Striking Distance 

John Sayles takes aim

John Sayles takes aim

By Donna Bowman, Jim Ridley, and Noel Murray

Legendary writer-director John Sayles is known for his deliberate and always cinematic storytelling. His movies—Lone Star, City of Hope, Passion Fish, and others—unwind at the leisurely pace of thought, realization, and reflection. For Sayles, the unavoidable linearity and temporality of film aren’t limitations. They are tools used to examine and unravel the tangled tendrils of life while never forgetting that the filmmaker’s task is artifice, not realism. Sayles constructs and extracts art from life rather than exhibiting a mirror reflection of it.

Never has this talent been more purely and potently displayed than in Men With Guns, a multi-layered fable that ranks among the master’s greatest achievements. The story is deceptively straightforward and entertaining, told almost entirely in Spanish from the point of view of an eminent urban doctor in an unnamed Central American country. Dr. Fuentes becomes concerned about the fate of several young doctors he once trained and sent to minister to Indians deep in the jungle. Journeying from village to village, he discovers an alien land where army soldiers and rebel guerrillas indiscriminately murder, rape, and pillage the population. His hopeless pilgrimage reveals his inability to help those to whom he has dedicated his life.

If Men With Guns were only about the doctor’s self-discovery, it would be merely conventional. But Sayles has a dozen other rich thematic lodes to mine, embodied in characters whose uneasy coexistence has the tension of a thriller. A hungry young boy from one village acts as the doctor’s guide, explaining in offhand remarks his absurd reality, in which a graveyard is the setting for a commencement exercise and low coffee prices mean starvation. A deserter from the military threatens his way toward freedom, unable to let go of hope even though he can no longer believe in human goodness. And in the film’s central sequence, a former priest tells how he became a ghost by deserting morality, democracy, and faith in one act of self-preservation.

Men With Guns, like all Sayles’ films, is in no hurry to divulge its secrets. While Hollywood hacks see montages and transitions as disposable luxuries, Sayles regards them as essential to the tapestry he is weaving around the audience. Simple shots of the doctor driving, the sound of salt being poured, the sight of a woman’s shoes sinking in mud, these are all building blocks of Sayles’ mythic themes as much as dialogue or plot. Moments of sheer terror, like the casual waving of a loaded gun, are approached with a self-evident naturalism that renders them all the more revelatory.

Sayles leads us into a world without trust and without relationships, where civilization and chaos are indistinguishable from each other and human beings are tools for intimidation. He drops us, with the doctor, in the middle of a conflict whose origins and justifications are long lost. Those who find themselves caught in the inexplicable struggle are reduced to making up their own morality from scratch. The details Sayles leaves out—what country this is, what regime, what ideology—couldn’t matter less to the bones scattered in the schoolyard, or the refugees encamped behind barbed wire. All that matters is who has the guns, and how to avoid them.

Dr. Fuentes dismisses tales of atrocities when he first hears about them from sensation-seeking American tourists; such things happen in other countries, or are brought in from outside by invaders. But Sayles knows that “the common people’s love for drama,” often cited by authorities minimizing horrific stories, doesn’t refer to exaggeration but to an intrinsically human effort to bring order and meaning to life. When people find themselves in a meaningless world, they construct stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, lessons and resolutions. They manufacture meaning from whatever materials are at hand and cling to their stories for dear life.

Quite apart from its social commentary, Men With Guns also describes the function of art. All storytellers try to make sense out of the messy business of reality by putting facts and people in a certain order. The urgency of this task is put into sharp relief, in Sayles’ narrative, by the extremity of the story-hungry characters’ situation. The shared meanings passed down by centuries of culture have evaporated in a cloud of bullets, and everyone quests for a new structure, somewhere further on. Sayles offers no permanent set of answers—just the temporary framework of a movie’s story.

—Donna Bowman

Flower on fire

The Japanese cop drama Fireworks is the most tender, sentimental love story I’ve ever seen in which somebody gets his eye gouged out with chopsticks. That isn’t intended as sarcasm. American action flicks have a high level of violence, but the mayhem never feels disruptive: The violence is their whole reason for being. The moments that seem really out of whack are the forced scenes of “human interest”—the tacked-on love stories, the artificial details of family life. By contrast, the bloodshed in Fireworks—the Japanese title, Hana-Bi, combines the words for “flower” and “fire”—is bewilderingly quick and jarring. It intrudes upon what is essentially a tragicomedy of uncommon serenity and sweetness.

Fireworks stars Asian TV superstar and comic idol Takeshi Kitano (a.k.a. Beat Takeshi) as Nishi, a retired detective whose wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) has contracted a terminal illness. To pay her medical expenses, he has borrowed heavily from yakuza hoods, who now demand payment in full. He decides on the only means at hand—bank robbery—to settle the debt and provide his wife with one last vacation. With fellow cops and yakuza enforcers on their trail, the couple wend their way from Mt. Fuji to a haunting resolution on a quiet beach.

