Sunday, July 24, 2016

For the birds

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2003)

I didn’t register one shot in F. Gary Gray’s remake of The Italian Job that seemed computer-generated. I know they’re there – for all I know, as pervasive as in X2 or Matrix Reloaded, but it doesn’t feel like it. This doesn’t mean that the film strives for realism exactly; just that its conception of the unreal is drawn a little tighter than we often see nowadays. The film’s iconic image – of souped-up Minis whizzing around Los Angeles – seems to sum up this intent: the cars are too plain cute and quirky to serve as the vessel for a calculating Hollywood machine.

Matrix Reloaded

Talking of which, a few belated words about Matrix Reloaded, which is indeed a calculating machine. Not a brainless one – there’s hardly a moment in the film that doesn’t feel deeply considered. But lightning didn’t strike twice. Strictly in the context of the film’s own universe, the sequel may hold some minor revelations, but that’s about it.

I enjoyed the fight between Keanu Reeves and the dozens of Hugo Weaving clones – I thought that was quite a dazzling creation (albeit too stylized). But the much-heralded chase on the freeway turned out to be vastly overdone, and much of the film felt surprisingly dour, as though the success of the first film constituted a prison rather than a liberation. With all the years of build-up about the Wachowski Brothers and their secretive mega-opus, I guess it had never occurred to anyone that they would have invested all the good ideas they had into the first film. Oh well, you live and learn.

The Italian Job is a happier event. I don’t remember the British original at all, but it’s fondly remembered for its chase sequences and (especially in Britain) for the Michael Caine line: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.” In the new version, Mark Wahlberg plays the leader of a motley gang that pulls off an intricate gold heist in Venice. The celebrations are cut abruptly short when gang member Edward Norton holds up the others, takes all the gold for himself and leaves them for dead. But they survive, except for Donald Sutherland, and a year later they track down Norton in LA where, with the help of Sutherland’s daughter Charlize Theron, they plan to take everything back.

The Italian Job

It’s the kind of action film that makes you appreciate the intricate choreography behind the illusion of seamlessness. The movie has just enough psychology not to seem soulless and utterly disposable, but not so much that a preoccupation with weightier affairs will seep into our enjoyment. At the end Norton meets what seems to be a rather horrible fate, but the movie presents it with a backdrop of jaunty music, as though he were off to a holiday camp. You register the reality of it, but lightly. And yet, The Italian Job avoids the smirky tone of something like Ocean’s Eleven, where the cast seemed to be having too good a time with each other to worry about the audience. And to prove just how radical a genre film it is, it avoids two major staples – the love scene between the hero and heroine, and the contrived twist ending where the villain returns from the dead or suchlike (I was especially surprised at the latter show of restraint).

I was in the middle of writing this article, and I’d drafted the following paragraph:

  • It seems to me that an increasing number of star actors, capable of challenging and interesting work, choose to lose themselves in roles that surely can’t stretch them. Edward Norton, one of the most talented actors of his generation, is completely wasted in the villain’s role. Wearing a droopy moustache and ratty haircut, he’s a mean-spirited character with no redeeming features, with few scenes that go beyond the strictly functional. It’s truly hard to see what the appeal of the role was for him. Other than the money of course. Norton’s increasing capitulation to this kind of work (see also The Score) seems like a potent symbol of how the notion of being a serious actor has deteriorated. Robert de Niro has been on the same trail for a few years now, but at least he was artistically pure for the first fifteen years or so.

But then I read an article that claimed Norton was forced to do the movie because of a contractual commitment dating back to his debut, Primal Fear, and he only took the job grudgingly. Which, assuming that’s true, struck me as a useful lesson in the pitfalls of presuming to discern anyone’s motives for doing what they do. But either way, The Italian Job would be a somewhat better sell-out vehicle than most of them.

Winged Migration

The documentary Winged Migration is an entirely different kind of technical achievement. Director Jacques Perrin and a vast team spent four years filming birds all over the world (the closing credits basically read like a world atlas) – concentrating on migratory birds and their routes. The footage is, in a word, astonishing, capturing so many birds from so many angles and perspectives that it’s as if the world had become a camera, casting aside normal technical constraints.

The film’s in-built irony is that by getting closer to the birds than perhaps any film ever made, it communicates eloquently the proper role of mankind: to leave them alone. Humans appear only sparsely in the film, most often destructively, as poachers or hunters (the scene of a soaring aerial shot suddenly interrupted by gunfire and a sharp fall to earth is surely more shocking than anything in this year’s action/suspense crop), otherwise as merely superfluous. The film doesn’t try to anthropomorphize the birds, but anyone who watches the film will be convinced that they possess an emotional landscape similar at least in its outlines to our own. At various moments they appear pensive, frightened, engaged, content – you name it.

Maybe the movie suffers a little bit from its very breadth. At numerous times, I would have been content to spend more time with a particular sequence, but it always moves on quickly to another place, as if itself constantly seized by the need to move on. Much as you marvel at the mystery, you yearn to understand better. At one point, for example, the narrator says that the young birds memorize landmarks during their maiden migratory voyage, to help them retrace the journey. But it wasn’t clear to me whether that was meant as a literal statement that’s been in some way scientifically demonstrated, or whether it’s poetic licence.

Whatever the answer, that voice-over narration (which is fortunately used sparsely) is the film’s major flaw, along with some very lame songs (ditto). However, even these flaws have a silver lining: they help underline how humans can sometimes be crasser than birds would ever be.

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