Sunday, October 30, 2005

Film: Belle Epoque

Some would say that Oscar for best foreign film for "Belle Epoque" marked the final revival of Spanish cinematography. Some will say that the revival happened much before and that Fernando Trueba just stole an Oscar from Almodovar, by offering well known Almodovar's vision in a tamed version, easier for consumption. However, revival of Spanish cinematography is a nice thing either way, it's just sad that it suffers from certain mannerisms that are common for all Spanish directors.

Once, Spain could've become the capitol of cinema. Bunuel's landmark films "Andalusian dog", "Golden age" and "Hurdes - land without bread" were made there. But then Franco came and, as any tyrant, started choking free thinking with false concern for moral preservation. Just like any other tyrant. Many years later, while Franco was still alive, Bunuel returned to Spain to make "Viridiana". That he made the rest of his films in France, is a record of how pleasant return to homeland was. Only 1975, after Franco's death, some things started to move in Spain cinematography, and the new wave exploded all over the world, kitschy and bright-coloured style soaked in cheerful perversion became trademark of Spanish directors.

Now I have to explain why I don't like Almodovar. I believe that his themes and ideas never live up to inventiveness of his style. And his style is so drastic that it asks for strong themes and ideas: it needs them as a reason for existence, or at least as an excuse. Instead, it gets a simple romantic comedy like in "Tie me up" or a romance with misplaced Hollywood happy ending like in "Live flesh". Extremeness of the style goes too far for the bland messages it offers. Almodovar, in fact, uses many elements, starting with genres, of modern Hollywood film; He is one of the most prominent represents of Evroamericana, tendency of European authors to adopt schematic nature of commercial Hollywood films. Another one is Luc Besson, he, as well, tries to attack stunning visuals with European sensibility to classic Hollywood stories. Why European heritage is something that is bad per se and has to be replaced, no one ever explains (except, perhaps that it makes less money and requires more imagination). Ironically, American directors (like Jarmush or Woody Allen) and willingly accepting European influence, however, better parts of it.

But it's true that Almodovar is the key director of Spanish cinema, revival took it's full grasp once he was internationally famous, and there is his mark all over other Spanish director's works. But then again, dripping sexuality might as well be explained by national sensibility.

"Belle époque" is most of all a very charming film, and it takes as much re-watching as I made to realize that there isn't much above that.

“Belle epode” is consisting of so closely interwoven sex and history that it's easy to think that history is the cause and sex is just a mean of explaining the new culture that new occurencies are bringing. It took me several seeings (all of which I enjoyed) to realize that sex is the cause and history is just a way to justify it by putting it in some context.

So is “Belle epoque” a fluff? Yes, charming one, though, but it certainly doesn't have that precise insight in cultural differences and that subtlety that “Mediteraneo”, a film with which it shares some of the atmosphere, has. it's selling sexy misadventures of a young boy wrapped in self-important foil of period film and it gats away with it, at times (and certainly enough for Oscar committee to give it award).

The beginning seems really promising as Fernando, young boy, escapes from army with the dawn of civil war. In a beautifully morbid opening sequence, he is caught while using bushes at the side of the road as WC. Two solders intending to export him to military court, rather execute each other in a short display of contradictory Mediterranean temper. Proceeding from there, Fernando meets an old man Manolo, the most intriguing figure of the film and thus, deemed to never be given all attention he deserves. Manolo is waiting for his four daughters to arrive, and some time later, his wife. Manolo Is a born rebel without a cause, and he explains how he missed an opportunity to rebel against three of most reactionary institutions: army (he was not drafted because of his health condition), church (because he was baptized as a baby) and marriage (because he is impotent with every woman but his wife). His rebellion is obstacled by pure chance.

From that moment on, film starts to walk paths that are... Well, not predictable but schematic at least. Four daughters arrive; he is amazed by their beauty. Daughters of new, liberal Spain, ideas of free marriage, all of four girls have brief affair with him until he settles with the last one and, finally, marries her.

The final part of the film shows some gleeful absurd of character that beginning had but middle part lost. Mother arrives, busty elder opera singer, brings in new cheerfulness in situation that was already somewhat uncomfortable. Her lover arrives with her, thoubled by the thought that she has yet another man. Manolo calms him: Don't worry, you are the only one she's cheating me with.

