Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda serve to live in War Witch

«««1/2  War Witch.  Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. Available on Netflix.
With the prospect of dying in action, permanent disability, PTSD, depression, and coping with a huge, faceless bureaucracy, being a military veteran from a First World country is daunting enough. Now imagine you are Komona, a girl kidnapped from her village by a rebel army in war-torn Congo. After watching many of your neighbors machine-gunned or hacked to death, the invaders force you to shoot your own parents to spare them an even more painful death. They take you away to a remote base, where you are overworked and underfed. Your captors hook you on a kind of psychotropic tree sap to keep you under control, and program you to love your assault rifle as your new mother and father. You are kept as the private concubine of your commanding officer, who forces you to bear his child. Imagine further that you are only twelve years old.
          Grim as that all sounds, it's just the set-up for Kim Nguyen's searing War Witch (French title: Rebelle). The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2012. While it was passed over for Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, what the Canadian-born Nguyen has done here deserves second place to nothing—and not only because its premise is about as dark as it gets. It's also remarkable for the humane moments that, ironically, give the grim ones even more power.
          It should go without saying this is not just fiction. Many Americans are familiar with the problem of child soldiers in Africa and Asia through the dubious "Kony 2012" tornado that rose and faded on social media last year. As in Nguyen's script, these conflicts are waged not just AK's and machetes, but with the kind of "black ops" that seem more appropriate to the 16th century, not the 21st. Here, Komona survives her ordeal partly because she has a supernatural ability to sniff out government ambushes before they're sprung. Her supreme commander (Mizinga Mwinga) hails her as his "war witch"—a rare honor, except that he's killed two of his previous witches for failing to deliver victories.
          As Komona, Rachel Mwanza realizes what any director of this kind of material dreams about: a performance that is as frank and natural as it is free of obvious craft. Having discovered Mwanza living on the streets of Kinshasa, Nguyen cast her as his lead despite the fact that she couldn't read or write. It was an inspired choice. Mwanza commands the screen both by her understated presence and by her spare narration, addressed to the yet-unborn child conceived through her rape. She's not good just in the harrowing parts, either: the film's middle section, where Komona finds a measure of happiness with a young albino boy (Serge Kanyinda), has its own gentle power, in large part due to Mwanza's scabby kind of innocence. To Nguyen's further credit, after the cameras stopped he made arrangements for his star's education until the age of eighteen.
          War Witch isn't pleasant viewing—but it just may be essential to any understanding of how deep "awful" can truly go. All war may be Hell, but even Hell has its levels.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro   

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Shine On

Danny Lloyd plays forever and ever and ever in The Shining.

«««  Room 237.  Written and directed by Rodney Ascher.
Rodney Ascher's Room 237 has to be one of the strangest movies-about-movies in a long while. Not much about it makes sense. The documentary's sole subject, the manifold meanings of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, isn't exactly a live question for most people. Nor do all the interpretations proffered in Ascher's film seem plausible. Though it's about Kubrick's film, most of the visuals are clips from other movies. And casts an odd spell, in the way that obsessively processing a creepy subject that make it seem deeper and spookier than you ever thought.
          Though not universally admired when it premiered in 1980, The Shining has inspired more than its share of fanatics in the age of the internet. Ascher assembles five of these, including Kubrick biographer Geoffrey Cocks, to float their personal trial balloons. Their theories on The Shining's "hidden" meaning range from the probable (an allegorical meditation on American history, with the giant Overlook Hotel representing the wide open West), to the merely unlikely (the secular-Jewish Kubrick's veiled comment on the Nazi Holocaust), to the outright ridiculous (Kubrick's "confession" that he helped fake the footage for the US moon landings in the 1960's). "Room 237"—a place in the hotel where something awful once happened, and something weird happens to Jack Nicholson—emerges as the veritable "grassy knoll" of Shining speculation.
          Not that there isn't something strange going on in The Shining. Kubrick's attention to detail is legendary, helping to give his films a "replete" feel like no one else's. And yet there are some apparently careless discontinuities in it—such as the typewriter that changes color from one scene to the next, and the chair that vanishes from the background during a tense exchange between Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. It's hard to believe all of this was accidental. More than likely, Kubrick was trying to subtly unhinge his audience with these imperceptible changes. Indeed, he seems to dare "speculation" in the most literal sense of that word, shooting much of the film's action in mirrors.
          On the other hand, the urban legend that Kubrick was hired to fake the Apollo moon footage gets more than its worthy share of attention. Interestingly, protests from the people who actually did put astronauts on the moon in 1969 has forced some denialists to shift ground: now it was just the "footage" that was faked, not the moon landing itself. Why NASA would bother to shoot the landing in a studio when they actually had men on the moon—men who came bearing cameras—is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. But I digress.
          What's most remarkable about all these theories is not necessarily how convincing they are, but that Kubrick's movie is richly detailed enough to make them all have a ring of truth. Like study of the Koran or the Talmud, it's the process of constant re-interpretation, not the particular answers, that keep the text alive.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro