Carlos – One of the most exciting and daunting films of the year is Olivier Assayas’s five-plus hour epic about the life of 1970s terrorist Carlos. The film begins in 1973 when Carlos, a young Marxist with nominal experience (he did spend some time in the USSR but was expelled, later he attended a terrorist training camp) adopts his nom de guerre and becomes the director for English operations for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which I’m pretty sure is a Life of Brian reference). The film then follows his career of largely bungled operations, many women and charts in detail the whole underground of international politics for over 20 years, until the end of the Cold War radically realigned everything and left the true believers nowhere to hide. Oscar Ramirez is fantastic in the lead role, though I kept trying to figure out who he looked like, settling on a hybrid of Val Kilmer and Johnny Depp. He brings the necessary multi-lingual charm (easily topping the excellent work of Christoph Waltz in last year’s Inglourious Basterds, if only by the fact that he spends the entire film easily switiching between English, French, Spanish and German whereas Waltz only needed a few lines of Italian) and constant threat of physical violence that must have been what enabled Carlos to last for so long in such a deadly racket and Assayas uses the actor’s body to chart the ups and downs of his career in an unusually explicit way (ie, he’s naked almost as much as the women in the film are, and sometimes he’s fat). The obvious point of comparison with Carlos will be Steven Soderbergh’s Che, another massive film about a famous 20th Century revolutionary. But I can’t think of a way in which Assayas doesn’t better that film. Whereas Soderbergh seemed to be either indifferent to Che’s politics or simply didn’t understand it, Assayas goes out of his way to contextualize Carlos and his compatriots’ ideology and that of the people they are fighting with and against, to the point that he is actually giving us the story of the decline of radical leftism worldwide in the wake of its 1968 high point (and how that relates to ongoing issues in the Middle East where Carlos’s ilk we replaced by a different, and much scarier, form of terrorist) as much as he is telling the story of one man. Soderbergh’s film shies away from anything that might make the hero look less than noble, while Assayas gives us all the warts on what was essentially a hired thug and murderer, he even makes the point that Carlos wasn’t even a particularly good terrorist: he bungled his biggest job (which takes up the heart of the film, his raid on an OPEC summit in 1975 that is a perfect hour and a half suspense film in its own right), got fired from the PFLP and never managed another major task again, even his more minor hired hits usually failed to kill the main target. Soderbergh’s film is self-consciouly arty, with changes of film stock, intercuts stories, a radically different visual style in Part Two from Part One (complete with an aspect ratio change). Assayas keeps the style unobtrusive and fluid, with generally long takes, constant spatial orientation and judicious uses of hand-held cameras. Anyway, it’s a massive and great film, he kind of intelligent action epic that simply doesn’t get made anymore (outside of John Woo’s very good, but not this good Red Cliff, I can’t think of any over the last several years) and it plays great theatrically: the five hours really flies by. It’ll play on TV in the US, but I’d see it in a theatre if you could.
Certified Copy – Maybe I’ve been watching Abbas Kiarostami all wrong, because nothing in Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us or Close-Up prepared me for how simply funny this film is. Or maybe those films are exceptions in the career of a world class romantic comedy filmmaker. Anyway, Juliette Binoche (who somehow looks better now than she did 20 years ago, which just isn’t fair) plays a woman who invites a writer out for the afternoon as she liked his book (though parts annoyed her) and presumably because she likes him (William Schimell, he looks almost but not exactly like David Strathairn). His book is about how copies of art objects are just as valuable as the originals, because what gives art value is our relationship to it, what we see in it, and not anything inherit in the object itself. They argue about that for awhile, and eventually start to pretend to be married when they meet other people (the film’s set in Tuscany, and Binoche acts in three languages (French, Italian and English) while Schimel speaks French and English). The arguments they have as a “married” couple achieve enough reality that the audience is invited to wonder if they really are married after all, and their earlier scenes of not knowing each other the pretense. Of course, if we accept the premise of the book, it doesn’t matter: the only thing that’s important is what we as the audience take from it, how we relate it to our own lives. For me, it was funny for most of the time, as the various arguments and rhetorical strategies were not entirely unfamiliar. But that comedy is leavened by more than a little heartbreak. It’s a weird romance, but a pretty much perfect one. If I wanted to be really succinct, I’d say it’s Before Sunset for grownups. But, really it’s even better than that.