Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Dir.: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
PG, 96 min.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Dir.: Simon West
PG-13, 96 min.
Both films showing at area theaters
The similarities between Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider extend beyond their both having entered general release on the same weekend. Both feature a team of scientists and adventurers who plunder ancient ruins. Both feature leads who are driven by absent father figures. And both are part of a trend this summer toward brisk, amiable action-adventure movies with little ambition (A Knight’s Tale, Evolution).
Atlantis is the latest animated feature from Disney, which has been trying hard lately to reconnect with the kiddie-culture zeitgeist by dabbling in computer animation and shying away from the musical style with which it conquered the early ’90s. Yet while it has upped the levels of fantasy violence and “one-for-the-parents” inside jokes, the Mickey Mouse mill continues to assure that each of its features shares the same airless, hyperactive methodology that has begun to exhaust even the studio’s fans.
Atlantis tells the story of Milo Thatch, a cartographer who believes he’s discovered the key to finding the location of the lost, sunken continent. With the aid of a wealthy, eccentric friend of his late grandfather’s, Thatch and a culturally diverse army of mercenaries descend to the bottom of the ocean and discover a civilization that’s intact but struggling to survive. Ethical debates ensue over preservation vs. profit, while Thatch befriends a local girl who shares with him the Atlanteans’ secrets.
The ethnically typed supporting cast gets off some good lines, but for the most part, the joking seems forced and out of place in what should be a wide-eyed journey full of awe and wonder. There’s not much that resonates about Atlantisthe New Age spirituality is weak and uninspiring, and there’s not even any of the “back to the womb” pop psychology that has made the lost continent so seductive to pulp writers. The film’s greatest appeal will be to old-time fantasy buffs and cartooning experts, who will appreciate the nods to Jules Verne, the Will Eisner-like look of the characters, and the cityscapes designed by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. But that’s all gravy on a very thin steak.
At least Atlantis is watchable, which is more than can be said for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Angelina Jolie stars as the heroine, whose cinematic adventures are based on the popular video game. Here, Lady Croft is tasked by her absent father (played by Jon Voight in an evocative bit of stunt casting) to locate two pieces of an ancient tablet before they can be united by the Illuminati to attain world dominance. Croft finds one half of the tablet in the first hour but chooses not to destroy it, even though that would effectively end her assignment. Instead, she gives it to the bad guys, who lead her to the other half.
The reason for this lapse in judgment is that Croft hopes to use the tablet herself to find her father, but this motivation isn’t very convincing. It’s just an excuse to prolong the action, and to get more quick-cut, hard-to-follow gunfights out of director Simon West. Like most video game backstory, the Tomb Raider plot is one-dimensional and simple, designed to be skipped by those who just want to start playing. (Only in the movie, there’s no “select” button to press impatiently.)
The movie not only lacks dimension, it lacks a sense of humor about its originssome knowing mockery of the ridiculousness of an upper-crust gal fighting robots in ancient crypts. Jolie, saddled with a stiff British accent, adds little except for the ability to squeeze into costume and to strike the requisite poses. The sexy-action-figure nature of Jolie’s performance makes Tomb Raider an ideal movie for fetishists, as does the extremity of West’s gun worship, which extends to the final shot.
These complaints aside, the picture is ultimately a dud because it does little more than provide a few fleeting adrenaline rushes. That’s hardly a novel approach to summer moviemaking, but this year especially, the thrills seem to be getting cheaper and less meaningful. Great action-adventure films have characters that we remember decades later, dialogue that we quote, and moments that get under our skin, haunting our dreams. This year’s crop is content to jerk us around and then collect the money that falls out of our pockets.
For anyone who thinks he’s seen everything movies can do, I have just three words: I Am Cuba. The Buena Vista Social Club usually gets the credit for sparking America’s late-’90s fascination with Cuban culture. What really lit the fuse, though, was the release six years ago of this one-of-a-kind marvela 1964 Soviet-produced propaganda film that’s in many ways the pinnacle of cinematic delirium. Intended as a pro-Castro denunciation of capitalist excess, this mix of hot music, seedy Havana chic, agitprop melodrama, and jaw-unhinging visuals is perversely glamorousone reason it languished in the Kremlin’s vaults for almost 30 years.
Never shown outside Cuba or the Soviet Union until 1992, I Am Cuba emerged in the mid-’90s as the film discovery of the decade. It was championed by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola; it was copied by Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights. It only played once in Nashville, at Sarratt in 1995, and for weeks afterward I’d run into wild-eyed friends who’d say, “Omigod! Did you see I Am Cuba?”
