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Review: Standard Operating Procedure




Standard Operating Procedure

“You’ve got to understand you’re dead,” says a weary survivor of the surreal inferno that was the Abu Ghraib detention facility at the start of Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, a cannily crafted but hauntingly persuasive portrait of the moral no-man’s-land that ignited the mortifying prisoner-abuse scandal. Audience members who aren’t similarly benumbed will be forced to grapple with their preconceptions and judgments from reel to reel. A documentarian like no other, Morris, since The Thin Blue Line, has combined head-on interviews, recreations of the testimony with anonymous actors, churning scores (usually supplied by Philip Glass, here Danny Elfman), and an epistemologist’s curiosity about image, memory, and human behavior. Casting the audience into the groupthink of young, inexperienced soldiers whose depraved antics during the fall of 2003 provoked a global uproar only because they were photographed, Morris has made one of his finest inquiries into corruptibility and violence.

Nearly all of the interviewees are U.S. personnel who were stationed at Saddam Hussein’s former center for the torture and execution of dissidents—MPs with the rank of sergeant or lower, who found the nature of their assignment devolving as thousands of new “detainees” were shuttled into their custody, to be questioned on “the hard side” of the complex by intelligence or contracted interrogators. (An exception is Janis Karpinski, the former commander of a score of prisons operated across Iraq by U.S. forces who was busted from brigadier general in the scandal’s wake, quaking here with anger as she condemns the penal overcrowding and subsequent deceptions by her superiors.) Boredom, regular shellings from the enemy, and the uncertain fog of this particular war exact a toll on seemingly honorable figures. The most personable of the guards, former Sgt. Javal Davis, forthrightly brands the rounding up of the children of wanted insurgent suspects as “kidnapping” and describes the trial-and-error musical assaults he was encouraged to conduct on the captives (hip-hop and Metallica failed, country broke them). Similarly, Morris uses the letters of Specialist Sabrina Harman, writing home to her girlfriend that she is trying to document as much abuse as she can with her camera, as a moral anchor amid the queasy, kinky saga of forced nudity and sexual humiliation practiced on the inmates. But eventually Davis “loses it” and starts stomping on the fingers and toes of one detainee, and Harman glumly gives an alibi for her grinning, thumbs-up pose over a corpse: “I don’t know what to do with my hands in a picture.”

Lynndie England, the 20-year-old Army PFC who was repeatedly and most infamously captured frolicking among stripped and masturbating prisoners, is now a sad, hollow-eyed young woman who speaks on-camera tonelessly, except when she addresses her alibi: In love with colleague Charles Graner, the ringleader of many of the “softening” sessions and posed humiliations, she was drawn into the infamous antics that she now struggles to “get past.” (Graner, still incarcerated for his role and unavailable for interview, emerges as the story’s Pied Piper of recreational sadism; the “charm” with which England credits him appears to be the bullying bravado of a stunted asshole, thriving in the worst possible climate.) An exasperated professional interrogator bristles at the memory of the green soldiers’ techniques and demonstrates how to psych a suspect into cooperating; he doesn’t lay hands on him, but destroys a cheap table in a “bad-cop” act. These witnesses’ faces and shoulders appear in the film’s extreme-widescreen format with plenty of fittingly gray space surrounding them, more vivid and fully human than they appear in the tawdry, frozen snapshots. We can only listen and try to measure the distance between their words, who they are, and what they did.

Morris’s signature touches can occasionally seem studied to the point of annoyance—a reenacted incident where Saddam takes refuge in a farmhouse and fries an egg verges on self-parody—but the cumulative power of his busy, artsy style generally enhances the horror, making it no more palatable than necessary. His most devastating sequence, where the guards recall discovering that a bloodied, hooded prisoner fresh from a C.I.A. grilling is pliant and silent because he’s dead, then watch as the inquisitors scramble for a plot to dispose of the corpse—they bag it in ice, none too successfully—appalls. “Did any of this seem weird?” Morris asks from off screen; not in this time and place, he’s told. Copies of the incriminating photos circulated widely at Abu Ghraib, and only when media exposure made them the ugly face of America the Occupier did damage control begin.

While some of the same events and dilemmas were recently scrutinized in the Oscar-winning doc Taxi to the Dark Side, the focus of Standard Operating Procedure is more intense, its ambition larger; Morris’s willingness to ascribe complexity to the villains (or scapegoats) of Abu Ghraib makes it impossible to tsk-tsk at the abusers and dismiss them as thugs (except for the archival, flattened figure of Graner). In suggesting that the knowable truth, if it can be sussed out, lies “outside the frame” of the scandalizing photos, the filmmaker vanquishes certainty in favor of a roiling, unsettling ambiguity. A military investigator charged with evaluating each of the incriminating photos concludes that many are evidence of abuse, but others—the hooded man falsely threatened with electrocution, another masked with panties and bound to a bunk—are stamped with the titular “S.O.P.” Was Abu Ghraib an anomalous betrayal of “American values” or an inevitable recurrence of the crimes at Andersonville and My Lai? Applying his investigative Thin Blue Line template to the scandal’s iconic photos, Morris has assembled a sort of factual variation on Antonioni’s Blowup, but also the most intimate, unnerving cinema on the Iraq fiasco yet made.

