Archive for August, 2007

War

Monday, August 27th, 2007—Film

War (USA 2007, Action/Thriller), Writers: Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley; Director: Philip G. Atwell

War brings together two of today’s hottest action heroes—England’s Jason Statham and China’s Jet Li—for the ultimate summer movie showdown. Sort of a wet dream for action fans everywhere.

Renegade FBI agent Jack Crawford (Statham) is on a mission to avenge his partner, who died at the hands of Rogue (Li), an elusive hit man who has worked for both the Japanese Yakuza and the Chinese Triads in San Francisco. As Crawford tries to bring Rogue down according to the rule of the law (for the most part), Rogue is busy turning the Yakuza against the Triads and creating an all-out war.

Rogue’s storyline reminds me of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (one of my film school favourites), about a ronin, or masterless warrior, who turns two gangs against one another to take them both down. Indeed, Rogue says more than once that he serves no master. But War is less artfully made than Kurosawa’s film. It throws in too many twists and doesn’t show a proper appreciation for the culture behind martial arts, or the history of either the Yakuza or the Triads.

In one of War’s early scenes, Crawford chastises two white cops for not learning Japanese, despite the fact that they work in the Yakuza district. It’s a blatant attempt to show that the filmmakers are considering the “other” side of things. But later in War, when one of the Yakuza members tells Crawford he wouldn’t make it in Japan, Crawford says “This isn’t Japan” and shoots him dead, blowing away the film’s credibility as a respectful representation of the different cultures it depicts.

I know less about Chinese film than about Japanese film, so I’ll focus on the latter. From what I understand, Japanese audiences have a higher threshold for gruesome on-screen violence than do other film audiences. It serves as a release for a culture that is generally more reserved than, for example, North American society. Many Japanese films explore this tendency toward both tranquility and aggression by contrasting images of nature, beauty and stillness (flowers, paintings) with sudden bursts of violence.

Case in point: Takeshi Kitano’s 1997 film Hana-bi. Its title is translated as Fireworks, but the Japanese words actually mean “fire” and “flower,” a reference to both the rage and the calm that reside in protagonist Nishi’s (Kitano himself) heart. He is sweet and gentle with his wife, but is capable of extreme and ferocious violence when dealing with the Yakuza. There’s a scene that features Nishi eating in a restaurant, seemingly unperturbed by the thug who is trying to rile him up. In a flash, he rams a chopstick through the man’s eye, and then returns to his calm so quickly that you might wonder whether you’d imagined the whole thing, if not for the victim’s screams of agony.

Still, even when featuring explicit violence, Hana-bi and other Japanese films tend to reflect their culture in a thoughtful way that makes the violence appropriate, and even necessary, rather than gratuitous. War, on the other hand, features plenty of gratuitous violence, in the form of martial arts (though less than you would expect from a Jet Li film), boxing, gun fighting and sword fighting. Because the fight scenes aren’t as poignant and focused as those in Hana-bi (among other films), they lose some of their punch. In fact, the scenes tend to be confusing, thanks to some fairly frenetic direction. To my mind, confusing fight scenes result in bored and disengaged viewers; despite the fact that War is only 100 minutes long, it drags on and feels well over two hours.

War does get one thing very right: casting Li as a man of few words. A gifted martial artist, Li’s strength doesn’t lie in acting. But even Statham falls a bit short in this movie; he works better in slightly comedic, sarcastic roles than as a serious action star. The one-two punch of Statham being somewhat out of his element and Li having terrible delivery is a killer combination for War. The viewer isn’t drawn into their characters’ relationship, and a pivotal scene at the end of the film falls flat as a result.

In fact, the film’s conclusion is probably the worst thing about it. It’s abrupt and anti-climatic, as if the editors lost a reel of film and threw in whatever they had to cover the ending. It’s never a good sign when you leave the theatre thinking, “Huh?”

After Action Report: If you’re looking for a strong climax this summer, you’re better off staying in bed.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

Monday, August 27th, 2007—Film

The Lives of Others (Germany 2006, Drama), Writer/Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The Lives of Others has been on my “must see” list for months, ever since, in the space of 24 hours, PM and then CM recommended it to me as one of the best films of the year. I’d see pretty much anything that comes with their stamp of approval.

Set in East Germany not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film begins in 1984 when the Stasi—the secret police that enforced socialist rule in the German Democratic Republic—was in complete control. Their goal was “To know everything,” and they met that goal by any means necessary.

The film opens with Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe in a wonderfully nuanced performance), an established Stasi surveillance expert, teaching a class on proper interrogation methods. One of these methods, it appears, is to keep the suspect awake so long that he can no longer think straight.