Come to think of it, film is everything but honest: it insists in presenting some turbulent times with not very happy outcome, as cheerful times of sudden liberation and oportunity. Even if it lets grim reality peak through, it quickly returns to goofy everyday, hurrying to reassure us that everything is still nice over there. So is it dishonest toward Fernando's fate. The fact that he ended us with the girl that was his last choice, not being able to get other three girls for more than a short while, is masked with unconvincing assumption of true love that was hidden beneath until it was convenient to appear. While his bemusement, rushing into these hopeless affairs and confusion he finds himself in, can be assigned to the youthful naivety, there isn't much excuse for writers, for using idealistic political ideas of republics as an excuse for situation in which the goofy guy can get four girls laid in a jiffy without even trying. That's the old trick, retaining macho vision of the world while aligning with trend of sensitive male: a guy will be able to score as much as he wants and run from one relationship to another and still escape the macho cliché if writers simply blame the bust of every relationship on a girl. Guy gets his hands clean, world remains phalocentric, strike of 2-dimensional female characters continues, and I can't find it very plausible, the naive suggestion that Dylan Dog honestly loved every single girl he banged during his adventures. Macho remains macho inside even though it changes its face into innocent boy's one.

There are some nice touches there: four sisters played by four extremely different looking actresses, almost represent four dominant beauty ideals: American, central-European, Hispanic and (almost) Asian. This dedication to globalism can safely be interpreted as a smutty innuendo at mom's "faithfulness" to her husband. There is also a familiar topic touched in a character of a granny who slides from extreme conservative to extreme liberal as governments changed. But all these touches are given very little space, being that Trueba becomes dedicated to telling the central story, all the time trying to convince himself as well as ourselves, that this story is very symbolic.

I like this film. It’s delightful for watching. But don’t make mistake of taking it too seriously.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Film: Closer

I’m gaining an ever-growing irritation with exploitation of sex covered by the mask of "art films" that's been going on in French cinema for some time now.

"foreign film" or "art film" was, in USA video-stores always an euphemism for pornography. Long ago, this was for very different reasons: USA cinematography was burdened by ???'s code that was limiting display of sex, up to a ridiculous level where length of a kiss was limited or married couple's room was always shown with separated beds. On the other hand, French cinematography went in much more natural direction, the one decided By author's sensibilities. Yep, for French authors, showing Brigitte Bardot's bare breasts was no big deal, nor was seeing it for their audience. However, in USA, these films, if imported, were treated with as much caution as drugs or alcohol would. Perhaps it was a mean-spirited mockery on account of "perverted French" that the term "foreign film" was equalized with porn, that low-production porn shared shelves with some of the greatest masterpieces of cinema, those shelves that people sneaked up to, then rushed from after they grabbed the first thing that seemed interesting.

Today, however, sex has become a matter of trend, not only in France but also in Hollywood production which is, however, a step behind in this, not very noble race.

Let me put it this way: There is one Serbian distribution house that distributes no more than one film a year. Each time, it is some sex-pumped, so-called artistic and psychological film that attempts to examine people's sexuality, but examines only how far the actors are ready to go just to appear in a film. One year, they imported Catherine breillat's "Romance", a film that shocked people by realistic quasi-pornographic content (quasi because, by testifying, actors did not have intercourse on set although you can't say that from the film); next year it was "Baise-moi” directed mostly by a porn actress Coralie, that added gore to a sadistic sex. In praying mantis setup, Coralie seemed to want to avenge to every man who humiliated her during porn actress career. Third year, it was "Irreversible", film advertised as Monica Belucci on display, doing things with her real life husband Vincent Cassel, that she wouldn't do with any other actor. However, a lot of viewers were put off by a brutal rape scene at the Beginning and left the cinema. Those who didn’t eventually got to what was advertised.

In all these cases, advertising campaign that followed films was indecisive between advertising it as sex flick or as art flick; this is, however, intentional strategy, trying to draw both audiences, bombastically using word "SHOCKING!!!" This, of course, has little do to with art, with insightful outlook at intimacy, with psychology - people mostly went to see those films hoping to see Monica Belucci at work, perhaps more artistically crafted eroticism than regular, crude porn does. Through the set of circumstances, they weren't rewarded in any of these cases: "Baise-moi" was too gory, "Irreversible" too brutal to enjoy on that level; and "Romance" was simply so clumsily directed that there was no hint of sensuality in it. They would've made it much better if they bought Jean-Jacque Beneix's "Betty blue", all in all an empty shell of a film, but where sex is enjoyable, not frustrating. But to be honest, there are respectful directors of mostly erotic films, like Valerian Borowtzik or Tinto Brass, who would make much better target - but hey, what respectful distributor would admit that they're living of distributing erotic cinema, even if they did.

