‘The Act of Killing’: Oppenheimer’s ‘Clockwork Orange’

Everyone knows history’s written by the victors — especially the Indonesian gangsters who killed more than 500,000 alleged communists between 1965-66.

That’s why executioner Anwar Congo and his friends (including gangster and paramilitary leader Herman Koto, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, North Sumatra Governor Syamsul Arifin and Pancasila Youth Leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno) are thrilled to be making a movie commemorating the Indonesian communist massacres of 1965.

“It doesn’t have to be a big film,” says Congo. “We will remain in history because we documented what we did when we were young.”

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and a mostly anonymous crew (names withheld for protection), “The Act of Killing” is a BAFTA-winning and Academy Award-nominated feature-length documentary about the Indonesian men who murdered thousands.

The title itself is a double entendre. In some scenes, Congo, Koto and others talk about what it was like to kill. In other scenes, Congo and Koto stage elaborate re-enactments of the massacres (with the assistance of Oppenheimer’s film and make-up crew).

Congo, who calls himself a gangster, models himself off American mafia movies. His heroes were Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Wayne’s characters.

In fact, Congo picked up his favorite murder trick from Hollywood films.

“It’s faster with wire,” Congo says. “Because when you pull hard, the victim can’t grab it. He can’t grab it because it cuts his throat.”

He killed thousands this way, strangling his victims and disposing their bodies via rice sacks.

And although the deaths haunt him, Congo says he’s a happy man who sings and dances and self-medicates with alcohol and drugs (from marijuana to Molly).

Fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry doesn’t feel guilty; he doesn’t have nightmares. To him, the massacres are not war crimes, but rather consequences of war. He almost sounds rational as he compares the Indonesian killings of 1965 to the early European colonists’ slaughter of Native Americans and the recent war on terror.

“When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right and Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Zulkadry says. “That was right according to Bush, but now its wrong. … ‘War crimes’ are defined by winners. I’m a winner so I can make my own definition.”

“The Act of Killing” blurs the lines of acting and reality. The torture scenes are so realistic and vivid. In one scene, snot flies out of a man’s nose as he’s being ‘strangled’ with wire. A little girl is still crying after the director yells, “Cut!” The documentary style makes it hard to differentiate how much of this is acting and how much of this ‘acting’ stems from real emotions or memories.

That’s the case with Congo’s neighbor Suryono — who stars as one of the gangsters’ victims. He recounts a memory of burying a Chinese family friend between film takes. In the next scene, he’s being tortured and ‘killed’ himself.

Usually filmmakers aren’t the subject of their movies, but even if none of them are pictured in “The Act of Killing,” their presence changes everything. By allowing Congo and gang to use his film crew to stage their own production of the 1965 killings, Oppenheimer ingeniously affects the film’s narrative.

Oppenheimer becomes the invisible Dr. Brodsky from Anthony Burgess’ novel “A Clockwork Orange” — making Congo re-live and re-watch his crimes.

As they re-create the killings, beatings and burnings starring Congo and Koto, Congo’s transported back to his triumphs. But what once caused him great joy, now causes him pain.

Congo’s fixated on one scene in the picture — where he’s the one being strangled with wire.

“Did the people I tortured feel the way I feel here?” Congo asks Oppenheimer.

“Actually, the people you tortured feel much worse because you knew it was a film and they knew they were going to die,” Oppenheimer answers.

“The Act of Killing” was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and more. The film won the 2014 BAFTA Award for “Best Documentary. “The Act of Killing” was also nominated for “Best Documentary in the 2014 Academy Awards.  

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Animated short ‘Silent’ chronicles films of the ages

Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg of Moonbot Studios — who brought you the Academy Award-winning short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” (2011) and Chipotle’s ” The Scarecrow” (2013)  — are at it again.

Their 2014 animated short, “Silent,” is to motion pictures as “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” is to books. It even features the familiar Morris Lessmore from the latter film.

This silent two-and-a-half minute love letter to cinema centers on two street performers who get caught in the rain.

They run into an empty run-down theater for shelter and as if by magic — Mr. Lessmore tumbles into a silent picture.

