Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 10, 2006 11:33 pm 
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A Lot Like Love

KIM KI-DUK: 3-IRON (2004)

Andrew Nicol: Lord of War (2005)

This portrait of a big time arms dealer of Ukrainian origin, Yuri Orlov, starring Nicolas Cage (whose performance holds your attention throughout), has many schlocky Hollylwood elements, such as Yuri's druggie brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and his trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan), his numerous sexy conquests along the way to megawealth, his "friendship" with the dramatic president of Liberia (Eamonn Walker), and the ridiculously relentless and steely Interpol agent who pursues him (Ethan Hawke). All these are colorful exhibits rather then people. The slickness of the decor and cinematography impress pointlessly. Cage's narration is full of tendentious declarations, like "The problem with dating dream girls is that they have a tendency to become real." Or "I would tell you to go to hell, but I think you're already there." Some of the zingers fall flat or are just obvious, like "I sell to leftists, and I sell to rightists. I even sell to pacifists, but they're not the most regular customers," or "There are two types of tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want, the other is getting it. " There is more than enough of that, and you have to be pretty easily impressed to like it. The movie also sometimes revels in the evils it depicts. But it includes some significant home truths about world politics like the fact that the world's biggest arms dealers are the US, UK, France, Russia, and China, and they are also the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Some of the cynicism in this movie is pretty strong stuff. It certainly doesn't lull you.

Hou Hsiao Hsien, Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô) (2003) Netflix.

A girl who is pregnant is visited by her parents and may not know who the father is. Her main friend works in a bookstore and records train sounds as a hobby. When I came to write about this movie a week after seeing it I had already almost forgotten it, the emotional and visual impression it made is so weak. It seems to me in retrospect that the resemblence to Ozu, whom this was commissioned by the producer as a sort of homage to, is superficial indeed. Ozu can make you cry. This left me blank. It's about people avoiding real contact with each other. That's not the same as being reserved. In fact it's extremely different. People who are shy and reserved may care very intensely. The impression is that these people just don't feel very much. If this is how things are now in Japan, too bad; but would Hou really know? He's Chinese. He has even admitted in interviews that culturally he was out of his depth. The very assured style with the typically fixed camera positions and static scenes, which in other contexts Hou has made riveting, here in this deadpan story leads directly to a film that has no pulse. This is more a perversion of than homage to the great Ozu.

Nigel Cole, A Lot Like Love (2005) Store rental.

Two young people with uncertain futures (Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet) meet in an airport, have sex in the plane, and keep running into each other every few years under the wrong circumstances till seven years later, they finally both realize at the same moment that it's for keeps. Just a light romantic comedy, but Cole and his actors do a nice job with it, the two leads are both easy on the eyes, and their chemistry is good. You may come to this with misgivings or low expectations, but you are likely to leave feeling like the NYTimes critic, Manohla Dargis: "A Lot Like Love isn't half bad and every so often is pretty good, filled with real sentiment, worked-through performances and a story textured enough to sometimes feel a lot like life." It's nice and pretty unusual nowadays when something so conventionally mainstream turns out to be very decent, entertaining, and in good taste. I may not remember this very well, but the memory that lingers will be a pleasant one.

Kim Ki-duk, 3-Iron (Bin-jip ) (2004). Store rental.

I'd been waiting to see this, and though the high concept was already a little too familiar from previous reports to cause much excitement by now, it was still original and certainly well worth a viewing. The odd, mute drifter lead (Hyun-kyoon Lee), breaks into houses just to putter around, do laundry, clean up, and fix broken appliances. He never takes anything, but he tries out clothes and sleeps in the absent homeowners' bed. He seems rather effeminite, since his thing is housekeeping. Accordingly first the young actor, on whom the whole film depends, seems to be just a little pretty-boy type, but he proves to have exceptional mime and acrobatic skills and a sly quality that is intriguing. The wordless sequences highight the film's strong emphasis on photographic images, sound and picture, which are beautiful, chilly, and unique. An Arabic love song, played over and over, is haunting, if a bit cloying after a while. Director Kim Ki-duk may be just a bit too much in love with his own ideas and stylistic tics. I was not an admirerer of Kim Ki-duk's Spring, summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring, which seemed way too contrived and fanciful to me, and the same ultimately is rather true of this. There are even plot elements that remind one of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, and I'm beginning to wonder if there is something wacky about the Korean imagination that I am never going to be tuned in to. But a nice, very thought-provoking ending redeems the wandering last quarter section. I'd rate this higher than Spring, Summer, Fall...etc. but not put it in the prize category. Kim has originality and a strong visual sense. I don't find his fantasies quite convincing. Nonetheless the idea is distinctive enough to stick in one's mind.

Alexandr Sokurov, Moloch (1999) Netflix.