It's not a coincidence that the flood of erotic thrillers in mid nineties in Hollywood was triggered by European import director Paul Verhoeven ("Basic instinct", "Showgirls") who was known for certain exhibitionism even before Hollywood adopted him. There have been a lot of examples of perfectly good films ruined by insisting on sex, like in Julio Medem's "Sex and Lucia", where a bittersweet romance story is cluttered by scenes that seem to be there just Because actors will do it. directors are ever competing in who will have guts to go further even though it's not really their guts in matter; once they reached the point that no respectable actor will cross, they started hiring porn actors to double or fill in. Catherine Breillat, a certain master of what I’d call "intimacy exploitation" has, for her last film, hired a porn actress to double for main actress in all questionable scenes. The film starts with disclaimer of this, probably on insistence of actress who doesn't want her career to go that way (where we must recall of unfortunate Maria Schneider who, in some less liberal times, could never get another acting role after her performance in Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris"). This went to absurd length in recent film "Pornographer", where two porn actors are hired to do one, single hard core porn scene in entire film, and they never appear anywhere again. One cannot but ask: would it be so much less affect if this was done old style, with camera obscuring the subject? Or would it, perhaps, require more skills and imagination from the director, god save that we ask that from him.

Now when I mentioned Bernardo Bertolucci who, after a career filled with historical epics ("Noveccento", "The last emperor", "Little Buda") returned to his youthful fashion of "intimacy exploitation", there's a trend where films will most often talk about sexuality of teenagers, indulging actors who are practically minors in scenes that they might regret later; such are Bertolucci's "Stolen beauty" or later "Dreamers" and call me unfair, but there's something deeply disturbing about a 70 years old geezer always shooting films about how 16 year old kids gain their first sexual experiences. In addition to that trend, there is Greg Araki who somehow mistook gruesome for aesthetic and disturbing for socially conscious, then somewhat more respectable Alphonso Cuaron with his summer hit "Y tu mama tambien" about two teenage guys having an affair with marginally older woman, and of course, the uncrowned king of children exploitation, "ken park", film that fails to be sensual, deep, funny, or good in any way: it even fails to be a cult film, such as some earlier merciless exploitations did ("Caligula"); it grants it's intrigue to the fact that it exploits teenagers to border line and to that some of his actors leave an impression of mentally challenged kids who aren't fully responsible for themselves, which is where we have to seriously ponder the director's ethics.

All these people forget (or maybe ignore) a few simple facts: graphic sex is distracting: most of audience won't even know what the film was about; real, creative shock isn't in means involved, it's in subject matter; shock effect or hard core sex or mainstream cinema screen has an effect of novelty, it wears out and once the more shocking things come, these films will be forgotten; and finally: where's the limit? Is soon a dick length going to be a prerequisite for a professional actor? Will the actress who doesn't want to indulge in public sex with a film partner going to be considered unprofessional?

It is then no surprise that one of the best films about intimacy and sexual life is a very decent film whose most explicit moment is some cybersex displayed on computer screen? Add one obscured striptease and that's all this film has to offer. Is it also a surprise that this film comes from one of the o masters of cinema?

Mike Nichols is that master. That his output is highly uneven, doesn't matter, as long as he has classics like "The Graduate" or "Carnal knowledge" in his repertoire - in addition to a lot of intriguing films like "The wolf", "Day of the dolphins", "Silkwood", but also several surprisingly bad judgments like "What planet are you from?” However, it turns out that Nichols is, most of all, reliable director of theatrically stylized stories; provided a good script that already contains strong narrative and character lines, he will grant is competent, seemingly literal direction, but with good actor guidance and subtlety such is hard to find. For example, his covers of theatrical plays are successful conversions of theatrical self-aware tone to more true-to-life film language; even though he never wants to make those stories more dynamic than they were on stage (which you'd expect from a film), closing up on characters - which is what film does - require their emotions to be more subtly on display, with mimics and shades of the voice more than with the strength of the same voice or with actor's presence and charisma, more introvert than it was on stage. Nichols is good at that: making characters sound, well, like people, so his most reliable quality is probably actor guidance (I’m recalling of Melanie Griffith in "Working girl"), although occasionally he has shown such rich direction with wall-to-wall ideas - most notably in "The Graduate" - that one feels bad for his more ambitious yet failed projects like "catch 22".

