Opens Fri., May 27, at Varsity
Kontroll is a frivolous fable and a fabulous frivol, a lighthearted romp and a dark night of the existential soul—Slacker meets Metropolis. Set in the immemorial grottoes of the Budapest subway, it's seen mostly through the smoldering-coal eyes of Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), the haunted boss of a ticket-inspector team with more rude brio than the junkies in Trainspotting. Their job is to bust fare-cheater citizens, but their scarlet armbands don't seem to grant them a speck of respect, let alone authority. They also hunt a mysterious guy in a grim reaper hood who keeps shoving people in front of trains, and his comic doppelgänger, punky Bootsie, who spritzes folks in the face with shaving cream and hotfoots it down the labyrinth.
For a movie that's all about subterranean walls claustrophobically closing in, it's got a lot of exhilarating chase scenes set to the jaunty industrial drone stylings of Neo. Movies about aimless youth often settle into a Garden State–ish mood of drifty ennui, but first-time L.A./Budapest director Nimród Antal prefers to mix it up. One minute we're ennuizing with Bulcsú about his lost promise and yearnings toward the light at the end of the tunnel (or rather, the subway escalator); the next we're yukking it up over Bootsie or the insults flung at the inspectors by sarcastic commuters and their better-equipped transit-system rivals.
Team sports—fights and "railing" (footraces along the tracks while pursued by trains)—alternate with solo scenes sketching our antiheroes man by man: the grizzled, sagacious old "Professor," the innocent newbie, the hyperactive narcoleptic who yaks compulsively prior to collapsing like John Belushi on a coked-out "Weekend Update" rant. The love story is charmingly elusive. Bulcsú courts a drunken subway driver's beatific daughter (Eszter Balla), who dresses in a bear suit with a rump Kirstie Alley could call overupholstered. Can this girl be real? Or is she a vision? Anyway, she's leading him to the light, and he'll follow her fuzzy butt through commuter hell.
It soon becomes clear that Antal has no overall plan, and no intention to make his diverse moods and narrative tracks converge into a conventional destination. He mitigates this flaw with juicy characters and niftily orchestrated cinematic rhythms. Partly, he's trying to sustain a risky, floaty limbo feeling, a spell that could be snapped by a too-insistent plot. Also, I'll bet he's better at evoking dreaminess than dreaming up plots.
I'm usually Mr. Kvetch about the Lost Art of Plotting, but I was with Antal on his entire, non-goal-oriented ride. Antal may have plenty to learn about storytelling. But he's got what most young directors, even future great ones, lack: control. (R) TIM APPELO
Ladies in Lavender
Opens Fri., May 27, at Seven Gables
Charles Dance is an invaluable actor, but his directing debut is inept. What was he thinking? A grossly uneventful story about a pair of spinsters (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) who rescue a young mystery man washed up on their picturesque Cornish shores just before World War II, Lavender is meant to recall all those veiled-romance-but-no-sex-please-we're-British movies like Enchanted April. It mainly reminded me of the posters for those sorts of flicks—all tea and crumpets and dried flowers.
Dueling Oscar winners Dench and Smith do achieve something marvelous in their respective portraits of Ursula and Janet, sisters preternaturally attuned to each other's moods. Smith's Janet is the more horse- sensible sibling, a half-educated widow who can speak German with an appalling accent and tut-tuts indulgently when the more flibbertigibbetty Ursula does something rash. Prone to reveries about lost or imaginary youthful flings, Dench's virginal Ursula is a poignant creature—especially when hunky Andrea (the bore Daniel Brühl) washes up unconscious on the beach. The girls nurse him back to health and teach him English, but it's Ursula who obsessively caresses his lovely locks as he so angelically sleeps. Janet's better at the British art form of repressing desire.
At excessive length, it turns out Andrea is a genius Polish violinist knocked overboard from his voyage to Carnegie Hall. (Virtuoso Joshua Bell supplies the actual bow work.) Presented a villager's fiddle, he knocks 'em dead with the classics, then attends the local lowdown hoedown, belts down beer, and goes folkie to universal acclaim. Much of the pleasure of such films is the made-in-England quality of the local color; Lavender has a sense of place that'll make you want to visit Cornwall. But not the theater; a subplot about townsfolk who fear Andrea is a German spy sputters out suspenselessly. Eye of the Needle it's not. Another subplot has the sisters losing Andrea's attentions to Natascha McElhone, a tourist—I told you Cornwall is beautiful—who turns out to be the sister of the world's greatest violinist. Small village, huh?
