Film reviews round-up: Endless Poetry, Zero Days

Alejandro Jodorowsky and Alex Gibney return to screens with brand new cinematic offerings of very different flavourings

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Wednesday 04 January 2017 10:20
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In ‘Endless Poetry’, the director excels in working with crowds and in choreographing elaborate and carnivalesque set-pieces
In ‘Endless Poetry’, the director excels in working with crowds and in choreographing elaborate and carnivalesque set-pieces

Endless Poetry (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 128 minutes, starring: Adan Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, Leandro Taub, Pamela Flores, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jeremias Herskovits

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s filmmaking style in Endless Poetry might best be described as slapstick surrealism. This is another autobiographical film made in similar vein to Dance Of Reality (2013). The maverick Chilean director is again telling his own life story as if it is a piece of magical realist fiction and he has enlisted many members of his family to help him with his task. He is played, with madcap energy, by his son Adan – and puts in the occasional Prospero-like appearance himself.

This is a conventional subject matter dealt with in a deeply unconventional fashion – a portrait of the artist as a young man, growing up in Chile in the 1940s and 1950s. Alejandro is a sensitive boy who wants to become a poet. His brutal father, who is a shop owner, wants him to study medicine and thinks that anybody who reads Federico Garcia Lorca is by definition a “faggot.”

What must have been a dreary provincial upbringing is presented by Jorodowsky in full Commedia dell’arte-like splendour with stilt walkers, clowns, opera singers and mini-earthquakes. Appalled by his relatives, Alejandro (played as a kid by Jeremias Herskovits) runs away from home and begins his long quest to become an artist. Propositioned by a friend, he discovers that he is not gay.

Naive and virginal, Alejandro needs a muse. Enter the voluptuous and very outrageous Stella Diaz (played by Pamela Flores, who is also cast as his opera-singing mum). Stella has red hair, likes to paint her nipples and hits anyone who annoys her. She drinks vast quantities of beer but, for all her boorishness, is a sensitive soul at heart.

Jorodorwsky’s storytelling style is episodic to the point of seeming utterly random. The point he is making is that Alejandro is learning about life by living it. He meets poets he admires, Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn among them. Played by actors, these were nonetheless real-life characters. One guesses that for all its exaggerations, moments of grotesquerie and Fellini-esque mayhem, this is quite an accurate account of its subject’s formative years.

The film is a bit hit and miss. Some scenes, for instance Alejandro as a clown in the circus whose great trick is to fart, play like bad sketches from a Benny Hill-style sitcom. Others are inspired. The rousing music helps bridge the gaps. Jodorowsky frequently startles us with his pretentiousness but will then undercut that pretentiousness with ironic humour.

Endless Poetry - Trailer

Poetry is described at one stage as “the luminous excrement of a toad that swallowed a firefly”. There is a bizarre scene in which Alejandro and Enrique go on a walk in which they’re determined to keep on a straight line, even if it means trudging through people’s houses and across underground car parks.

Alejandro displays a winning innocence and seems a loyal type but that doesn’t stop him from having an affair with his best friend’s lover, a tiny woman who is suicidal at the time. There is a wonderful moment when he blindfolds her and dangles her from a high bridge. When she sees how precarious her situation is, she discovers she is desperate to cling to life after all.

Endless Poetry was crowd funded. (All of its many investors are name checked over the final credits). Budgetary constraints perhaps explain why some scenes have such a makeshift quality. However, the director excels in working with crowds and in choreographing elaborate and carnivalesque set-pieces.

As in The Dance Of Reality, he throws in passing references to fascism. There’s a military dictator who resembles his father and Alejandro is almost trampled into the ground during a parade of his swastika-draped followers. In general, though, the director is less interested in the political than in the personal.

Inevitably, Alejandro outgrows his surroundings. He is dismayed to discover that the poets he most admires have day jobs as teachers and are too timorous to devote themselves entirely to their art. He has no such problem himself – which is why he eventually decides to decamp to Paris.

This is a film about a young man looking to the future made by a very old one looking back at the past. From time to time, the real Jodorowsky will appear in a scene to mentor his youthful doppelgänger. Whereas Alejandro is relentlessly optimistic, Jodorowsky, who is now in his late 80s, can’t help but fret about human vanity and the metaphysical meaninglessness of existence.

At least, he always does so with a twinkle in his eye. Endless Poetry may be uneven but it shows that Jodorowsky’s ability to startle us with both his lyricism and his perversity isn’t impaired in the slightest.

