Archive for July 2003

Seabiscuit

July 25, 2003

Galloping virtually alone in the adult-interest lane among too many comic-book movies and teen-geek fantasies, Seabiscuit the movie is as much an underdog this summer as Seabiscuit the horse was during the Depression. For about 40 minutes, Gary Ross’s adaptation of the Laura Hillenbrand bestseller feels a bit unfocused and awkward. Its three human leads — auto seller Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who owns Seabiscuit; trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), who gentles the horse into a contender; and failed boxer Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who becomes Seabiscuit’s jockey — are introduced separately, and it takes a while for all three to get together. While we wait, narrator David McCullough makes the damn thing sound like one of the more earnestly journalistic PBS documentaries.

When the men unite around the horse, though, Seabiscuit gains power and depth. Seabiscuit, who famously got more newspaper ink in 1938 than FDR and Hitler, is positioned as the rejuvenating soul of a sick nation — a long-odds hoss who surprises everyone and surges to greatness. Ross tells the story with a minimum of schmaltz, though he can’t resist some pieties in the dialogue, as if he didn’t trust the combined magic of editor William Goldenberg and cinematographer John Schwartzman to create poetry in motion. The racing sequences are unflashy yet exhilarating, generating old-school excitement without techno music or CGI. We know the odds, we know what’s at stake, and we’re given a God’s-eye view of the races. Seabiscuit could’ve worked just as well — maybe even better — as a silent movie; in its modest way it re-introduces pure cinema to a summer full of bloat and hype.

Exquisitely cast, the movie focuses more on the embattled men at its center than on the titular champion. Jeff Bridges gives his lines an air of fatuous hucksterism — he’s glib, a salesman for Seabiscuit as well as for cars — but Bridges’ essential decency also comes through, as when he frets about the injured horse and his injured jockey going through with the climactic race. Chris Cooper will likely never be plausible as, say, an office manager or web designer, but he has perfected his piece of the Laconic Man of Nature turf; a man of very few words, Tom Smith (nicknamed “Silent Tom” back in the day) has to speak volumes with subtle eye shifts or grudging smiles, and Cooper is more than up to the challenge. Tobey Maguire risks making Red Pollard somewhat unstable and hot-headed, a realistically beaten-down young man whose very presence seems to calm the frightened, abused Seabiscuit, as if the horse had finally found his soulmate.

As he showed in 1998’s now-and-then fantasy Pleasantville, Gary Ross has a gentle eye for time-capsule stories; the period of the late ’30s is effortlessly evoked — the whistlestop speeches, the men in straw hats, the effusive radio announcers (William H. Macy has fun as the fictional “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin, who uses clownish sound effects to augment his rhapsodies to the equine champion). Seabiscuit may have been largely a media hero (his tale inspired an earlier film, 1949’s The Story of Seabiscuit with Shirley Temple), but his legend was hard-won. The movie’s glowing reviews — which fairly sigh with relief at the respite from overkill like Bad Boys II — are earned, too. Seabiscuit is not a work of great art, but it tells its solid story with grace and dignity.

Bad Boys II

July 18, 2003

I don’t know quite when I realized it — possibly it was when Will Smith had his arm inside a corpse’s belly up to the elbow — but Bad Boys II is Hollywood psychopathology writ large, almost demoniacal in its quest to outdo itself and destroy the audience. This isn’t a daffy thrill ride like Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle — it’s more like a gut-heaving rollercoaster that won’t stop until it rattles your teeth out. Yet I had a hard time staying awake through it (and it was an early-afternoon show). For all its explosive, expensive bluster, it’s no better than any ten cops-vs.-drug-runners flicks of the ’80s, and there isn’t a moment that isn’t utterly synthetic.

Perhaps that’s to be expected from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, past perpetrators of The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the original Bad Boys, which gave us Martin Lawrence and Will Smith as renegade cops. After eight years — during which time the world got along just fine without the further adventures of Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Smith) — they’re back to squash an evil druglord (Jordi Molla) who’s looking to push Ecstasy in the nightclubs of Miami. Mike is trying to figure out how to tell Marcus that he’s going out with Marcus’ sister (Gabrielle Union), who’s also an undercover cop. For his part, Marcus is waiting for the right time to tell the cocky, foolhardy Mike that he wants a less risky partner. Less a few bombastic sequences, that’s the movie.