Cast: Lynndie England, Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman, Tim Dugan, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Jeremy Sivits, Janis Karpinski, Brent Pack Director: Errol Morris Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2008 Buy: Video



Review: A Land Imagined Is a Noir-Tinged Rumination on Identity

Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.




A Land Imagined
Photo: MM2 Entertainment

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined begins with an extended montage of looming buildings and structures, as well as work sites of Singapore’s vast land-reclamation projects. This simple visual motif effectively captures not only the sense of insignificance that comes with living in an urban center teeming with people (workers appear like dots within the wide shots), but also lays the groundwork for the film’s sudden shift in perspective.

Yeo’s Golden Leopard-winning film opens in dreamy noir-like fashion before blooming into a sobering social drama concerning the lives of Singapore’s ignored and exploited immigrant and working-class communities. After a police detective, Lok (Peter Yu), spends the first third of A Land Imagined searching for a missing construction worker, Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), Lok’s partner rhetorically asks why looking for a lowly laborer is worth the time and taxpayer money. Yeo makes an empathetic rebuttal to that thought by subsequently launching into a depiction of Wang and his downtrodden existence immediately before his disappearance.

Wang, though injured, can’t afford to miss work, so he continues to drive a shuttle for other workers. Through the depiction of Wang’s grinding daily routine and search for a side hustle, Yeo shows how the man is at the mercy of his employers. In keeping with the strain of noir from Lok’s storyline, the company Wang works for and whom the dredged land is ultimately for is an eerily nebulous entity, like something out of a Fritz Lang production. Wang appears as an unwitting pawn in a larger scheme, though, paradoxically, the moments of relative escape spent with a fellow worker, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), and the mysterious Mindy (Luna Kwok), the manager of a cybercafé Wang frequents, prove that he leads a life of his own.

The presence of the Bangladeshi Ajit in A Land Imagined and the fact that the undocumented Wang hails from mainland China are just two factors that point to Yeo’s grasp of Singapore as a globalized state with shifting notions of identity—an understanding that’s complemented by the film’s narrative structure, which shifts perspective between Lok and Wang throughout. Each character operates on the fringes of Singaporean society and deals with similar feelings of estrangement. At one point, Wang tells Mindy after a late-night swim at a local beach that the sand comes from various different countries around Singapore. And this idea of the island nation as not having a set identity is one that’s cannily rhymed to the film’s structure.

The shift back and forth between the narrative’s central characters, and how one of those characters is affected by the life of an itinerant worker, brings to mind João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby, but A Land Imagined doesn’t contain itself completely to the realist tradition of that film. Yeo adopts a more ethereal approach, even implying early on that Lok’s storyline is a projection of dreams that Wang once had. The elliptical narrative, coupled with the explicitly noir passages—marked by stylized and shadowy cinematography—that follow Lok and Wang around a hazy and languid cityscape, give the impression that A Land Imagined exists in a kind of dream state. The film may be coy about definitively stating if Lok is Wang’s dream-self, but this question is ultimately irrelevant. In a diverse land where identity is inherently foggy, Yeo suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok, Ishtiaque Zico, Jack Tan, Kelvin Ho Director: Yeo Siew Hua Screenwriter: Yeo Siew Hua Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Out of Blue Plays Out Like a New-Age Law & Order

Carol Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing our boredom.




Out of Blue
Photo: IFC Films

Carol Morley’s Out of Blue begins with images of a supernova as an ostensibly brilliant astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), wonderingly intones that we’re all made of stardust. This meaningless observation, cribbed from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” is an appropriate opening to a film that proves to be every bit as trite, over-reaching, and goofy as its opening lines. With its endless references to black holes, the multiverse, and Schrödinger’s cat—the last of which is outlined in detail not once but twice—Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing boredom.

Loosely based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis, Out of Blue attempts to combine the heady philosophizing of True Detective with the metaphorical surrealism of Twin Peaks, but Morley’s writing is so ham-handed and her directing so nondescript that the film ends up feeling more like a protracted new-age spin on Law & Order. It doesn’t speak well of Out of Blue that the film is at its most compelling when it’s just straight-up ripping off David Lynch’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as in a dream sequence where Jennifer lip-synchs to an old-timey country song on a bandstand that looks nearly identical to the Roadhouse stage.

The film’s plot is also suspiciously reminiscent of that of Twin Peaks: An enigmatic detective, Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), investigates the brutal murder of a pretty young blonde (Gummer), which brings her into contact with an assortment of local oddballs. Out of Blue, though, lacks the regional specificity of Lynch’s series—Morley’s film is set in New Orleans but you wouldn’t know that from what’s on screen—and its eccentrics, some of them played by fascinating character actors like Toby Jones, Jacki Weaver, and James Caan, are vaguely drawn. But the biggest misstep is Mike herself, a cipher who spends much of Out of Blue muttering clues under her breath and staring into the middle distance.