But given all that, it is no surprise that his current career is currently rounded up by two filmed theatrical plays: his first feature "Who's afraid of Virginia Wolf", by the classic Edvard Olby's play with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the couple that represses their tragic memories with emotional violence, and second one, "Closer", by of Patrick Marber's play that repeats, many years later, the similar cast setup (two troubled couples) but not much else.

As I said, "Closer" goes perhaps deeper into human intimacy than any other recent film without ever resorting to graphic sex. There was a funny gossip that Nichols shot some scenes with Natalie Portman nude, but later decided not to use them in the film, to disappointment of many fans of this actress known for insistently refusing to take roles containing nudity. Portman is here as good as typecast. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, a very incompetent actress for any performance that requires more nuances than average romantic comedy, stumbles her way through her role that requires her to be calm and detached, which is probably the only manner she's good at. Then there is Jude Law, trendy young Hollywood pretty man, but competent actor the least; but the show is stolen by Clive Owen, who manages to be both innocently goofy and tragic at the same time; provided with a few scenes of near comedy, he steals every scene he appears in and in some more emotionally charged scenes, Julia Roberts barely catches up with him.

"Closer" is basically a story about modern relationships, about their nature that is not only carelessly promiscuous, but ruthless in a way that people use all means, from carefully cherished act to emotional blackmail, to keep the one they want to themselves; at which point we question whether they really love, since they never, ever set free.

Alice (Portman), young and, though a stripper, still keeps shreds of naivety that allow her to honestly love. She has nothing to offer but herself (which, given her unleashed sexuality and childishly good character, is not a little. Ironically but unexpectedly, two men of the story are fighting over the other girl, Anna (Roberts), who maintains aura of cold character and repressed sexuality, thus inaccessibility, around herself. Then, isn't she woman of mystery, while Alice, easily won, can be easily rejected, which is why two men (ab)use her in this film, either as a mean to get closer to Anna, a comfort, or a trophy to gloat over the other man (and hurt his ego, yes). Dan (Law) has for as main weapons oppressive patience and persistence, extrovert nature, inflated ego and self-assurance at the point where he thinks everything is allowed - and yes, he's not a very sympathetic character. His methods are so successful that he forces the opponent, Larry, to play dirty and win Anna back with guilt. Larry Is initially a shy, honest character, the kind of guy that believes a person he just met on chat when she says she's a hot girl, but one can ask himself, can he really Be forced to fight dirty for the one he loves, or is it something that lies beneath the surface? And can we really say that it's real love we're talking about? Because, I guess, love is about giving and forgiving, not about stealing and snatching from someone's hands. Because, in last encounter of Larry and Dan, where Dan suggests that you can't build an entire relationship on guilt, Larry explains that it's entirely possible: did humanity reach that level of selfishness where you'll deprive the one you love of happiness that way? I guess the real show of what humanity is like, is not what some guy will do in the film, but how many people in audience will find that normal and justified.

This is a rare moment of cinema when a good guy does wrong, looks at himself and realizes that he doesn't regret it a bit. After suggesting to Dan to return to Alice, he stops him at the door: "by the way, I slept with her; I didn't want to tell you, but I'm just not man enough", thus planting the seed of ruination of that relationship; not only he has won, but he cannot allow his opponent to even survive. And it wasn't a fair fight either.

And indeed, there is no doubt that Dan will make that fatal step and question his happily re-found love with Alice. Upon which, she will instantly stop loving him. Though that the honesty is still there, her face lacks earlier expressiveness and she is deprived of any feelings. How can you just instantly stop loving someone, as if triggered by a word?

