2162 words on Films
This month with human-friendly maths-geekiness in La Habitación de Fermatt, unintelligible cheerfulness in Happy-Go-Lucky, coming back after murder in Boy A, ageing in Leergut, beautiful vengeance by Lady Vengeance, people being friends but things going wrong in Joint Security Area, non-surprising reality in Redacted, historical power in Frost/Nixon, and German architecture in The International.
As the title suggests, Spanish film La Habitación de Fermat (a.k.a. Fermat’s Room) has a bit of maths in it. Hooray for that. And hooray for it being somewhat entertaining as well.
The film boldly opens in the middle of maths territory by explaining Goldbach’s conjecture (any number > 3 is a sum of two prime numbers), one of those mystery maths problems which are super-easy to grasp, which all finite computational efforts confirm and whose general proofs remain elusive. After that we fall back to plain maths geekery - seeing people fascinated by maths problems, or rather riddles and solving them to qualify for participation in some maths adventure.
In the end only four people end up in that adventure. Which turns out to be more adventurous than they had hoped for. Each of them has a mathematician’s name and is at the age of that mathematician’s death. They receive maths riddles on a PDA every now and again and if they fail to answer those within a minute the room’s walls start moving a bit closer together, to ultimately crush the contestants.
The do OK on the riddles, partly by simply knowing them partly by elaborating on the blackboard which remains a mathematician’s favourite playing field. But the question of why all this is happing, who came up with it and what the relation between the invitees is starts rising. And it ends up being the bigger riddle which they solve and manage to escape from through the blackboard as well.
Fun sample riddle from the film: Imagine you have three labelled boxes of sweets. In one box they have mint taste, in another aniseed, and in the third a mixture of both. None of the labels is correct. Now what’s the minimum number of sweets you need to try to switch the labels on the boxes to the correct state?
Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky was one of the most highly lauded films in 2008. It tells the story of unbelievably light-hearted school teacher Poppy who doesn’t seem to take things too seriously and does her best to approach everything from her friends to her strange driving teacher with a dash of optimism. Eventually. I thought the film was nice entertainment, but didn’t manage to become hooked by it. Most things in the film seemed inconsequential to me and remained that way to the end.
As recommended by g a while ago I checked out the recent English film Boy A which dramatically treats the story of a guy who killed a another child as a kid and gets a ‘second chance’ to live outside prison in his twenties. He overcomes his initial timidity, works, becomes a her, finds a girlfriend and things are working out well. But somehow his past eventually gets hold of him.
The film tells all this by following closely, but still in a somewhat cold and distant manner. We also get flashbacks of his past as well as the interactions with his advisor / social working who himself suffers from seeing his own son being quite useless compared to this ex-con whom people would probably love to lynch if they knew his real history.
Leergut (a.k.a. Empties), originally known as Vratné lahve is a recent film by Czech director Jan Sverák. The film’s protagonist Josef is a retired literature teacher who kept teaching because he loves his job. But he’s getting old and can’t adequately deal with the young students anymore. So he retires but keeps seeking distraction from the fact that he’s old. First by working as a bicycle courier and finally in a job taking back bottles with a deposit on them in a supermarket.
He’s friendly and loves the job which brings him in contact with many people. It also fuels the (inspiring‽) dirty-old-man dreams he has and he starts being somewhat estranged from his wife of 40 years with whom he worries about the future of their daughter. In the end he’s replaced by an automatic machine for taking back the bottles and possibly became a bit more comfortable about his own age.
Amusing detail in the film: While reading the TV guide, Josef’s wife circles Jan Sveráks film Kolya.
Lady Vengeance, a film with a bunch of different names ranging from ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’, hinting at the first part of Chan-Wook Park’s trilogy, to the original Korean title 친절한 금자씨 which apparently translates as ‘The Kind-hearted Ms Geum-Ja’ and, not really surprisingly, seems the most appropriate, funny, title; Apparently it’s not the most catchy one, though.
In the film Geum-Ja Lee is imprisoned for killing a kid in a kidnapping, having to give up her own daughter for adoption in the process. Her then boyfriend did the killing but she is forced to take the blame and go to prison. In a non-linear telling of the story we learn about the people in her cell, and how she grew to be known as both helpful and ‘kind-hearted’ and ruthless there. At the time of her release after more than a decade many of the women she was imprisoned with both fondly remember her and owe her favours. Which she uses to track down her ex for killing him.
The story meanders around a bit, bringing in additional bits and pieces like finding her daughter’s adoptive parents in Australia, getting to know and like them and having to deal with both her daughter’s and her own feelings about leaving her daughter behing; About her ‘career’ in a bakery and the young colleague she pulls there; Or about her plan to kidnap her ex almost failing because he was informed about Geum-Ja’s plans and the fact that his girlfriend is one of her friends.
But eventually things do work out and end a bit worse than anticipated after Geum-Ja finds videos of his other kidnap-killings, shows them to the respective parents and creates a nice vengeance vs. justice situation right there which is violently, yet cleanly, handled by all affected parties.
The film is cruel in places, it’s also much more straightforward than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and it is rather beautiful to watch with wonderful shots and cuts in it.