The synopsis reads like standard cop-show fare, but anyone expecting John Woo-style thrills will sit dumbfounded by the movie’s elliptical storytelling leaps, its almost subliminally understated slapstick, and its flashback-dense structure, which switches without notice from present to past. (Hint: Nishi’s wearing sunglasses in the present.) The action scenes in Fireworks, when not relayed in bloody slow motion or half-remembered bursts, are comically terse. A Kitano knife fight offers no warning or build-up, just the hero inexplicably wrapping his jacket around his arm, the sound of offscreen struggle, a flash of shadow-boxing, and a sprawled attacker.

The threat of violence doesn’t loom over the movie, however, as much as the constant awareness of mortality and the passage of time. The silent, affectionate scenes between Nishi and his wife are ruminative, not urgent: There’s no sense of an imposed deadline or climax, just the gentle savoring of each moment, which is made all the more precious by the inevitability of its end. In a parallel story—the flower to the central plot’s (gun)fire—Nishi’s wheelchair-bound partner (Ren Osugi) is awakened from suicidal depression by transformative visions of lilies and pansies, which inspire him to paint obsessively. (Kitano, who wrote, directed, and edited, did the paintings as well.)

Fireworks is the first of Takeshi Kitano’s seven movies to be released here, although Quentin Tarantino’s Miramax imprint Rolling Thunder just issued the director’s 1993 film Sonatine almost simultaneously. I’d like to see them all. As director, Kitano resembles a cross between Jacques Tati and the Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, whose absurdly stylized mid-’60s gangster thrillers (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill) are dazzling head-scratchers. Onscreen, his lopsided smile, rumpled look, and shuffling walk call to mind Charlie Chaplin as Columbo—albeit a Columbo who can wipe out a car full of assassins in less than a second.

Fireworks is demanding viewing—I enjoyed it a lot more the second time, when the characters and the chronology became much clearer—but its inversion of the cop movie’s usual ratio of nine parts bullets to one part humanity is unexpectedly moving. It’s a flower that burns.

—Jim Ridley

Fireworks (Hana-Bi) plays Fri. through Sun. at the Watkins Belcourt.

A sight to see

In his 1996 film The Underneath, Steven Soderbergh experimented with structural and stylistic methods for enlivening a rather ordinary genre picture, a remake of Criss Cross. Colored filters on the camera lens differentiated flashbacks from present action; impressionistic close-ups faded into neon blobs of color, serving as bridges between scenes; the protagonist (Peter Gallagher) connected with the audience by means of a blank, straight-ahead stare.

Soderbergh refines all these techniques in Out of Sight, a first-rate Elmore Leonard caper that couldn’t be more different in tone and content from The Underneath. Where the earlier film involved a tense journey through one man’s psychological landscape, Out of Sight involves a collection of colorful characters who don’t have enough brains to go around. But Soderbergh uses his stylistic touches to ease the audience through the plot complications (most of which are disposable McGuffins) and to generate romantic heat between the leads, always a thorny problem for thrillers. His approach is not only thoroughly professional, it’s revelatory. If every hired-gun director stamped his films so indelibly with thought and functional style, there’d be no such thing as an ordinary movie.

George Clooney, as serial bank robber Jack Foley, gives his first real starring performance, thanks to Soderbergh’s insistence that he hold his head up and look his conversation partner in the eye. It makes all the difference: Suddenly a man who always thought he had to bat his eyes and flirt to get attention finds that he’s irresistible when he lets us see him head on. Clooney’s Foley breaks out of a Florida prison as the movie opens, taking federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) hostage when she interrupts his escape. After forced intimacy in a car trunk, Sisco finds that she can’t get the handsome devil out of her mind, even as she joins the task force tracking down the escapees. Meanwhile, Foley heads for Detroit to join some ex-con acquaintances for a raid on a stock-fraud millionaire (Albert Brooks) who let slip in the pen he had a fortune in uncut diamonds stashed away.

In Detroit, the atmosphere subtly shifts. Where Florida was pastels and goofy tourist hats, and Lompoc Prison was white-hot sun and yellow jumpsuits, Detroit is blue cold, and its denizens are as hard and vicious as they are inept. The wacky caper atmosphere dissipates in the winter wind, and charming cool isn’t enough for Jack and Karen, who generate their own heat in a steamy hotel encounter. The gentle illusions the film has allowed itself are shattered by the thuggish Maurice, a former boxer played by the inimitable Don Cheadle, whose quiet menace gives the ending far more gravity than one might expect from the comedic trappings.

Out of Sight is a treat in every way, from its cast to its dialogue to its lean, direct narrative line. But Soderbergh raises it above simply star-powered entertainment. He uses each assignment to develop his personal skills, disdaining the workmanlike approach to Hollywood hackwork exemplified by Francis Ford Coppola in last year’s The Rainmaker. As a result, his work hasn’t been coopted by the systematic grind that dooms so much genre product; far from selling out, he’s all the more admirable. Line his pockets with a clear conscience.

