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Column Fri Feb 13 2009

The International, Friday the 13th, Ballerina and Oscar-nominated Shorts, Part 2

The International

Despite its exceptional cast and a usually inventive and visually thrilling director, the new political thriller The International is a classic case of a film being crushed under the weight of its own unnecessarily dense and confusing and more dense plot.

Before I talk about the film at all (I won't even attempt to summarize the plot here; it's nearly impossible), I do want to underscore one sequence that every review you read for this film will talk about at length, and with good reason. There is an action sequence at the heart of this two-hour endurance test that is nothing short of spectacular. The filmmaker knows it, the actors know it, everybody connected with this sequence knows it is absolutely one of the coolest things you're going to see ever in a rough and tumble shoot out-type scene maybe ever. And a big part of the reason the sequence is so wonderful is that it's set on the winding ramps of New York's Guggenheim Museum. I shit you not when I say that Clive Owen as Interpol Agent Louis Salinger and a crew of thugs shoot the living shit out of the Guggenheim. No surface or exhibit is left without a bullet hole or nine by the time the shooting stops... actually I'm not sure it has stopped. The destruction and staging and spurting blood is glorious, and if The International was an even slightly better movie, I'd say that this sequence is worth the price of admission. Better hope it shows up as an isolated clip in YouTube.

Back to the movie itself. Owen's Salinger is in the final stages of bringing down a major weapons network that would appear to involve one of the world's most evil banks. But his case is collapsing around him when both a fellow agent and an inside whistleblower are killed just before the case is closed. Naomi Watts is on hand as a New York Assistant DA, who somehow has the authority to investigate the bank's corruption along with Salinger. One of the many frustrating aspects of the film is that Watts is so utterly wasted in this role. There is literally one scene where I saw her relevance to the plot, which takes place right after the aforementioned Guggenheim shootout.

The rest of the sleepy cast includes the great Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen as the standard-issue European villain who happens to run the bank. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays a facilitator who arranges many of the bank's biggest deals. And the Irish actor Brian F. O'Byrne is on hand as the primary assassin for the bank (I wish my bank had a killer for hire). They keep him busy, to say the least. What struck me as bizarre is just how many people the bank has picked off, often for ridiculous reasons. How do they get any business done if they kill off anyone who knows secrets about them? Makes no sense. Then again, so much of The International doesn't really make sense, or maybe I just stopped caring after the Guggenheim.

Director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Wintersleepers, Perfume) normally has such an interesting vision and appealing eye for capturing some of the truly bizarre details of human living, but he's gone bland with this film, as if he lost interest in this work before the cameras even started rolling. Much the same could be said for the actors in The International as well. Although Owen can't help but be compelling, even he seems a little perplexed by all that's going on around him. And his backstory as a Scotland Yard detective is ridiculous and unnecessary. The more I think about this movie, the more pissed off I get about how much of my time it wasted, so I'm going to cut my loses and end the discussion with this: you will not like The International unless your goal stepping into a theater playing it is to take a fitful nap. Amen.

Friday the 13th

Wow, I must not have been smoking the right crack pipe when I saw this film, because I know so many people who actually liked it, but lord almighty was I bored and disappointed in this reboot of the horror movie franchise featuring the timid woodland creature known as Jason Voorhees. And in keeping with some of my fellow critics, I'll say that I've seen every single Jason movie — most more than once — and while I don't think any of them are true classics, I do recognize some really good work in a couple of them. My heart belongs to Freddy Krueger.

And believe me, I really thought about and rehashed this movie for quite a while trying to uncover why it was so lacking. Was it that in cramming details from the first three Friday the 13th movies into one story (not a bad idea in theory), the filmmakers basically skim right over the fun of watching Jason evolve from a freak boy to a killer with a weird mask on his head to the iconic hockey-masked killing machine? Was it that the film lacked any real tension and only one or two genuinely creative kill sequences? (I'll give points to the dude in the bear trap watching the girl in the sleeping bag go up in flames.) Is it the fact that in making a new installment of this film that borrows so heavily from previous Jason movies (both in terms of plot and atmosphere), that its very existence negates its necessity? It's probably big hunks of all of these reasons, but the one truly nagging aspect of the film is that it gives us a hero in Jared Padalecki's character Clay. I'll explain...

