Wednesday, April 1, 2015

New movie review: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Director Alex Gibney's new documentary Going Clear seeks to expose the lies behind Scientology.

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.” – Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

I promise not to discuss the Great Pumpkin in this space.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is a masterful storyteller and a remarkable investigator who often spins riveting tales about true-life atrocities. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is firmly in the mold of his previous films such as the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It is a frightening and infuriating film, one from which you will not be able to turn away.

I am a great admirer of Gibney’s craft, and as a journalist, his research is impeccable. Going Clear had its worldwide debut less than 72 hours ago on HBO – though its premier was at the Sundance Film Festival in January – and the Church of Scientology has already tried to steal the headlines with its refutation of the facts presented in the film. The organization has started numerous websites and created countless satellite Twitter accounts all to mitigate the damage it believes this film will do to it. For a group that already has severe public relations problems, it is hard to blame the Church of Scientology for this reaction.

The film centers on two questions, one a matter of fact and the other a matter of interpretation. First, did the Church of Scientology use mental and physical abuse to control and contain its members? It will say it did not, though no current leaders or members of the Church of Scientology agreed to be interviewed for the film. The former members, including Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) and actor Jason Beghe (Chicago P.D. and X-Men: First Class), say mental and physical abuse was not only routine but a matter of policy.

It comes down to agenda. The Church of Scientology will do anything in its immense power to protect its business, while the filmmakers and interview subjects want to expose the organization as a massive, dangerous fraud. As the people whom Gibney interviews, including several former high-ranking members of the group, do not stand to benefit from knowingly making themselves the targets of a public smear campaign, I am inclined to believe their version of events.

So, if we accept as fact that the Church of Scientology engaged in a top-down program of systematic abuse, what do we do with that information? Similar charges and worse have been brought against the Catholic Church, and the results have been more or less the same. The accused organization denies any wrongdoing, suggests its accusers are lying or unreliable, and pays out an undisclosed settlement to bury its problems in money.

Ah, yes, the money. This brings us to the second question: Is the Church of Scientology a religion, and if so, does it deserve tax-exempt status from the government? For now, the IRS recognizes the Church of Scientology – which is worth billions of dollars – as a religion, and it does not owe taxes to the federal government.

Leaving aside how the organization achieved this status, which Gibney dissects at length in the film, the larger issue is whether something like the Church of Scientology constitutes a religion. One of the interview subjects says that part of the problem is putting that decision in the hands of the IRS. He says they are accountants and lawyers, not theologians, which is true to an extent, but when it comes to discussing far-out beliefs and perceived cults, don’t we all become amateur theologians?

Much is made publicly and in the film of the Church of Scientology’s beliefs, which include distant planets, ancient souls, and space aliens. If it sounds like an organization started by a science-fiction writer, that is because founder L. Ron Hubbard was in fact a science-fiction writer. However, I refuse to participate in a discussion in which these facts are used as the basis for dismissing the possibility of Scientology as a religion.

The Church of Scientology may be the new kid on the block, but I fail to see its beliefs in past lives and space pods as more ludicrous than a burning bush, reincarnation, or the parting of the Red Sea. It is too easy, particularly in a Christian-Protestant-centric nation such as the U.S., to look down on belief systems we find strange or out of touch. It is much safer to hold others up for scrutiny than to engage in serious, meaningful self-reflection.

Are the Church of Scientology’s abuses horrid? Yes, unforgivably so, but they are on par with the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse and basically every major religion’s shameful treatment of women. Does the organization deserve tax-exempt status? Absolutely not, and neither does any religion in a nation that values the separation of church and state.

Going Clear works as a stunning exposé of a corrupt organization run by an out-of-control power structure. The unfortunate circumstance is the people most in need of this information will never see it – those inside Scientology. For those of us outside the organization, there is nothing in the film not available to those curious enough to seek it out. Gibney’s film may shock you in its compilation of the details, but that is not its primary value. At its best, Going Clear will engage you with questions about the nature of belief systems and what happens when you realize your system is a fraud.

See it? Yes.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Fear of a subtitled planet: On remaking foreign language films

Kristofer Hivju and Johannes Kuhnke star in Ruben Ӧstlund's Force Majeure.

