Monthly Archives: November 2008

DER BAADER MEINHOF KOMPLEX

Never before have terrorists looked so glamorous!

Imitating the Hollywood cliche (whether ironically or not is unclear) of tough guys swaggering towards the camera while something explodes behind them, this film features two fashionistas catwalk-strutting away from the building they blow up (seen in this trailer at the 1:31 mark). 

These terrorists’ style regime seems to be extreme as their methods. Not only does the Red Army Faction have more women than men (but equally beautiful), even their hunger strike is conducted under the strictest of photogenic conditions.

Even if their political cause doesn’t appeal to you, you’re tempted to agree with their manifestos just because their members look so cool while smoking. 

smoking

But although the actors are glamorous without exception, the movie does not glamorize their activity and martials only minimal sympathy for them.

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BODY OF LIES

The trailer for Body of Lies succeeded only in making me think, Ridley’s brother already did this and better. But I suppose because Tony Scott’s movie was made, if not released, before 9/11 we ought to have expected an updated iteration, so why not by his brother who appears to be on a roll with plundering Tony’s assests (first Denzel, now SpyGame)?

Even so, my friend dragged me to Body of Lies tonight and because it was better than I expected I did enjoy it, although my expectations were somewhere around the elevation of Death Valley. I admit part of the fun was just getting to see DiCaprio make fun of Russell Crowe for being so fat. I found DiCaprio more likeable than usual, perhaps because his slightly Southern accent suits him better than his fake Boston or fake South African. Unfortunately the script lets him down more than once with badly integrated What-I’m-doing-now exposition.

But Crowe here is a supporting actor rather than co-star with DiCaprio. Beyond his This-is-no-fatsuit paunch, Crowe’s chosen behavioral tic this outing is peering over his reading glasses by several more inches than necessary. His character is indeed unscrupulous but at worst mildly zealous rather than malicious or — as the trailer implied through clever editing — treasonous. He’s kind of a less interesting version of PSH’s character in Charlie Wilson’s War.

In stark contrast to Crowe’s pantomiming, the most impressive acting turn is courtesy of Mark Strong who convincingly plays a Jordanian intelligence official, 180 degrees from his cockney gangster in Rocknrolla. Such is the range afforded by his Italian ethnicity (Strong is a stage name) that he wears both roles like a glove.

Like American Gangster, Body of Lies is a well-executed examplar of its genre without contributing any breakthroughs or changes to advance that genre. The film’s most interesting innovation is its relocation of the North by Northwest premise from the Eisenhower-era Cold War to the Bush-era Middle East, but this scenario, which could have been the focus of the movie, is under-exploited if not wasted — only not before undermining, by being too high-concept, the supposed realism of the film’s depiction of post-9/11 American espionage.

For a technothriller which must necessarily portray governmental agnecies as uber-competent, the proceedings are not very conspiratorial. Despite its half-hearted bids to be earnest and critical, Scott’s movie is ultimately a more old-fashioned than The Kingdom which received criticism for being alternatively too jingoistic or too relativistic. Not only does Body of Lies tamely steer clear of both extremes but it explicitly plays on the audience’s expectation to be denied the traditional Hollywood outcome (as happened in The Kingdom) in order to surprise us by delivering precisely such a traditional outcome!

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (2002)

My five-year-old laptop died today and while I had my important work backed up I think I lost my list of every movie I’ve seen at the theater in the last couple years. The new releases should be possible to reconstruct but it’s all the showings of older movies that I probably won’t be able to remember. Nuts!

Since I can barely remember what movies I saw last week, the sudden absence of my memory aide makes me feel like a Man Without a Past, which just so happens to be the title of a great Finnish movie I saw this week! There’s little chance of me forgetting Aki Kaurismaki’s film; the only way I can describe it is imagine Paris, Texas with production design, color choices, and musical selections by David Lynch. Two songs in the film are by an obscure British group called The Renegades who took Finland by storm in 1964 but whose success there was never matched anywhere else.

