By Richard Ostrom
Following an unexpected yet invigorating sabbatical this past summer, your oh-so-humble favorite local movie rambler hath returned to saturate you once more with knowledge and helpful suggestions concerning most things cinematic that might never even make it to a theater near you. Being as it is growing close to All-Hallows Eve and neighborhood zombie walks are soon to become all the rage, it seems like a swell idea to take this month’s article in a might darker, more dementia-colored direction. Shall we?
I. The Fine Art of Murder
So, how’s this strike you for a truly daunting kind of subject matter on which to found a non-fiction film: the calculated reenacting of a series of ruthless, government-sanctioned executions using the full (and fully enthusiastic) participation of several of the pivotal perpetrators themselves? The Act of Killing just so happens to be the kind of film to come from such a bold and risky undertaking.
This picture, the impressive end product of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s (assisted by Christine Cynn and some entity listed as ‘Anonymous’), resulted from about eight years’ immersion in the given material and corresponding geographic locales. It takes a smattering of Indonesian paramilitary folks (active and retired) and sets them to the deeply unsettling (one would assume) task of play-acting in present time their cruelly effective actions from a time well in the past.
You see, back in the middle of the 1960s, these soldiers set out to relentlessly rid their beloved native soil of any and all traces of communist misbehavior (suspected as well as proven) by the methodic, unapologetic extermination of any recognized offenders.
Due to the protracted development period his project demanded, Oppenheimer got to know many of his players deeply (most of note, the front-and-center duo of Anwar Congo and Herman Kato). In so doing, he perceived, among their many traits, a startling adoration of movies and their potential power over a collected audience (many of these men used to scalp admission tickets at area bijous as youths).
In light of this significant revelation of character, the filmmaker prescribed the further requirement that his subjects’ re-enactings be staged with a layer of direct big-screen influence. Thus, Anwar and Co. get to planning and fleshing out a surreal succession of mini-movie-styled skits, all centered around factual killings that were once as far removed from a fond movie-going memory as legitimately conceivable.
The fair bulk of the picture delves deeply into these truly elaborate and often colorfully startling microcosms of damaged personal performance “art,” giving viewers a wholly contradictory palette of images and ideas to digest and analyze to the best of their abilities––no simple assignment. One absorbs both the creative glee with which these “skits” are born and also the horrific methods by which they carry out the separate acts of violence as recalled by these aging assassins.
The scope of the different parts is sometimes notable; the torching and ransacking of a village, for quick example, employs multiple wailing extras and pyrotechnics while a tense rooftop strangulation only requires some handy wire and a solo assistant to get the (ugly) job done correctly.
The progression and fervor between the crafting and full realization of the mocked- up killings also stresses the various impacts on the performers, as they come to terms anew with their past transgressions, pulled into the present and placed under the microscope of the camera eye.
The Act of Killing exists as an original viewing experience, one that swiftly defies easy comparison to other documentaries covering similar dark thematic territory. In its opening imagery, graceful dancers emerge from the mouth of a gigantic fish-shaped structure, easily moving across a long plank to the nodding approval of fat man Herman Kato, adorned in vivid blue drag queen attire (cross dressing proves to be a reoccurring fashion choice for this dude). The film hypnotizes and transports us into this otherwise impenetrable kingdom of fever-dream ultra madness.
Tales of war crimes often follow the “Human-generated horror leads to apprehension and legal procedures, followed by the healing process for the surviving victims or their descendants” template.
Not so much this time out (though Oppenheimer has since put together an opposing viewpoint sequel of sorts The Look of Silence that gives one family a chance to address the murder of their sibling during the above mentioned chaos); here the villains have become respected national heroes. Victorious saviors from the communist plague, they enjoy unparalleled freedom and often brag up even the lowliest aspects of their abhorrent behaviors (beware the one arrogant thug who waxes fondly over the “heavenly” benefits of sexually degrading random young females. Yuck!).
The Act of Killing hopes to try to crack the pokerfaced surface of this posse’s infamous yet never-disowned history, and, with the aid of this unique approach to revisiting some of the events in question, expresses to the world and the actual men themselves, the extent of their wrong doing. Does this tactic at all work? You’ll have to witness the film your own self to obtain the answer.
The Act of Killing is currently available in both DVD and BLU RAY formats from a place called Drafthouse Films, and it features two separate cuts of the picture, the standard 122-minute theatrical issue and a more involved 166-minute director’s variation. Of course, bonus features are to be had like featurettes, deleted scenes and audio commentary with the director and documentary hall-of-famer Werner (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss) Herzog who (along with esteemed filmmaking peer Errol Morris) became one of the chief cheerleaders of this film and helped to push it into the festival circuit and such. The whole mind boggling adventure can be found here, drafthousefilms.com/film/the-act-of-killing. Check into it.
II. Bonus Stuff.
‘Willow Creek’ (darkskyfilms.com)
This here sho’ ain’t the Bobcat Goldthwait you ever saw screech out a nerve- wracking stand-up routine nor call the behind-the-scenes shots on such black comedic epics as Shakes the Clown, World’s Greatest Dad (which features one of poor Robin Williams’ finest latter-day performances) and God Bless America.
Instead we are gifted still another Found Footage scenario involving naive young peeps venturing into an all-together unforgiving, unknown environment. This time it’s all centered on the Big Foot mythos and one headstrong believer (Bryce Johnson) and his reckless yearning to gather actual video evidence of the beast and prove it all factual for once and for final. This leads our hero and his less than convinced gal pal (Alexie Gilmore) to the darkest camping spot imaginable and…well, no spoilers here.
Just accept the fact that Ol’ Bobby has aimed for something quite separate from the rest of his resume, and I suppose you’re left with a very adequate riff on the basic outline of The Blair Witch Project, albeit with far more stable camera work and scares that emanate from real beasts in the darkness and not mean, ill-tempered spirits. Not a complete waste of 80 minutes, but nothing poised to break ground either. Includes the expected commentary by folks involved, one deleted scene and a short on set piece.
‘Death Spa’ (mpihomevideo.com)
Prime-sliced 80s “schlock ‘til you drop cheese,” resurrected in fitting home video fashion. An All-American, high-end fitness joint is all the aerobic rage until strange fatalities start to pile up. Seems the deceased spouse of this happenin’ club’s owner is out to haunt the spot into bankruptcy by picking off much of its sexy, style- conscious (when not fully naked) clientele. The simplistic premise is a handy way to enact one goofy yet fairly inventive kill shot after another while the cardboard cast milk out much of the average run time searching for a way to wrap it all up cheaply and get out alive. Along with like-minded flotsam such as Killer Workout (you know you recall that one as well), this little creeper stands as the perfect time capsule of an era when it was chic to be fit and the Jane Fonda workout regimen ruled the day.
Loaded with cut rate gore, bare and sweaty skin and thespians who understand how to react accordingly (including Dawn of the Dead alum Ken Foree), this new DVD/BLU RAY combo release displays the film in what is likely the finest quality it will ever see. The bonus stuff is predictable but fun (commentary, retrospective doc short), and the film itself is not without its considerable camp merits. Perfect fodder for the horror goon who still longs for the small scale, mom & pop local- video-rental-store way of movie watching.
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