Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not long for Boston: North Face & District 13: Ultimatum

Also not long for the area: The Red Riding trilogy, which plays as a marathon on Wednesday and Thursday; if you've got the day off work or can get out early, it is not a bad way to spend a chunk of movie-watching hours. They're all pretty good crime films, and I suspect each could hold up well enough individually, but come together nicely.

I'm really disappointed to see District 13: Ultimatum leaving town after just one week. It's not quite as good as its predecessor, but it's a flat-out fun action/adventure movie, with the sort of physically astonishing athleticism you generally don't see outside of Hong Kong. A few weeks ago, while watching Edge of Darkness, I found myself thinking that even the brief action scenes we saw there wouldn't have been done so well when Mel Gibson first started making movies; as brief as the period of guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li not only headlining American movies but getting their Hong Kong stuff into theaters was, it left an indelible imprint on Hollywood action: We know what good fighting looks like now.

Still, while you can coax a good fight out of Mel Gibson and the like, the guys like David Belle are pretty unique, and though their work deserves to be seen on the big screen, it's going to be tough to see it that way unless you live in a big city and you act fast. Ultimatum and North Face both end their runs at Kendall Square on Thursday, after a mere one and two weeks respectively, and North Face getting that second week was a matter of relatively strong first-week attendance, as it was only booked for one originally. Red Riding was always only going to get one week, and it was always in a rough position: It's too big a risk to plan for a multi-week run, even though audiences might want to spread it out a bit, but it wasn't going to get any word of mouth until people could finish the trilogy on Sunday, by which point the bookers have to start making decisions about whether it gets extended or not.

But North Face and District 13: Ultimatum should get more butts in seats than they do. They are both tremendously entertaining movies, perfectly suited for mainstream tastes in both subject matter and production values, held back because of how sharply fragmented film is these days. Because these films have subtitles, they are consigned to different distributors, different sets of cinemas, and even get reported on by different websites. Occasionally, lucky circumstances will allow for a crossover hit, but that's becoming very rare. More often, what happens is what happened with D13:U - the audience for action/adventure doesn't even know to look at the listings for Kendall Square, because they assume it's all snooty art films, and the audience that goes to Kendall Square has little interest in a movie where people run, jump, and kick each other.

And then, when they finally hit DVD, they get shelved not in "Action", "Comedy", or "Drama", but "Foreign", and missed by a whole new group of people.

So here's what I'd like anybody reading this blog to do: Take your friends to a fun foreign movie. If you're in Boston, you've got these two through Thursday; you may have to hit video in smaller towns. The original District 13 is a pretty good choice. Just spread the word that subtitles don't equal boring - in fact, what makes it over here tends to be the cream of the crop, much better on average than what hits multiplexes.

Nordwand (North Face)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2010 in Landmark Theaters Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

I saw a poster advertising a mini festival of "climbing movies" in the same theater where I saw North Face, and the fact that most of us can instantly deduce what that means probably counts as a strike against this one by those looking for something unique in their moviegoing expeditions. I admit, seeing several in rapid succession would probably be a somewhat repetitive experience, but spread them out a bit, find an interesting perspective, and handle the technical aspects well, and seeing something like North Face can be exhilarating.

It is 1935. The north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps has never been ascended; indeed, the most recent attempt has taken the lives of the climbers. The surge of German interest in sport with the upcoming Olympic games leads for popular calls for a German team to conquer this challenge, with the most promising being a pair of Bavarian mountain rangers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas "Andi" Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). The pragmatic Kurz is against it, although his opinion is swayed somewhat when their childhood friend Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek) visits from the big city, saying that the paper she works for would like to cover their ascent. Naturally, Kurz and Hinterstoisser won't be the only ones making the attempt; among the others are Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz), Austrians but Party members. And there wouldn't be a movie if nothing went horribly wrong.

Interestingly, the film does not actually start off with the climbers, but with Luise. We see her staring longingly at a top-of-the-line camera in a storefront and then treated with a certain amount of condescension by senior writer Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur). In many ways, even though the latter half of the film is the expected story of danger and survival, she is its central character, and her story is the one that we'll be thinking about once the movie ends: As friendly and charming as Luise is, there's something the tiniest bit predatory about her first meetings with Toni and Andi; she is, after all, asking them to do something extremely dangerous in part for the advancement of her career. And while director Philipp Stölzl and his co-writers only occasionally hammer the point home, the scenes with Fellner and Arau have interesting things to say about the press - both as being sensationalistic and how they can function as propagandists, even when not directly being directed by outside hands.

(It's actually a relatively unique use of the Nazis on film, at least in my memory. Though the Party is referenced, and it's clear that they not only exert an influence on much of German life, but are making their presence felt on a larger scale - the annexation of Austria is an important piece of background - they are not yet the overt, in-your-face monsters we remember. They're still at the insidious stage, when many might not yet realize how thoroughly dangerous they are.)

Despite the potentially mercenary image we might have of Luise early on, she actually winds up being a pretty easy character to fall for. After all, she's got a storyline to go through and grow with, and the filmmakers opt against glamming her up even as much as a Hollywood girl-next-door. There's something very authentic about her, just one-of-the-guys enough that it's believable she might get involved in the rescue efforts later, but also plays nicely opposite Tukur's Arau. He's also interesting to watch, not particularly corrupt but still somewhat complicit in the business of journalism not matching Luise's ideals. Friedrich and Schwarz have a nice dynamic as the Austrian team shadowing Toni and Andi, especially Schwarz as the tunnel-visioned Willy. In comparison, stars Fürmann and Lukas almost seem a little bland, though they play their confident, capable characters well.

