Thursday, May 22, 2008

See 'em today or likely not at all: Redbelt and OSS 117

I'm pretty sure OSS 117 is on one of the one-week runs at the Kendall, and Redbelt, which opened the same weekend Iron Man was obliterating all comers, is already down to partial screens at the multiplexes (though it's likely still going at the Landmark for another week or so). Both of them are a bunch of fun, and I just wish I'd been more on-the-ball to tell people about them earlier in the week.

In the meantime, I'm probably posting this after seeing Indiana Jones. I was going to wait patiently until Saturday morning, but I was still in the comic shop at 10pm and they were playing it on screen #1 at Harvard Square. Anywhere else, and it's tough to get home afterward and to work the next day, but Harvard Square? Yeah, try and keep me away.

EDIT: That was fantastic.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2008 at Regal Fenway #6 (first-run)

Redbelt isn't quite a blender movie, where a filmmaker puts two generally unrelated genres together to see what happens. It is a nifty combination of David Mamet mystery and martial arts action, and it delivers on that DNA's promise: It creates the constant need to know what's going to happen next and makes things very exciting when it does come to a fight.

Mamet starts by introducing us to a few characters whose paths might not cross under other circumstances. There's Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu instructor whose dojo is, as his dressmaker wife Sondra (Alice Braga) points out, barely scraping by as it is. That's before a busy night where Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) shows up at the close of business, high-strung and crashing from too many prescription drugs, getting into a thing with Joe Ryan (Max Martini), a cop who is Mike's star student, that gets his window shot out. Sondra sends him to her brother's bar to ask for a loan to get it fixed, and he winds up breaking it up when someone tries to pick a fight with movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). And then...

Well, more stuff happens, and there are even more characters involved in the story. For the first half of the movie or so, we know that Terry is going to be the story's main character, but we don't quite know what the story is. It could be about Terry getting sucked into the world of Hollywood; it could be something involving the Mixed Martial Arts promoters we meet. He could be sucked into whatever trouble Laura is in. Mamet doesn't just throw a bunch of situations out there and have them come together later - the story moves ahead like a snake's path, always toward its final destination but moving side to side in order to get there. The various story elements come together, but Terry's encounters with them are such that we're never quite sure what the next ten, twenty, or thirty minutes are going to hold.

Part of that is that we're not quite sure which characters are going to be significant. Mamet has assembled a quite frankly ridiculous cast, all giving pretty good performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor is on screen for practically the entire film, and he makes a fine modern samurai. There's something about him that's almost infuriatingly calm; he's a man who has trained to handle every situation, and sometimes seems not to realize that the tenets he lives and trains by are not so easily attained for others. Ejiofor plays Terry as not always being a great teacher; he has patience but not always insight.

Terry probably doesn't think of himself in samurai terms, but Max Martini's Joe almost certainly does, there's an air of hero worship to him whenever he's in the same scene as Ejiofor, though not in a way that diminishes the character. Alice Braga shows us the strain of being married to someone so calm and impractical. Tim Allen is surprisingly good as Chet; there's a real sense that this guy is disillusioned and one false step from bringing his whole world crashing down around him. Emily Mortimer is pretty darn wonderful as as Laura; she's as nervous as Ejiofor is calm. The supporting performances are all good enough that it's not easy to guess who's going to be important, but we could easily see the parallel, interesting movies about the people Terry encounters. Mamet regulars Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer and Joe Mantegna are also hanging around, keeping things interesting.

Despite being set in the world of martial arts, there's only a few fight scenes, but they are nicely staged. This isn't like what you'd see in a Jackie Chan or even Donnie Yen movie; neither Mamet nor Terry has much use for fighting being pretty; what we see is all about getting the other guy down or teaching someone how to accomplish the same. Things may not be balletic, but Terry's general effectiveness is impressive, making the fights emotional experiences.

The emotion does run a bit high in the last few minutes, as much as it does seem to be earned for the characters we've come to like. Maybe the emotional payoff doesn't come as easily to him as the moment when we see how everything ties together. Even if that part of the end isn't subtle, though, the lead-up and payoff for both the intellectual and emotional sides are done well enough for the movie to be a delight.

Full review at HBS, along with three others.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire nid d'espions)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 May 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

Before Casino Royale was made into a big, modern movie with Daniel Craig, there were persistent rumors about Quentin Tarantino wanting to take a crack at it, but having it take place in the Cold War period when it was originally set. It had also previously been filmed as a garish parody of the phenomenon. With Cairo, Nest of Spies, Michel Hazanavicius does a bit of both of those approaches for Bond's similarly-numbered French equivalent, OSS 117 Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath - its period satire is more pointed than that of, say, Austin Powers, but still amiably silly.

We start in World War II, where OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) got his start fighting Nazis. Ten years later, he's on a mission to Cairo, where his fellow agent Jack Jefferson (Philippe Lefebvre) has been murdered while investigating the disappearance of a Soviet freighter. Using a poultry business as a cover, he meets with Jeff's beautiful local assistant, Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Bérénice Bejo), and in addition to the recently deposed King's daughter (Aure Atika) and the Muslim fundamentalist society The Eagles of Keops, he finds that other local food companies also serve as fronts for British, German, and Soviet intelligence.

Cairo, Nest of Spies hits a lot of the standard targets for the spy spoof - the garish costumes, the obvious location captions, the way that the hero just sort of stumbles upon or is led to everything but has women throw themselves at him anyway. Hazanavicius makes sport of older films by amping up the homoerotic undertones any way he can, or having the camera discretely pan away from something only to catch it in a nearby mirror. He and co-writer Jean-François Halin show a bit more teeth by making de la Bath a casual racist and snob. Any audience nostalgia for simpler times that the film may summon is gleefully undercut by reminding the audience of the much more open disdain for different cultures in those simpler times.

It's still funny, though, in large part because Jean Dujardin makes that just one more facet of de la Bath being dim and inappropriate, while Bérénice Bejo responds with charm and grace while making it clear that Larmina wants to end each sentence with "you idiot". They're fun to watch together because they strike just the right balance of antagonism and attraction, with Bejo making a beautiful foil to Dujardin, who is suave and silly in equal measures. Aure Atika isn't bad as the more sexually aggressive princess, and there are plenty of others who are a lot of fun. One of the signs of a good comedy is that even minor characters generally have a chance to be funny, rather than mere plot-advancing filler.

The movie is a nice work of pastiche, seeming generally faithful to the spy adventures of the 1950s and 1960s (though how specifically faithful it is to that eras OSS 117 movies, I couldn't say), but not exaggerating that look too much for cheap "look! something old! isn't that hilarious?" laughs. The animated opening credits and brassy score are particularly fun in that regard. At certain points, the movie does seem to be going on a bit too long, never quite running out of jokes but not having any new ones; it also takes what was a funny moment and overuses it as plot fodder. I do appreciate that Hazanavicius and company make a pretty sick picture; even when it's embracing some of the limitations of its targets it takes care to look good.

It's a fun little movie, though with a sequel already on the way in France. It straddles the line between parody and pastiche well, and is funny enough to survive the loss of some wordplay in translation.

Full review at HBS.

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