Friday, September 17, 2010

Carlos (2010) NYFF Day One

(I'm not sure If I'm suppose to be reviewing this film now or if the NYFF wanted me to wait to do so, but since no one said anything I'm posting my thoughts now before the twenty plus films over the next few weeks wash this one from my mind- and they will.)

Today was the first press screening I attended for the NYFF. There is a level of insanity at work with my obsession with films and with the New York Film Festival press screenings. Its scary the way I've been trying to figure out a way to see the most amount of movies with the least amount of effort. Given the chance I would have seen everything, and probably hated myself for doing it (the festival does program some not so hot films each year). In my favor, the way the real life schedule worked out I could only get to screenings starting today, however there is some sort of madness in diving in with a five and a half hour miniseries on a terrorist, even if it was on my short list of must see films (I can't go to the festival screening because of conflicts).

On the other hand one has to wonder about the wise nature of getting on a train just after the crack of dawn to see a movie or as will be happening over the next couple of weeks, lots of movies over several mornings.

Should anyone want to ponder the notion of whether film criticism is work or play should consider that in order to go to the screenings I’m going to have to be out of the house two hours before I would leave for the day job. I’m going to be getting home, on days I’m not going to the regular festival screenings an hour or two after I would normally. I then have to write up what I’ve seen for your edification.

As it stands now I’m attending about half of the films and events (less the Masterworks and Views from the Avant-Garde programs) that are screening at the festival, and I am trying to see more with Silent Souls high on the additions list. What the final total will be will have to wait until the smoke has cleared and the films are sent back.(The best thing to do is watch this blog to see what's coming next since my plans and the various schedules are in flux)

Forgive me for that long aside, that wasn’t my intention. My intention was to talk about the TV miniseries Carlos by Olivier Assayas which is about the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

I am kind of mixed on Assayas as a director. In all honesty none of his films before Clean made any real impression on me (Though I do love the art work for Irma Vep).

was the first film that registered because it was touted as one of the great unseen films of it’s day boasting a performance by Maggie Cheung, Assayas’s ex-wife, that the ever elusive eveyone seemed to be saying was sure to win an Oscar. Yes Cheung’s performance was amazing, but the film itself was kind of obvious and unremarkable. In its favor, perhaps if the film hadn’t been as big a struggle to find (I picked it up as an import DVD a long time before it hit the States) and it wasn’t hyped as the next big thing, I might have liked it better.

Next in the cue was Boarding Gate, a weird little film about revenge and double crosses that starred Asia Argento. Part drama, part action film the film, part other things, it was mostly a mess as it bounced from pillar to post in a story about a woman (Argento) screwed over by a former lover (Michael Madsen). Its an interesting misfire on a WTF was that level.

Assayas’s last film before Carlos was Summer Hours, a family drama about what happens in the wake of the death of the matriarch of a family. Neither maudlin nor histrionic the film simply shows life as it more or less happens. When I first saw the film I was very mixed about the film with a deep passion for some of the scenes (I think the early parts of the film are as close to being as perfect a film as you ever likely to see ) and feeling it was being manipulated to head into a certain direction (after about 20 minutes the film feels like real life artificially connected.) It was only after seeing the film several more times that I really began to like what the film was about and I understood what it was aiming for. And while I still think it hits more in the pieces than in the whole, it has become a film I do want to add to my collection for later viewings.

All of this was prologue to Carlos, the film which got me out of bed way too early this morning, and which was the first film of this years NYFF that I saw.


Actually I'm not sure what I'm suppose to say. I made a number of notes during the intermission of Carlos but somewhere, very early on actually, into the third part of the film I was kind of left with the problem of there not being really much to I wanted to say about this over long movie.

The film covers the life of Illich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, from his beginnings with the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) through to his capture in 1994 by the French in Sudan. The first part of the film takes the film from his joining of the PLFP to the planning of the infamous OPEC attack. The second part begins with the OPEC attack and goes until he gains asylum in Syria. Part three takes us through Carlos' life as a terrorist for hire to his forced retirement and eventual capture by the French.

The first two parts of the film are pretty straight forward in their telling of Carlos's life (though there is much that is left out) for approximately ten years or so. The film in these early parts isn't bad, the trouble is that the it isn't really all that compelling, it is interesting, it's just not "must see TV" (This is after all a three part TV miniseries that is being released to theaters in a limited run). Its Carlos spouting lots of rhetoric, planning attacks, being on the run, bedding women and gaining notoriety. I enjoyed myself, but had I not had the chance to see the three parts back to back I may not have gone back to finish the story. Actually had I been at home instead of Lincoln Center I probably would have wandered off since interest kind of wanes since the film is kind of dramatically flat, the high point of the film being the OPEC attack (who knew the life of a terrorist could be so unremarkable). The rest of the film is just sort of... at one not very exciting level.

A big problem is that there really isn't much to Carlos. Look at the character, he never really arcs, he's a terrorist who changes only in that money takes over more for ideals, but the ideals are still there. He's a vain good looking guy,at least in the film, who admires himself on every level more than he probably should. He's the sort of guy who puts off getting a serious medical condition taken care of so he can have liposuction. The character is ultimately kind of one note, even if Edgar Ramirez makes him more interesting than the script does.

I do have to say that looking over my notes from the screening my feelings toward the film for the first two thirds is actually quite favorable with my answer to the question of "would I recommend the film?" being "Yes but not at the prices charged in a movie theater." Frankly I was going to call a friend and see when this was scheduled to play IFC in Theaters on cable so I could see it again.