Bad Boys II shoots its works rather early, with the aggressive freeway car chase (which leaves the road littered with wrecked autos and, at one point, a boat) you might’ve caught in the trailer. This is the sort of movie in which a cop drives an ambulance into a mortuary just to provide a distraction for the “heroes” (what would the characters in a lesser-budget movie do? Probably fall back on their imaginations). There are shootouts galore, including one in which we see a bullet pass in loving slow motion through Martin Lawrence’s left buttock and slam bloodily into a Ku Klux Klansman’s throat. Everything is way over the top, but since Michael Bay has none of the wit of, say, James Cameron (who knows how to stage excessive chaos with rhythm and force), it just numbs you after about an hour.

When we’re not watching action blowouts, we’re supposed to laugh at the film’s generous helping of sick humor. For this I assume the credited screenwriters Ron Shelton (Dark Blue) and Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) were responsible, though it comes off as smart writers trying to stave off boredom. Smith and Lawrence gang up on a hapless kid who shows up to take Lawrence’s daughter on a date; they pelt him mercilessly with taunts and intimidation, but the actor playing the kid hardly even reacts, so there’s no fun in watching the guys scare an inexpressive lump.

And the film really has it in for dead bodies (a hiding place for drugs); many of them are run over in yet another car chase, the top of a cadaver’s skull falls off in a mortuary, and Lawrence is stuck hiding under a sheet with a well-endowed female corpse. There’s also a fair amount of horsing around with someone’s severed finger. When Joseph Wambaugh’s novel The Choirboys came out almost thirty years ago, it created a stir because of the sordid exploits of its cop characters. Wambaugh’s cops have nothing on the adventures of Smith and Lawrence, and they’re supposed to be the heroes.

11’09”01

July 18, 2003

In the months following 9/11, eleven filmmakers from around the world were asked to make a short film on the subject. Their limits were a $400,000 budget and a time constraint of exactly eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame. The result is 11’09″01 (called September 11 in America, where, unlike in many other countries, it never really got a proper release), an anthology of disparate takes on the event that scarred a country and scared the rest of the world. We’ll take them individually, in order of appearance.

Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran): We begin with a bucket of water being hauled laboriously from the bottom of a deep and drying well. The water is to be used to make mud for bricks, which will be used to build a shelter in an Iranian village of Afghani refugees. Why a shelter? Because the adults in the village have heard about what happened in New York, and they fully expect a nuclear reprisal from a maddened and not particularly picky America. The children in the village help with the bricks, completely unaware of the event; they’re more interested in an event closer to home, in which two men are said to have fallen down a well and died. The children’s teacher (Maryam Karimi) assembles them for class, and tries to explain to them what has happened. Their innocent minds can’t really grasp it. Eventually the teacher has to take the kids outside and show them a tall chimney so they can get some sense of what a “tower” even is. Samira Makhmalbaf’s film is absorbing and has something to say to Americans who grew up being hyped about the nuclear threat from Russia — much as children in other nations are now taught about the nuclear threat from us.

Claude Lelouch (France): A deaf-mute photographer (Emmanuelle Laborit) lives in New York with her lover (Jérôme Horry), a sign-language translator who takes deaf people on tours through various city landmarks, including the World Trade Center. One morning they have a little spat and he leaves for work. The woman agonizes over her laptop, writing a letter to him about the future of their relationship while the planes slam into the World Trade Center on TV in the next room — unheard, of course, by her. Claude Lelouch keeps us inside the woman’s near-soundless perception for almost the entire film, adding an ominous tone to what could’ve been a rather twee story about a couple in crisis during a much larger crisis.

Youssef Chahine (Egypt): A film director is scheduled to discuss his new film at a press conference on September 12. After the event, he can’t discuss something so trivial, and wanders off to encounter the ghosts of a U.S. Marine killed in Beirut and a Palestinian suicide bomber. There’s a bit of rhetoric about how America has killed many more innocents than were killed on 9/11, and how civilians in America and Israel are considered fair game for terrorist attacks because they’re democracies and therefore they voted for the people who make the policies that tear the Middle East apart. In the end, though, the segment is concerned with protecting human life everywhere from any political violence. If that political violence includes our own, well, look in a mirror and pick up a newspaper.

Danis Tanovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina): The first of several pieces in the film to remind American viewers that tragedy didn’t begin on September 11, Danis Tanovic’s segment follows a woman who organizes other female townspeople on the eleventh of each month to protest the war that took their men away. When news arrives of the events in New York, many of the women consider cancelling the protest, but the protagonist insists that not even this should stop their mission, and in fact, it’s more important now than ever to continue to speak against war. Preachy but well-handled.

Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina-Faso): This one comes the closest to entertainment of the eleven shorts, as five West African boys think they’ve spotted Osama bin Laden in town and hope to capture him for the $25 million reward. Think of how much help for the poor and sick that money could buy! Yes, we do think of it, and it seems obscene to throw around that much money — not to mention the billions we’ve ended up spending in Iraq — that could help the needy instead, here and abroad. Idrissa Ouedraogo keeps it all relatively light, though not offensively so.

Ken Loach (United Kingdom): Vladimir Vega tells the story of Chile’s own Tuesday, September 11 — the day in 1973 when the democratically elected President Allende was killed and the vicious dictator Pinochet took over, with help from the United States of America. Ken Loach lets Vega speak persuasively and sadly for himself, ending with the hope that Americans will remember Chile’s 9/11 as vividly as Chile, and everyone else, is expected to remember America’s 9/11.

Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico): The director of Amores Perros and 21 Grams weighs in with a scarifying impressionistic piece that unfolds almost entirely without imagery, aside from strobing video of people jumping out of the burning Twin Towers. Our ears are assaulted by various sounds of that day — terrified cell-phone conversation, explosions, screams, the thudding of bodies hitting the street, and finally the towers collapsing. Iñárritu strips the experience down to what horrified him the most — the detail of people crazed with fear and presented with the awful choice of burning to death or jumping to their deaths. A haunting piece making use of footage that, perhaps understandably, hasn’t been seen much on the networks since that day.

Amos Gitaï (Israel): This one seems the most expendable. It follows, in one unbroken take, the frustrations of an Israeli TV news reporter trying to cover the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv, and finding herself upstaged by the events of 9/11. Is this a critique of callous reporters, or an acknowledgment that in many terrorism-torn areas of the world 9/11 was seen as just another big-boom story? Whichever the case, it seems to go on forever with no clear point of view or, indeed, any point in general.

Mira Nair (India): The director of Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair tells the true, if stylistically unremarkable, story of a Moslem woman whose son was wrongly assumed to be a terrorist connected with 9/11. The twist ending gives this piece the shape of a fable, which would seem sappy if it weren’t true. Still, Nair does a good job of demonstrating the reflexive fear and xenophobia many Americans exhibited towards anyone who even looked Arabic in the days following 9/11.

Sean Penn (USA): One of the more memorable yet problematic segments stars Ernest Borgnine as a widower who still talks to his dear departed wife. He’s upset because there isn’t enough light coming through the window to sustain the flowers she loved. Then the first tower comes down, and the flowers perk up again. It’s hard to know what Sean Penn is saying with this piece — he doesn’t seem the type, directorially, to burp something so banal as “Look at the silver lining.” In any event, it benefits from an impassioned performance by Borgnine, who hadn’t enjoyed a role this lovingly actor-centered in years.

Shohei Imamura (Japan): The last and most intriguing segment isn’t really connected to 9/11 in terms of its events, but thematically it’s all too relevant. After World War II, a Japanese soldier deranged by the war believes he has become a snake. He writhes around, darting his tongue out, biting people, and swallowing a rat. We get the point: War can turn men into snakes — or terrorists. Shohei Imamura’s explicitly stated message is “There is no such thing as a holy war.” Food for thought, though probably lost on the thoughtless.

11’09″01 emerges, then, as a sketchbook of the day, much like the several graphic novels in which dozens of comics artists and writers contributed their own takes on the event. Unaccountably buried in this country — shown at only a few festivals and then unceremoniously dumped onto home video — it’s eminently worth seeing, arguing with, and thinking about.

Battle Royale II

July 5, 2003

The opening shots of Battle Royale II redefine “audacious.” The camera swoops lazily in an aerial view of Tokyo, the buildings glowing orange in the light of dusk. We single out two buildings — which bear a fairly blatant resemblance to the World Trade Center towers that went down on 9/11. You watch this and you say, No. They’re not actually going to do it, are they? And then, heralded by deep Dolby Digital rumbling, the towers go down. What’s more, we learn from the opening text that the hero and survivor of the original Battle Royale — the nonviolent Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) — is responsible for this act of terrorism, and many others. Then we see grainy video footage of him, AK-47 in hand, inciting the youth of Japan to rise up against the adults. If the original film flirted with controversy, the sequel has sex with it on the first date.

Battle Royale II has a famously difficult history. Kinji Fukasaku, the veteran director of the original back in 2000, announced in late 2002 that he planned to direct the sequel; he also announced that he was dying of cancer. Five days into principal shooting (and four days before Christmas, which may account for the sequel’s pitch-black view of the holiday — it takes place mainly during the season), Fukasaku was hospitalized. His son Kenta, who’d written the screenplays for both BR films (and had once planned to direct the first one), took over production, and the elder Fukasaku died on January 12. Barely six months later, BR2 landed with a heavy thud in theaters.

