of the increasingly uncontrollable SA and its leader Ernst Rohm, prompting Hitler to tone down his racial policy and promote peace and unity.

The problem with the SA ultimately led to the Night of the Long Knives, after which it was important that Hitler was able to drum up the propaganda machine in Nuremberg and via Triumph to reassure the country unison and peace. In several speeches delivered by Hitler, it was almost surreal that he emphasized peace, love and unison, he almost looked that he genuinely believed in those words, and without hindsight the Hitler Youths standing before him were mesmerized by his dazzling oratory skills. There’s a creepy quality while watching the teens saluting Hitler yelling uniformly “Seig Heil!”

The film works with a hypnotizing power that one finds it hard to resist. This was obtained by powerful film language and innovative cameraworks such as aerial shots and tracking shots, which are taken for granted today but were extremely difficult back then. Hitler was often shot from an extreme low angle framing him with a God-like quality, intercut with close-ups of mesmerized faces of the audience. Special set was built so the grandeur of the Nazi architecture and carefully orchestrated rally could be fully captured.

The artistic relationship of Riefenstahl and Hitler was at the height during the making of Triumph, Riefenstahl was given a large budget that allowed her to hire a crew of 172 people (unheard of by the standard of the days) and influence how the rally was designed for the movie. Triumph was critically acclaimed both inside and outside Germany, making Riefenstahl one of the most prominent female filmmakers in the history. She was subsequently vilified after the war that she was never able to make another movie again. She was prosecuted frequently after the war, she was still being investigated for denying the Holocaust still in her 100th birthday in 2002.

Triumph raised the bars of propaganda filmmaking and documentary in general, although some would argue that it is not strictly a documentary as some scenes were reenacted in the studio. It is dull by today’s standards for it’s a tough job watching the Nazi talking heads speechifying 2 hours. The value of Triumph today lies mostly upon the historical value of the superbly filmed scenes of the Nazi rally and Hitler’s speeches. It also serves as a Faustian tale of an artist who seals the deal with the devil for the sake of arts.

Triumph of the Will is directed by Leni Riefenstahl, starring Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Max Amann.



The Raid: Redemption (2011)

June 17, 2012


At least 20 throats were cut open in this movie. I am not kidding. The violence in this movie is pushed to such extreme that I do not think there is more than 5 minutes when someone is not dying or being ripped open beyond any reparation.

The Raid is an Indonesian movie directed by Welsh director Gareth Evans. It has been hailed as a game changer of the action genre, scoring 83% on the tomatometer and 8.1 stars on IMDB.

The plot is minimal – the SWAT team is on a mission to raid a building occupied by a gallery of mobsters under the reign of the sadistic crime lord Tama. Among the SWAT team is Rama, whose goal in this mission is also to capture and return his brother Andi, also the righthand man of Tama. They start sweeping the lowlifes in the first level, and each level up means they will be encountering more violent resistance from more skilled and savage fighters.

Violence has been a tool for the filmmakers to develop certain plot point or certain conflicts between the characters. Ang Lee, regarding “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, once said that Kung Fu to him is like ballet, he uses it in favor of the plot and character development.

Plot in The Raid is just enough to create situations, in which the characters are required to punch each other into pulp. Its structure is similar to that of a porn movie, only the minimum of plot is served to create a situation where the characters can perform the sex. Yes, this kind of movies targets an audience for whom the plot or character development is a distraction rather than the driver.

There is a huge market for this kind of moviemaking considering the amount of praises The Raid is receiving. The problem is that it is technically brilliant, and it could be mistaken as a masterpiece. I enjoyed some early fight scenes until it was obvious this was all it could offer. However, it is not a great movie in the traditional sense of the art of movie making. A great movie uses plot and characters in order to reveal a certain quality of humanity or raise intriguing questions that deserve answering.

The Raid reveals nothing except cynical savage violence.

The Raid is directed and written by Gareth Evans, starring Iko Uwais, Ananda George and Ray Sahetapy.

Prometheus (2012)

June 13, 2012


Prometheus is a gorgeous film directed by Ridley Scott, the highly anticipated prequel-but-not-really companion piece to Alien (1979) also directed by Ridley. The story is set some years before the event of Alien and of a completely different plot, although it does shred some mystery of the origin of the space jockey, by questing the origin of mankind, only leading to more mystery.

It is a very unique movie that shows a director picking up the same material 3 decades after the movie that made his name, and showing a very different director in work making a very different movie. That doesn’t happen often, whether or not the movie lives up to the high expectation is pretty much beside the point.

The story goes like this – A team of scientists led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapce) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) arrives at a distant planet on a mysterious mission. Among the spaceship crew we also find David (Michael Fassbender), our trustworthy android who styles himself after Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia, and Vickers (Charlize Theron) the postergirl of the evil cooperation.

Dr.Shaw and Dr.Holloway believe that some ancient tablets sharing the same star map indicate the origin of mankind. They hibernate for 2.5 years, flying in Prometheus 3.27 x 10^ 14 km away from Earth, that by the way means they should be flying at 34.6 times the light speed to make it on time, to meet the creator of mankind. You see, the science is as sketchy as my math. Anyway, following the tradition, things go to the wrong direction and the crewmen die in some new gory and creative ways – except our heroine Shaw who now officially replaces Ripley the toughest woman in the universe.

Gone is the gloomy, industrial, biomechanical world created by H.R. Giger. Ridley immerses us in a world of technological wonder, with visually stunning and believable industrial design, interface design, gorgeous and slightly unfamiliar landscapes. The first hour of the movie walks us through this world slowly, sending us from Earth to this unfamiliar landscape where the unknown lurks. The movie works on this level. Then hell unleashes. Ridley knows which buttons to push to make you jump.

I am blown away by the production design and some odd aesthetic choices. For example, the whitish-bluish giant super human (aka the engineer, space jockey) looks rather mundane at the first sight, but at time you notice a subtle creepiness about their facial structure, that they look like a marble sculpture of a greek mythical deity. Ridley also makes great casting decisions – Fassbender is intriguing as David the android with an ambiguous agenda; Noomi Rapace is the hottest item and a novelty who will shine anyway in every movie she’s in.

If you are expecting a philosophical quest like 2001: A Space Odyssey, look elsewhere. Prometheus feels grand, but works like what Ridley does best – a highly polished sci-fi/horror thriller with good taste. And nobody does it better than Sir Ridley Scott.

Prometheus is directed by Ridley Scott, written by Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, starring Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Fassbender.