Friday, March 09, 2007
Last fall, I was faced with a dilemma. I had one night at an airbase in Rota, Spain, and CRANK was showing at the base theater. I generally like Jason Statham movies, and I wanted to see this one. I’d been to Rota many times before and felt that the city had little new to offer. Nevertheless, it was Spain and I did know that CRANK would show up on Netflix after a while. Ultimately, I chose to go out. Even if Rota was a familiar city, after all, it was Spain.
I chose well, for, as it turns out, I am not CRANK’s target demographic. In fact, this film was made with such laserlike focus that anyone who is not a male between the ages of fifteen and seventeen is not CRANK’s target demographic. CRANK is pure adolescent male fantasy with a Nietszchian disregard for anything like the bounds of societal restraint. In the world of CRANK, every car goes fast, every gun makes a big loud bang, every normal person is either a target or an obstacle, and every woman is merely a vagina transportation system. This movie scorns everyone and everything, except for men with power, and it gets tiresome quite quickly.
I have no problem with Crank’s premise: a hit man has been injected with a compound that will kill him if his heartbeat gets too low, so he needs to keep the adrenalin flowing just to stay alive – now he’s got to keep his heart racing long enough to exact revenge. It’s a great idea, and Jason Statham is a great choice for such a role in such a movie. It’s the execution that bothers me: the fight choreography is pedestrian and the editing indecipherable; the only noninterchangeable female character is an insufferable idiot whose only redeeming trait is her nonstop sexual availability; and the postproduction work is so intrusive that not only did it keep reminding me that I was watching a movie, it kept reminding me that I was watching a bad movie.
If CRANK had trusted its premise, had trusted its star, had trusted in the moviegoer’s recognition that women are, in fact, human beings, it could have been a fun action picture. But then, what do I know? I’m not a male between fifteen and seventeen. I am so glad I went out in Rota.
Thursday, March 08, 2007
THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a drab, claustrophobic, paranoiac movie. It's the kind of movie in which hope seems like a luxury and humanity is something to be hidden. In other words, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is East German to the core.
Here's the setup: a coldhearted Stasi officer volunteers to conduct surveillance on an East Berlin playwright whom he loathes at first sight. The playwright seems too smug, too politically connected, too comfortable in the arms of his beautiful paramour - there must be something wrong with the man, and the officer is certain he will find it. In fact, the officer finds much more than he bargained for, and the result is both heartening and devastating.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS is not a beautiful film. It looks cold, as if the whole thing were shot under bad flourescent lights. Its people do not have the benefit of postproduction digital airbrushing - they appear before us, stretchmarks and all, pale and sometimes very scared. Its food looks horrid; its homes, hotels, and bars dreary; and its parties tinged with desperation. In fact, it looks like the East Germany I imagined from childhood stories of relatives who smuggled foodstuffs and coffee through to unfortunate friends who found themselves on the wrong side of a line drawn at Potsdam. Not only does the movie recall the physical expressions of the East German experience, it recalls the psychological ones, as well. No matter how large one's country is, it's too small if one may not leave. And how does one live if even the unthinking remarks of one's own child can result in a knock on the door? In these aspects, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is unrelenting and more than a bit depressing.
But that unrelenting gaze and that depression earns the payoff of the film, when the smallest twitch of a facial muscle means the difference between despair and redemption. Like weeds pushing through pavement, humanity kept finding ways in East Germany, and it finds ways here, too. Those ways sometimes backfire, and they often end in tears: this, too, is East German. But they're there, and they make 137 minutes spent watching the lives of others well worthwhile.
Movies like THE ILLUSIONIST are why I keep watching movies. This is a beautiful film, lit in shades of gold, that sometimes even recalls the kinetescopes of times past. It tells a fundamentally wonderful (as in, "full of wonder") and romantic story, and it sets that story in an inviting Austria that fires the imagination.
Here's the setup: a lowborn boy in imperial Austria-Hungary meets a young duchess from whom he is separated by class. Since Hollywood Law dictates that childhood attraction = one true love, the boy sets out to seek his fortune and, upon his return to Vienna as a celebrated illusionist, perhaps find a way to see his dear duchess again.
Edward Norton plays the titular illusionist with just the right mix of mystery and cleverness. Even when his character is doing foolish things, we in the audience think, "How can a guy that smart be that dumb?" There's something about his character that interests us, engages us, and makes us care about his journey. More engagingly, there's something about his character that makes us believe in his profound love for Jessica Biel's Duchess Sophie. Prior to seeing THE ILLUSIONIST, I'd never found Biel remotely interesting. Here, however, I saw her as a woman for whom a man could go to the ends of the Earth -if that's not illusion, I don't know what is.