And what a heavy thud it is. Little of the mischievous humor of the first (for instance, the cheerful video instructor played by Yûko Miyamura is conspicuous in her absence) survives in Battle Royale II, a thoroughly different animal than its revered predecessor. Its themes and concerns spread wider, taking in the roots of terrorism, the folly of military action, and the unending cycle of violence. Does it work? Not always; some of the movie is overexplicit and plodding. But where else did you expect a sequel to go? I’d say Battle Royale II should be honored, not lambasted, for going out of its way to set itself apart from the original. If the first one nodded at Lord of the Flies, this one has much more in common with, say, Apocalypse Now.

In the wake of Shuya’s bombings — carried out with his terrorist group, “the Wild Seven” (which has picked up many other recruits beyond its founding seven) — the Japanese government has passed a new BR act. Instead of being shipped to an island to kill each other off, randomly selected classes of ninth graders will now be shipped to Shuya’s island stronghold, given weapons, and ordered to hunt him and his conspirators down and kill them. All this exposition is delivered at a blistering clip by the government’s new teacher liaison (Riki Takeuchi, stepping in for the original’s Takeshi Kitano), who spews invective at the class (made up mostly of delinquents, unlike the well-appointed, uniformed kids in the first one) and writes down an impressive list of country names on the chalkboard, asking what they all have in common. Answer? They’ve all been bombed by America. (A dark irony: the actual island standing in for Shuya’s island is Nagasaki.)

Some may feel, at this point, that the film is getting off on the wrong foot. The didactic tone of the speeches may ring false even to those who agree with it, and Riki Takeuchi, a big star in Japan, weighs in with a glowering, hyperbolic performance as over-the-top as Kitano’s was stoic and subtle. But Takeuchi is your signal that this will be a louder, more impassioned ride, with its mind more on geopolitics than on survival. By encouraging Takeuchi to do such an un-Kitano turn, Kenta Fukasaku may have been aiming to undercut the audience’s expectations right from the start. The way he kills off one of the most intriguing-looking characters almost immediately — a wild-haired delinquent girl played by the teen model Aja — similarly defuses our anticipation. All bets are truly off here.

From there, Battle Royale II becomes not so much a war movie as a scolding essay on war movies. When the kids arrive by motorboat on the island, almost half of them are cut down or blown up practically before they even reach land. It’s Fukasaku’s rewrite of the legendary Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, with the added perversity that the mayhem involves ninth graders — though many of the doomed soldiers in the Spielberg film weren’t much older. Some critics of the sequel have questioned why the government doesn’t just nuke the island, instead of sending inexperienced kids over. Well, do you expect war in general to make sense? Whatever illogic one finds in the film is trumped by the illogic we find daily in the newspaper (such as, say, provoking a war over weapons of mass destruction where there are none).

Many of the kids are interchangeable; they’re much more demonstrably cannon fodder this time out. The plot essentially focuses on two people: Shuya, who has grown weary of the death machine he has set in motion, but feels powerless to stop it; and Shiori (Ai Maeda), who goes into battle determined to kill Shuya and avenge her father, the teacher Kitano. (Maeda is actually the sister of Aki Maeda, who played Shuya’s co-survivor in the original, and whose character Kitano was fixated on because she resembled his daughter. Aki makes a small appearance at the very end of the sequel.) Shuya, so pacifistic in the original, is meant, I think, as an object lesson in how a violent society can create its own menaces — its own terrorists. Japan turned Shuya into a killer against his will, and now the skills he learned have been turned around onto Japan and its adult leaders. Shiori, too, is motivated by hatred, even though in flashback we see that she and her father weren’t all that close. You get the feeling she’s using his death as an excuse to work off anger that has more to do with his life.

Whereas Battle Royale was trim and ingenious, Battle Royale II reaches higher and broader, and is a much messier and more overarching affair. I did not and do not judge it harshly for not being the first movie. I came to appreciate the differences, the movie’s airhorn Oliver Stone-like insistence. It is clearly the movie Kinji Fukasaku wanted to make and had planned to make; its perceived failings should not be blamed on his son, who has delivered a piercing and perhaps understandably mournful sequel, dense with rhetoric and regret. Overlong, flawed, and hectoring, Battle Royale II nonetheless claims its own kind of wounded brilliance. The smiling little girl at the beginning of the first film, the survivor of the previous BR game, reappears here, still clutching her bloodied teddy bear, and still smiling; but this time she’s a terrorist, too. This sequel rolls into our current preoccupations like a hand grenade.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

July 2, 2003

33540-terminator3risemachinesNow that it’s been five years since James Cameron’s Oscar-night “king of the world” embarrassment, it may be time to admit that the obstreperous, egotistical director of Titanic and the first two Terminator films is some sort of master — an ornery techno-bully, to be sure, but also a true action-cinema visionary with a genius for excess building on excess until it rams through excess into large-scale brutal wit. Terminator 2, released in 1991, trumped and transcended all other action movies up to that time; a monumental event, it still found bizarre humor in the anime-like spectacle of two metal men bashing each other over and over.

