Archive for the ‘foreign’ category

The Raid 2

April 13, 2014

20140413-183333.jpg2011′s The Raid: Redemption, which delighted fanboys the world over, was a simple siege film with some of the most elaborately brutal martial-arts sequences seen in years. Its writer-director, Gareth Evans, a Welshman working in Indonesia, had envisioned a much bigger and more complex crime drama called Berandal; the financing fell through, so he and his star, the young pencak silat master Iko Uwais, decided on the more controlled and less expensive story of The Raid. Now, on the heels of The Raid‘s success, Evans has reworked the Berandal script as a sequel, putting Uwais’ indomitable cop hero Rama undercover to infiltrate a major gang.

Now, part of the pleasure of The Raid was that it got in and out in 100 minutes. The Raid 2 goes on for almost an hour longer. In this case, less is more, even if the extended length allows Evans more opportunities for bone-splintering fight choreography. The fanboys, of course, will rise to the added beef. They don’t seem to mind overlength, as witness the success of the Marvel movies, almost all of which come in north of two hours (the latest Captain America tips the scales at two hours and sixteen minutes). They might not even mind that a good percentage of the big action numbers don’t even involve Rama. He sort of drifts through what’s supposed to be his movie, yanked into the fray every so often. I imagine the original drafts of Berandal either kept the undercover-cop character largely on the sidelines or didn’t have one at all. If he was an important element in those drafts, he really isn’t one now.

Ass-kicking females are always popular with the fanboys, perhaps so they can claim that the hyper-masculine entertainment they enjoy isn’t sexist. So here we get a character known as “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle), whose specialty is killing people with hammer claws. She wears sunglasses and kills with zero perceptible emotion. She never talks (she’s deaf). She’s cool. She’s also not a person. Aside from her, the only women we meet are bimbos in a nightclub, a strap-on-wearing porn actress, and Rama’s long-suffering wife, whom Rama calls so that he can hear the sounds of his son at play in the background. His wife has been waiting for him throughout his two-year stint in prison (so that he can get into the good graces of a mob boss’s son in jail) and however long his post-prison life among the gangsters takes, and mostly his one phone call to his wife consists of silence so he can listen to his male child. Nope, not sexist at all. But hey, we got a girl who kills guys with hammers!

I shouldn’t have expected more, though the ecstatic notices in the geek press must’ve led me on. As a portfolio of martial-arts moves and ferocious carnage that reportedly won an R rating by the skin of its teeth, The Raid 2 is as chunky and adrenalized as the first one. People are pummeled, slashed, stabbed, shot, and otherwise treated impolitely; one lucky fellow gets a big hole shotgunned into his face. The sound of an aluminum baseball bat connecting with a skull is as viscerally cringe-inducing as it’s always been. As with many martial-arts sequences, though, the villains obligingly attack the hero one at a time; only once or twice do we see a group of men ganging up on someone. This sort of thing calls attention to itself as choreography, though I can see that it fills a desperate need among fans of action films, which too often give us computer-generated people fighting. Here, at least, we can see these are real humans risking and taking injury. It’s probably no accident that the martial-arts genre rose at about the same time that song-and-dance musicals were dying. People crave physical elegance and they’ll take it in action flicks (or in stuff like the Step Up series) if they have to.

Acting is not part of the elegance, and Iko Uwais is a conscientious nonactor; there’s more going on with Arifin Putra, who plays Uco, the mob boss’s ill-tempered and spoiled son, whom Rama must befriend. A smoothie of the type that used to be described as “dashing,” Putra brings a charge of decadence and privilege to his scenes. Uco ends up donating blood all over the carpet, along with most everyone else except the unstoppable cipher Rama. Like its predecessor, The Raid 2 doesn’t do anything plotwise that hasn’t been done 7,498 times before; its distinction is its feral, pounding fight scenes. Gareth Evans films them well. But his movies feel more like demo reels than like, you know, movies, much less cinema. He’s being praised for action you can actually see, follow and get excited by, and for telling tried-and-true stories; in other words, he’s being praised for being competent.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

March 16, 2014

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A Western reader might want to think of Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel, as the Chinese equivalent of The Odyssey — a seminal epic that has informed hundreds of stories in all media over the years. The tale of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang), on a pilgrimage to find sacred texts, its most recent iteration was 2008′s Jackie Chan-Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. Now we have Stephen Chow’s version, whose subtitle, Conquering the Demons, suggests that this is only the first of a series; indeed, it functions largely as a prequel, examining the humbler days of Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as a fledgling demon-hunter and how he first encounters the three demons who will later, at the movie’s end, accompany him on his quest.