In order to show the evolution of cinema, Fabian and Oldenburg’s short animates iconic scenes from movies: the black-and-white action sequence of Godzilla on the Golden Gate Bridge; the hand-drawn animation of Disney’s “Zip-a-Pa-Dee-Doo-Dah”; the zombies from the stop-motion picture “ParaNorman”;  the ship from “The Pirates! Band of Misfits!”; and the “Inception-esque” free fall off of a skyscraper and into an “Alice In Wonderland-esque” rabbit hole.

Written by William Joyce, Fabian and Oldenburg and dedicated to the art and science of storytelling, “Silent” shows us how easy it is to escape into another world — if only for a moment.

“Silent” was directed by Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg; produced by Moonbot Studios; and distributed by Dolby Laboratories.

‘Like Crazy’ makes your heart hurt

Watching director Drake Doremus’ poignant picture, “Like Crazy,” is like revisiting the skeletons in your closet.

You might have known an Anna (Felicity Jones) or Jacob (Anton Yelchin) — the saccharine couple that stars in this story, written by Doremus and his childhood friend, Ben York Jones.

Anna’s a British journalism student studying in Santa Monica, Calif, on a student visa. Jacob’s an American architecture student from Southern California. They meet in a class together; Anna writes Jacob love letters. They connect over Paul Simon, whiskey and awkward conversations — mostly improvised by actors Jones and Yelchin.

This starts their relationship — one that plays over beautiful montages (shot by John Guleserian and edited by Jonathan Alberts) of intimate close ups of hands and feet, sunsets on Santa Monica beach and walks on the Third Street Promenade. But we’re not moved by this couple’s plight until a half an hour into this 90-minute independent film.

Anna inevitably overstays her student visa and is deported back to London; Jacob has started a furniture company in L.A. Their relationship is painful to watch.

It’s easy to relate to Anna and Jacob’s story though. They’re your friends and romantic partners from high school or college — whom you still remember fondly, but have since lost touch with. Their improvised dialogue feels like a couple of strangers getting to know each other. But as much as you want to love Anna and Jacob, it’s hard.

Although Jones and Yelchin are an attractive and talented pair of young actors, Anna and Jacob’s relationship is stagnant. Sure, their radiant smiles are warm and inviting, but their time together is dull to watch. Jones’ Anna never seems truly comfortable until she’s back in London — navigating her post at a UK fashion magazine. Similarly, Jacob’s relationship with his secretary, Sam (played by the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence) seems looser and easier.

Compared to his charismatic and energetic performances in “Charlie Barlett,” “Middle of Nowhere” and “Star Trek,” Yechin’s more subdued in Doremus’ romantic film. This is emphasized by the film’s slow pauses.

“It’s hard to keep stopping and starting,” says Anna.

It’s hard for the audience to watch too.

“Like Crazy” was directed by Drake Doremus and written by Doremus and Ben York Jones.

Piecing together ‘The Usual Suspects’

You know the party guessing game Mafia — the one where the townspeople have to pick out the criminals living among them. Well, “The Usual Suspects'” director Bryan Singer and screenplay writer Christopher McQuarrie stacked the room full of thieves and liars.

There’s McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), Keaton (Gabriel Bryne) and Klint (Kevin Spacey) — five criminals brought into a New York City precinct for a truck hijacking.

“You don’t put guys like that in a room together,” says Klint — a small time fraudster and our film’s unreliable narrator.

But here they are, pacing inside a New York City jail cell. Rather than point fingers at each other though (because there is some honor among thieves), they decide to team up.

Told in flashbacks, “The Usual Suspects” leads up to an explosion at a California shipyard. This happens six weeks after the initial meeting in New York. Witch-hunter — I mean, Federal Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) is questioning Klint — a small unassuming man with a noticeable gimp leg (akin to Bryan Cranston’s milquetoast chemistry teacher Walter White from “Breaking Bad”). Kujan — like the “townspeople” watching the film — want to know the who, what and why: the usual questions following a tragedy.

McQuarrie writes a tightly packaged story — packed with foreshadowing. The clues are there, if you know what you’re looking for. From Baldwin’s Cheshire grin and Del Toro’s unintelligible phrases to Spacey’s Flannery O’Connor-esque narration — the cast keeps you entertained.