What Andi and Toni perhaps lack in the way of personal flaws is countered by how they get to do the bulk of the exciting adventure story. Stölzl takes his time getting us to the mountain, taking great care to establish the unique location, giving us reasons to take the danger involved seriously, and teaching us about not just mountain climbing, but how it was done in the 1930s. It's hardly safe now, but we immediately see what disadvantages climbers then were at, with homemade pitons, ropes that fray versus today's nylon cord, etc. The information is presented organically, demonstrated as Toni and Andi prepare as opposed to being a lecture.

And then, once on the mountain, we see plenty that is stunning and terrifying. the photography by Kolja Brandt is top-notch, capable of showing us the beauty of the environment while also demonstrating just what the dangers are. Stölzl stages things so that we get a sense of were things are in relation to each other so that distances spouted by characters mean things, and everything we've learned about climbing comes into play as the danger increases. The make-up guys do a fantastic job as well, not just in making frostbite look realistically nasty, but subtler things like how Andi and Toni appear sun- and windburned from the start, as actual climbing enthusiasts generally would.

Are these somewhat familiar ingredients to a man-versus-mountain movie? Absolutely. What Stölzl does to make it noteworthy is to execute flawlessly, not just in building exceptional tension during the life-or-death situations high above the earth, but to work Luise Fellner and her story in just enough not to distract from that drama but to give the audience a little more to think about.

It's a tricky balance, making a story of journalistic morals a central part of the movie without it seeming petty compared to the story's other half; maybe as tricky in its own way as climbing an imposing edifice. It's what makes North Face stand out in a range of climbing movies as worthy of audience's attention.

Also at HBS

Banlieue 13 - Ultimatum (District 13: Ultimatum)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2010 in Landmark Theaters Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

I hate to be a scold about such things, but I saw District 13: Ultimatum back-to-back with From Paris with Love (well, back-to-back with time to walk from one theater to another). Both came from Luc Besson's action-movie factory, and the director of Paris actually directed the first District 13 film. One featured heavily-doubled Americans, while the other had French guys doing amazingly athletic things. One was still playing a few mainstream theaters after being in release a few weeks; the other just getting one week in a boutique house which doesn't really draw fans of pure popcorn movies. Why? Because for some reason, when American audiences go to a movie looking for action, they actually care what language the actors are speaking enough to choose John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Myers over Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle.

Those who saw 2004's District 13 know what Raffaelli and Belle are capable of, and as Ultimatum picks up three years later (in 2016), nothing has really changed. Though France has a new President, D13 is still walled off. Belle's Leito still lives there, trying to blast down the walls separating it from Paris; Raffaelli's Damien is still an undercover cop. Crimelords such as MC Jean Gab'1's Molko aren't too unhappy with the arrangement - they go about their business more or less in peace, and D13 supports the city's more tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods - but that neglect isn't going to last forever. Walter Gassman (Daniel Duval), head of the Department of Internal State Security, sees prime real estate for development, and figures that the best way to go about that is to start a riot where DISS must go in and take control.

The story is more than a little silly, and that's before getting to some of the details. In some ways, it's more than a little obvious what Besson, his co-writers, and director Patrick Alessandrin are trying to say about gentrification - in some ways, it's the thematic follow-up to John Carpenter's Escape From New York, where the white flight of decades past is now being thrown into reverse, with a Starbucks on every corner and rents that price the locals out of their homes. The film's heart is in the right place about this most of the time, although it sometimes misses the line between "better a vibrant neighborhood with gangsters than a mall full of yuppies" and "gangsters are awesome!", and it more or less completely stops practicing what it preaches toward the end for one last (offscreen!) bang. Plus, well, it's hard to get a message taken seriously when you start off with an action scene featuring the top cop in curiously effective drag.

That action scene is fun as heck, though, as are the later ones. They're built around what Raffaelli and Belle can do, and that's a lot: Raffaelli is really good at the marital arts, as well as a top-notch stunt coordinator, while Belle is the inventor of parkour, a form of "free running" that stresses getting from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible. So we see Belle's Leito making a bunch of crazy jumps and squeezing through tight spots as DISS agents chase him through the city, and Raffaelli's Damien goes Jackie Chan on the various thugs around him with whatever happens to be available (especially a priceless work of art which he's mentioned cannot be allowed to be scratched). Alessandrin does a good job of hitting the right tone with these action scenes, too - they're often playful and silly enough to make the audience laugh, but played out with enough skill to make the pulse race a bit.

Part of that comes from the cast. As mentioned before, Raffaelli and Belle have more background in stuntwork than acting, but they've got easy on-screen charisma and play off each other well here, even without the adversarial pairing of the first movie. Elodie Yung, MC Jean Gab'1, and the other folks playing gangsters add color to the goings-on, both literally and figuratively; they're fun to watch and remind us that D13 is multicultural. Daniel Duval isn't quite so gloriously evil as the first film's Taha, but he is enjoyable scummy, and Pierre-Marie Mosconi is suitably imposing as his lead enforcer.

District 13 - Ultimatum isn't quite the holy-crap-I've-never-seen-this experience of its predecessor - like when Hollywood finally took notice of Hong Kong in the 1990s, parkour sequences have been integrated into recent James Bond and Die Hard installments. The difference is that Raffaelli and Belle can do it without the camera having to fool us, making for smoother, more amazing action. Yeah, they're speaking French, but what's more important, familiar faces tossing off one-liners without subtitles, or people who are really good at action doing action well?

Also at HBS


Anonymous said...


Kim said...

wonderful posts, keep it up