Posts Tagged ‘Timur Bekmambetov’

BIFF, Day Six: 9 and Sin Nombre

October 28, 2009

I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal to say about the two films of the day. One of them was good, the other very good. They are both the first feature films of directors I think have the potential to make even better films.

99 is an animated film directed by Shane Acker. He is formerly known only for a short film, also called 9( you can see it by pressing link), which won an Oscar in 2005. I was a big fan of the short film and therefore had my hopes up for the expanded feature version. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t been to the film maker’s advantage, at least not artistically.

What made the short film 9 such a unique creature was that it threw us smack into a world that seemed familiar and alien at the same time, never offering any explanations for what we saw or why. While having many of the characteristics of a post apocalyptic earth, the protagonist was a rag doll with the number 9 painted on his back. There were no humans in sight. Exploring this destroyed world, he came upon a monstrous creature that started an intense chase of the frail doll. He found a round metallic object that, put properly together, released ghostly forms of other rag dolls who faded away into the ether or afterlife. This was the plot, and I didn’t feel I needed to know more, really. There were no dialogue and this strengthened the pure chase concept. It was certainly clear that Acker had an eye for design and a good understanding of what makes animation work. His sense of movement and gravity in animation was particularly impressive.

acker05_9shortFor the feature length version, the chase of the short film constitutes the beginning of the film and yes, ghostly figures – souls of the dolls? – are released at the end. In between we have an hour of more chase scenes and so many stock situations that I wondered if the script writers had encountered some paint by numbers guide to how to write trite dialogue for scenes seen a hundred times before.

As in the short film, the character 9 starts out mute, but unfortunately that situation is quickly remedied. As soon as these dolls start speaking American, they lose a lot of mystery, but also intelligence, it seems. All of a sudden they spout feelings that are supposed to sound dramatic or even political, but comes off as something a child would say. And no, this is not intentional. “We must save him! You are a coward! I’m sorry! You can’t hide from reality!” For some reason, the script writers have only been able to think in exclamation points while writing the dialogue. The same heavy-handedness can be found in the plot as well; never offering dilemmas we haven’t seen many times before, spouting Disneyfied sentiments about the importance of sticking up for one‘s friends and reducing everything to a fight between the good guys and the bad guys, with no grey scales. This is where animation studios like Pixar and Studio Ghibli really excels, never going for the easiest solutions or indeed world views.

7As the film, then, is never more than a question of getting from here to there, I found myself bored even by the generous amount of action taking place in the plot. What saves the film is that the animation is absolutely gorgeous and that Acker hasn’t lost his eye for design and for making the characters move in exciting and fresh ways. The world he has created is indeed fascinating and had the script been better, especially the dialogue, this could really have been something. As it is it is never more than entertaining, at times it is less.

I think I’ll blame one of the producers, Tim Burton, for this. Hell, I’m feeling magnanimous, I‘ll blame the other producer, Timur Bekmambetov, as well. For one thing, I guess it was Burton who made Pamela Pettler write the screenplay. She also had a finger in the screenplay for Burton’s Corpse Bride, so I assume her presence here is no coincidence. I have a feeling that all my objections to the dialogue should be directed to her, and to Burton. Let me take a moment to explain why I consider Burton poison to the film.

9 would probably not have been made without Burton’s name attached to it, so for that Acker must be grateful. But when did Burton really make a more than passable film? His latest, Sweeney Todd, had its moments, well helped by the dependability of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful songs. Big Fish is a cinematic atrocity best forgotten. Sleepy Hollow should have been a horror film, but was turned into an exercise in style and quirkiness and never remotely scary. His two stop motion animation films, Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, seem designed only to be different in concept from most mainstream animated features, but are they really that good? Sure, some of Danny Elfman’s music is catchy, but what is really the point of the films? That outsiders have feelings too? Burton is the cosy Goth, never daring to be different enough to be disturbing, intent on turning the borderline strange into the definite mainstream. Has he ever had any meaning behind his films other than the aforementioned call to accept the goth, the freak, the outsider? Subtle, he is not, and intelligence you have to search for elsewhere. After Edward Scissorhands, he should maybe have called it a day, realizing that he had made his masterpiece and not emulate the same formula again and again.

The point to make here, is that while the original short film of 9 retained much mystery and, by necessity of its format, perhaps, allowed the audience to actively make its own interpretations of what they were seeing. After Burton’s hands have fondled the package, every movement now has to be given a reason and that reason is never very interesting when you peel away the, grantedly, spectacular surface. Much like so many of Burton’s own films.