The silent, grim ending sequence lets us believe that there is no emotion left on the scene, that the hearts grew cold to the point where they're happy in a world with no emotions because they wouldn't know how to enjoy in them anyway.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Film: Kung Pow: Enter the Fist :-\

As far as laughter goes, this one is average film parody, not unfunny like “Spy hard” or “Scary movie”, but not in range of “Top secret” or “Blazing saddles” either. Well, all parodies are essentially hit and miss, ever since “Airplane”, the system is to cramp jokes, as many as you can think of in as little space as possible, and hope that some of them will work. In worst cases, all jokes are a miss and even those that have some potential are corrupted by bad timing. In best cases, you’ll laugh out loud every once in a while, smile a lot, and there will be jokes to which you’ll just shrug but they won’t hurt because your attention is on those that do work. Peculiar thing with “Kung Pow” is, yes, it’s a mixed bag, but it’s not very well shaken. That means, there are hilarious sequences and then there are long, uncomfortable passages of no laughter – such to which you ask yourself “He really thought he was funny?”

“Kung Pow” is advertised as a one-man work but it’s more of a one-man-and-a-dozen-of-CG-designers. One man is Steve Oedekerk; He got the idea, he wrote, he acted the only newly added character that is relevant, he directed and dubbed all other characters except one. I suspect he was the person beating the doorsteps too, and I always respect the kind of patience that makes you go and film that cheap film. The trick here is, most of material is taken from an older martial arts film, and Oedekerk added himself in old scenes, shot some new ones and added plenty of cool tricks wherever he could.

This is a film about film. So is any parody, though: “Airplane” is not a film about bunch of people trapped in an airplane, it’s a film about films in which people are trapped in airplanes and is explores paradoxes, unintentional comedy and plot holes of such films. Nor is “Loaded weapon” a film about two unlikely cop partners: you can’t care less about the plot, you’ve seen it a dozen times anyway; What you care about while watching “Loaded weapon” is simply which film/scene are they currently spoofing, and how are they going to twist that scene to squeeze a comedy out of it.

But “Kung pow” goes a bit further: it’s a film about film language. Not very ambitious one, but it does explore the ways film language is able to trick you, and makes you laugh by giving away the trick. It’s also an often subject of parody but never a consistent theme. In Mel Brook’s “High anxiety”, we’re watching the diner taking place in the room from outside, and in manner of Hitchcock, camera is menacingly closing to the room with people, until it finally breaks the glass on the door. Brooks used a now standard piece of film language, built a film illusion and then broke it down by reminding us that in order to have a shot of the room outside the house, there has to be a person outside the house, looking inside. Preferably with the camera. And we rarely think of that when we see such shot, we are used to taking it for granted. That’s the kind of thing “Kung Pow” does whole through.

There is another film I’m necessary reminded of: Carl Rainer’s “Dead man don’t wear plaid”, noir comedy that had Steve Martin as the resident detective. Like “Kung Pow”, “Dead man...” used a few of actors and a lot of archive material. Through cross-cutting, Martin was allowed to play side by side with Humphrey Bogart, Vivien Leigh, Carry Grant, James Cagney and a bunch of others I didn’t remember – all in their best years, by reusing old film shots. There had to be double skill working: first, adapting them all into a coherent detective story; Second, writing dialogues in such way that Martin’s replies would correspond to words from old clips, usually turning the originally dead-serious scene into something surreally funny (“Do you smoke?” “No, I have tuberculosis.” “Thank god!”). However, film took this idea half-way, which is respectable but not as much as it could be. There is no real sense of interaction between Martin and characters, Martin seems winded up to shoot replies when needed (no matter how cleverly written they were) and all characters are mostly one (up to two) scene characters, people Martin’s character meets during the investigation, clues. It was easier to have Carrey Grant in one scene and get it over with than to make him an important character and thread him through entire film. Oh, but how intriguing it would be if they did it, and even if they combined scenes of the same actor from various films, in order to find the ones that fit the most. I’d admire to a person who pulls a stunt like that forever. This way, well, the film was meh at the first watching, quite funnier next time I saw it because I was caught up in figuring out old from new and because I got a lot of laugh out of how old, dead serious dialogues were turned upside down.

To add to the record, “Kung Pow” is not even the first re-dubbing of Asian film. Woody Allen’s sometimes amusing sometimes confusing debut “What’s up, Tiger Lily” was re-dubbing of the Hong Kong spy film, a James Bond rip-off, that was taken in whole with a very few additions and re-dubbed with some funny plot about a super secret salad recipe – that, unfortunately, grows uninteresting at the half of the film. But I don’t doubt that Allen had a lotta fun while making it.