Well, now’s your chance, as the film opens Friday for a week’s run at the Belcourt. Shot in 1963, just months after the Cuban missile crisis, I Am Cuba depicts a cycle of oppression, revolt, and triumph, starting with the deprivations of the Batista years and ending as Castro summons the will of the people. Individual stories fold into a poetic framework of conflict: A penniless Cuban girl is forced into prostitution for high-rolling American tourists; a farmer burns his cane fields rather than relinquish them to the dictator’s cronies at the U.S. Sugar Corporation. A student leader plots to assassinate a police-state thug, but his hand stays at the crucial momenta favor that won’t be returned.
Politically, I Am Cuba is a fossilized artifact of Cold War communist exuberance. The criticisms of bellicose capitalist meddling and brutality under Batista are ugly truths, from the murder of student activists to the bombing of civilian villages. But the movie seems archaic in light of 40 years of poverty and viciously suppressed dissent under Castro. Propaganda generally makes for lousy drama, and the noble peasants and Snidely Whiplash villains here are no exception. It’s worth noting that Cuban and Russian viewers at the time found the movie heavy-handedin Cuba, it was nicknamed I Am Not Cuba.
Cinematically, though, I Am Cuba is nothing short of astonishing. Using a fleet hand-held camera, director Mikhail Kalatozov, cameraman Sergei Urusevsky, and their two camera operators rigged shots of daredevil complexity and dynamism. The most celebratedthe one acknowledged in Boogie Nightsbegins atop a skyscraper, then descends down the side before following a bikini babe to the bottom of a swimming pool, all in one unbroken shot. Another travels up a building, through a cigar factory, then out an open window several stories upthen continues, with no visible support, high above the center of a city street.
The astounding camerawork is enhanced by infrared film, which creates black-and-white imagery so silvery and starkly contrasted it looks supernatural. It makes foliage look like feathers; it makes I Am Cuba as beautiful a movie to behold as I’ve ever seen. And if its political aims are naïve and dated, its fervor is inseparable from its moviemaking passion.
The trouble with Harry
Forget the explosions and car crashes leaking out of the adjoining theaters playing the summer blockbusters. With a Friend Like Harry may be the noisiest movie of the year. In nearly every scene, the protagonist, Michel, carries on amidst a backdrop of unwanted, annoying sounds: metallic vibrations from his patched-up car, the rattling of an old refrigerator coil, sirens, barking dogs, an irritating cell-phone ring. Director Dominik Moll uses Michel’s attempts to ignore this ubiquitous sound pollution to underline his inability to control anything. Human beings are supposed to master their environment, but Michel can only pretend it’s not there.
Luckily, in a convenience store bathroom, Michel encounters someone who can help. Harry (played by Sergi López) claims to be an old school chum, and after he’s invited himself to the holiday fixer-upper where Michel is spending the summer with his wife and three daughters, he rhapsodizes about the writing talent Michel showed in his teenage days. Convinced that Michel is being kept from expressing his creativity by a host of inconveniences, Harry blithely offers solutions, no strings attached. He starts with a new SUV, which is one thing. But when he conceives “solutions” for the people who interfere in Michel’s life, his assistance reaches a new and frightening level.
Laurent Lucas portrays Michel as a protagonist who can’t deal with his problems because he doesn’t recognize that they are problems. Living means ignoring life’s background noises: screaming kids, crappy cars, meddling parents. Harry’s direct approach to life fascinates him, even while Harry’s actual deeds repel him. But it’s the constant evocation of a larger world that makes With a Friend Like Harry more than a Hitchcock rip-off. In fact, the story recalls novelist Patricia Highsmith, while the creepy, all-pervading ambience owes much to the Coen brothers. Harry is cut from the mold of Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, and in patterns lifted from Blood Simple, the camera prowls around the pink tile bathroom where Michel waits for his muse.
Anglicizing the title into half of a cliché might mislead potential audiences to view this as a black comedy. It’s plenty funny at times, but the really creepy notion is that Michel does need a friend like Harry. The international English title is Harry, He’s Here to Help, and the French title translates literally into something like, “Harry, a friend who means you well.” These alternate titles suggest that beyond Moll’s undeniable thrills is the unsettling notion that good intentions may indeed be all that matter.
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