I have nothing against Mr. Padalecki (of House of Wax remake and "Supernatural" fame). I met him for two seconds at Comic-Con last year, and he seemed like a decent enough bloke, and he's pretty strong in this film as an actor. The problem I have with him is that his character basically destroys the premise of this and many other horror films of this ilk. The reason Freddy and Jason were/are so popular is that the audience is rooting for them, not their victims. We can't wait to see what wild methods they'll use to slaughter those snotty, sex-crazed, drug-taking, generally deviant kids. They were the embodiment of the threat our parents and older siblings made about what happens to little boys and girls who misbehave. And even though we were scared of them, we were also very much looking forward to their next appearance.

To say that there were no heroes in any of the '80s horror films is, of course, not totally true, but it kind of was in the Friday the 13th movies, at least the first few, which this film emulates completely. And, in fact, German-born director Marcus (Pathfinder) Nispel and writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (both of whom co-wrote the ridiculously fun Freddy vs. Jason) make most of their victims highly unlikable and partially naked. But Padalecki's character and, to a degree, Danielle (Mr. Brooks, Sky High) Panabaker's Jenna are built up as the heroes of the film, the ones we don't want to die. I don't support this decision; I want them all to die; I don't want to care about a single hair on their head cut off by Jason, let alone an arm or head. When a pointy object pokes out an eye, all I want to do is cheer, "Go Jason!" I don't want to even let cross my mind, "Oh, please don't let Jared get hurt. His hair is too perfect to die!"

I found the whole experience of watching this movie rather annoying. Did this movie actually try to tell me that Jason's real motivation for killing all these people is that they invade his pot-farming operation? You think I'm kidding, but watch the movie. A very strong case could be made for that being the point of this movie — Jason Voorhees: Vigilante Pot Farmer. Now that's a Friday the 13th movie I can get behind. I don't need a horror remake to reinvent the torture wheel or come up with elaborate backstories for its killer (thankfully, this movie avoids that tired device), but at least have a reason for existing. Be tasteless, be offensive, be creative, be wild, just be something. This film is actually worse than pointless, and this is the last time I'm talking about it. I hope it enjoys its unearned time atop the weekend box office chart.

Ballerina

I've never been to the ballet in my life, but for some reason I was excited to watch this behind-the-scenes look at the world of professional ballet as performed by some of the greatest dancers the world has ever produced — those of St. Petersburg's Marinski Theater (once known as the Kirov). This French documentary follows a small handful of ballerinas at various stages in their career as dancers. One is fresh out of dance school and entering the Kirov as a newcomer. Another is one year ahead of the youngest, and is already making remarkable progress in the company. Then we follow two prima ballerinas — one an almost-rebellious beauty who is internationally known for combining great acting along with dance; the other is a returning great who was sidelined by injuries and having a baby, and is attempting to make her comeback.

This surprisingly open and honest portrayal of this sometimes torturous lifestyle follows the process of becoming a professional ballerina from the audition process when 10-year-olds must stand nearly naked and pose before a jury to see if they even have the bodies and lines of a dancer, to the near god-like status the greatest in the world achieve to the Russian people in general and young girls in particular. Director Bertrand Normand wisely includes many uninterrupted clips of these women doing what they do best on stage, performed the world's most famous and complicated routines.

It's clear that in other parts of the world, ballerinas are treated as national heroes and role models. But it's also interesting to listen to the dancers talk about what they want to achieve artistically. They don't just want to dance the same routines in the classics; they want to work under different directors and with various choreographers worldwide in an effort to be challenged. It also educated me on how these women prepare for a performance. They don't simply do the routines as told; they collaborate with their choreographers to make something all the more beautiful. These women make it all look so easy on stage, which is why it's so thrilling to watch how damn tough it is to make something so effortless. This is the kind of film that will stay with me for a long time, and if I ever do make it to the ballet, I'll remember what was revealed here and appreciate the performance all the more. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Oscar-nominated Shorts, Pt. 2

Since the Music Box Theatre has rightfully seen fit to keep the program of Oscar-nominated Shorts running another week, I figured I'd finish reviewing them. Last week, I filled you in on the Animated Shorts program. This week, I'll talk about the stellar line up of five Live Action Shorts that are part of the offering. Please keep in mind that the two programs have separate admissions.