Lavender is a rigorous test of cineaste sitzfleisch. To savor the deep acting of Dames Judi and Maggie, you must endure a story that goes nowhere slow and a director who keeps all emotions at an infinite distance. There's art to be seen, but you must suffer for it. (PG-13) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., May 27, at Metro and others
Here's what I take to be the difference between American gangster pictures and English gangster pictures. In the former, much thought and energy is given to new and interesting ways to kill people, which are then gratifyingly demonstrated for the lens. In the latter, exemplified by Matthew Vaughn's stylish and enjoyable Layer Cake, much thought and energy is given to discussing new and interesting ways to kill people. Then another pint is ordered. The deed matters less than the telling, which—with each successive pint—tends to recall other, earlier killings, or hoodlums who needed killing, which leads us back to another pint and another story.
You could call Layer Cake overly discursive in this regard, and at a certain point I confess to getting lost in the labyrinth of flashbacks and revenge stories. Not that I objected to such confusion: Anybody can kill a man, while not just everyone can tell a good story.
Layer Cake is one of those "just one last score" movies where simple plans turn out to be anything but. Daniel Craig (Sylvia) plays an almost unflappably smooth operator, a coke dealer who prides himself on keeping his head down and his nose out of trouble. Problem is, his higher-ups don't want him to retire healthy, happy, and rich. Bit by bit, Craig's unnamed hoodlum must abandon his code of proper criminal behavior; blood begins to seep, and bodies pile up, as he gradually loses his cool.
At the top of the criminal edifice (or "layer cake," built on escalating levels of shit) stands Eddie (Michael Gambon), now almost a legitimate industrialist. Below him, closer to our hero, are Jimmy and a hothead known as the Duke. Our protagonist is right to distrust them all; when a load of ecstasy gets boosted in Holland from some dangerous Serbs, he's the quintessential middleman being squeezed by both sides. He's also got to worry about finding Eddie's crackhead daughter, who keeps some nasty company. His low-profile, no-killing credo ("Quit while you're ahead") won't protect him now. Adding to the pressure, there's a lovely bird (Sienna Miller) who makes him think maybe, just maybe, the finish line's in sight.
Vaughn, previously the producer for Guy Ritchie (Snatch), maintains a posh, smooth, and propulsive tone to his pretzel-tied story. His detours and digressions almost add too many layers to his Cake, but they still taste sweet. Craig's handsome self-assurance is tempered by just a bit of surprise at the other crooks—and at himself. There are things he'd sought to avoid ("I'm not a gangster. I'm a businessman") that he finds staring back at him from the mirror. Some have compared his character, devoid of any personal detail or background, to your classic Clint Eastwood hero. But I see this blue-eyed man with no name in the Harrison Ford mold—with some warmth and self-doubt. As Indiana Jones, Ford famously said, "I'm making this up as I go along." Layer Cake provides the same pleasant sensation. (R) BRIAN MILLER
The Longest Yard
Opens Fri., May 27, at Metro and Meridian
Meet the kindler, gentler Adam Sandler. His sentimental new vehicle is a remake of the 1974 Robert Aldrich movie that starred Burt Reynolds as a football hero who wrecks a car, gets sent to jail, and is forced by the warden to lead a team of convicts in a game against the guards. Here, Reynolds has a superfluous part as jailbird quarterback Sandler's decrepit sidekick/mentor. Weirdly, he replaces Sandler's main sidekick, mouthy convict Chris Rock, in the middle of the film. What's next—hosting the Oscars?
Aldrich's original was a solid comic remake of his The Dirty Dozen. Prison guards, Nazis—what's the difference? It's all about the underdog, right? Well, in the latest Yard iteration by Peter Segal (auteur of Tommy Boy), we could use some Nazis. Sandler is so intent on sincerity that you actually miss Tommy Boy's rude animal vigor. Yard is nakedly stupid, then it still insists on fiddling your heartstrings with melodrama.
