SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 5

December 6, 2008 at 4:50 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 2 Comments

Day 5: Tuesday 11/18

Opera Jawa and The Heartbeat Detector

Title: Opera Jawa
Director: Garin Nugroho
Country: Indonesia
Score: 6.0
Review:
This adaptation of a love triangle from the Hindu epic Ramayana has enough to intrigue almost anyone into giving it a try, but it’s a rare instance of a film almost too exotic for me to take. Siti is a gorgeous pottery maker who is loved by her modest husband and a ruthless butcher magnate. The latter’s seduction scheme leads to sorrow, battle and death. Every line of dialogue is song (a bit like an oriental “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) and every movement is choreographed. The costumes and sets are allowed to be equally expressive.

While I really like the idea of this film in theory, the simple story adapts poorly into a two hour movie and most of the scenes are consequently irrelevant to the narrative. This isn’t a problem if the presentation sufficiently wows you, but I my ignorance of Javanese traditional music and language had me feeling like all the vocals sounded pretty much the same and the choreography looked like bad modern dance. That said, I really liked the exotic instrumentation and the decision to model the acting after animals (a particularly good example is done in shadow silhouette).

The set design is imaginative, if not as consistently impressive as Parajanov’s work. I did enjoy the use of ceramics, wicker cones and crimson wax heads as reoccurring visual motifs. There are a handful of scenes that make for unforgettable imagery, like a room full of candle skulls or the beach finale inside a sheer yellow tent.

Yet all the sound and colors didn’t seem to make for a consistent story, mood or pacing and I ended up with the dissatisfying feeling that I’d just beheld one of the world’s most visually resplendent bores. I don’t understand it. I usually love visually resplendent bores! I think “Opera Jawa” is the type of film that I’ll engage with better on DVD, where I can appreciate its charms without the bustle and exhaustion of the festival.

Title: Heartbeat Detector
Director: Nicolas Klotz
Country: France
Score: 5.0
Review:
“Heartbeat Detector” (also known by its literal translation “The Human Question,” which I prefer) had already made so many waves in Europe, that my expectations were perhaps a bit too high. I didn’t like it, yet so far it’s the festival film I’m most interested in discussing.

The first hour of the film is a corporate intrigue thriller without the intrigue or thrills as we watch a company psychologist for a large faceless organization deal with his relationships and an investigation into the sanity of his own CEO. Eventually the film stumbles its way into a series of revelations about Nazi ties amongst the executives, but it doesn’t actually get interesting until the movie turns into a polemic indictment of corporate culture in general.

The clumsy interrogation of this one idea, that fascism and capitalism can come to disturbingly similar conclusions, is just about the only redeeming debate to emerge from the film. It taps into our innate mistrust for powerful entities of any variety, and our suspicion that companies, bureaucracies and hierarchies may be intrinsically and profoundly evil. “Heartbeat Detector” never really covers enough ground or goes far enough to say anything new or provocative on these subjects, but its mixture of fear, doubt, regret and loathing is sincere and potent.

Sadly, the unremarkable story goes along way towards undermining the themes, especially by making the references to Nazism so terribly literal. In movies since the start of WII Nazi villains are dragged out for audiences to boo and jeer at so that we can feel even more self-righteous. The really scary thing is no longer onscreen Nazis caricatures, but the implication that offscreen, we may be slipping into the same “I’m just trying to get by” cog-psychology that makes inhuman totalitarianism possible.

The boilerplate bits of script are equally indigestible, featuring 2.5 hours of a blank-faced protagonist that we’re thankfully never asked to care about and a bunch of elderly executives who are cryptic and depressing. The worst are the lead’s pointless girlfriends, who stop existing for the main character (and the screenwriter) the moment they are offscreen. The cinematography is murky and underlit, probably an attempt to enforce the somber mood. The gray and black color scheme, rectilinear locales and sleepy emo soundtrack would probably have accomplished this anyway. The lack of proper lighting just makes the film feel frustrating and unprofessional. I was amused to see that the screenshots used for the poster and DVD have been digitally brightened.

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