It wasn't too hard for me to pick a favorite from these five, but it is a little tougher to say which one I think will win the Oscar. I could be cynical, and say that one of the shorts (Toyland from Germany) deals with the Holocaust, and therefore it will win. It's actually a pretty strong contender, but not the best of the bunch. The work concerns two young boys — one German, one Jewish — who are best friends living in the same apartment building during World War II. When word circulates among the Jewish residents that all Jews will be rounded up, the German boy asks his mother, where the Jewish family is going. To protect him from the truth, she tells her son they are going to Toyland, and the boy decides he's going with this friend. When the German soldiers come to round up the family, the German boy grabs his suitcase and heads for the trucks loaded with families destined for prison camps. When the boy's mother returns home, she finds her son gone and searches frantically for him before he's shipped away via freight car. The film has a clever ending, strong acting, and a great means of building tension in a very short amount of time (less than 15 minutes), so I'm not knocking the achievement of getting it made. It's just not the best of this very strong grouping.

The Irish short New Boy (based on a short story by Roddy Doyle of The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van fame) is a funny tale about a young African immigrant being introduced into the Irish school system, where he is immediately singled out as different by both bullies and do-gooders. Much of the film is told in flashback as we see the young boy back in Africa being treated as an equal by his wonderful teacher, who is soon carted away by the military for crimes unknown. It's a sweet story that I thought I could see coming, but it takes an unexpected turn in the middle that transformed the film from good to great.

The Pig from Denmark is a very silly story about a serious subject — tolerance. When an older man checks into the hospital for what he thinks will be a routine surgery, his doctors find something that might be a little more serious and hold him a bit longer. For reasons unknown, a painting in his hospital room of a pig flying brings him great comfort. But when the family of a Muslim family has the painting removed while the Danish man is sleeping, he calls in the troops, including his lawyer daughter, and insists the painting be returned to the wall. It's a simple story acting as a metaphor for how world conflicts grow from nothing into something much bigger than they have any right being, and I loved it.

The longest short is the German/Swiss co-production On the Line, the tale of a lonely store security guard who is in love from a distance with a clerk in a bookstore. Knowing the both take the same train home at night, he often will time his leaving work with her. One night, he sees the woman in question on the train with a man, and the guard becomes jealous. But when he sees them fight and her storm off the train, he is satisfied. He then witnesses the man get made fun of by three young thugs on the train, who go from gentle jabbing to a fierce beatdown. The guard gets off the train before things get too bad, but he later finds out about the stranger's fate after the fight broke out and something concerning his identity. The store clerk asks the guard if he'll accompany her to the train the next day, and the two start becoming close. But the guilt over abandoning the man on the train weighs heavy on our semi-stalker. This is a great, straightforward drama that I would actually love to see get expanded into a full-length feature. There's enough going on with these characters that I wanted to know more about their lives and their motivations. Is the guard a threat, or just a lonely man steered by his emotions into making bad decisions?

But my absolute favorite of the nominated live-action shorts is the French offering Manon on the Asphalt, which concerns a young, pretty woman who is hit by a car while riding her bike through a busy street. The film attempts to capture exactly what flashes before your eyes when you think you're going to die. Is it the life you've led? Or is it the life you'll now never have? Perhaps it's a bit of both. By far the most visually interesting work of these five shorts, Manon on the Asphalt moves us through how a woman on the street sees each of her friends will find out about her death, how her boyfriend will take the news, her mother. But then she begins to see the things she'll never get to do or see through to the end. "I'll never have children." "I'll never get to see if my new boyfriend is The One." I know it sounds depressing, but it's actually an incredible celebration of the everyday things in life that most of us get to experience. It's an acknowledgement of life's fragility, and it's comforting in a way to know that those who loved us will go on after they grieve our passing. I've seen three-hour films on these subjects that don't get it as right as this one did. I truly hope Manon wins because it is stunning, and it alone is worth the price of admission to this program.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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