That said, the opening scene, wherein Sandler's down-on-his-luck QB smashes many cop cars with the fancy car of his bitchy, controlling girlfriend (Courteney Cox, upstaged by her protuberant bazooms), blows up real good. There is a like satisfaction in the many football scenes. Punts, stunts, long bombs, acrobatic flip-flops, gut-shredding sackings—it's fun to watch despite the lack of any scintilla of surprise. Seattleites will get a little frisson from the sight of Brian Bosworth in a minor gridiron guard role. Bosworth was once a National Association of Theater Owners "Action Star of Tomorrow" whose tomorrow never came, but this flick is right up his alley.
So why was it made? Sandler is trying to stretch out of his angry boy-man past and into a bright tomorrow that balances mass-market clowning with a more sympathetic grown-up persona. He was surprisingly effective as the winsome hero of Spanglish, and he tries to smuggle some of that emotional resonance into his role here—a good sport who goes through lowbrow hijinks that are beneath him, just because he's such a regular guy. Since everything about Yard is transparently fake, it loses him much career yardage. (PG-13) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., May 27, at Metro and others
It's Pixar's world, and all the other animation houses are just living in it. There's nothing particularly wrong with DreamWorks' new hybrid cartoon, which nicely integrates 2-D and 3-D techniques in a tale of four Central Park Zoo animals who find freedom's not what it's cracked up to be when shipwrecked on Madagascar. It's just that, so soon after the Oscar-winning The Incredibles, we expect the writing to be on par with the artwork. Conceptually, there's no more to Madagascar than a fish-out-of-water plot (or animals out of their cages), garnished with familiar lessons about friendship and the importance of free will over biological destiny. (In The Incredibles, of course, the opposite was true: One's inherent superpowers could not be denied.) The adventures are silly and simple, but not particularly satisfying. I'm guessing that in six months, kids will willingly go outside and play in the rain rather than watch the DVD.
Our cast consists of a showboating lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), wisecracking zebra (Chris Rock), hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer), and a hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith, who has nothing to work with besides . . . hipponess). I don't know why they spent the money on these A-listers, since they're all eclipsed by the supporting animals—like the chimps who, on a night out on the town, sensibly want to fling their poop at a Tom Wolfe lecture; and the four penguins bent on escaping the snowless city. ("It's all some kind of whacked-out conspiracy!" they cry. "We don't belong here!" Parents may feel the same way.) The main impression is of stuffed animals who've learned to talk—they're cute, but without much individual character.
Among the preview audience, kids responded to the slapstick and pratfalls, the sneezing and spitting, rather than the jokes. They certainly didn't laugh at the references to Born Free, Chariots of Fire, Saturday Night Fever, Cast Away, and Planet of the Apes. (It's another sign of Pixar's might that it doesn't use other movies as a crutch.) Madagascar's best sequence, which parents and children will appreciate, amusingly celebrates the inherent cruelty and violence of nature, set to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." Stiller's lion learns to appreciate his carnivorous place in the food chain ("I'm a monster!"), and that his friends might be lunch. It's called survival of the fittest, which Madagascar isn't. (PG) BRIAN MILLER
Mad Hot Ballroom
Opens Fri., May 27, at Uptown
Although fifth-grade kids are the stars of this endearing little documentary about competitive dance teams in the New York City public school system, my favorite moment comes when one of their teachers tries to explain the importance of the program. You expect schoolmarmy nostrums about learning life skills through ballroom deportment. Instead, Allison Sheniak, at TriBeCa's tony and rather privileged P.S. 150, hasn't got an ounce of pedagogic or bureaucratic cool. Looking more like a college girl than a teacher, she begins to spell out the virtues of dancing and the discipline it brings her kids—then suffers a Mike Myers–Linda Richman–SNL Coffee Talk–"I'm feeling a little verklempt!" moment and bursts into tears.
Well, if it's a truism that all teachers are noble and underpaid, then Ballroom makes sweet use of truisms. The kids are predictably cute, too, as they go through their paces. First the junior hoofers have to learn the steps, then make the team, then dance through the city championships. It's a lot of pressure for your average 11-year-old, and Ballroom relishes how each one of these kids is average in his or her own unique, embarrassed, confident, excited, and distracted way. There's tremendous diversity to these children, with emphasis on two other schools in Washington Heights (largely Dominican) and Bensonhurst (Italian-American, Asian, Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim). The film would've benefited from showing more of their home life (and perhaps one less round of competition), but it generally succeeds in following the Spellbound template.