Part of a tetralogy that includes the recent, amazing The Sun about Hirohito (2005, shown at the New York Film Festival but as yet without a US distributor), as well as Taurus (Telets, 2002) , about a mortally ill Lenin. (The fourth I think is not yet made.) All concern men of great power at decisive and tragic moments. Moloch concerns Hitler in 1942 in an eagle's nest castle in the Bavarian Alps, isolated, as in other portraits, among his cadres and Eva Braun, indulging in grumpy vegetarian dinners and tossing about weird racist remarks about other nationalities. This is acted by strong members of the theater of St. Petersburg, Elena Rufanova as Eva Barun, Leonid Mosgovoi as Hitler, Leonid Solol as Goebbels, Yelena Spirindonova as Frau Goebbels, Vladimir Bogdanov as Martin Bormann, whose lines are dubbed by German actors, and this is done well. The whole is bathed in a murky green-gray or verdigris fog -- saturated, someone has written, with a kind of patina characteristic of old Agfa films -- the fogginess typical also of Sokurov's style elsewhere, with (as in The Sun) a sumptuous feel in the mise-en-scène and amazing, evocative period realness to objects (photo books, ashtrays, serving dishes) which seem at once solid and delicate. Yes, this is remarkable filmmaking. But the film as a whole is yawn-inducing. Hitler spends most of his screen time moaning about his health. Ten minutes are devoted to Eva's wandering around naked without a word spoken. She is graceful and athletic; but why? Well, to evoke the boredom and idleness of the isolated concubine -- but is such length necessary?

Moloch is very different from, and rather disappointing in comparison to, The Sun's stunning, touching portrayal of Hirohito, which dwells also on trivial moments, but always in the cause of a sensitive exploration of character and situation. There is a hushed intimacy about The Sun that Moloch, though it has a few grand moments and may even evoke Lang's Metropolis, never attempts. Hitler doesn't even really talk enough, and this brings us to the inevitable fact that at this date, 2006, Moloch is thoroughly overshadowed by the far more conventional, sometimes heavy-handed, but nonetheless richly detailed and accurate and breathlessly exciting recreation of the last days in the Bunker achieved recently by Oliver Hirschbiegel in his Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004), released in the US last year and containing Bruno Ganz's powerful performance as the Nazi dictator.

Vikram Jayanti, Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (2003) Netflix.

In 1997 Kasparov, considered (according, that is, to this biased documentary), the greatest chess player in history, played a high profile match against tje IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue devised for the sole purpose of not only playing world class chess but beating the greatest of grand masters -- in fact created specifically to beat Kasparov. The stakes were $700,000-$400,000, winner/loser. It can't be said that Deep Blue really beat Kasparov, who had beaten a simpler form of the computer several years earlier. What happened is that the second of the six games spooked Kasparov so much -- and he resigned, when later it was pointed out he might have achieved a draw -- that he never recovered psychologically, and by game six he was a psychological wreck, couldn't focus, and resigned, thereby losing the match.

Surely Jayanti has a good subject: the human brain against artificial intelligence, the triumph of steely mindless machinery over brilliant, volatile intellectual genius. The filmmaker spoils his documentary by intruding too much with portentous music and gimmicky images of antique dolls and by providing too little perspective outside the viewpoint of Kasparov himself, not even questioning the wild and unsubstantiated accusations that Kasparov throws out against IBM. There's still interest here, and so much at stake that it may be understandable that some (again wildly) have called this the best film about chess ever. Nonetheless that seems a bit of a misnomer given that there is so little specifically about chess and its moves -- though there is valuable and relevant information about the psychological pressures of great matches and the statistical complexity of the game itself.

Kasparov's personality is lively and his English is good, but that is not enough in itself to counteract the gimmicky use of antique mechanical chess-playing dummies as a suggestive "echo" of the IBM mega-computer Deep Blue, the portentous music, the pseudo-spooky whispering voice-overs, and Jayanti's aforementioned refusal to challenge any claims Kasparov makes about the way things went or about his place in the history of world chess.

Kasparov challenged Karpov in 1984-85 in a huge series of games, Armenian Jew against, as he saw it, the Soviet block -- a styling much favored (though the film does not note this obvious aspect) by Cold War attitudes in the United States -- and for his overall performance he had established himself as "the greatest chess player in history." (The many possible challenges to that claim are something the film doesn't go into for a moment.) In 1997 IBM, seeking to improve its stolid image against the livelier profiles of Microsoft and Apple, staged a hugely promoted New York six-game match between Kasparov and a newly improved and enlarged Deep Blue. They had six boffins lined up before and after each game, the chess and programming experts who were Deep Blue's handlers. Was that good strategy, lining up six grinning Asian and Caucasian nerds against one challenged Armenian Jew? Doubtful; and though at the end, IBM sternly directed its crew not to smile, that did little to offset its earlier displays of conspicuous nerdly smugness. IBM also maintained tight security around the emplacement of the large computer, and refused ever to release printouts of its operations to Kasparov. According to him, they promised to at the end, but never did.