In this opening sequence, in which the film cuts between Wiesler teaching and Wiesler interrogating, we learn something fundamental about the man. After hearing of Wiesler’s techniques, one of his students notes that it’s inhuman to keep a person awake for so long. It doesn’t occur to the keen pupil that Wiesler himself had to stay awake at least as long. He sets aside his own needs and desires to serve the state.

It later becomes clear that Wiesler doesn’t abide by the state out of fear, but because he truly believes in what it stands for. He has an unwavering commitment to his beliefs. And when his views change, he isn’t afraid to act on them even if they aren’t in synch with the views of the governing party.

On the order of the Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme), Wiesler is soon assigned to monitor a famous playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), in search of any disobedient behaviour. But it quickly becomes apparent that the Minister’s motives are not pure; he is infatuated with Christa and is looking for an excuse to put Georg behind bars.

Along with most of the rest of East Germany, Christa and Georg live in fear of the state. They don’t entirely agree with the socialist regime. But they have seen what happens to their friends in the arts community who speak their minds too freely.

As Wiesler monitors the couple, listening in from an attic above their apartment, he is privy to their most intimate moments. He gets to know them and, eventually, to care deeply for them. Disillusioned by the Minister’s selfish abuse of power and enlightened by Christa and Georg’s perspectives, Wiesler starts to change his opinion about the ruling state. And he decides to do something about it.

At its heart, and as its title would suggest, The Lives of Others is more about the need for contact with others than it is about socialism in East Germany. The film is enriched by its historical context but, ultimately, the story could be told without it. Wiesler is lonely. He hasn’t allowed himself many pleasures in life, and that includes friendship or intimacy with other people. The “relationship” he forms with Christa and Georg becomes the most precious thing in his life. And, as we see in the film’s beautiful and touching ending, the feeling is mutual.

I highly recommend The Lives of Others. It’s thoughtful, thought-provoking and moving, and features gorgeous performances from its lead actors. Mühe in particular, playing the quiet and reserved Wiesler, carries the film; he relies largely on facial expressions and body language to convey his character’s repressed desires.

As an added plug, The Lives of Others won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

* * *

I just learned that Ulrich Mühe, a renowned stage actor, was himself under Stasi surveillance in the 1980s, and that his actress-wife at the time turned out to be an informant. Makes The Lives of Others all the more poignant.

Sadly, Mühe died of stomach cancer this July. He was only 54.

The Bourne Ultimatum & The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007—Film

The Bourne Ultimatum (USA 2007, Action/Adventure/Mystery), Writers: Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi; Director: Paul Greengrass

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (USA 2005, Comedy/Romance), Writers: Judd Apatow and Steve Carell; Director: Judd Apatow

[Spoiler Alert: I don’t give away the ending, but you may want to skip this post until you’ve seen The Bourne Ultimatum. Although I will say that I love the way the ending comes full circle and ties the series up nicely.]

Like the first two instalments in the Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum is a great spy film. It has all the necessary elements—suspense, mystery, chase scenes, fight scenes—but the writers trimmed the fat off your standard spy movie fare, focusing on the essentials.

One of those essentials, not that you’d know it from your typical Hollywood action flick, is a believable, well-developed protagonist. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a complicated, conflicted character. He has incredible athleticism and fighting skills, but he also bleeds when he’s hit (something I really liked about Daniel Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale). After an impressive battle against one of the other Treadstone assassins, we see Bourne sitting on the bed nursing his swollen knuckles.

Bourne doesn’t rely only on brawn to escape tricky situations. He’s smart, more likely to use maps and a stolen police headset to flee a building than to bomb or shoot his way out.

He’s also incredibly cerebral and internal. It’s nice to see filmmakers trust viewers to accept an action hero who doesn’t spew one-liners as comic relief. Bourne asks only the basics, says only what needs to be said. There is nothing superfluous in his world.

Damon is perfectly cast in the role; his intelligence and nuance play a huge part in distinguishing the Bourne trilogy from other movies in its genre. (Damon is a really good actor, but I think he’s often overlooked because of his subtlety. Case in point: The Departed, for which every other major player got an Academy Award or Golden Globe nomination—including Marky Mark.)

Speaking of casting, I wasn’t sure how well the franchise would work without Marie (Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente), Bourne’s love interest in the first film. She provided a nice counterpoint to his logical, intently pragmatic way of thinking: scattered, disorganized, but sweet and full of joy and wonder. With Marie, Bourne had a taste of what was truly worth fighting for. Luckily there’s a lot to explore even without her.