Stephen Chow has been down this road before; in 1995 he starred in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, wherein he played one of Xuanzang’s servants. In recent years Chow has come into his own as an actor-director whose films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won him an enthusiastic cult in the west. This is his first film in eight years (since the rather lukewarmly received CJ7), and the first he’s directed but does not appear in. Chow is 51 now, and possibly getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles as Xuanzang or even the Monkey King, the role he played in A Chinese Odyssey, here filled by the grimacing Huang Bo. Chow settles instead for infusing the film with his obvious love for over-the-top action, melodrama, slapstick, and movie references. As an instance of the latter, the opening sequence dealing with a water demon terrorizing a village is Chow’s opportunity to rewrite Jaws, if Jaws ended with the shark reverting to human form and Roy Scheider reciting nursery rhymes to it.

Yes, that’s Xuanzang’s M.O. Instead of destroying demons, Xuanzang, following the beliefs of his master, prefers to reform them through moral mnemonics. This puts him in conflict with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who takes a decidedly more Buffy-esque approach. Miss Duan disdains Xuanzang’s ineffectual methods but finds herself falling in love with the asexual monk-in-training, going so far as to stage an ambush with several colleagues to get him to have sex with her. (Which would seem unfathomably gross if the genders were reversed, but never mind; Chow never passes up a chance for a laugh, even when the jokes verge on homophobic.) Xuanzang would probably get killed without Miss Duan, but his destiny as an enlightened monk depends on his adherence to nonviolence — Chow subtly sets up a dialectic between force and persuasion.

For fans of the freewheeling Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow breaks out one elaborate set-piece after another, employing not-always-convincing special effects to pit humans or gods against beasts. The water demon is an appetizer; most of the movie deals with the pursuit of (and retreat from) a fearsome pig demon, leading up to Xuanzang’s climactic encounter with the Monkey King, the most powerful of all. Chow pulls out the stops, introducing Buddha himself as a deus ex machina who hovers above earth like the Star Child in 2001. The action, as with Chow’s previous films, is flat-out cartoonish — a live-action anime — but always with grave stakes underneath. Even when the computer-generated beasties falter in verisimilitude, the movie is still ecstatic eye candy.

But again, this is only the prologue of a much larger story, which may frustrate the uninitiated. Journey to the West has already shattered box-office records in its native Hong Kong and elsewhere, so sequels are all but guaranteed; let’s hope Chow gets the next one in the can in fewer than eight years. I enjoyed the tension, so prevalent in Asian cinema, between brutal physicality and peaceful philosophy; in the martial arts these are two sides of the same coin, something Jet Li, for example, explored in his Fearless. In order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures he seeks, Xuanzang must believe that the monsters who try to kill him are worthy, and capable, of redemption. It’s an oddly pleasing theme, and ending, for a shoot-the-works action-comedy.

The Wind Rises

February 17, 2014

the-wind-rises-image02The Wind Rises, which may or may not be the swan song of master animator Hayao Miyazaki, begins with a dream of flight. It’s early in the 20th century, and young Jiro Horikoshi wants to fly airplanes. His poor eyesight blocks him from being a pilot, so he settles for designing planes. Throughout the movie, Jiro confers with legendary aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni in their “shared dreams” of conquering the skies. The Wind Rises may be the most “realistic” feature Miyazaki has ever made — it lacks Miyazaki’s standard nature spirits and fanciful animals — but it’s still a humble tribute to imagination and creativity, and it unfolds in a gentle universe formed by nature and deformed by humans.