Pretty much all the protests I have directed at Burton’s cinema, I could also send the way of the film’s other producer, Timor Bekmambetov. He as well has made a career on pure surface, seemingly having little interest in what he is actually trying to say, or even accomplish, with his films. Daywatch, Nightwatch and Wanted all look very good, but have so many narrative problems that were they a person, Mel Gibson would seem sane in comparison.
While these big name producers ensured that Acker could bring “his vision” to the big screen, they also ensured that said vision would be severely diluted, turning all mystery into cliché and placing something that had aspirations of being original plump into the safety of the still waters of the mainstream. And that, my friends, is not where you catch the biggest fish, and certainly not the most succulent.

sin-nombre_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85Sin Nombre is a film about people seeking escape because they have to. The young Honduran girl, Sayra, has no prospects in her own country and chooses to set out on the long journey towards USA with her father, who she hasn’t seen for many years. El Casper(or Willy, as he sometimes calls himself) is a young man – or boy – who has pledged his life to a local street gang, seemingly in perpetual war with the rival Los Chavalles. After he kills the leader for a number of reasons, he knows that his life is over, but chooses to make his way to USA as well, on the same train as Sayra. I don’t want to say more about the plot, again not to give away too much.

The director, Cary Fukunaga, has formerly made a short film about the subject of Mexican immigrants dying of overheating in a truck, trying to make their way into USA. However, Sin Nombre, separates itself from a number of films about the crossing over the Mexican/US border by treating USA almost as a MacGuffin. USA is some vague goal that we doubt will influence the proceedings in other ways than to bring the action forward.

sin-nombre-gangThe film is as much about the possibility of starting anew in a philosophical sense than in the particular case of USA as the necessary site of this renewal. More than that, it is about innocence and the limits of innocence; the mechanisms that taints us by some sin, some overstepping of a boundary we only realize that we have crossed when it’s too late to go back.

I hear that the director spent some time travelling on top of trains the same distance as the protagonists, in order to get a grip of what they are going through. This, if true, serves the film well, as the train riding scenes seem very realistic, while at the same time offering the director the opportunity to show how evil and good is often a question of the geography of chance.

I should not forget to mention that Sin Nombre works very well as a thriller. It shows us a world we don’t often see and there is not a false scene or sentiment in the film. The guns are primitive, and they don’t make the explosive noise of a Hollywood actioner, but they are just as deadly. And in many ways they are more fatal.

Wanted: Film, Fascism and Angelina Jolie

April 1, 2009

I’ll take a short break from my Studio Ghibli series. Rest assured, new chapters will soon follow.

There are times I can find myself in agreement with W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-witty tenet that “Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit“. However, I’m pretty sure that should Maugham have had the misfortune to be transported in time only to be forced to sit through the almost nihilistic action film Wanted (stranger things have happened… or perhaps not), he would use the word excess with indeed more careful moderation. For excess is the key word in introducing this film, perhaps assisted by other terms of a Darwinian slash Nietzschean order.

wantedWanted is made by Russian/Kazach director Timur Bekmambetov, known for his vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch. which were huge successes in Russia and moderately popular in the west as well. It stars James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. None of these perform their roles better or worse than one should expect. It is based on British writer Mark Millar’s comic book miniseries, which was slightly satirical in its approach to the amoral violence of the characters. The film is content to forego said satire.

I can’t really fault the direction of the film beyond saying that the different set pieces at times lack coherence, not to say logic, and what would otherwise have been impressive stunts disappear in a haze of CGI and breakneck editing. I mention the set pieces, for this is a film that almost doesn’t exist when it is not moving. Fast.

I remember seeing Terminator 2 for the first time and how awe-inspiring I then felt it was. Much of this awe had to do with how Cameron was able to utilize state of the art technology while at the same time making sure that we could actually see everything we were meant to see: We could follow the T1000‘s jump into the helicopter and study each transformation made by the then ground breaking use of CGI.

For some reason many films these days opt to cut so quickly from angle to misused angle, to push the camera into our faces until what we see has little semblance of reality and thus removing us from the illusion that film is indeed a kind of reality. Without this illusion, films become only spectacle and not a very well made spectacle at that. The ability to combine fast action with judicious amounts of CGI in a tangible and understandable manner is an art quickly becoming lost in the action genre. (Let me add that I don’t object to fast editing per se, and neither is the practice particularly new. I recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930- film Murder!, in which the cuts were at times much faster than in most modern films, particularly in scenes where the directors of today tend to linger if they at all venture there; e.g. reaction shots and transitional scenes).

murder

However, Bekmambetov is an accomplished visually oriented director (as opposed to intellectually oriented?) who does have the ability to show us some scenes we have not seen before. The biggest problem I have with the film is the story he chooses to tell, and how he tells it is merely an extension of some deep faults within the story.