The movie's also a love letter to teachers, like To Be and to Have. Says one instructor of the subject at foot, "It's much more than learning a bunch of steps. It's etiquette. It's knowledge of other cultures. It's life." To which I'll add—it's a lot of fun. (PG) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., May 27, at Varsity
Here's one way to crack the subtitle problem. For American audiences who don't want to watch foreign-language movies by essentially reading them, South Korean director Kim Ki-duk has created an ingenious comic romance in which two young lovers never speak to each other at all. Tae-suk (Jae Hee) surreptitiously breaks-and-enters his way into various homes around Seoul, stealing nothing and even doing the laundry, until he encounters silent, battered Sun-hwa (Lee Leung-yeon) in a posh hillside abode. She's got a jealous, violent husband, while he possesses no more than what he carries around on his motorcycle. They've got nothing in common and nothing to talk about—so they don't.
Instead, for about 90 remarkable minutes, they wordlessly fall in love, despite complications from the husband, the cops, and some home-squatting schemes that don't go quite as planned. Tae-suk's motives are never explained; he's neat and tidy, fond of photographing himself in his crash pads—often including himself among the family photos. He seemingly hasn't got a job or friends or family. For such a loner, perhaps one who's forgotten how to talk for lack of practice, you can see the attraction of essentially borrowing someone else's happy household: He knows it's not permanent or real, but it beats the alternative.
Of course, Sun-hwa has her household, and it's all too real. Her controlling husband, Min-kyu (Kwon Hyuk-ho), saves his love for golf. It's not clear whether he's more outraged that Tae-suk steals his wife or his 3-iron, which is used several times in the film as a weapon. In one of the movie's best sequences, Sun-hwa silently spies on Tae-suk when he first enters her home. They live parallel lives under the same roof for perhaps an entire weekend. Watching him, she sees what a good caretaker Tae-suk is of other's possessions—fixing things and cleaning up. That's what she needs, too, and she also gets to return the favor when Tae-suk has his own tears and bruises.
With enormous economy and tact, and not a few surprises, director Kim (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring) shows how his homeless lovers construct their own cozy structure out of silence. (R) BRIAN MILLER
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen
Runs Fri., May 27–Thurs., June 2, at Northwest Film Forum
It's difficult to place the Minutemen in the context of punk rock without defaulting straight to grandiose clichés, but the band's impact on the genre justifies some rather bold claims. That said, We Jam Econo—the first comprehensive documentary about the trio—shoulders a considerable burden without being entirely overawed by the subject.
Director Tim Irwin and producer Keith Schieron sensibly share the load by letting some of punk's most revered figures do the talking. The conclusion: Well beyond the group's short history (1979–85), the Minutemen influenced the bands that influenced the bands that—these days—get lazily described as punk rock. The flurry of interviews includes Ian MacKaye, (Minor Threat, Fugazi, and co-head of the fiercely independent Dischord Records), Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Colin Newman of British punk pioneers Wire, and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea (whose style owes a considerable debt to the Minutemen's Mike Watt). Throw in more comments from roommates, family members, and girlfriends, plus comprehensive interviews with Watt and drummer George Hurley (guitarist/vocalist D. Boone died in an auto accident in 1985), and we get a whole chorus trying to define the Minutemen and what they meant. Therein lies the caveat of Econo— if you don't know (or care) about the significance of the interviewees, all their postulation starts to sound redundant.
Thankfully, that's usually right when the painstakingly gathered live footage steps in. Despite the band's ardent dedication to touring, very little live footage exists, and Schieron and Irwin may have found all that's left. If you're a fan, watching the band in action is a treat. These scenes remind us how the music—short blasts of jazzy, angular rhythms, all pummeled and disfigured by Hurley's turbulent percussion—was a vast departure from most early-'80s punk (not to mention what's followed since). Boone and Watt's lyrics were erudite and proletarian, without becoming polemical. The Minutemen never signed to a major label, and suffered the usual hardships as the price for artistic integrity. True to its subject, this indie documentary shows how the Minutemen epitomized the independence and innovation of punk rock. Two decades later, as punk becomes increasingly tangential, it's good to remember how that term was once defined. (R) GRANT BRISSEY