However my feelings for the film really changed after the intermission.

Simply put the third act is a big mess. It's such a mess that it glaringly highlights all of the problems with the first two parts. Jumping through time and around the world the third part is like being adrift in a very long film after coming in somewhere in the middle. Who are these people? I didn't know. They kind of reminded me of people I knew but things weren't quite right. Characters come and go. We get bits of sequences. There is an attempt to explain Carlos' early life, something that didn't seem necessary up to that point, but it's dropped after three or four sentences which really don't explain anything. Now that his past is brought up you suddenly realize how painfully incomplete it is and it suddenly makes a bell go off in your head as you suddenly realize how much is missing from the story.

What happened? I don't know, but the problems sink the film.

I kept watching the film wondering where bits of his life had gone. Years go by with no sense of how long. There are more than a handful of scenes that seem to be the second part to something we never saw. There is an argument between Carlos and his his wife Magdalena Kopp, that seems to be referring to something we missed, yes we know about his womanizing, hell the film goes way over board in the sex scenes, but it seems to be coming from something specific. Over and over there are scenes that jump us to the second part of a plot point or moment in the story that we don't have an understanding about. Carlos is suddenly paranoid in Hungary for no reason, where did that come from? Up to that point he's been cool as a cucumber and almost unflappable, the paranoia is out of character. Like many of this odd half scenes we don't know what is behind them, or its explained after the fact by a line that tells us instead of showing us. It's a huge mistake that rears its head again and again.

After a nicely constructed first two thirds that takes us from place to place and point to point we are suddenly jumping through time. Why? I don't know. Actually I suspect its the result of having to compress about 15 years into half the screen time that covered the previous ten years. It doesn't work and it hobbles the film.

It was here in the third part is the point where I realized that we never saw a good many events. Through out the film there is a switch to news footage during some sequences which move us from one place to another. Many events through out the entire film are covered in this way, but it's only when the film really starts to jump through time and leave out details on the personal story that you notice how little we know.

Worse everything begins to drag. For me the final two hours felt twice as long as the preceding three and a half hours.

Was this supposed to be even longer but it had to be scaled back? Or is this simply a case that the filmmakers were too close to their material and didn't realize that things weren't explained enough.

There is an odd scene in the third part that I think should have been used to structure the film and would have allowed the film to have gaps in narrative. It's the brief scene with the journalist. As terribly cliched as it would have been, why couldn't the film been framed as Carlos telling his story or as a journalist investigating the man? I know I could have accepted the gaps even in a film as long as this. (But I still have to ask why are therein a movie this long?)

As much as I hate to say this the third part, and it's lack of exciting scenes opens us up to noticing that there are some really poor performances in this films. Nora Von Waldstatten is not particularly good as Carlos's wife Magadlena Kopp, Alexander Sheer is borderline awful as Johannes, the girl playing Nada is down right silly and several of the minor performances are just plain bad. Sure they were okay in the first two parts but as they take more and more time closer to the spotlight I really felt they weren't that good to begin with.

By the time the final part had ended I had changed my feelings toward the film, from one I could recommend with a few minor reservations, to one I really couldn't. No that's not true, I still can recommend the film if you skip the final part or don't have high expectations.

In a weird way I'm left wondering if this is how one of the guys at the screening felt. He had seen the film previously and he said that he was only going to stay with the film up to a certain point and then leave. When asked why, he said that he had something to do, but I seemed to get a sense that he just didn't want to see the last part again. I know I don't know I could be wrong.

Ultimately it's not a bad movie, but in all honesty I'd wait for the IFC and Sundance Channel screenings (Its US release is a co-branded release). This is not a film I can recommend you spend six hours watching in a theater. See it at home where you can come and go at your leisure and not have to feel you've paid too much.

What I want to do is find the person who wrote up the film for the program and ask them why they wrote it up as they did. I mean they say " An astonishment in every respect, Carlos is a dynamic, intelligent, and revelatory account of the career of the notorious revolutionary terrorist popularly known as Carlos the Jackal. A sensation at Cannes, it also packs every one of its 319 minutes with real movie-movie excitement, action, sex, and suspense, creating a nerve-jangling, you-are-there verisimilitude, most of all in its breathless re-creation of Carlos’s audacious 1975 kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna." That may have been what they were going for and probably how they felt but that's not the film I saw nor is it how I felt. It's only occasionally exciting, has little suspense and has no nerve jangling anything (The film fails completely in taking a real event and making us forget that we know how it's going to come out.)

If I was to write the film up briefly I'd call it a cable TV movie with graphic sex, violence and a great performance from Edgar Ramirez in the title role. The film carries you along through the life of Carlos for most of it's running time until it collapses in the final third leaving you to wonder why in the hell they needed to almost six hours to tell the story when so much goes unexplained.

If you can explain to me why this film is almost six hours and what the point of it was I'd be very happy to listen.

(For people who love bloopers of gaffs in films, this film is full of them, with shots with in scenes not matching , a CGI explosion that blows a store front apart but which causes no reaction in the people on the street around it, and other goodies quick eyes will find)

(Addendum: There are 27 pages of press material on line for the film but I haven't read them. Some of you may take me to task for that but I have to be honest and say most people who see this film won't see that material and will have to take it on face value. Its with that in mind I saw the film and expressed my thoughts)

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