What happened is this: in game one, Deep Blue played like a machine, and Kasparov won easily. He thought that would continue. But in game two, he attempted a trick with pawns -- the film never goes into any detail about the actual chess moves and offers little of concrete interest to chess enthusiasts, but something that would normally lead a computer astray, into immediate profiting. But the machine didn't fall for it, and instead embarked on a mysterious and very humanoid-seeming grand strategy that put Kasparov in a very bad position. He was stunned. He overreacted, resigning as mentioned though later he realized he could have extracted a draw from the situation. From game two on, the champion became lastingly paranoid. And throughout the rest of the match, he never got over it. He suspected that some grand masters were assisting in deciding the moves of Deep Blue against him; and there were plenty of grand masters around, presumably in the employ of IBM. It's generally agreed, according to the film, that even a merely fine chess player, not necessarily world class, working together with a computer, could beat anybody. And that would not have been fair, and wasn't what was agreed upon. However, the film never provides a shred of evidence that IBM cheated in this way. All that's clear is that a machine doesn't lose its cool, and a human chess player very often does. Great a player as he is, Kasparov isn't cool. Someone remarks that he would make a terrible poker player, and in fact when things (in his view) are not going well, it is written all over his face and conspicuous in his body language. Kasparov, and Jayanti with his style, suggest that IBM's manipulations connect with Eighties YUPPIE thinking and corporate, Enron-style greed. But there is no proof of this. All that is clear is that IBM lacked finesse in its handling of the match, but profited much by it: stock went up in value 15% after this event. Where Kasparov is now isn't made very clear, but the film states that he is still playing and winning, against humans, and in 2003 tied in a match against the latest computer chess master, Deep Blue Junior, in Israel, and has met various challenges in recent years, been beaten, but still remains "the greatest." You can review Kasparov's chess history online at various sites. Kasparov is a great player. His role in world chess has been far more dubious than this documentary would have us believe. His full story, with all its pros and cons, has yet to be etched in celluloid.

Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle (2005) Store rental.

"From walking disaster to Kung Fu Master." The Axe Gang rules, even the slums, but Sing (Chow) comes in and finds some eccentric landlords who are king fu masters in disguise. This is both a parody and a homage to kung fu classics, which makes ample use of modern digitalization techniques to create hilarious visual puns and games. "Imagine a film in which Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny" says Ebert. Kevin B. Lee's review in the Chicago Reader will discuss the context of this movie in learned fashion for you, explaining how Chow puts ordinary everyday Chinese characters "back into a genre whose elements have degenerated into global cliché." I don't know that I appreciated all that, but I could see this would be huge fun for the intense kung fu fan, and I also could see the link Lee notes with Sergio Leone.

Arie Posen, The Chumscrubber (2005) Store rental.

This satirical drama about suburbia talks about middle-class alienation and confusion, nihilistic kids, and stuff like that. A young high school loner named Dean Stiffle (Jamie Bell) has a dad (William Fitchtner) who exploits his kid's alienation to write psychological self-help books. His mom is Allison Janney of "The West Wing." Dean has now found his best friend hanging, a suicide. He's approached first by Crystal (Camilla Belle), who likes him, then by a punk pseudo-macho friend of hers, Billy (Justin Chatwin), who hangs out with another kid, Lee (Lou Taylor Pucci, of Thumbsucker) to demand that Dean reclaim some drugs that were at the dead boy's house and that Billy says are his. They try to kidnap Dean's little brother Charlie (Rory Culkin) but they get the wrong Charlie, Charley Bratley (Thomas Curtis), whose mom designs all the new houses around and is so excited that she's about to marry the town's spacey new-age mayor (Ralph Fiennes) she doesn't even notice her kid is gone. The dead boy's kooky mom, who's laying guilt trips on everybody and preparing a memorial service that will compete with the mayor's wedding accoss the street, is played by Glenn Close.

The payoff comes at the end when, in a tearful speech, Jamie Bell tells Ms. Close that her son loved her, that he didn't off himself because of her but because he wanted to be a rock star and he wasn't musical.

This movie bombed in theaters and critics shredded it, but it offers some entertainment on DVD because a lot is going on. It wants to be American Beauty, River's Edge, and Donnie Darko all rolled up into one movie, and maybe Thumbsucker, since it has Pucci in it; people who hate this movie aren't likely to like Thumbsucker; if you liked Thumbsucker as I did, you may be willing to give this movie the benefit of the doubt; unfortunately, it leaves you flat. It fails in its aims to enter the Black Suburban Comedy sweepstakes because, despite an interesting cast, some of them (like Fiennes and Close) misused, it doesn't have a screenplay of enough depth or originality to be memorable. Maybe another flaw is that the director, a Canadian son of Russian emigrant parents, can't get a grip on the atmosphere.

The setting is reminiscent of the outrageous cult classic 1979 teen revolt movie, Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge, and you keep hoping the kids will set fire to their school or something the way the young Matt Dillon and his pals did, but they don't. You don't even see them in school, or envision them as a real force or sensibility. There's just a little teenage angst and a lot of adult confusion and blather. Still, this will keep you awake better than Moloch.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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