Under Singer’s direction, Newton Thomas Siegal’s cinematography and John Ottoman’s editing, “The Usual Suspects” becomes a cinematic treasure trove. Flames spring up from a string of gasoline. The coffee inside a mug fades into a burial scene. The film’s overexposured as Klint tells a ghost story. There are slow pans — in and out; low angles bringing out the shadows.

And it’s not until the very end, that you see how these puzzle pieces fit together.

“The Usual Suspects” was written by Christopher McQuarrie and directed by Bryan Singer. “The Usual Suspects” won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Writing and Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

‘The Croods’: Not as crude as you’d think

Despite its namesake, “The Croods” really starts off quite charming. The first two minutes of Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders’ DreamWorks animation stars two-dimensional cartoon cave drawings and Emma Stone’s (“Easy A,” “The Help”) self-deprecatory, girl-next-door narration.

After that, it’s mostly crude and predictable.

Stone’s Eep, a teenaged cave girl in a Flintstone-esque tiger suit. She’s going through the whole teenaged rebellion thing and doesn’t like her father’s (Nicholas Cage) strict curfews or didactic stories (they all end in death).

Her family’s routine changes when she meets a guy named Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and his pet sloth, Belt (voiced by Sanders himself). In the land before time, Guy’s a modern Prometheus with radical ideas of tomorrow. He’s the one who warns Eep that the world is ending (a.k.a. plate tectonics) and that the only way of survival is to keep moving forward.

Grug — that’s Eep’s dad — doesn’t like this any more than he likes change, but when their cave caves in, he reluctantly lets Guy lead them across Lisa Frank-colored jungles.

Written and directed by DeMicco and Sanders (the latter known for his credits in “Lilo & Stitch” and “How to Train Your Dragon”), “The Croods” slowly grow on you over their 98 minutes of screen time. First, it’s like being trapped on a long family vacation. You’re bored and miserable and really have to pee. But before long, you’re bamboozled by the sights — the aquamarine water, the viridian and fuchsia rainforests and the millions of tiny suns in the dark blue sky.

Even if you’re company is crude, at least you can enjoy the animation.

“The Croods” was written and directed by Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders. “The Croods” was nominated for Best Animation in the 2014 Academy Awards.

Glazer gets ‘Under the Skin’

You’re not sure what you’re seeing in the opening sequence of Jonathan Glazer’s experimental sci-fi film “Under the Skin.”

There’s a bright light in the distance orbiting around something circular, but it takes a while for your eyes to adjust — until you finally see. The dark dilated pupil narrows, revealing Scarlett Johansson’s hazel iris.

That title sequence mirrors your experience of Glazer’s esoteric film.  If you haven’t read Michel Faber’s first full-length novel — which the film is loosely based on, the initial images in “Under the Skin” feel even more foreign and disjointed.

You see the silhouette of an attractive woman with short dark hair (played by Johansson). She’s bending over a body, picking up a praying mantis on her fingertip. She picks up men with the same curious intensity, driving a massive white van across Scotland and England.

“Why Scotland?” she asks a Czech Republic man she finds surfing.

“Because it’s nowhere,” he answers.

In writing this screenplay, Glazer and Walter Campbell skillfully draw upon the poetry of other myths.

He’s nowhere — like the sailor lost at sea. She’s the screeching lullabies of a siren — or the bright lighthouse in Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” She the Kelpie, luring men to their watery graves. Or the praying mantis — feasting on prey three times her size.

This is reinforced by Daniel Landin’s incredible cinematography and Paul Watt’s film editing.

We see the short staccatos of a throng of women, clubbing to pulsating lights and music. We see bright colored lights and abstract imagery, keeping us drugged and sedated.

The steady booms, the high pitched screeching, the screaming gulls and the crashing waves of composer Mica Levi’s dissonant score create an atmospheric dance over this mating ritual. This dance is as grotesque as Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

At least that’s what we see — at first. Glazer’s film starts off as an interesting social experiment, showing us that a pretty face can seduce anyone.

But Glazer’s beautiful 108-minute film gets under your skin, leaving you feeling sort of sad and empty.

“Under the Skin” was directed by British director Jonathan Glazer and written by Glazer and Campbell, based on Michel Faber’s novel.