Now, “Dead men...” didn’t use special effects, it did all combination of new and old material through cross-cutting, and it must’ve been a pain to match the set in a way to make it seem like Martin is indeed in the same room as old characters; Occasionally he required matching clothes as the character opposing the used one in the original film too. “Kung pow” is not that subtle, it uses CG to drop Oedekerk right in the middle of the old material, mostly replacing him with the main character of the original film. To go along with the low-budget spirit of the film, CG-ing is often very shabby, and we can see that Oedekerk didn’t belong to the scene at first. Still, one must be startled by how time passes: a low-budget film is nowadays using the same, technology that granted “Forest Gump” an Oscar for special effects around ten years ago, back when Tom Hanks shook hands with Kennedy.

So I was disappointed, I am not such fan of special effects, specially computer effects because they lack texture and randomness of real-life effects. I would’ve loved this film if the same result was achieved through cross-cutting and film trickery, clothes, haircuts and sets resembling the ones from original film, and perhaps a few uncanny similar doubles of original actors. If he managed to achieve this film, I think it would redeem any gross-out humor or unfunny jokes that Oedekerk could come up with. But that would be hellofa tough task.

Now, plot is not the least different from any martial arts exploitation made it Hong Kong in those years. Oedekerk plays character referred to as The Chosen One, who arrives in the martial arts school where seeks help from old, wise Master Tang. The Chosen One was a martial-arts-trained baby when so called Master Pain killed his entire family and tried to kill him, as a part of some big evil plot. Since that day, The Chosen One is prosecuted, followed, attacked, but somehow survived. Now he is there, as boyishly looking Oedekerk. Master Tang (actor whose name I won’t bother to mention. One of reasons is, I don’t think that gross caricature of this film is very fair to original actors) is not quite a wise master we’d expect, in fact, through the film, he’s portrayed as notorious sicko and pervert, for which the inspiration was probably his skeletal face physiognomy. There is also Ling, whom The Chosen One falls in love with, Wimp Lo, high-pitch-voiced pansy who is by far the funniest character in the film, and a lot of other stuff. Master Pain arrives in town too, and announces that he renamed his name to Betty. This is the kind of nonsensical humor we’re dealing with. There’s a lot of things going on around, sunny parts, dull parts, what-the-heck-did-he-do-that-for parts... All characters but one are dubbed by Oedekerk, with competent invariability. He even gave actors who participated in film nonsense lines to speak, so that when later he dubs over them, the lip synch wouldn’t match.

The film is consistently at it’s worse when it relies on CGI too much. These scenes that feature only Oedekerk, talking alone in the blue room, like when he talks to the ghost of “Lion King’s” Simba’s father, are mostly pointless with a few amusing jokes that could’ve easily be scrapped for something better. The scene of fighting with cow, though, has some redeeming values, and some will probably find it hilarious. There is inexplicably stupid scene with a prophet woman who has one giant breast in the middle of her chest and the degree of disturbing is raised by the fact that film does what it can to make her look sexy. We are supposed to laugh because the woman has one breast, but I can’t imagine a person who will laugh at this. The only thing worth seeing there is the face of The Chosen One as he is distracted from the important conversation by a sight of the mono-boob.

On the other hand, film is strong in places where it creates film illusion and then breaks in apart intentionally. Being re-dubbed eastern film parody, a lot of jokes revolve around bad dubbing. The tone is set early, where Wimp Lo asks a colleague “Who is he?” to which the colleague opens and closes mouth for some time, the dub saying only “I don’t know” (inevitable resemblance with Mel Brook’s gag in “Silent movie” where he flaps his arms in passionate argument but the title card says only “Maybe you’re right.”). Similar trick is used in scene where The Chosen One’s face in close-up shows expression rage while the calmed voice proclaims “I employ you to reconsider”. The joke goes further if we realize that this whole spoken sentence is lifted from another scene, where The Chosen One, indeed, says it in a calmly matter.