Jiro Horikoshi was an actual engineer; he designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which caused the Allies (and Pearl Harbor) so much grief in World War II. But this is not meant to be taken as a too-literal biography. Miyazaki mashes up Jiro’s life with Tatsuo Hori’s short story “The Wind Has Risen,” about a woman with tuberculosis (a disease Hori suffered with). Thus, Jiro is given a wife, Naoko, who has tuberculosis. To Miyazaki, I think, Naoko represents the innocence that would soon die in the inferno of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Japan,” says a German ex-pat to Jiro, “will blow up.” Miyazaki may be saying that if we don’t blame Oppenheimer and his brothers in the Manhattan Project for the A-bomb and how the military used it, so we shouldn’t blame Jiro for the Zero and how the military used it. In part, The Wind Rises is a tragedy about dreams bent to the will of mass murder.

Miyazaki may not have as much fantasy imagery to conjure with this time — that’s pretty much limited to Jiro’s dreamscapes — but The Wind Rises is still world-class animation, with obsessive attention lavished on the smallest, subtlest things: the flush rivets in an airplane hull; a bowl of watercress salad; moths flitting about a streetlight overlooking Jiro and Naoko. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is realized with an almost spiritual horror, accompanied by vocal effects that sound like the groaning of an angry Gaia. Miyazaki doesn’t show us the casualties, just the wreckage of houses built by men who presumed to claim a patch of Earth as their own. It’s a warning to Jiro — who is on his way to university by train when the quake hits — that human minds, however advanced and well-educated, cannot master nature and her whims.

Far from being an apologia for a man who enabled death, The Wind Rises is the story of an artist/scientist who only wanted to make beautiful airplanes, but happened to be born in a time and country that hammered every effort and ambition on the anvil of war. At one point Jiro quips that the planes would be lighter if the weapons were left out. His spiritual mentor Caproni says that planes shouldn’t be built for war or money, and Miyazaki seems to endorse this. We spend most of our time with Jiro and fellow engineers, some of whom, like his grouchy boss Kurokawa, sternly keep the engineers on the track to military accomplishment, but most likely because that’s what the culture of Japan at that time demanded. Kurokawa also presides tearfully over the quick wedding of Jiro and Naoko, so he hasn’t been completely lost to the machinery of war.

Naoko is no Princess Mononoke, defiantly spitting blood and doing battle on behalf of nature; she’s a blank signifier of Japanese suffering. That’s about the only bummer here. Miyazaki is more concerned here with the conflict of feminine and masculine in one WWII-era male, the conflict between beauty and destruction. “The only excuse for making a useless thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” The Wind Rises says that when art is made useful — mostly for the purposes of war — the earth trembles; some law of nature has been shattered. (Many guns, too, are masterpieces of design. Not to mention swords.) Miyazaki, not yet a year old when some of Jiro’s artwork strafed Pearl Harbor, has made a tragic epic about what happens when the spirit of creativity is put to corrupt usefulness.

The Illusionist (2010)

February 13, 2011

The Oscar-nominated The Illusionist is the latest in an odd, tiny subgenre of films imagining real-life directors as characters in the sorts of films they might’ve made. (2009′s Double Take, which envisioned Hitchcock in a Hitchcockian thriller, was another.) Tributes like these, of course, exist primarily out of film-geek love, as well as the sort of homage usually left to novels in which, say, Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle solve some mystery. If we can’t have a new film by the long-dead French comedy master Jacques Tati (M. Hulot’s Holiday), the rationale goes, we might as well embrace a tribute by French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville).

Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, only directed a handful of films, though his work spanned decades (his first feature was released in 1949, his last in 1974). He gained his performing chops as a mime in pre-WWII music halls, and this experience seems to inform The Illusionist, which, we’re told, Tati wrote in 1955 but never made; it was intended as a letter to his estranged daughter. The film itself certainly gets much of its emotional fuel from a father-daughter relationship between the titular magician — drawn and animated as a Tati doppelganger — and a young woman he meets in a Scottish pub. Romance is never possible between them; she is charmed by his sleight of hand, he is charmed by her innocence. She is young; the capacity for happiness hasn’t been ground out of her yet.