All of which is prelude to the inevitable disappointment of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, an eminently unnecessary belated sequel with less confident hands on the wheel. Jonathan Mostow, a competent director of mid-level thrills (Breakdown, U-571), has inherited the franchise, and he puts the obligatory smash-ups on the screen — the crumpled cars, the piles of bullet shells, the odd visual of two frozen-faced humanoids pummeling one another. But Mostow, who seems to throw these moments in just because they belong in a Terminator film, lacks James Cameron’s sure and heavy hand: Scene after scene plays like a conscientious TV sequel made for the Sci-Fi channel.

The movie feels disconcertingly lightweight right from the start, when the rickety old Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), naked from his time travels, strides into a bar (just as in T2) that turns out to be a strip club — on Ladies’ Night. (And whoever had the bright idea of introducing the dusty catchphrase “Talk to the hand” to the Terminator universe should be sentenced to movie jail with nothing to watch except The Beautician and the Beast.) Cameron also used Schwarzenegger for deadpan laughs (“I promise,” he intoned in T2, stoically holding up a gloved hand, “I will not kill anyone”), but here he seems too often the butt of undignified jokes about how little personality he has.

The other element sorely missing from T3 is Linda Hamilton, whose Sarah Connor developed from a frightened woman with soft feathered hair in T1 to a wiry, obsessed warrior-crackpot in T2. What happened to Sarah? We’re told she died, leaving her son John (played here by Nick Stahl) — the messiah destined to lead the human race against the machines — alone to drift anonymously from place to place. It turns out that the apocalyptic future of Terminators and nuclear holocaust was not averted in T2, merely “postponed,” and that John is still the “primary target” of the machines of 2029. They send an upgraded Terminator after him — the T-X, who takes the blonde, poised form of Kristanna Loken and goes about her ruthless business in tight maroon leather.

The sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger getting tossed about by an adversary who looks like this season’s petite cover girl is amusing at times, but lacks the wit and topicality of Robert Patrick, looking like an underfed mechanic, posing as a Los Angeles cop in T2. Without Linda Hamilton around, we’re left with Claire Danes as a veterinarian who finds herself on the run with John and the Terminator, who has been programmed to protect them both; Danes tries to adjust to megabudget spectacle but comes off as just one more intelligent actress lost inside a summer thrill machine — both exasperated and exasperating.

At the helm of a bigger movie than anything he’s attempted before, Jonathan Mostow gives us chaos without rhythm; in his hands, accumulating excess seems like waste. A prolonged sequence in which the T-X chases our heroes, driving a crane truck and sending rows of parked cars flipping end over end, is impressively noisy at first but eventually becomes numbing. In general, Mostow directs with both eyes on the two Cameron films. He and his writers even contrive to bring back Earl Boen as the mealy-mouthed shrink who never believed Sarah’s rants about Terminators. He’s brought in so the fans can recognize him and chortle; then he’s gone as quickly as he entered.

T3 is also the most bizarrely pessimistic big-ticket studio movie in years, even by the standards of brooding dystopian sci-fi. Death is inevitable, we keep hearing; apocalypse is our destiny. The sneak-preview audience filed out quietly at the end, perhaps feeling stung and betrayed by an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie whose message — unlike the other two Terminator films, which kept hope alive in the face of the furnace, and whose mantra was “The future is not set” — is that the world is going to end and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. What happened to “The future is not set”? The Terminator, speaking solemnly of John’s destiny, seems awfully certain that the future is set and that the rise of the machines has to happen, and the movie never contradicts him. Indeed, after a movie filled with car crashes and explosions, we get a rather bitter anti-climax, and even the hellacious T-X doesn’t go out with much style.

Where’s the joy? These movies are big and expensive toys, or should be, but Mostow isn’t very playful. T3 has the sour, depressive vibe of an untested director submitting to a predetermined mythology not his own. At least James Cameron and Linda Hamilton would’ve enjoyed the ride.


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