I was intrigued to see the filmmakers touch on Bourne’s motives for joining Treadstone. When he hands over his dog tags, the movie hints at some shame he wanted to escape—perhaps a failure or betrayal in the military—and an intense need to prove himself. It’s an interesting suggestion, given that Bourne now seems ruled by loyalty and honour.

I also recently saw The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I highly recommend unless you take life too seriously. Like the main character’s virginity, it drags on a little too long, but at several points it had me laughing so hard I was nearly in tears. Watch for the scene when Andy (Steve Carell) tries to be one of the boys at poker night. (A bag of sand?) The movie also features one of the best lines in film history: “I’m a virgin. I always have been.”

Code 46, Stranger Than Fiction & Truly Madly Deeply

Saturday, August 4th, 2007—Film

Code 46 (UK 2003, Drama/Romance/Sci-Fi/Thriller), Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce; Director: Michael Winterbottom

Stranger Than Fiction (USA 2006, Drama/Fantasy/Romance), Writer: Zach Helm; Dir. Marc Forster

Truly Madly Deeply (UK 1991, Drama/Fantasy/Romance), Writer/Director: Anthony Minghella

If you’re familiar with these films, they may strike you as an odd trio. But I’m combining them into one post because I happened to have rented them all this past week. And they provide an interesting contrast in the use of the camera in film. And come to think of it, they all deal with people living in altered realities.

Code 46 is set in the near future when a relatively benign Big Brother watches over people in the form of a totalitarian government known as the Sphinx. We’re told throughout the film that: “The Sphinx knows best.”

Director Michael Winterbottom employs the camera to convey the notion that the characters are under surveillance. He uses a lot of coverage as if to suggest that people are being watched from all angles. It creates a distinct style that is sometimes jarring but has an interesting effect.

In the world of Code 46, people can only travel outside of their city if they’ve been issued a papelle, a travel permit with a strictly enforced expiry date. Those whose papelles expire are not allowed to return home. Those who have been deemed unfit to reside in the cities are exiled and forced to live in the vast desert that has taken over the outside world.

The film’s title refers to one of the Sphinx’s laws that forbids people with a close, or identical, DNA match from reproducing, or even from liaising. Because of IVF, cloning and other practices that have become commonplace, there is a greater risk that citizens are unknowingly genetically related. People are tested to determine genetic compatibility. If a couple is found to have knowingly breached Code 46, it is punishable by law.

The story begins as William (Tim Robbins), a married investigator for the Sphinx, travels to Shanghai to find out who is responsible for issuing fake papelles. He discovers that the culprit is a woman named Maria (Samantha Morton). But instead of reporting her, he falls in love with her. William can only stay in Shanghai for 24 hours before his papelle expires, but he spends all of them with Maria and they end up in bed.

Not long after returning home to his wife and son in Seattle, William is ordered to return to Shanghai to finish the “unsolved” case. When he tries to find Maria to press charges regarding the fake papelles, he discovers that she has been taken to a clinic outside of Shanghai to deal with a “body problem.” Namely, that she had been pregnant with his child and that, because they are genetically incompatible, she is in breach of Code 46. The problem has been dealt with: the pregnancy terminated, her memory of William erased.

An issue I have with this film is that it tries to cover more ground than it needs to. Code 46 isn’t necessary to the story. What is necessary are: a mechanism of social control; a conflict of interest in William loving Maria; and a reason why he can’t be with her. But the papelles serve as the mechanism of control. The conflict of interest arises because William is required to report Maria for distributing fake papelles, and because they are operating on different sides of the law. And they can’t be together because he is married. It doesn’t really matter that Maria and William aren’t permitted to have children together. There are other reasons that the Sphinx would keep them apart.

And that’s without getting into the viruses people take to trigger desired responses or be able to read people’s minds. It’s a lot to pack into 90 minutes.

To me, what the film is really about is better captured in one of its taglines than in its title: “Can you miss someone you don’t remember?” It’s about the idea that Maria is tied to William even after having her memory erased, and that their connection still exists upon the second meeting (and probably would on the third, fourth, fifth if it had to).

This reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (worth seeing), and of a recent newspaper article I read about a drug that can erase certain memories to alleviate conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems to me, and both Eternal Sunshine and Code 46 seem to assert, that even if you erase a specific memory, you can’t erase all the facets of the personality that were formed or affected by that memory, nor can you erase other memories that developed as a result of the specific incident or person. For that reason, erasing a memory wouldn’t facilitate recovery, but would make it even harder for a person to cope with the feelings that evolved from that memory because the individual wouldn’t understand the source of their feelings. It would be more like a repressed memory than a vanished memory.

