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The Act of Killing *****


This film is probably the most unusual documentary I have ever seen.

Just trying to describe the ‘story’ is a challenge and so I quote from IMBd’s Synopsis:

When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar {Congo} and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands. Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide.

THE ACT OF KILLING is about killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built. Unlike ageing Nazis or Rwandan genocidaires, Anwar and his friends have not been forced by history to admit they participated in crimes against humanity. Instead, they have written their own triumphant history, becoming role models for millions of young paramilitaries. THE ACT OF KILLING is a journey into the memories and imaginations of the perpetrators, offering insight into the minds of mass killers. And THE ACT OF KILLING is a nightmarish vision of a frighteningly banal culture of impunity in which killers can joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows, and celebrate moral disaster with the ease and grace of a soft shoe dance number.

And film director Joshua Oppenheimer writes about his intentions in making the documentary:

The Act of Killing reveals why violence we hope would be unimaginable is not only imagined, but also routinely performed. It is an effort to understand the moral vacuum that makes it possible for perpetrators of genocide to be celebrated on public television with cheers and smiles. It is a call to reexamine easy reassurances that we are the good guys fighting the bad guys, just because we say so.

“Some viewers may desire resolution by the end of the film, a successful struggle for justice that results in changes in the balance of power, human rights tribunals, reparations, and official apologies. The film alone cannot create these changes, but this desire has been our inspiration as well, as we seek to shed light on the darkest chapters of both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience, and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not a story about Indonesia. This is a story about us all.”

The Act of Killing was in DC briefly and then reappeared this weekend at the West End Cinema. If it shows up wherever you live, or becomes available in other formats, consider going out of your way to see it.

You will not be entertained, and I doubt if you’ve ever seen anything similar.

I suspect you will be stunned and long remember it.

I was, and I will.


The Spectacular Now ****


This one is entertaining, and its story is one you have seen, read, know, or perhaps have observed or have experienced yourself.

Two high school seniors, quite different on the surface, find themselves surprisingly involved with each other. I won’t spoil the film for you by telling you much more than that.

What I can say is that both leads, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller are two of the reasons the film is better than many ‘coming of age’ stories. With the direction of James Ponsoldt, The Spectacular Now draws you in with its humor, its honesty, and its tenderness. It is (mostly) believable and avoids many of the pitfalls of a story we all know. Although it is slowly paced (too much so at times?), both the story and the actors grow on you, and you almost don’t want the film to end.


Lee Daniels’ The Butler ****


A dilemma.

Tho a bit too long, both in the length of the film and in the time period it covers (1926-2008), I found The Butler involving and engaging.

The wonderful performances of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey (and in a lesser role Cuba Gooding Jr.) make this journey through the civil rights struggles of 60s, etc. worth your watching, whether you were there then or are new to much of it. Daniels’ vehicle of portraying this time period through the life of one family is well done.


My problem with the film is that many of the key parts of the movie are not true, more so than is often the case with a film “based on a true story.”  So if you are looking to know about the life of the man who served in the White House under eight presidents over three decades, the film fails (at least for me). From the opening scenes in which a young boy sees his mother raped and father killed to adding a second son to his family (he and his wife only had one son, not two) to the truth about his wife, and to the end where he supposedly has a personal audience with President Obama, Daniels sacrifices truth for drama.

With my ‘need’ to have things be (more?) honest, that spoils the film for me. I suspect a film based more truthfully on the life of ‘The Butler’ would never make it to the screen and be considered for various Oscars.

But Daniels chose to make a drama and not a documentary. Given that as his goal, then it is possible to enjoy the film.

(With thanx to AR, you can check out where Daniels departs from the truth with this article, ‘The Butler Fact Check: How True Is This ‘True Story.’)

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There are a number of films we/I saw in our film club and over six months which are now out in the theaters. Each of the films below deserve your attention. You can get to my mini-reviews by clicking on the title of the film:

  • Black Fish (Unrated, reviewed by guest blogger Elizabeth Miller)

For an expanded list that includes another half dozen or so good films, see an earlier post, Best in 2013 (as of July 3, 2013).