There are some laughs in The Illusionist, but a lot of it is melancholic and somewhat self-pitying. The magician has to wander around looking for steady work (in one strange episode he winds up washing cars at a garage; in another he plies his trade in a shop window, making his employer’s wares appear out of a hat), because he can’t make consistent money performing illusions for increasingly sparse audiences. It’s the 1950s, and rock music has invaded music halls; the Beatles-ish group in the movie is presented, rather meanly and homophobically, as a gaggle of giggling limp-wristed sissies. Meanwhile, all around the magician are similar old-school entertainers — a clown, a ventriloquist — who fall into despair, musing on suicide or pawning their props.

So the movie comes across as a vaguely bitter ode to how things used to be before modernism came and ruined everything. It’s beautifully crafted, though. We forget at our peril how miraculous cel animation can be; an entire generation is growing up on the canned plastic of Gnomeo and Juliet and twenty other computer-animated romps just like it every year, and, to put it mildly, they don’t all have the taste and ingenuity of a Pixar production. The Illusionist benefits from what I assume is some computer enhancement, but mostly we marvel at precisely drawn people in movements slapstick and subtle, sometimes both (the animation work on the young woman as she gets used to her new shoes is exemplary). The landscapes are gorgeous, the background characters are always doing something; it’s a fully created world, and one well worth seeing on a big screen. But the nostalgic sadness that suffuses this story — which has been divorced somewhat from its painful source — leaves us with little except how tragic it is when artists are outmoded. For an animator who sees multiplexes clotted with stuff like Gnomeo and Juliet, this movie may be more autobiographical than even Tati’s original script was.

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster

January 30, 2011

2008′s Ip Man was one of the great modern martial-arts films. Its titular hero was based on a real-life grandmaster of Wing Chun whose main claim to fame in America is that he trained Bruce Lee. The movie followed the humble but virtuosic Ip as he taught students, defended his friend’s cotton mill against thugs, and struggled to survive during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937. That last element gave the original Ip Man some gravitas, and even though much of the story was pure fantasy (Ip never fought a duel with a Japanese general, as the film had it), it was never less than engaging and entertaining.

The new sequel, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, goes even further into Chinese nationalist mythmaking. Here, Ip is pitted against a loutish, brutal British boxer, who represents the British colonial rule that Hong Kong was under at the time (and which lasted till 1997, actually). This boxer has already killed another local master in the ring, and it becomes important for Ip to defeat him to restore the nation’s pride. I seriously doubt the real Ip fought an English boxer calling himself “the Twister” any more than he fought a Japanese general, but let’s go along with the conceit for the sake of fable, even if it turns the movie’s last act into Rocky IV.

The sequel unavoidably lacks the resonance of the original’s war-torn milieu, but three men return from the first film and keep it entertaining: director Wilson Yip, fight choreographer Sammo Hung (who also appears here as an Ip rival turned friend), and star Donnie Yen as Ip. Yen, slim and severe, walks calmly in a black ankle-length coat, looking like a country priest on holiday. Yet he also has an easy smile and an infinite amount of patience with his students. In this second film, Ip’s wartime experiences seem to have drawn him closer to his wife and son (there’s another baby on the way), and even though you can follow Ip Man 2 without having seen the first, you’d miss touches like Ip’s bittersweet, reflective smile when asked if he can fight ten men (viewers of Ip Man know he did, in a Japanese prison). Yen successfully creates a demigod we can nonetheless care about and relate to — even if everyone respects Ip’s fighting skills, he still has to pay the rent.

So the first half of Ip Man 2 focuses on Ip trying to establish a training school in Hong Kong by proving himself against the local masters (including Sammo Hung), while the second half throws him in the ring with the British empire. As the boxer, Darren Shahlavi gives a pretty awful performance, but he’s cruel and imposing enough as an avatar of British imperialist force (Morrissey should love him). I wanted a bit more of Fan Siu-wong, who has the bullish features and swagger of the young Toshiro Mifune, as the thug who made Ip’s life annoying in the first film but returns here amusingly gentled by marriage and fatherhood. But when Donnie Yen is up there defying gravity and seemingly breaking the sound barrier with his fists, a lot is forgiven. Ip Man 2 is a worthy sequel; I just hope they don’t go for a third outing — who’s left for Ip to fight and uphold Chinese exceptionalism, a Tibetan?