—Donna Bowman

Stranger paradise

For four days this week, starting Monday, the Watkins Belcourt offers a can’t-miss double feature of two of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers. The first, 1959’s North by Northwest, with ad man Cary Grant artfully dodging worldly spy James Mason, brutal henchman Martin Landau, and a murderous crop-dusting plane, deserves its classic status: It’s a delicious concoction of erotic tension, suave menace, and witty banter. Hitchcock’s expert use of setting and montage results in a handful of the most indelibly suspenseful moments in movie history.

My favorite Hitchcock film, though, is 1951’s Strangers on a Train, a hair-raising, thematically rich black comedy that offers one brilliantly engineered thrill after another. Two men, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train and exchange tales of woe, which Bruno suggests could be remedied by an exchange of murders. Guy (Farley Granger) thinks he’s kidding—until the first victim turns up. When Guy balks at fulfilling his end of the deal, the movie ping-pongs between Bruno’s attempts to implicate him in the murder and his own attempt to clear his name.

The plot has been parodied and copied to a fifth-generation blur. What has never been equaled is Hitchcock’s understanding of our darkest longings, or the ingenious way he tweaks them for maximum enjoyment. Good people occasionally harbor indecent thoughts, and Hitchcock zeroes in on ours every time he shifts our sympathies to Robert Walker’s irresistibly creepy Bruno, who acts on every nasty impulse that nice Guys throttle. Guy and Bruno, though diametrically opposed, are doubles—not for nothing is Guy a tennis pro—and the director uses their escalating battle of wits and a wealth of twin/mirror imagery to explore one of his favorite themes: the duality of human nature. Try counting all the paired objects, actions, shots, or characters that appear onscreen—or contemplate the barely concealed sexual tension between hero and villain.

Or don’t. While Hitchcock’s best films are cinematically and thematically complex enough for ongoing study, they’re beloved because they work as pure entertainment. The subtexts are fascinating, but nobody would care if the texts weren’t such a blast. From the justly famous tennis-match sequence—in which one suspicious head in a crowd of spectators refuses to follow the ball—to the morally ambivalent murder at the carnival, Strangers on a Train reminds you that a big thrill of going to Hitchcock’s movies is getting to live out the choices you’d never make, even the darkest ones. Especially the darkest ones.

—Jim Ridley

Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest show Mon. through Thurs. at the Watkins Belcourt.

Reanimated

During Disney’s remarkable run from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King, the appearance of that little castle before the opening credits served as an imprint, standing for the sort of broadly appealing, well-crafted entertainment that existed in the A-pictures of Hollywood’s past. But commercial success can breed artistic failure. The awareness of how many eyes were trained on its product almost paralyzed Disney, forcing the studio into desperate attempts to reproduce its winning formula while simultaneously adding sociopolitical and market expectations that a simple kidflick shouldn’t have to bear. By last year’s cute but overwrought Hercules, Disney’s little castle had become an ominous symbol of the triumph of packaging over moviemaking.

What a pleasant surprise, then, to see Mulan—an exciting, funny, unassuming piece of animation that harks back to the unexpected quality of The Little Mermaid. Based on a Chinese folktale, Mulan follows the title character, a headstrong bumbler (voiced by the plucky Ming Na-Wen), as she joins the emperor’s army in her father’s place, disguising herself as a man to battle the invading Mongol hordes. She’s aided in her quest by a lucky cricket, a clever miniature dragon (voiced, often hilariously, by Eddie Murphy), and a handsome general’s son (B.D. Wong) who pledges to “make a man” out of her.

The standard objections apply. The songs are obtrusive, the animal sidekicks seem inappropriate for such an elegant tale, and the contemporary references jolt the viewer out of the film’s historical cast. And that’s without the borderline-offensive Westernizing of Asian characters, and the presentation of war as a fun, zany endeavor. What’s bothersome about these elements isn’t that they’re ineffective; in fact, however objectionable, they’re quite crowd-pleasing. The disappointment is that Disney feels compelled to shoehorn another straightforward adventure into this hackneyed formula.

Still, Mulan tones down and even breaks out of the formula in subtle ways. The character design relies on clean, minimal lines, and the backdrops are spare, shaded in muted watercolors. The computer animation effects are more functional than dazzling, which serves to make the massive battle sequence easier to follow and more exciting to watch. Most importantly, this is the first Disney animated feature of this era to have a three-act structure, rather than skipping blithely from set-up to climax. That little extra bit of plot and character development strengthens the film’s theme of family honor, infusing the story with genuine emotion.

But what elevates Mulan is the fact that it’s the first Disney film since Beauty and the Beast that doesn’t leave you feeling worked over. There have been bright spots in all the feature-length Disney cartoons of the past decade, but all of them tried so hard to entertain that they all but eliminated the element of delight. They had no unaffected moments. Given the declining grosses of its recent features, one gets the feeling that with Mulan Disney convinced itself the stakes had been lowered, and the studio responded with a film that reclaims the quiet charms of the best children’s entertainment. Suddenly, the castle is worth visiting again.

—Noel Murray

—Noel Murray

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