The movie follows a guy who’s hit on the back of the head upon his arrival to Helsinki and when he wakes up he has no idea who he is, but instead of being found by Dean Stockwell early on, no one claims him so he joins the tight-knit homeless community that squats in shipping containers, whereupon he falls in love with a Salvation Army woman who serves him soup, starts slicking his hair back and puts an old jukebox in his container digs, convinces the Salvation Army band to start playing classic rock’n’roll and becomes their manager, and then becomes witness to a lowkey bank robbery and the subject of the single best bureaucratiac argument between a cop and an attorney ever committed to film.

As these occurances happen to him (for he is simultaneously active and passive at all times) he seems to be establishing his identify from scratch while at the same time discovering things about his past like the fact that he must not be a city person because he can grow vegetables. The plot points themselves (and the spoilers above) are not very important, however, as it is his understated yet determined attitude towards life that invests every scene with a sense of humor. It is a very funny film but the humor is absolutely deadpan throughout, accentuated by the highly mannered acting of all concerned. Restraint is the watchword for the inhabitants of Karismaki’s film but the near-arctic summer inhibits not even the most unlikely of characters from displaying warmth towards their fellow man. The Man Without a Past is above all else a humane picture, and makes me eager to seek out the rest of Kaurismaki’s appreciable filmography.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

This is definitely the most artistic 007 movie, with “local color” emphasized wherever Bond finds himself. In fact the acknowledgement of ordinary people in Bond’s world (still extraordinary no matter how injected with grit) threatens to take you out of the film more than once.

Forster’s M.O. for keeping up with the standard established by Casino Royale was evidently “More is more” so he intercuts his action scenes with a counterpoint of some kind or another. For example, the second action sequence, a subterranean chase, is intercut with a horse race on the dirt streets above; a later skirmish outside an opera is juxtaposed with the pageant on stage; and Bond’s climactic fight with the villain is intercut with his female counterpart’s fight with her own enemy.  It is the closest we will get to imagining if Peckinpah had directed a Bond movie, but the result often doesn’t feel like a Bond movie. Whether previous Bond films are a good or bad standard depends on the viewer.

Yes, Greengrassian cutting is employed but Forster is not dedicated to his cameras being handheld.  Many times we find the camera mounted firmly to an object — the fender of an Aston, the side of a boat, the inside of a cockpit — keeping the foreground stable so it is only the background that spins out of control.  Personally I like this technique because it gives the eye at least something to hold onto in the split second required to make sense of a shot.

Perhaps most surprising is how the iconography of early 007 films is being reinvented for this new continuity.  The most notable instance is quite arresting so I won’t spoil it, but I’m still conflicted over its self-consciousness.  I think it the moment is saved only because it is taken in stride by the characters without a wink at the camera: after all, the characters aren’t aware of being in a rebooted franchise that is recapitulating classic tropes like mile-markers on a highway.  Indeed, the recapitulation of conventions is the rightful formula of every Bond film. 

This movie purports to wrap up the loose ends of Casino Royale (unfortunately the answers get short shrift) while gently incorporating the most basic elecments of classic Bond, from female silhouettes — rising like Eve from the dust — during the opening titles, to the story culminating at (in?) a more chic version of a villain’s lair.  I’m willing to bet that Q and Moneypenny will be introduced in Craig’s third outing, just as it was Connery’s third film that established what became the essential Bond conventions.

To close with the beginning, I think Jack White and Alicia Keys’ Another Way to Die is closest in spirit to McCartney’s Live and Let Die: highly syncopated with changes of tempo, but bound to grow on us over time.  Like the song, the rest of the movie is not as good as the near perfection of Casino Royale (Bond found time for actual conversations in that one) but despite the long shadow of its predecessor, Quantum of Solace is still an impressive addition to the 007 filmography.

Returns

It was a nice reprieve to ignore this blog for a few days which somehow turned into twelve weeks but I think I’ll start posting some reviews here again for posterity. What better way to start (again) than with a review of the new Bond flick.

If you’ve been loyally checking back I’m sorry to have kept you waiting for so long!