Another slight complaint I have about Code 46 is the strength (or lack thereof) of William and Maria’s bond. The first we hear of their relationship is when Maria narrates William’s journey to Shanghai, where the couple will ultimately meet for the first time: “I think about the day we met.” We know right away that their relationship carries weight, that it will play a fundamental role in the story.

A few minutes later, as Maria continues to narrate, she says: “The thing I can’t imagine is that we hadn’t met. Hadn’t even heard of each other.” Hearing this instantly called to mind a deeply intense bond between the two. But seeing their relationship play out, I wasn’t as convinced as I was by the voiceover. Something about the pairing of Robbins and Morton, both fine actors, doesn’t quite work. Maybe their relationship could have been better developed, or maybe the actors’ chemistry just wasn’t right. But somehow, their relationship is never as powerful as what I imagined when I heard that line.

This is definitely a strong film with wonderful technical elements (e.g. cinematography, score). It has a unique tone that carries throughout the movie, and it’s what keeps bringing me back to it days after having seen it. The script is great—it’s written by Frank Cottrell Boyce who also wrote the fabulous Hilary and Jackie. I love the fact that the foreign words that are mixed into the futuristic language aren’t accompanied by subtitles—it’s a sign of respect for the viewer when a director makes that choice.

I recommend Code 46. But I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by it. TS, a friend I’ve known since high school, recommended it to me for this blog. We’ve seen countless movies together and I trust his opinion on films more than almost anyone’s. So when he told me that Code 46 is one of the best films he’s seen in years, I was expecting more. But only a little more. ;-)

I don’t know if TS has seen Stranger Than Fiction, but it reminds me a bit of him because of its perverse sense of humour. This movie is about Harold Crick (Will Ferrell in his best role yet), a socially inept IRS agent who’s so anal that he counts every brush stroke he makes with his toothbrush and every step he takes to reach his morning bus.

One day, he wakes up to hear a voice narrating his life, accurately describing his thoughts and predicting the future. When the voice announces that his death is imminent, Harold is understandably concerned. He seeks counsel from Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literature professor who tries to help Harold determine what genre of novel he’s living in, and change the morbid ending. Along the way, Harold meets and falls for Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker and the subject of one of his audits.

I really like this film, despite the fact that the ending doesn’t live up to the rest of the script. It’s filled with great lines. Hoffman is fantastic. (He says that this script coaxed him out of early retirement.) I love the details of his character, like how he’s always slurping at coffee or spooning yogurt sloppily into his mouth. He does a wonderful job of creating subtext for Dr. Hilbert. Gyllenhaal is also excellent—as always; watch her in Secretary or Sherrybaby.

I wasn’t entirely convinced that someone as free-spirited and leftist as Ana would fall for Harold, but his attempts are so sweetly awkward that I didn’t really mind suspending my disbelief. Who wouldn’t fall for him when he brings her a box of flours?

Director Marc Forster uses the camera to full advantage. I don’t think there’s even one shot that wasn’t set up without great care. The shots feature a lot of depth, many with beautifully framed images within the frame (look for Harold watching Ana through her bakery window), and there are many interesting camera movements, including some well-choreographed tracking shots.

This is in stark contrast to the use of the camera in Truly Madly Deeply, which is by far the least filmic of the three movies. Writer/director Anthony Minghella (a major talent) doesn’t take advantage of the medium. In watching it recently for the second time (I first saw it years ago), I found myself thinking that it would be better served on stage than on screen. That’s unusual for me because I far prefer film to theatre. But I felt that it could be more moving, and told at least as well in terms of logistics, on stage.

Still, I love the story. It’s so simple and sweet. Nina (Juliet Stevenson) is mourning the loss of her beloved husband Jamie (Alan Rickman) who died some time ago. She can’t let go of his memory. She sees him everywhere, and imagines him accompanying her on his cello while she plays the piano. One day, he comes back to her as a ghost. She’s overcome with joy, and puts everything in her life on hold to rush back home and be with him each night. But as she starts passing up new opportunities for love, Nina realizes that she’s been idealizing the past and begins to remember some of Jamie’s irksome habits—some of which are brought home when he starts inviting his rowdy ghost friends over to talk politics and watch movies.

Minghella’s later films, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley (loved that one) or his most recent, Breaking and Entering, are much more sophisticated. But Truly Madly Deeply has a sweet sincerity to it, a raw emotion that is portrayed beautifully by Stevenson. Look for her breakdown in the psychiatrist’s office, or the scene when Nina and Jamie reunite. It makes you believe in love again.

All three films are worth renting: Code 46 if you’re in a thinking mood; Stranger Than Fiction if you’re in the mood to laugh; and Truly Madly Deeply if you’re looking for something romantic and uplifting (but bring a few tissues for along the way).