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

November 1, 2010

In one of the odder moments in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, a man in his late seventies, staggering with the pain of liver cancer, enters another man’s hospital room and kills him. This unlikely assassin is part of a super-secret Swedish group — dubbed “the Section” by the authorities — who apparently care about nothing except silencing Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the spiky hacker heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. All of these conspirators, plotting in shadows, are old and decrepit — one is on dialysis. I reflected that I hadn’t seen so many septuagenarians doddering around trying to kill one specific person since all those doomed monks straining to ice Damien Thorn in The Final Conflict.

Stieg Larsson apparently envisioned ten books featuring Lisbeth Salander and her fellow crusader for truth, intrepid reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist); unfortunately, he died (or was assassinated, depending on who you listen to) after publishing only three. Hornet’s Nest is based on the last book, following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire; it’s most likely the last time you’ll see Lisbeth as enacted (indelibly) by Noomi Rapace, who has said she’s quite done with the emotionally difficult character. So it’s a goodbye of sorts, though David Fincher (The Social Network) is currently filming a Dragon Tattoo remake with Rooney Mara as Lisbeth. I look forward to Rapace adding her intensity to many more films (though I’d also like to see her lighter side, which comes out in interviews).

Hornet’s Nest wraps up the sometimes sordid saga of Lisbeth and her many abuses at the hands of the misogynist Swedish system. A lot of it is anticlimactic (this is the rare film in which a major antagonist dies offscreen) and talky. Lisbeth faces trial for the attempted murder of her corrupt father, and Mikael, as usual, works tirelessly to gather evidence in her defense. Hornet’s Nest is full of meetings and interviews and people sitting around looking at files (analog and digital) while the score keeps intoning the same two ominous notes. It’s a gloomy affair — in this movie’s Sweden, it’s either raining, is about to rain, or has just rained — with precious little levity and, as in Played with Fire, almost no interaction between Lisbeth and Mikael except at the very beginning and very end.

Still, when we enter the courtroom, with Lisbeth defiantly gothed up in leather, piercings and a mohawk, the movie wakes up. It rouses us cheaply — we’re given a contemptible, lying psychoanalyst to hiss and hoot at — but it rouses us just the same, in the familiar old way. For all its radical politics and apparent glorification of hackers, the Millennium series is narratively conservative, hitting police-procedural and courtroom-thriller beats familiar from television. Interestingly, though, the original Swedish title for Hornet’s Nest is Luftslottet som sprängdes, which translates roughly as The Air Castle That Exploded, “air castle” being a Swedish term for a pipe dream. The pipe dream here, it seems, is that the largely male-dominated authorities have your best interests at heart. The story of Lisbeth blows that air castle to oblivion.

A Serbian Film

September 25, 2010

Somewhere in the late ’80s, there was a one-page vignette in the great Love and Rockets comic about a bar fight between two women — actually more like a one-sided beatdown. The ass-whupping is over almost as soon as it starts, and nobody else in the bar knows why it happened. The narrator of the vignette concludes, “We all sat around trying to top each other with our reactions.” Well, A Serbian Film is a bar fight, and a lot of critics have been trying to top each other with their reactions. I’ve heard it all — “The most disturbing film ever!” “I’ll never watch it again!” “I wish I hadn’t seen it!” “Please don’t see this, because you can’t unsee it!” And so on and so forth. A few of these critics were also kind enough to give away each and every outrage in the film (something I won’t do here). So by the time I saw A Serbian Film — the monolith of evil! the horned terror of international cinema! — I was working at a jaded disadvantage: I kept waiting to be shocked and appalled.