Of course, Mike has a dark past herself, one which is intertwined with the mystery she’s trying to solve. Clarkson does her best to imbue the role with a certain offbeat gravitas, but Mike is too confusedly conceived to generate any real interest in her backstory, much less to carry the narrative. Morley hangs a lot of eccentricities on the character—she drives a vintage car, listens to the Eels, and, in one particularly baffling scene, climbs on stage at a strip club and starts writhing on the dancers—but none of these cohere into a comprehensible whole. All the way to the end of Out of Blue, Mike’s quirks exude a grab-bag-like feeling, ensuring that she remains an enigma amid the comings and goings of so many wacky side characters and all the pseudo-metaphysical blather of Morley’s muddled script.

Cast: Mamie Gummer, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Alyshia Ochse, Gary Grubbs, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Thomas Francis Murphy, Carol Sutton, Lawrence Turner Director: Carol Morley Screenwriter: Carol Morley Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education

Philippe Lesage’s film understands that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.




Photo: Productions l'Unite Centrale

Writer-director Philippe Lesage follows up The Demons with another coming-of-age saga that fixates on the relatable, if grim, blues of self-awakening. Primarily following the teenaged Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and his college-aged sister, Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis charts how both are shaped by their experiences with sexual desire, subtly observing their behavior and, occasionally, the darker side of affection.

Guillaume commands much of the film’s attention. From the first shot, in which he stands on a desk in his all-boys boarding school and leads his mates in a barroom shanty, it’s obvious that Guillaume is a charismatic class clown who knows how to force all eyes onto himself. Yet the teen can also be withdrawn and introverted, and his relationships with his friends and teachers are constantly in flux. His puckish behavior is often celebrated by classmates and even some teachers, like the sardonic Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), who in one class invites Guillaume to do his impersonation of him, which the teen performs with hilarious specificity and to the initial delight and then discomfort of the professor.

Wounded by the boy’s exposure of his flaws, Perrier subsequently singles out Guillaume for harassment, berating him without cause and even screaming at the kid over the slightest perceived transgression. Guillaume’s peers are less extreme, but the same kids who applaud his classroom antics are also quick to ignore him inside their shared dorms or in social situations, content to simply use him for amusement during class time.

Guillaume’s awkward relationship to others at the boarding school is exacerbated by his closeted sexuality, which isolates him from the heteronormative activities of his friends. In one scene, Lesage films the boy in slow motion as he wanders through a house party surrounded by boys and girls kissing, trying to fit in by cautiously snaking his arm around a girl, who casually shrugs him off as he keeps walking. Like much of Genesis, the moment is at once thematically obvious and beautifully moving, with the sudden swell of morose pop transforming the scene into a lyrically intense expression of the boy’s sentimental education. The impeccable blocking places the other kids in every square inch of the room save for a pocket of dead space around Guillaume, poignantly emphasizing his loneliness.

Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have an easier time of things. More carefree and confident than her brother, she’s at first hampered only by her inane boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), who broaches the subject of an open relationship with a forced sense of casual suggestion, only to later sobbingly backtrack after she kicks him to the curb. Charlotte ends up with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose charming demeanor and respectfulness suggests actual maturity. When Lesage films Charlotte in a club using the same slow-mo style that he did for Guillaume’s glum traipse through the house party, the tone is considerably brighter, with the young woman free and ebullient about her contentment.

Soon, however, Charlotte must also contend with the fallout of various sexual stresses. Lesage grapples with matters that are all too common to darker coming-of-age stories, and he captures the film’s most harrowing scenes in single takes. Yet if the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from plainly depicting such horrors as sexual violation, he avoids wallowing in the misery he piles onto his characters. Guillaume and especially Charlotte suffer, but Lesage pulls focus onto the aftershocks of trauma rather than the traumatic events themselves. Sometimes Genesis even ducks reinforcing the bleakest of expectations, as in a scene of Guillaume baring his soul to his classmates that ends in a surprisingly warm fashion.

Indeed, the bright colors and sedate direction of Genesis isn’t an ironic contrast for the difficult content within but a cue for the perseverance of hope in trying times. That optimism is borne out in the final act, which shifts focus to Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of The Demons, now a cheery teen attending what appears to be a bible camp. As he plays guitar with counselors and plays around in camp, he gravitates toward Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a young girl who’s clearly as interested in him as he is in her. Compared to the more vicious heartbreak facing Charlotte and Guillaume, Felix and Beatrice’s budding feelings are presented innocently and sweetly. Their first flirtations end the film on a hopeful note that suggests that not all stories of young self-discovery need be solemn, and that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

Cast: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Maxime Dumontier, Jules Roy Scicotte, Pier-Luc Funk, Paul Ahmarani, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Émilie Bierre Director: Philippe Lesage Screenwriter: Philippe Lesage Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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