Zero Days (PG)

★★★★☆

Dir. Alex Gibney, 116 mins, featuring: David Sanger, Emad Kiyaei, Eric Chien, Gary D Brown, Chris Inglis, Amos Yadin

In recent weeks, the press has been full of stories about how Russian hackers influenced the US election. What Alex Gibney’s startling new documentary Zero Days makes clear is that the US itself is the country that first opened the Pandora’s box of cyber-warfare.

This exhaustively researched film (being given a limited cinema release) tells the story of the Stuxnet computer virus that was used to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. This wasn’t a case of a few geeks getting up to mischief on their laptops in their bedrooms or some cyber-criminals trying to steal people’s credit card details.

It was an extraordinarily complex and sophisticated operation which, it is alleged, involved the CIA, the NSA, GCHQ and, most importantly, the Israeli secret service. In its own terms, it worked brilliantly, infecting and undermining many of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. You can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the geeks and the spies in piecing together very thorough information about the Iranian nuclear programme simply by studying photographs and Iranian propaganda films.

However, as some of Gibney’s interviewees warn us, the Stuxnet operation also set a dangerous precedent. “If the US does it, then everybody else thinks it is legitimate too,” one senior official tells the filmmaker. The Iranians responded to having their systems attacked and their nuclear scientists assassinated by setting up their own army of cyber-hackers. The US, which is more vulnerable to cyber-attacks than almost any other nation, has already been targeted.

Gibney plays up the thriller elements of his story. At first, as he speaks to potential sources and collects archive interviews, everyone is stonewalling. Senior politicians and security advisors refuse to answer any questions about Stuxnet, or “Operation Olympic Games” as it was called in the intelligence community. There is something comic in their reticence.

As one interviewee tells Gibney, even to utter the name “Stuxnet” was taboo – akin to mentioning Voldemort in Harry Potter, “the name that shall not be spoken”. At the very mention of the operation, they clam up instantly. Gibney’s main source is filmed in profile with her features pixelated and her voice distorted.

Even more startling than the details about Stuxnet is the information about the complementary “Nitro Zeus” programme through which cyber-attacks could bring Iran to its knees, disabling its power system and its defence capabilities.

This is a talking head movie to end all talking head movies. It consists almost entirely of interview material. Its subject matter is complex and there are a lot of jargonistic terms bandied around. Nonetheless, Gibney has the knack of making even the most esoteric material accessible.

Here, he demonstrates just how the Stuxnet virus works in the real world by showing how the malware can be used not just to blow up a balloon but to make that balloon explode. This wasn’t simply a bug that infected computers. It could potentially kill people too. Characters here liken working on the “Operation Olympic Games” programme as being like “walking onto the set of a James Bond film” but there’s a touch of Dr Strangelove about cyber-warfare too.

The film is astute in its analysis of the politics of cyber-warfare. Before the Shah was toppled, the Americans were helping the Iranians with their nuclear power programme. “Mr President, I think you’ve invaded your last Muslim country, even for the best of reasons,” Condoleeza Rice reportedly told President George W Bush in 2007, when it became apparent that Iran was building its own nuclear weapons.

Post-WMD, his political capital was spent. There was no support whatsoever for the US to become involved in yet another war in the Middle East but the country’s close ally Israel was determined to sabotage the Iranian nuclear programme. Using Stuxnet seemed the perfect solution.

One of Gibney’s most compelling interviewees is the New York Times’ national security correspondent David Sanger. He and others point out that drawing up a cyber-warfare treaty will be extraordinarily complex and may take decades. “Where do you send your inspector? Inside your laptop?”, Sanger asks. Nonetheless, without such a treaty, the potential for chaos and destruction are self-evident.

This is as much a piece of investigative journalism as it is a conventional feature doc. Gibney’s preoccupation is with information, not aesthetics. As interview follows interview, there is a danger of data overload. Gibney tries to make the film visually dramatic by including ominous footage of computer code and of centrifuges whirling away (at up to 80,000 revolutions a minute).

The value of Zero Days lies in the way it (partly) lifts the veil of secrecy surrounding cyber-warfare. The Americans spent billions on cyber-weapons during the Obama administration. (The figure of $52.6bn flashes up on screen at one stage.) This was about far more than just Stuxnet. It is, as President Bush called it, “a new kind of war” – and it is one in which the rules of engagement are still being drawn up.

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