If you follow the site at all, you know I am a stickler for seeing movies the way they are meant to be seen. If it is shot on film, I want to see it on film. If it is shot in IMAX, I want to see it in IMAX – proper IMAX. Black and white? For god’s sake, do not see it colorized. So what of foreign films and those folks averse to subtitles? Well, there is the great tradition of the American remake.

News broke late last week that Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Veep) is in talks to star in an English-language remake of last year’s Force Majeure, a film we are pretty high on here at Last Cinema Standing. Louis-Dreyfus is an undoubtedly talented actress, if not particularly known for her film work, and director Ruben Ӧstlund’s blackly comic story of a family vacation gone wrong is nothing if not universal. It deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience; however, it is Ӧstlund’s film that deserves to be seen, not simply the plot.

Force Majeure is not only its story of a husband who abandons his family in the face of disaster and the ramifications that has on his marriage. It is the magnificent central performances of Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli. It is the idiosyncratic use of montage and music. It is that gorgeous cinematography and that vaguely alien – to Americans, anyway – art direction. These things exist outside the story and would be impossible to replicate.

In truth, this is all a bit of a knee-jerk reaction on my part. Hypothetical films get pitched with stars attached all the time. Most of these never get made. It is a long way from casting rumor to roll cameras to roll credits. Sometimes, however, they do get made. For instance, set for release later this year is an American remake of the brilliant Argentine thriller The Secret in Their Eyes, which won Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards in 2009.

The remake stars Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Chiwetel Ejiofor and has been written and directed by Billy Ray, writer of such classics as Volcano, Hart’s War, and Flightplan. Okay, that is a bit unfair. I like Volcano, and his last script was the fantastic Captain Phillips, for which Ray was nominated for a well-deserved Oscar. These people are talented and will be shepherding a great story to the screen.

There is no way to know if the remake of The Secret in Their Eyes will be good until we see it, and there will be no way to know if the Force Majeure remake will succeed until it is made. Yet, all this got me thinking about some other great foreign films remade for English-speaking audiences and wondering how they stack up against each other. For instance:

The Departed, remade from Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong)

Infernal Affairs
Most of the films we talk about will be familiar to most movie-goers, but this one stands out for a couple reasons. First, it is directed by Martin Scorsese. Second, it was a Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. It is one of Scorsese’s most successful box office hits as well. Few will debate the merit of The Departed, but Infernal Affairs is a great piece of filmmaking as well.

Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, Infernal Affairs is a tightly scripted, wonderfully acted, and superbly made thriller that like its American counterpart, swept its country’s major awards, winning seven Hong Kong Film Awards, including best picture. Was The Departed great? Sure. Was it strictly necessary? Probably not, particularly as the plots are so similar that if you have seen one, you have seen the other. But, do yourself a favor and see Infernal Affairs.

Oldboy, remade from Oldboy (South Korea)

Maybe the most high-profile recent example is Spike Lee’s execrable reworking of Chan-wook Park’s cult hit Oldboy. Lee’s film lacks any of the energy, wit, or social investigation of its forbear and falls almost completely flat. Lee hits the same beats but has no feel for the rhythm of the material.

On top of not being very good, the worse crime may be that it seems to exist for no reason other than to make money off an already-done concept with no care for the quality of the project. The upshot is that it did not make any money, failing to crack $5 million worldwide off a $30 million budget. Hopefully, this will spare us remakes of the other two films in Park’s masterful vengeance trilogy.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, remade from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)

This is a bit of a different case since both films are adapted from the same worldwide bestselling novel. There is essentially no difference – except the dreaded subtitles – between Niels Arden Oplev’s sexy, slick, stylish original and David Fincher’s sexy, slick, stylish rehash. If one works for you, the other should, which is to say, Fincher’s film is redundant.

Funny Games, remade from Funny Games (Austria)

Michael Haneke, the great German director who gave us such harrowing chamber dramas as Cache and Amour, wrote and directed both the original and the remake of this film. In fact, the 2007 English-language remake is a shot-for-shot retelling of the 1997 original. Both feature fantastic, disturbing performances from excellent casts and impeccable technical work from the craftspeople. It is an instance in which exacting replication is precisely the point, and I would strongly recommend seeing both – just maybe give yourself a break in between viewings. Once you see it, you will know why.