Oedekerk uses repetition very often, in fact. On many occasions, he reuses a shot and, unused to that, we spot it only upon the more careful look. In a scene where he simultaneously finds dying Master Tang, Ling and his dog in the wood, many shots are reused, including the one of him finding the dying person, and even more notable, the complex shot of him crying over the dead. Reusing these shots thrice or more, a feeling of deja vu is created and we are convinced that it is due to repetitive script, until we realize that the whole scenes are repeating, with slightly different text. And there is something sexy in this deja vu feeling, actually.

By reusing shots Oedekerk is able to stretch the conversation between Master Betty and Master Tang as much as the script asks, always reusing same three shots. That is telling of how the slight change (here, different words they speak) makes repetition unnoticeable. In other instance, where he reuses a shot of Master Tang three times, Oedekerk chooses a peculiar shot where Master swings his hand through the air, so it’s hard not to notice repetition. Here, Oedekerk breaks illusion, in order to show that there is illusion, but mostly to get a laugh or two out of people when they spot it.

Another character consistently added through blue rook technology is Master Betty’s minion who plays rap music on his recorder every time Betty engages in a fight, because it seems like music helps Betty to win. It is rather surprising how much, on the first use of this gag, corny old MC Hammer’s “Can’t touch this” exactly matches the tempo of the fight that ensues. This gag runs a few times more, until Oedekerk decides to pull a trick on his own player: in one instance, he dubs the rap song over with some mellow power-pop ballade. Unaware of this, the actor dances as he would to a rhythmic rap song. The results... heh.

Even though perhaps anyone will find a laugh or two in this mixed bag of jokes, this film is recommendable only to fans of, well, stupid humor. There is one point where stupidity exceeds and becomes simply so irrational that it’s a matter for laughing. Therefore, some people laugh to stupid jokes – not to bad jokes, or to failed jokes, but to those really stupid ones. Well, I am one of those people and that’s the reason why good part of this film was a laugh for me. In it, Wimp Lo will have lines like: “Knock knock! Who’s there? Your butt that is about to be kicked!”, while the chosen one contemplates the fighting strategies: “I could always pretend that I was a bird. But that would just look stupid and leave my small sensitive balls exposed!” But that’s all topped by The Chosen One’s inspired monologue: “Killing is bad! And Wrong! There should be a new, stronger word for killing, like “badwrong”... Or “badong”! Yes! Killing is badong! From this day on, I will stand to the oposite of killing: Gnodab!” If you laugh at this, I guess there’s a good reason for seeing “Kung Pow”. If only for better scenes and for cheerful ripping apart of cinematic rules.

Oedekerk is (the press kit says) preparing the sequel by intensively watching old Hong Kong films and considering their usability in sequel. Meanwhile, I was miffed by the description of extras that can be found on DVD: some scenes added there are, by description, much funnier than some that actually got in the film – and there are a few musical numbers sung by characters cut out of the film too. Too bad I won’t get a chance to get that DVD, it’s got me interested.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Film: Johnny English :(

As far as my counting goes, "Johnny English" is row Atkinson’s second attempt in major lead role. before that, he was seen in numerous small roles ("Hot shots II"), cameos ("Four weddings and a funeral") and one larger role in failed "Rat race". He is, of course, popular TV comedian and, strangely, his work I liked the best was in low-key police sitcom "Thin blue line". Whatever he does, that's the only place where he was not overdoing it.

As he said himself, all his life he worked with two roles: one of clueless, clumsy, dumb faced clown such is Mr. Bean, the other of sarcastic, cruel schemer; this one was exercised in "black adder", among other places.

Atkinson's first main role in feature was "bean", basically a compilation of Mr. Bean’s antics, fitted together with a story as an excuse. That's why "Johnny English" seemed interesting, first time Atkinson was acting out of these two roles. Here, the role is a certain mix, possessing bean's incompetence as an excuse for physical humor, and black adder's arrogance and stubbornness.

"Johnny English" is a mild secret agent spoof - well, more straight comedy than a spoof. It would be funny, was there more than one joke: English embarrasses himself due to his utter incompetence and unreasonable self-confidence; then he tries to find a way to rationalize his mistake trying to preserve his dignity, thus from potentially loveable goof, becoming an aggressor. The novelty is that his messes are on a much larger scale Because he's a secret agent in serve of his majesty. But the formula wears off after it's shown three times (if that much) so we start seeing jokes from far. When English spots a man with obscene graffiti on his butt disguising as archbishop of Canterbury, we know that we'll have pleasure to see his later pulling pants off from real archbishop and our reaction is something like: let's get this over with. It is, I think, too big of an embarrassment to be funny; at that moment, we don't want to see that. Nor does the bad guy, he honestly warns English: "Don't go there", it is too much even for him, even he's not that cruel. Authors of film, however, are. It also illustrates how painful setups for jokes are.

