Saturday, August 03, 2013

movie review: Midnight Express

Midnight Express (1978)
Directed by Alan Parker

This movie (and the book it's based on) did a lot to dissuade Westerners from travelling to Turkey. It's the sort-of true story of Billy Hayes, an American who was caught trying to smuggle 2 kilos of hashish out of Istanbul and was put in prison for it. When Midnight Express was released, Turks were offended at the film's brutish, one-dimensional depiction of their country, and spoke out vehemently against it. Decades later, scriptwriter Oliver Stone admitted he had exaggerated Hayes' original story, and he and Hayes both apologized to the Turks for the overly harsh portrayal of their country.

Upon watching Midnight Express, I definitely thought it was, well, unsubtle. No one would dispute that prison conditions at the time in Turkey had room for improvement, but there is something distinctly unsavoury about the way all the Turks in the movie are portrayed: they're almost all cruel, or stupid, or both. There is a lot of "dark-skinned other" happening here on screen, a lot of caricature and cartoon.

That said, there are still some things that make the film worth watching, chief among them the actors. The late Brad Davis is amazing as Billy. He plays the character as someone who does something unbelievably dumb and then realizes far too late what he has sacrificed in his moment of stupidity. He's capable of acting in anger when pushed over the edge, but for the most part remains surprisingly sweet-natured and open. John Hurt is wonderful as the wry, sensitive Max, a Brit with a drug addiction who seems to spend equal amounts of time nodding off, lavishing affection on his cat, and hating Rifki, the prison's tea-and-all-sundries vendor and chief snitch. A very young Randy Quaid also puts in a good performance as a long-time prisoner who is desperate to escape no matter what.

The movie is definitely sensationalistic and very America-of-the-1970s in its approach, but it's an interesting artifact. If you want to spend a couple of hours getting a feel for what it would be like to be incarcerated in horrific conditions for a seeming eternity, this is the movie for you.

PS: This is totally beside the point, but I was intrigued by how much Brad Davis resembled Brad Pitt when his hair was long, and Channing Tatum when his hair was short.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

movie review: Missing

Missing (1982)
Directed by Costa-Gavras

Missing is based on the true story of Charles Horman, a freelance American journalist living in Chile with his (also American) wife when General Augusto Pinochet bombed the president's palace and carried out a coup d'etat. The country was thrown into violent chaos; curfews were implemented and anyone on the street during curfew could be summarily shot. The military terrorized civilians by patrolling the streets with tanks and machine guns, constantly shooting into crowds. They carried out random arrests, torture, and executions. Many years later, it was officially confirmed that thousands of people had been rounded up and executed in Chile's national stadium.

Six days after the coup, Charles Horman disappeared.

The movie centres around Horman's wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), who is still in Chile trying to get some answers about what has happened to her husband, and Charles' father Ed (Jack Lemmon), who has flown to Chile from the US after getting nowhere with government representatives back home. The real strength of Missing is the relationship between Beth and Ed, which starts out as tense and mildly combative (Ed thinks Beth and Charles are irresponsible, paranoid "anti-establishment" types; Beth thinks Ed is rigid, judgmental, and hopelessly naive about what the US is really up to in Chile). Over the course of the film, as Beth and Ed fight their way through a gauntlet of evasive, prevaricating American officials, they form a bond over their shared love of Charles and their surprisingly similar passion for justice. Ed begins to understand what the US has really been doing in Chile, and starts to suspect that the American officials not only know more than they were letting on but may in fact be partly responsible for Charles' disappearance.

Spacek and Lemmon are powerful, subtle actors who have instantly believable chemistry as father-and-daughter-in-law. Although Spacek was actually in her early 30s when this was filmed, she looks fragile and delicate and more like someone in her early 20s. However, we (and Ed) soon realize that even though the violence she witnesses affects her deeply and terrifies her, she has an iron strength and the power of her unshakeable convictions to help her continue. As for Lemmon, director Costa-Gavras explained in later interviews why he wanted to cast him over other actors better known for dramatic roles: Lemmon is vulnerable and humane, and, despite his reputation as a comedic actor, able to give a subtle performance of a man who has a strong faith in his country and its leaders, but finds out to his horror that his beloved America may have betrayed him most cruelly.

Costa-Gavras does a beautiful job of filming the chaos in the streets--his simple but effective framing and sharply focused soundscape (there is very little non-diegetic music, for example, but the sounds of gunshots echo in the background of nearly every scene) serve the narrative very well and give it the feeling of a stark, sombre documentary film.

If you are looking for an intelligent, engrossing film that is not an easy watch but definitely a satisfying one, I recommend Missing.

Monday, March 25, 2013

movie review: With A Friend Like Harry (alternate title: Harry, He's Here to Help)

With A Friend Like Harry/Harry, He's Here to Help (2000)
Directed by Dominik Moll

The film begins with a scene familiar to anyone who has driven for too long in a hot car on a family vacation. Michel and Claire, a couple in their 30s, are headed to their summer vacation home with their three small children who are crying, screaming, and kicking the back of the driver's seat. They stop to gather their wits and cool off at a gas station, where Michel runs into an old classmate in the men's toilets. Harry remembers Michel, but Michel does not remember Harry. That's OK; Harry remembers more than enough for the both of them.

It turns out Harry is now very wealthy and is travelling with his beautiful young girlfriend, Plum (Prune, in French), to Switzerland. But before long he has invited himself and Plum to Michel and Claire's for drinks and before you know it, they are ensconced, meddling away busily in the young family's lives.

There's something off about Harry right from the beginning: he is a little too ingratiating, too familiar, too concerned with Michel and what Harry considers his wasted potential as a writer. He remembers details from their school days with a strange, obsessive clarity. This was something I found unconvincing about the film--there are several things Harry says or does that would raise alarm bells for me, but Michel and Claire seem to think he's only slightly odd and continue to accept his and Plum's extremely intrusive presence in their lives.

The film becomes more and more sinister, and Harry's willingness to intervene in Michel's life becomes more extreme. The filmmaker is skilled at creating tension, because we know things about Harry's personality that the other characters do not, so we are often left on pins and needles as we see characters interacting with him as though he is a rational actor. We want to warn them, but our inability to do anything but watch as Harry wreaks his influence on Michel's life is what makes the movie almost unbearably suspenseful. Hitchcock would have been proud.