The Magnificent Seven, remade from Seven Samurai (Japan)

Seven Samurai
Even the classics are subject to such scrutiny. John Sturges’ beloved western is a fairly faithful adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai tale. Both are great and worth your time. This also does not represent the last time one of Kurosawa’s samurai pictures was transposed to the American West. Kurosawa was often criticized in his home country for making films with too much of a Western (read: European/American) sensibility, so it makes sense that Western filmmakers would revere and emulate him.

Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars (the first film in the popular Man with No Name trilogy) is a western remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Where it gets interesting is that some scholars believe Yojimbo is based on the 1929 American gangster novel Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Other film historians have disputed this assertion, while Kurosawa said he was primarily inspired by the American gangster film The Glass Key, itself an adaptation of a different Hammett novel.

Ultimately, each of these film is rewarding in different ways, and by shifting the action to the American West, Sturges and Leone ensured that though their films were remakes, they introduced vital new ideas into the cultural conversation.

A final thought

The point here is not to bash any of these films – except Lee’s Oldboy; don’t bother with that – or to chastise anyone for not liking subtitles. It is not even to carp about remakes, which have been a part of the film landscape since the medium’s inception. The goal is simply to encourage you to seek out the films that perhaps inspired or influenced the movies you like, in English or not. After all, we all know there is no substitute for the real thing.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

‘Reality on a special day’: White God and the power of a parable

Lili, played by Zsófia Psotta, and her dog, Hagen, share a moment of peace in White God.

I cannot tell you what White God is. That is to say: I can tell you what it is about, but I cannot tell you what it is. Recognizable tropes abound from such disparate genres as coming-of-age family films, satirical black comedies, grindhouse slasher pictures, and incendiary political thrillers. It is, by turns, each of these, and in so being, it transcends them all. White God is not defined by its genre but by the boundlessness of its scope and the vibrancy of its storytelling.

The film played last week in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors, New Films Festival. Director Kornél Mundruczó and co-writer Kata Wéber were on hand to introduce the film and stayed for a question-and-answer session after the screening. White God has played to rave reviews at festivals around the world, even winning the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes last year, and finally opens in select theaters for American audiences this weekend.

‘A very fragile question’

Director Kornél Mundruczó
Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is an average 13-year-old Hungarian girl whose best friend seems to be her dog, Hagen. She is forced to stay with her father (Sándor Zsótér) for a few months while her mother goes on a trip with her new boyfriend. Faced with paying a fine because the dog is a mutt, Lili and her father must decide whether to take him to a shelter, where he will most likely be put down, or set him loose on the streets. Though Lili protests that they should do neither, her father leaves him on the side of the road, and so begins Hagen and Lili’s long journey back to one another.

It is a familiar enough premise and could have made for a simple tale about a girl and her dog, but Mundruczó, Wéber, their other co-writer, Viktória Petrányi, have no interest in simplicity. Instead, they tell the parallel stories of two loners living in a culture that treats outcasts with disdain when they are noticed at all. In their own ways, Hagen and Lili are both pushed aside, beaten down, and kicked around by a world that has no need for them. How they choose to rebel against this treatment is the basis for the movie’s final point about where we are all headed if we do not stand up and take notice of the culture we have let fester.

“I had a huge anger about my society,” said Mundruczó, through a thick Hungarian accent. “Just standing in a dog pound, I felt that shame that we’re talking about. I was also part of the [movie] business, and I have a responsibility to talk about my society and criticize my society as much as I can. This movie was on the one hand very slow because of financing and shooting, but we wrote the script in one month, with really reflecting how [criticizing our society] is a good thing. Let’s face it, our society, with the movie. Of course, still, it’s a very fragile question.”

Mundruczó paints a picture of a nation in decline and a society that is coming apart at the seams due to its inequities. On top are the authority figures such as the teachers, the police, and in Hagen’s case, the dog catchers. Below are the hungry masses, the abused, and the forgotten. As a system, it is unsustainable, and Mundruczó sees this. A change is going to come, and that the revolution is filmed from the point of view of hundreds of stray dogs is the film’s master stroke.

