Saturday, 25 July 2009

Spiral 568's Greatest Movies Countdown: No#100: Run Lola Run

The thing about experimental films is that they, proportionately speaking, are rarely fun. For all their metaphors and Philosophizing, they usually end up heartless intellectual exercises of use to only to the people who made it. And perhaps people who go to the cinema precisely for that kind of thing, which on one of my more pretentious days could be me I guess. But they are at their very best something you admire, not something you love. But this rule, like any other, has its exceptions and when they come along its certainly a thing to see. Which brings me to Run Lola run, a classic of Ingenuity, visual style and yes, experimentalism. Its a film that's more visceral then intellectual though, and arguably its stronger for it, but more on that Later.

What it did do was bring its director Tom Tykwer to the attention of the cinematic world as a whole. And certainly if one takes one thing from this movie its the undeniable talent of its director. The thing is put together so smoothly, from its distinct visual style that manages to be edgy and direct without being obnoxious (A harder feat that it sounds, as many, many films attempting this style of visuals overplay their hand to the point where it is painful). To its deceptively strong script, which balances the potentially alienating smart-Alec concepts and so tightly structures them that you barely notice how hard the film is working. It is much more common now, but at the time the type of ingenuity shown by Tykwer here was in very short supply. But the touches are endless, from the interludes of animation to the quick 'this is your life in ten seconds' photography montages we see of certain background characters. Similarly the pumping trance beat, which is nearly constant and always keeping you on the edge of your seat is a terrific creative decision. The film is a technical marvel like few others in recent memory, and while the thematic ideas it covers are certainly not anything new, the amount of films that work of the principle that the smallest event can have a monumental effect on events of much larger importance are of a number close to unnameable. But its the handling of them that makes it a work of stark originality.

The plot is a simple one seeing Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), boyfriend of the titular Lola (Franka Potente) leaving the 100 grand he was supposed to deliver to a vicious gangster on a train, leaving him and Lola 20 minutes to snatch the same amount out of the air before he is killed. Yeah, yeah we've been here before I know. But what the film does is show is three potential outcomes of this dilemma, each depending on the tiniest events occurring on Lola's three separate sprints - All captured thunderously by the way. I've never seen running on film quite so captivating - so its a butterfly effect movie in other words, but without Ashton Kutcher and actually good. It takes a bare bones noir plot and uses it to write a subtle essay on the impact of chance, whilst making one of the most heart-poundingly gripping thrillers in years. And all this in a lean 73 minutes (which incidentally could fit into Dances with Wolves three times over. Just saying.) It fights caving in with its own ambition by being cleverly narratively minimalist, that is to say after Manni sets up the situation at the beginning, its the intricacies of the plot rather then the arc of it that really hits home and intentionally so. Tykwer has no real interest in making a great crime movie, rather to simply communicate his ideas and tell the story of the two central characters. Its not really an actors movie, and most of Potente's work involves running but somehow she comes out of it impressing. Within the couple of moments she gets to act, she creates a real character to add to the terrificly iconic creation of the costume designer. Lola is certainly memorable visually, with her bright red hair and gray/green get-up. But its to Potente's credit that she doesn't get lost in the iconography. Bleibtreu has a couple of moments to impact in his predominately dopey character. But like I said its not an actors movie, its Tykwer's. Its about his style, his pace and above all his talent.

I have to say I get pretty far into this without giving due to a pretty important contributing factor to this movie's greatness. The fact that it relentlessly, almost overwhelmingly thrilling. It may seem like an extremely obvious thing to say, but its amazing how many thrillers actually forget to live up to their name and end up simply passing you by in mediocrity. This film takes you on a ride. Not to push a tortured metaphor or anything, but its perhaps its one of the closest things cinema has to compare to a theme park ride. It raises your adrenalin instantly and never lets it drop until the credits roll and not even in that generic Hollywood way you've become used to. All those action films that you've seen limp into cinema's giving us the same tired scenes we've seen before. Watch this film and you'll realize what it is for a film to be vibrant. As well is this, it even has its moments of beauty. From Lola and Manni vainly fleeing the cops to Dinah Washington's 'What a difference a day made' or the silence upon the same characters respective deaths (This isn't as much of a spoiler as you might think) hitting doubly hard because these are essentially the only moments the thump of the soundtrack lets you pause and contemplate the tragedy. As I said before, its a much smarter film then you may realize.

Tywker has made some attempts to foray into the English language after this. There was the low-key Cate Blanchett led Heaven, which was OK but nothing particularly special and the more widely seen Perfume, which some were wowed by but more were meh'd by. Whatever your opinions on these films, none of them come close to being as good as this, which is a gem of a movie that simply never enough people can see. Even with subtitles

Spiral 568's Greatest Movies Countdown: No#101: I Heart Huckabees

It takes a lot of time to ponder which is truly the worst of your favorite movies. In a list such as this you love everything on the table. So cruel, pedantic nit-picking becomes the order of the day. So, first up is I Heart Huckabees, the 2004 comedy from Director David O Russell. Russell in many ways is a forgotten gem on the indie scene, getting nowhere near the praise of a Wes Anderson for example. And while he may not have the visual style of Anderson, he always makes films with something to say aside from whimsy and superfluous quirk, which films made in this arena tend to suffocate in. Russell presents a more grounded voice, one that still believes in uplifting but does so with thought and intelligence. His biggest success, the 1999 Gulf war movie Three Kings (This would be the first Gulf war) is as an entertaining action movie as Hollywood has produced in recent memory, but is also more politically engaging and in many ways the most frank look at war America has offered since the decline of the Vietnam movie. But I went for his follow up film because to me it is the more ground-breaking. It took the concept of the broad comedy and infused it with as much intellectual and philosophic credulity as it could handle, ensuring that as long as you look you'll never find another movie like this.