The movie is certainly well-made, effectively acted; all the technical ducks are in a row here. It’s not some grubby, grainy nightmare like the August Underground films, whose conceit is that they were filmed (badly) by psychopaths. (Nor is it as genuinely brain-fried, or as grungily haunting, as Roger Watkins’ Last House on Dead End Street, made for about fifty cents 37 years ago.) I’m not here to bash A Serbian Film; I’m just here to counteract some of the hype and hullabaloo, which dilute whatever impact the movie might have on virgin eyes. I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to go along with what director Srdjan Spasojevic and his co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic say about the movie: that it’s a blast of hot contempt at the Serbian government. But what goes on in the narrative bears only the most tenuous political relevance, even metaphorically — it could be set anywhere, except that its Eastern European milieu, as with the Hostel films, might seduce American viewers into a xenophobic response along the lines of “Yeah, those Transylvanians or whatever the hell they are, they’re totally sick fucks.” (This attitude was buttressed recently by the notorious video of a Bosnian girl throwing puppies into a river, not to mention the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs.¹)

All you should know going in: Miloš (Srdjan Todorovic) is a former porn actor who gets drawn into a hush-hush porn project by Vukmir (Sergei Trifunovic), a bearded Mephistopheles who talks about extreme art and waves a big paycheck in Miloš’ face. (We never find out how much Vukmir is offering, but we assume it’s some formidable digits.) Since we spend most of our time with these two, it’s good that Todorovic and Trifunovic are compelling actors who, I hope, haven’t nuked their careers. (Well, Todorovic has been acting since 1986 and making music since 1981, and Trifunovic has been in recent American films like Next and War Inc., so maybe I shouldn’t worry.) The smiling, diabolical Vukmir reminded me of Brazil’s Coffin Joe, and Miloš is an appealingly schlubby protagonist with a warm family life — if anyone in America is nuts enough to remake this, Sam Rockwell would be the perfect “Milo.”

A Serbian Film is — no two ways about it — a provocation. It’s an extreme film for people who haven’t seen very many extreme films; like Man Bites Dog (a far sharper film) or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (a film whose excesses seemed more plausibly tied to a political point of view), it will do its dirtiest work among the unprepared at film festivals or art houses. Gorehounds who go into it with an “Étonne-moi!” attitude will perhaps be able to scratch off a few things on their Haven’t Seen That In A Movie Before checklist, but that’s about it. Ultimately, A Serbian Film is too movie-ish, too contrived, to deal any lasting psychic damage. It comes on like 8mm or Hardcore dialed up to 11, but the very dialing-up feels like a stunt, like a bunch of guys sitting around coming up with lots of ways to fuck with a man’s head.

For all that, as I said, it’s solidly crafted, shot in handsome widescreen by Nemanja Jovanov. Its feral reputation may precede it, but it clearly hasn’t been made by trolls with cameras — there’s a fair amount of artfulness here. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t shaken to the core, either. Some taboos are shattered, but the movie is (understandably) so staunchly against the horrors it depicts that it just seems like a gallery of shock that doesn’t really hit us directly. (For it to be truly disturbing, it would have to have the power to lull us into complicity with the ghastly acts. Very, very few films can pull that off.) The problem with going over the top is that you cross a line between relatable horror and freak show. So the reaction you get isn’t horror so much as “Dude, this is pretty fucked up right here.” Well, we’ve got Jackass and Freddy Got Fingered for that.

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¹ Sorry to say, but once you’ve watched the Dnepropetrovsk video — relax, that link goes to someone’s editorial about it, not to the video itself — purely fictional assaults like A Serbian Film seem very, very quaint. Also, look up the Rape of Nanking sometime, and the film based on it, Men Behind the Sun, which even in its rabid explicitude doesn’t even scratch the surface of the obscenities perpetrated by Japanese soldiers on the Chinese during those terrible six weeks. The point is, man’s real-life inhumanity to man (and woman) is often grotesque enough without inventing stuff like some of the cartoonish violence that takes place in A Serbian Film. By cartoonish, I specifically mean stuff like Miloš’ final revenge on a guard with an eyepatch. Wild and crazy, yes, but it takes the movie out of the realm of the distressingly real and into the surrealistically comforting midnight-cult-movie realm of something like Meet the Feebles.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

June 26, 2010

In their first cinematic go-round, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) didn’t actually meet until about halfway through the film. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, they don’t come face-to-face until the movie’s almost over. They “see” each other twice before then: Lisbeth watches Mikael enter her home via remote camera, and Mikael watches an incriminating disc of Lisbeth being raped by her “guardian” in the previous film. Both show Lisbeth being violated — her privacy, her body.