English's drama starts with stealing of stolen royal jewels. Actually, most of spy films filmed in Britain to revolve around own jewels, it seems like entire British intelligence does nothing but protect them all day long, because every villain in the world wants to steal them. Of course, john suspects a real thief but no one believes him and so on. Is it really too much to ask for a little originality?

But what the film really suffers from is that authors are indecisive in what to do with English’s character; and it's a fine comedy character, an interesting quirk is that he draws his incompetence not from stupidity, but from too much self-confidence: he won't listen to advice or suggestion, he'll make little, human behavior but said confidence is magnifying them. What would be expected to be his virtue is the cause of his disaster.

But authors are trying to this comedy into a shape of standard action film and there's the trouble. How would you squeeze Johnny English in standard agent mold and even more, why would you? Here's an example: agent is obliged to walk into the sunset with his girl, and, to assure that, authors of this film provide Natalie Imbruglia with some of the most incoherent dialogue ever. Authors are in ordeal to rationalize what is it that attracted her to Johnny; in my opinion, they fail as Johnny possesses nothing of said qualifications. Most of all, he has no charisma or dignity. What could've attracted a women to him is pity and if that's what Imbruglia named as a reason, perhaps this story arc would be a bit plausible.

There are other elements of standard action flick, including a sinister plot, villain, boss who doesn't listen, even the moment when Johnny gives up only to regain strengths; those aren't there for parody: they are parts of a real plot that are supposed to involve us and make us care about the ending. This ambition significantly undemrines down the comedy.

What made me interested in writing about this film is trying to put Johnny English character in a setting that would make it actually work. It is easy once you spot parallels between him and inspector Clouseau: both characters lifted from everyday surrounding of situational comedy and put in context of action movie, they're both characters who perpetual fall, then get up, wipe some dust off and say "I meant to do that". Difference between their surrounding that Clouseau's serves comedy, while English’s serves action hoping that English is enough to do the comedy part. Clouseau never walks out with the girl in his hand, his romantic involvements are equally subject for farce; being incompetent, it is only logical that his enemies are equally incompetent, which is how he manages to get around them; if they show a bit of skills, he fails. This is just an elementary logic, one that actually makes comedy funny. Pascal Sauvage, played by John Malkovich, is not only competent but also creative, a person of spirit. This Johnny can defeat him only through a set of unlikely circumstances, which is what actually happens and it's unsatisfying. Yet, we have to admire the way Johnny does everything consistently wrong, to the last moment.

This shows crucial difference between film industry of Clouseau's 60ies and Johnny's 00ies: today, industry takes itself so seriously that it's comedies have to be serious; back then, the whimsical, cheerful spirit was sold well (and some human warmth with it); today, audience wants to believe that they are watching a deep psychological drama even if they went to see a film for fun and then forget about it. Back then, cult films were Roger Vadim's pointless comedies; Today, it's Fincher's dead-serious, brutal films. Audience desperately wants to be taken seriously, so they let themselves be fooled in believing that they are, while filmmakers are still working by the numbers and molds. Audience wants to be respected, yet does very little to earn this respect. It is very easy to say figure out that "dude, where's my car?" is a shallow, pointless film; but do have an eye to realize that, for instance, "runaway jury" or "usual suspects" aren't very deep and thoughtful either.

John Malkovitch as bad guy Sauvage has some bright moments in this film: the way he sees English as somewhat annoying but amusing pet is solely Malkovic's creation. We see that he enjoys watching as Johnny gets rid of himself without bad guys help. In the scene where Johnny cites his plan into the microphone and the entire hall hears it, Malkovich just slopes into the chair as if saying "This is not even a challenge anymore". In many occasions, by treating English with a sort of mock-up respect, he only makes his embarrassment even greater. Sauvage wins every duel with Johnny hands down, and it is only intimidating logic of the action films that makes him lose.