Being on a bit of a Chan-Wook Park bash, I also watched Joint Security Area (공동경비구역JSA) which apparently was his breakthrough film. It is more political than Park’s ‘vengeance’ films and plays in a zone called Joint Security Area between North and South Korea. Soldiers in one of the security posts get killed and the governments need to find out what happened. So a neutral forces from Sweden and Switzerland come to investigate and slowly unravel the story.
The investigation reveals that the evidence doesn’t quite match the stories told and that no actual attack happened but that the border posts on both sides of the bridge they protect had become friends over time, ignoring all the political hatred they were supposed to have out of sheer boredom. And that in an unfortunate incident a military superior walked into one of their little parties, guns were pulled, shots were fired, and people were killed. - Leaving everybody feeling guilty for killing people, having friends killed and being caught in that mess. It’s also a story which isn’t a good one to tell officially.
So what started friendly and humane ended in tragedy. And the film manages to amplify that impression by all the military scenes in between where highly armed and differently dressed soldiers parade up and down, keeping a straight face while sometimes appearing to be aware of the absurdity of the whole exercise.
Brian de Palma’s Redacted tries to elaborate on ‘hot’ topics. War in Iraq, death in Iraq, accidental killings of civilians by American soldies, possibly just because they’re not well-educated for their jobs, the questions arising from that, crimes committed by American soldiers and the covering-up and moral questions that come with them. All that in ‘mockumentary’ style starting with a soldier filming for his video journal.
All of these are difficult topics and it should be hard to turn any of them into a great film, particularly while attempting to remain somewhat ‘relevant’ for the real world. And thus, this isn’t a particularly great film. And neither does it enact any particularly big surprises. I doubt that more Iraqis being killed by patrols than strictly necessary or a few women being raped by soldiers will raise any eyebrows in the Pentagon (or other countries’ military commands). It simply what they’re paid for or at least ‘collateral damage’ of going after their ‘main objectives’. And of course they’ll try to censor it as well as possible. I’m even sure they’ll be able to make doing it sound totally reasonable, by appealing to things like security, ‘morale’ and so on.
I’m too young for Nixon, ‘knowing’ him mostly from history books, films and from a glass jar in Futurama episodes. Needless to say, he didn’t leave the best of impressions. And Robert Frost interviewing him is said to have been an important moment in the after-history of his presidency as it brought to television the first admission of ‘guilt’.
And they made a film about it, Frost / Nixon. I’m really not a fan of historical films and tend to find them boring. And while this one wasn’t outrageously exciting, it was easy to watch to the end (Arial in the closing credits, WTF?), building up the story of the interview, with the money problem involved. And somewhat more critically with the problem that Robert Frost looked, thought and spoke like a showmaster rather than a political journalist all the time. More concerned about getting the cash he needed to produce the show and smiling weirdly than being well-prepared most of the time.
Somehow, however, he still managed to pull things together, allow his staff to do actual research and catch Nixon by trapping him with the option of looking like an indecent liar or admitting a few things which people expected to hear from him. The plan worked out. And, at least watching this film suggests, it worked well for everybody. Mr Frost became richer and famouser, the American people got a bit of an explanation and - perhaps - Mr Nixon gained some peace of mind over it at the expense of ‘ruining’ his political future.
Tom Tykwer’s new film The International wasn’t inspired by the current capitalism fuck-up, but it certainly begs to a few connections to be made. We have a big villain bank operating from Luxembourg (like iTunes?) who’re mainly interested in money. And we have underpowered Interpol agents trying to prove some crimes happening there. But all the people offering a helping hand as witnesses just happen to die tragically and the bribed officials do the rest.
After a couple of more deaths and a rather amazing (and amazingly long-lasting) destruction of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, one of the agents is convinced by one of the people involved that he has to take the law in his own hands. Which he does, soon realising that it’s pointless because there are bigger powers at work, who can afford to simply ignore his work.
Possibly the most interesting scene is when a threatened bank boss tries to escape his fate by explaining that his death will make no difference as a successor will be found and replace him without problems. It sounds like a logical argument and suggests the guy knows he’s full of shit and as replaceable as a sweatshop worker, he’s just trying to find the best deal for himself in there. Makes it hard to really blame him unless you happen to be a Mafia killer who doesn’t give a damn about banks but takes pride in a revenge well done.
In reviews of the film (German director, playing partly in Germany), the press was keen on stressing the role of German architecture in there. That seemed odd to me. But they were right. From the opening scene at the new Hauptbahnhof in Berlin to the company headquarter scenes - which had people enter the building at the Autostadt in Wolfsburg, yet end up in offices at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin - the environment ‘felt’ German.
This modern German glass and steel architecture looks very light. The buildings look very transparent. Perhaps people really don’t build that way elsewhere. Buildings, even new ones, in other countries tend to look more massive and solid.
Your description of La Habitación de Fermat makes me think a bit of an odd little Canadian film from about a decade ago, called Cube. Did you ever happen to see it?
Yes, the film’s setup reminded me of Cube as well. But it’s not quite as mysterious, spooky and violent.
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