Grim as a funeral on a rainy Monday, The Girl Who Played with Fire finds Lisbeth wanted for three murders she didn’t commit. Mikael believes she’s innocent, and spends the movie tracking down suspects. The system, of course, is ready to throw away the key on Lisbeth — she has a checkered psychiatric history, and her bed partners include women as well as men. The late Stieg Larsson, who wrote the bestsellers these movies are drawn from, wanted to indict Swedish society’s misogyny and homophobia. In Lisbeth he found the perfect afflicted heroine, too fierce to be a mere victim but too damaged to stay out of trouble.

Lisbeth passes much of the movie in hiding, staying at an unregistered apartment and tapping away on her laptop. Mikael makes a lot of phone calls. Despite that — and its stately pace — the movie is not boring. There’s a nicely erotic encounter between Lisbeth and an old flame (Yasmine Garbi), and a crisply staged fight between a boxer and a big white-haired bruiser that packs more excitement and tension than most of the summer blockbusters have to offer. At their heart, though — and this feels more pronounced here than in Dragon Tattoo — these movies are high-flown pulp; this one comes complete with revelations about Lisbeth’s family that feel imported from soap opera, where everyone seems connected not entirely plausibly. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t being shocked with a Taser disable someone even if they can’t feel pain?

Ah, well. Dragon Tattoo was so good (and the next one, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is said to return to those heights) that disappointment in its sequel is probably inevitable. Partly, as noted above, it’s because the movie is missing the first film’s chief source of charm — the uneasy rapport between the decent Mikael and the spiky Lisbeth. Both actors keep their halves of the film afloat — Noomi Rapace scores again with her tough-vulnerable portrait of Lisbeth — but the movie works less as a cracking mystery than as a screed against scummy men, and an excuse to rub Lisbeth’s face in more dirt. If you share my fondness for the characters, that affection may pull you through this glumly compelling but unpleasant film. You may wish for more scenes like the tender meeting between Lisbeth and her ailing old former legal protector; the snarly young woman gently feeds the old man and even smiles at him. You may want a movie that gives this heroine — and this actress — more reasons to smile and fewer reasons not to.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

March 22, 2010

Lisbeth Salander, the 24-year-old heroine of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and now the film version, is a great, prickly creation. On paper she may seem a collection of quirks: a goth, bisexual, chain-smoking, brilliant computer hacker with a history of violent behavior. But Noomi Rapace, the actress who breathes life into Lizbeth, gives a full-scale star-making performance with reserves of complexity and pain. Rapace carries this two-and-a-half-hour murder-mystery solidly, and seemingly effortlessly, on her slim sharp shoulders. Whoever takes the role in the upcoming American remake has gigantic shoes to fill.

Lisbeth isn’t the only lead, though. The other is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist facing three months in prison after his exposé of a corrupt industrialist got him tagged for libel. Mikael is hired by another industrialist, this one retired and far more benevolent, to help solve a 40-year-old mystery. The businessman’s niece went missing in the ‘60s, and he believes she was murdered. He also has little trust or love for his family, some of whom were or still are Nazi sympathizers. It’s a large family with many red herrings. Mikael takes the job — he has nothing better to do, and the case revs up his muckraker’s blood.

The mystery isn’t the best reason to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; for one thing, it leads to the sort of revelatory moment we’ve all seen a million times, in which the killer explains himself and seems to lack only a pointer and chalkboard. (The recent Shutter Island included that, with some parodic wit, I think.) No, the reason to watch is the relationship between the fortyish journalist and the severe young hacker, who eventually helps him with the case. The original Swedish title of the book and movie is Men Who Hate Women, and Lisbeth has met more than her share of such men. But Mikael is different; he doesn’t seem to have a corrupt or even sexual bone in his body — he cares only about compiling evidence. His monomania appeals to Lisbeth, who has her own one-track mind.