James McAvoy’s character starts out as an everyman, although one by far more apathetic than most of us. He hates his job and his girl friend and his life and so on. The fact that he is impotent, both virtually and metaphorically is made clear for us through some unpleasantly juvenile scenes. In fact, let me interject here, that I’ve seldom had a stronger feeling that a film must have been written by a thirteen year old with severe revenge fantasies. The little there is of psychology is so infantile in its insights that it beggars belief. I admit that I laughed out loud a couple of times during the delivery of dialogue in the film, but unfortunately not where the film wanted me to laugh, which I hope was nowhere. “I can now stand in my father’s shoes” was one such line. – I guess you have to see it…

wanted_wanted_jolie__44008bOh well, our not so lovable loser is quickly torn away from his mundane loser life (yes, the film repeats quite some times that he is a loser) when a mysterious and heavily tattooed woman in the shape and form of Angelina Jolie (which means, I guess, that it must be her), warns him that he is about to be killed, and off they go in a blaze of speed and death defying acts while shooting at the bad guy. Our man learns that she is part of an ancient order of assassins (The Fraternity, they call themselves) that are killing people to maintain some kind of balance on earth dictated by “the fates”. The manner the fates have of dictating to the Order which people to kill is through a somewhat unorthodox medium: A giant loom – the Loom of Fate, no less – is weaving small errors that can be interpreted as binary code. This code spells out the names of the people that need to be extinguished by the assassin order. Of all the ways I have ever imagined the gods to communicate with people, this has to be the most obscure or – all right – most lame.

Loserboy is told that his increased heart rate is not a matter for the doctor, but rather a symptom of his adrenaline granting him superhuman speed and agility and – for some reason – the ability to make killing shots from extremely long distances as well as curve the trajectory of the bullets. Morgan Freeman tells him gravely that “If you had not been told that bullets go straight, wouldn’t you have trusted your instincts to let the bullet find the target in other ways”, or something to that effect. Yes, the film is indeed this stupid.

Then follows the obligatory training sessions for our man, as he is punished and beaten until he is at least as accomplished in the art of killing as his new comrades and Angelina. He kills some people as part of early assignments, having few qualms to do so. (As soon as he learns to trust the Fate, he accepts the rightness and infallibility of the giant weaving apparatus). To turn an inane story short, the person he is told killed his father turns out to actually be his father and Morgan Freeman is evil. On the way to this insight, he has killed his father and an entire train of innocent passengers, seemingly without any regret whatsoever.

buckleI won’t reveal the outcome of “the final battle”, except to say that it turns out that the killing orders that the Fraternity has received for these last years had less to do with any fates and more to do with Morgan Freeman’s ambitions. The film now tells us that to kill for personal gains is wrong, and I actually felt we were on the brink of some US criticism at this point, though of the heavy handed variety. But then the film makes a case for the nobility of killing people if The Fates tell us so (read God), which again is a view not completely beyond the pale in some US presidential administrations, nor in some other countries, for that matter.

No matter, soon the former loser, now super hero assassin James McAvoy stumbles out of the rubble, musing: “Six weeks ago I was ordinary and pathetic. Just like you.“ I can’t imagine a clearer way for the film to signal it’s view on people and humanity; on normality. The last reel of the film has the protagonist, now super human, saying: “This is me taking back control of my life. What the fuck have you done lately?”, thereby again stepping out of the reality of the film, so to say, and involving us, the spectators.

This is also where the film becomes interesting, and a part of me almost wants the entire film to be one big hoax, one giant misleading manoeuvre. It reaches this point, spelling out its contempt for everyone watching the film, and instead of giving us a classic end, subverts the relationship between protagonist and viewer. If I had felt there had been present an iota of intelligence at other places during the narrative, I could give it the benefit of the doubt and say that the film is indeed a critique of its own audience.

The film and its protagonist in effect says at this point: “Don’t look at me, look at yourselves. You have seen a film celebrating the more unpleasant notions of the Ubermensch and fascism; it is, after all, good to kill if God tells you so. And you have stuck with me, rooted for me“. What this ultimately means is that the film is now stuck between two positions, one being: “Now, go out and kill. It is liberating.” The other alternative is “You fools, I am no hero for you. I despise you.” Needless to say, the average moviegoer is not likely to want to take the latter to heart, and one can only hope they avoid taking the former statement seriously.

And of course, one probably shouldn’t take seeming fluff like Wanted seriously. But on the other hand, perhaps it is exactly this kind of mindless summer entertainment that is most interesting to subject to at least a minimum of critical analysis. As well as reflecting the needs of society, maybe these types of film also show society as they want it to be.