I shall attempt to describe the plot now, but its much more complex then one would usually find in a comedy so prepare to cut me some slack. The film follows Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) as he hires a pair of existential detectives to dissect a coincidence he has involving repeated random meetings with a tall African man. But the detectives are more interested in his work situation, in which the small environmental group he runs has partnered with retail corporation Huckabees, the representative of which is trying to oust Albert from this coalition in order to allow for him to overlook its core issues. And this is nothing. There's also a global warming obsessed firefighter in the midst of his own existential crisis, an airhead model who is coaxed by the detectives into finding a more thoughtful side of herself and also a rival French philosopher eager to spread nihilism wherever she can. Well that'll about do it as a rough template of the plot, but believe me it comes together in a way I couldn't close to describing without a 5000 word essay at my disposal.

What makes this movie great is how, for the most part, the movie is as equally concerned with making you laugh as taking you on an existential journey and by the end it pretty much does both, maybe with a few creases. For every discussion of inter-connectedness or philosophical revelation there's Mark Wahlberg hitting Jason Schwartzman in the face with a giant pink space-hopper (Known as a huge pink ball, for those unfamiliar with 70's fads) or Naomi Watts line delivery of 'Fuckabees', which is close to being the most funny thing of all time. The comedy was a very smart move on Russell's part, because if he'd taken these ideas at face value and made a more serious film about them, it would have been unavoidably pretentious and perhaps even tedious but by drawing laughs not only from the eccentricities of the characters but also from the existentialism itself, and by the very nature of people allowing themselves to be eaten alive by questions they can not hope to answer. Which brings me to another very appreciated aspect of the film. Most films skirting around the issue of the meaning of life usually tend toward the 'Knock a door run' method which is to say bringing up these ideas (knocking on the door) and entirely dodging the issue when it comes time to answer them (running away before the person can come to the door). Huckabees doesn't do that, or at least doesn't do that in the scummy way it has been done in the past. It doesn't quite answer the be all of everything in one line, but does come close in regards to the human condition, explaining what brings us together is the same thing that drives us apart. The inevitability of human drama and suffering. The film says these things better, but the great thing about it is that it gets you to address these issues in your own head and thus has a lasting impact that no comedy I can think of has.

Arguably, the most enjoyable thing about IHH is the ensemble of hilarious performances it has put together, with not a missed not amongst the principle cast, all as good as each other with some maybe even better than that. The lead, at least in theory, is Schwartzman and he is terrific. Honing the deadpanning, smugly smart persona he began in Rushmore into something stronger and more rounded. He communicates the intelligence and pettiness of his character fantastically whilst not forgetting to be hilarious. It really was a great performance that should have brought him more notoriety then it did, with his standout moment being, although he is great throughout the film, in his response to the the question

'Have you ever traveled through time and space?'

'Yes. No. Time not space. No, I don't know what you're talking about'

A testament to Russell's fantastic screenplay too, but Schwartzman is such a perfect fit for this role its uncanny. Upon its release, there was a critical concurrence that the film was stolen by Mark Wahlberg, as the aforementioned petroleum obsessed fireman, and its hard to disagree, although Jude Law's smooth talking corporate man Brad Stand runs him pretty close. I remember when I first saw Wahlberg in this movie I was utterly taken aback. At the time I hadn't seen Three Kings or Boogie nights and only knew him as the personality vacuum lead from the remake of the Italian Job and the remake of Planet of the Apes. Needless to say these weren't good films nor was he good in them so I didn't hold him in the highest esteem going in. But he sure proved me wrong in this film, because he is hilarious pretty much every second he is on screen. It's one of those times where being proven wrong is actually awesome. Jude Law has taken some shit in recent years, as people are at him about being in too many films and a thousand other detractions that it would take too long to name. To these people, I suggest watching this film because coming out of it you can only think that Law is actually one of the best actors ot this generation, in particular a scene where you see his confidence and bravado gradually disappear as he hears taped evidence of his own hypocrisy is a great piece of comic and serious acting at the same time. Awkwardly hilarious but also painfully poignant. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are as good as we've come to expect, with Hoffman visibly enjoying himself in a way that is to be honest rarely seen in recent films. Isabelle Huppert plays her role slightly straighter then the rest of the cast but is still as good, although she nails the 'Don't call it the ball thing' line perfectly. Watts doesn't get too much screen time, but as always is good and actually gets to be funny, which after years of playing deadly serious roles is welcome relief. Plus the Fuckabees thing.

Why isn't it higher? Well it has its flaws. Not all jokes land as well as others, occasionally characters disappear for too long and sometimes the film can be a shade uneven, but these are minor quibbles. Russell's screenplay carries itself with such confidence and the performances are so good that its is able to withstand its flaws and come out unscathed as a hilarious, genuinely ambitious movie that is really a true original. Something that becomes rarer and rarer in cinema these days.