‘An emotional draw’

Lili’s story functions as a more traditional tale of a girl growing up, but Hagen goes through hell. While Lili experiences all the pains of adolescence such as run-ins with the law, experimentation with drugs, and trouble at home and school, Hagen is literally beaten and broken until something inside him snaps. At a key moment, after being forced to commit an unspeakably awful act, he decides he is no longer anyone’s dog. He is his own master. However, these two stories do not work without one another.

Though Lili and Hagen begin the story together and the story ends with them in the same place, their separate and complementary character arcs imbue the film’s climax with a depth of emotion that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise. In a more traditional narrative, the tension would be derived from whether or not these two will find each other again, but they are so fundamentally changed by the events that transpire that we are left to wonder if they will even recognize each other when they do.

“It’s a mirroring story, somehow, between these two characters,” said Wéber. “We wanted to make this film about the dog, a dog in Budapest, but then we realized that we need a counter-story, something that grabs our attention and gives us an angle, how to see the loss of this dog. … I think this helps us to really be able to follow the story as free as possible, almost like a child jumping from one genre to the other. So, I think that’s why it was a good choice to have this character [of Lili] and also an emotional draw, which can pull us through this whole journey with such different challenges and characters also.”

‘That was my lesson’

Mundruczó and co-writer Kata Wéber
On a technical level, White God manages to pull off a number of seemingly impossible feats, not the least of which is casting more than 200 real dogs adopted from shelters to portray the film’s revolutionary army, such as it is. In developing the film, Mundruczó had two hard and fast rules: There would be no CGI, and there would be no trained, purebred dogs. All of the dogs had to be “newcomers from the pounds,” as he put it.

I’m quite a control-freak director – hopefully not anymore,” he said. “That was my lesson: to give [the dogs] lots of freedom, and they really played. It was shooting a very special method because we use one week shooting, one week training time, and [the dogs] drive the script. … They can’t do what they cannot, so it was really like we worked together, and it taught me a lot about patient curiosity and two races can cooperate.”

That patient curiosity pays off in spades in the film’s extended climax as wave after wave of dogs crashes down upon the city. Even before that, though, Mundruczó is able to capture the real world of these animals as they experience it. In a turn of events straight out of “Oliver Twist,” Hagen comes upon a group of stray dogs at an abandoned housing project that functions as its own little society. The dogs run, jump, play, and fight in ways that could never be taught, and Mundruczó is smart enough to let his camera simply observe the action.

Cinematographer Marcell Rév keeps the camera near the ground for much of the film, placing the audience squarely at the level of the dogs. What they see, we see. What they feel, we feel. It is an ingenious way both of putting viewers in the headspace of the animals and of subtly telling us who the true heroes of the story are.

It is to Rév and editor Dávid Janscó’s credit that the film never lacks for energy, despite being wordless for more than half its runtime. Janscó deftly cuts back and forth between two wildly different tones as the film shifts seamlessly from neo-realist drama to surrealist fable without sacrificing either its storytelling or its political ambitions.

‘It wants to be a parable’

The filmmakers’ facility for accomplishing both goals – relating a touching story about a girl and her dog, while creating a compelling metaphor for revolution – is finally what makes White God so impressive. Few filmmakers would have the audacity to put something so strange on screen, something that is equal parts Au Hasard Balthasar and Jurassic Park, two movies Mundruczó said he showed the crew while making the film.

The director and his collaborators never back away from the challenge they have set for themselves, allowing the everyday drama of the film’s first two acts to bleed into the fantastical final act without concern for breaking the “reality” of the story. Too often, as audiences, we demand movies be one or the other – hyper-real drama or far-fetched escapism. Mundruczó, Petrányi, and Wéber let the real and the surreal co-exist in their screenplay, as it does in so much of life, and the picture is more honest and gripping because of it.

“Sometimes, we say it’s a tale, but it’s more of a parable, which is different, where you can use more extreme characters because it’s a moral story,” said Wéber. “So, you can see it as a reality, but at the same time, it’s more dark because it wants to be a parable, and it wants to be more.”

Added Mundruczó: “It’s not a realistic movie, so we use more like a fairytale, like characters in a tale. But it’s like in our dreams. So it’s reality on a special day.”