Reviews

Elektra (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

Even as she might look toward a future, however, Elektra is all about the past.


Elektra

Director: Rob Bowman
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Kirsten Prout, Terence Stamp, Will Yun Lee, Goran Visnjic
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Fox
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2005-04-05
There's a wall of ice around her.
-- Jennifer Garner, "The Making of Elektra"

In the wake of the movie version of Sin City, Elektra might now be understood as a brighter side of Frank Miller. Relatively speaking, her preference for scarlet outfits and outrageous martial arts moves, not to mention her much-asserted girlness, make for a less dour outing than that provided by the lumbering hulks and hunks in Robert Rodriguez's film. And yet, the story of Elektra (Jennifer Garner) is very dark, even depressing. The girl is mad beyond words, using her talent for assassination as a means to avoid her own problems.

Of course, these sorts of psychologizing niceties don't come up often in Miller's work. His characters know they're screwed up, and it only makes them madder. When Elektra's sometime mentor Stick (Terrence Stamp) instructs her, "You understand violence and pain, but you do not know the way," she reacts with still more fury, stomping off to train herself. This girl is perpetually enraged, careening between hyper-organization (she arranges her bananas so they all point the same way) and finely honed, utterly scary violence. Her range is delimited by her rage. She's mad at everyone and everything, a family-tortured soul to rival Batman and Hellboy. She's mad she was dead (see her first cinematic outing, in the lamentable Daredevil) and now she's mad she's alive. She's mad that her mother (Jana Mitsoula) was murdered, that her father was a control freak, that Stick rejected her. So now she kills people for money.

Now released to a stark DVD (the extras are minimal and borrowed from elsewhere: three deleted scenes, one including a brief glimpse of Ben Affleck; a standard making-of documentary; and Garner's minute-and-half taped presentation for Comic-Con, all giddy before the film opened), Elektra opens with a bit of scene-setting voiceover by Stick: "The evil has taken many forms and used the darkest arts... The good follow the way of Kimaguri. Its Masters can see the future and perhaps even bring back the dead." And so he has done for Elektra, so she can return here for her potential franchise.

Even as she might look toward a future, however, Elektra is all about the past. And much of her movie is flashbacking to various traumas that have brought her to this pretty pass (one particularly disturbing image has her child self lying across her mom's corpse). Her first appearance makes clear most all of this, as she penetrates all the security devices and bodyguards some rich guy (Jason Isaacs) has assembled in a vain effort to ward off his doom. When she arrives, the electricity goes wrong, the automatic weaponry proves useless, and the assassin, initially obscured by artful shadows, takes out everyone in sight. When her agent, a smart-ass named McCabe (Colin Cunningham), shows up to pay her, Elektra's on her hands and knees, scrubbing the crime scene. He worries about her obsessiveness; she says she's only eliminating DNA but really, she has OCD.

Despite her valiant front, Elektra can't separate personal from professional problems. And because she's a terrifically skilled killer (she can sort of bend time when she mediates, envisioning what's about to happen in black and white blips), she's very good at killing. Elektra's current trauma, the one that drives the plot of Rob Bowman's movie, drags in all her old stuff and then some. Her next job is to take out a very pretty fellow named Mark (Goran Visnjic) and his rebellious daughter Abby (Kirsten Prout, who notes, I the making-of featurette, "Abby really connects to Elektra, and she thinks that Elektra's the coolest thing that's ever happened"). Elektra sort-of-but-not-really falls for Mark, enough so they kiss but without time for anything more protracted

More interestingly, Elektra returns Abby's affection, going so far as to identify with the girl. And so, for the first time, she has qualms about the job. Good for the development of her "heart," bad for staying alive, and extra bad role modeling for children. In an effort to do right by Abby, she takes up a self-appointed, unpaid mission that puts her in direct conflict with the Hand, a group of nefarious, unwhite super-villains who want these particular targets dead. The head of the Hand, Roshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), dispatches his son Kirigi (Will Yun Lee) and his very derivative and literally named minions. And so: Typhoid (Natassia Malthe) makes everything from underbrush to people wilt, turn brown, and die. She likes especially to suck the life out of victims, so they convulse and turn gray and veiny. Stone (Bob Sapp) is solid and hard to shoot or pierce.

For his part, Tattoo (Chris Ackerman) is only slightly strange, a digital blip in the narrative, undeveloped. He sends forth his tattoos (a hawk, a lion) to rip up his adversaries). The creatures wrest their ways out of his torso or shoulder, zapping after Elektra like little points of light, not quite achieving a sense of menace, more like CGI gnats. Elektra has ready battlefield answers for this gimmick as well (some wirework, some leaps and kicks, some elaborate flailing), but you know she's saving up the most intricate and exciting fights for the end, when she'll be dressed in red again.

Elektra's most unusual point is its own focus on the Elektra-Abby relationship. While the guys offer occasional cryptic commentary (Stick: "I'm blind and I see more than any of you because I don't look!"), the girls rush forward with their own emotional energies. Because they're both carrying dead mom baggage, their connection is predictable but also complicated. The movie can't possibly dig into this emotional morass and maintain its PG-13 rating, and so it skims the surface. In spite of and because of the fact that dead moms are the most common trope in comic books, this particular darkness would seem to warrant closer attention.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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