Paul Giamatti gives an excellent performance as Chief Inspector Uhl, the audience surrogate and, as in an illusionist's trick (done for money ... or candy), the hinge on which the story turns. While all the actors do fine work at assaying just the hint of a German accent, I particularly appreciated Giamatti's fine work with the slightly hard "H"es and guttural "R"s of his speech.
Rufus Sewell, as the villainous Crown Prince Leopold, gives another solid performance in villainy. Further, he imbues his role with enough subtlety to invite reconsideration as the credits roll. Having said that, I'm rather tired of seeing Sewell play the villain. He was a terrific hero in DARK CITY - why doesn't someone let him be the good guy again?
THE ILLUSIONIST has more going for it than just its performances. Philip Glass's score reflects and magnifies the actions and emotions on screen, and the practical elements of the production (sets, backgrounds, and costumes) create an immersive and attractive environment. I particularly enjoyed Norton's workshop - how I'd love to spend a weekend in there!
Perhaps the thing I loved most about this film was its sense of wonder and hope. I loved that it showed us how some illusions worked without divulging the secrets of others. I loved its portrayel of Interregnum Vienna. I loved that it made me believe in and respect its people. I just plain loved it. Movies like this are worth plowing through the dross.
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
IDIOCRACY is a one-joke movie. It's a pretty good joke, and I know this because watched IDIOCRACY in three parts, as dictated by the events of my day. Each time I started (or returned to) the movie, I laughed out loud the first two or three times I got the joke. Then, however, I settled in and hummed along, reasonably amused and a little uncomfortable, until the next interruption (or the end of the film). When you tell the same joke over and over, that's about the most you can hope for.
Here's the joke: the main characters are surrounded by stupefyingly idiotic people. That makes for funny situations at first, but eventually we viewers come to accept the stupidity and move on. If humor lies in the gap between observation and apprehension, IDIOCRACY makes the gap so small that there's no room for a belly laugh.
Here's the setup: Owen Wilson and Maya Rudolph, two extraordinarily average people, are sent into the far future. Once there, they discover that Will Durant was right - the future does belong to the fertile. America's smartest people have underreproduced, while the dullards have multiplied like - well, in creator Mike Judge's estimate - dullards. People of the future are so dumb, so boorish, so easily led, that they dismiss as "faggy" any speech that makes even the most remote sense. They water their crops with sports drinks because they've been told that plants need electrolytes, then wonder why nothing will grow when it's routinely doused with sugar and salted water. They're so dumb that IDIOCRACY has no internal logic because the systems needed to keep this civilization limping along could not have been designed or maintained by this civilization's own members, nor could this civilization have protected itself from smarter, hungrier, more aggressive civilizations. But we're not supposed to pay attention to any of that. We're supposed to laugh down our noses at the inflated stereotypes that Judge trots out before us, even as we meditate on the decline of our own civilization. And we do laugh, at least at first, but then the joke gets old.
While viewing IDIOCRACY, I felt a growing unease. I'm wrapped pretty tightly in the cocoon of my particular class - so much so that I have very little contact with the class that Judge sees taking over world. Is it possible that people who could be the seeds of IDIOCRACY's comic exaggerations actually exist in any significant numbers? Is America really a "Divorce Court" and "Jerry Springer" kind of place? While watching the film, I couldn't decide whether Judge cruelly misrepresents lower-middle America or I am out of touch.
Regardless, I could decide this: IDIOCRACY can be a pretty funny movie, depending on how you watch it. I recommend short, controlled bursts.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
You know those movies in which everyone in town seems to connect with everyone else? The kind which depict a city as a fabric, with everyone's stories woven together? CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) is not one of those movies. CHUNGKING EXPRESS is a movie about disconnectedness and about the isolation we can feel in the unlikeliest of places.
The movie doesn't have a unified narrative, and it isn't all tied together with freak meteorological events. Think of it, instead, as variations on a theme of loneliness. In the first variation, RETURNER's Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Number 223, a not-particularly-effective Hong Kong police officer. He's working through a difficult breakup, and the woman ( Brigitte Lin) he needs may be the worst possible woman for him. In the second, Tony Leung plays Number 633, another officer in similar circumstances. He meets Faye Wong, and I suspect that she's trouble in her own way.
The details of their stories aren't particularly important. What is important is the ways in which they try to order their lives, and how, even though they're sometimes only .01 centimeters apart, they may never connect. I suspect that, somewhere in China, there lives the girl who broke Wong Kar Wai's heart. We need to thank her, because his variations on a theme of loneliness are a beautiful thing, finding connections deeper than those any freak storm can create.