The movie really is their story, though it’s over an hour into the film before they even meet. Before that, we watch them separately, each having a difficult time of it. Lisbeth is assaulted twice by a sleazeball who’s been appointed her new “guardian,” but she avenges herself so swiftly and decisively that we spend the rest of the film not worrying about her. She can take care of herself. It’s Mikael, surrounded by a clan of suspects monitoring how close he’s getting to the truth, that we worry about. Director Niels Arden Oplev spreads gravely ominous music over the proceedings, pointing up how isolated Mikael is in his shack on the family’s compound. The suspense, I think, would be easier to sustain if we didn’t know there are two other books — and movies, though they have yet to open here — in this series.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo compels us in the good old ways — the piling up of clues, the decoding of hints, the use of old photos to recreate a micro-movie of a subtle but key event. What sets it apart thematically is the late Stieg Larsson’s preoccupations with racism, misogyny, and financial scandal as corrosive elements in the Swedish character. What sets it apart emotionally is the moving and sometimes funny rapport between the rumpled reporter (Michael Nykvist’s warm, steady performance will probably be overlooked but shouldn’t be) and the pierced angel/demon who can do anything with a MacBook. I’ll happily sit for two more movies featuring this pair; I only wish there could be more.

Maid-Droid

December 22, 2009

Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s Maid-Droid mooshes a few things together. Half of it is the poignant story of an old man whose “maid-droid,” his loving servant since his childhood, sits motionlessly in a closet because her batteries ran out years ago. Half of it is about a rogue droid terrorizing the city by raping women. Somehow, Tomomatsu manages to fit slapstick, pathos, horror, sci-fi, romance, cynicism, and a good dollop of softcore porn into the film’s short running time.

The maid-droid, named Maria (Akiho Yoshizawa), has watched her master grow over the decades into a sad elderly man who yearns to see her alive again. She may still be sentient; he hears her voice in his head, which could be a delusion or a spiritual connection. He has never married and has had only one fleeting sexual partner; he loves Maria and wants only her, even though she’s a prototype and, unlike later models, unequipped to have intercourse with him. Even when given the choice to transfer Maria’s memory into a newer model that can have sex with him, he declines. That wouldn’t be the same; it wouldn’t truly be Maria.

This is all good, saddening stuff. Then the movie shifts into its second plot, wherein a female detective tries to track down a droid made up of cast-off robo-dogs that’s been raping women. The detective’s story is preceded by a longish section involving a scruffy guy shopping for a sex droid. On a talk show with two sarcastic women who denounce the use of sex droids by men, the scruffy guy goes ballistic and insists that women only want cruel rich men, that they don’t want nice guys. As if to refute his own point, he slaps and kicks the two women into submission.

Tomomatsu has some things to say about what the genders are looking for romantically and sexually. Why are there no male sex droids? Because, as in real life with “Real Girls” and blow-up dolls, there isn’t nearly as much of a demand for faux-male companionship as there is for faux-female things to masturbate into. (Then again, women only need a vibrator or a dildo, suggesting that when they’re feeling horny they just want dick; men seem to want to delude themselves into having the whole fake package.) The sex in Maid-Droid is mostly farcical, though there’s a fairly erotic scene in which Maria shows her master she can still pleasure him.

The movie certainly isn’t as brainless as it looks, and the connective tissue between the two stories boils down to three little words. I appreciated Tomomatsu’s effort to smuggle some thought and heart into what could’ve been merely live-action hentai. I was touched by Maria’s story, amused by the detective story, satisfied by their parallel conclusions. It’ll replace Blade Runner or Metropolis in nobody’s heart, of course, but it’s a good hour or so of diversion, again more artfully handled than it had to be. If you share many Japanese men’s taste for eager-to-please young women in maid outfits, so much the better, I suppose.


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