Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Moviegoer's Journal - Part 2: The International

Still the February Limbo. Horror movies are joined by thrillers in this pre-spring release season. The Oscars air on Sunday. The big winner – most likely Slumdog Millionaire – will continue its extended run, and then the marquees will be cleared of 2008 releases. We’ll be all set for the springtime and early summer offerings. Here’s wishing all moviegoers a happy new year for movies.

4. The International (2/16), directed by Tom Tykwer, pits Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and FBI agent Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) against a powerful bank that brokers shady deals for countries in need of shady deals and controls them by keeping them in debt. (We all know about the controlling power of debt.) Enough said about the plot. This is a thriller, and the plot is usually made perplexingly convoluted in order to fool you into thinking it’s complex and intelligent. But plot is not essential here; a thriller’s job is to thrill. So, does the movie thrill? Beyond the confusing plot, The International incorporates a number of ingredients usually found in satisfying thrillers though some are more successfully developed than others. Here are the typical thriller elements that this thriller employs:

a. A character we care about. We care about Louis Salinger. He’s obsessed with his case, determined to pursue his quarry. He wants justice. He’s not a very developed character; all we know about him is that he can be rash and he never has time to shave. But I certainly cared about him as he pursues leads from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where he receives a nasty and surprising whack in the head, to Luxembourg, New York City, and Istanbul. All this time he is unshaven and we never see him take the slightest sip of water or the tiniest bite to eat. I worried about him.

b. Foreign locations. Mentioned above.

c. A shady German villain. If you’ve seen the preview, you know that Armin Mueller-Stahl divulges the insidious extent of the bank’s dastardly machinations. That he does this in his rich German accent gives the film a, well, rich German accent. “Everyone is inwolved.” He’s the most developed character – a faithful Stasi from Communist East Germany days ironically working for powerful capitalist profitmongers.

d. An attractive heroine. Naomi Watts fills that role – but her part in the story is minimal – and beyond holding Louis’s hand when he’s at the end of his tether, there’s no romantic involvement. She’s got a manly house-husband at home who makes a brief appearance to carry away one of the sleeping kids while Eleanor is working late on a crucial text message to an informant. Huh? What’s the point of showing that Eleanor is a mother with a husband who looks like a male model? Now I feel even sorrier for Louis.

e. Mystery. The film starts out with an interesting mystery in regards to how Louis’s agent friend is killed in front of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. We even get a flashback to the scene as Louis tries to remember what happened. There are chilling possibilities here – you know, with those flashbacks that show alternate versions of the incident; then the mystery is dropped. We never find out how the bad guys did it. Huh? This is as perplexing as Eleanor’s husband.

f. Shootouts. There’s a fair bit of shooting in this film, but the film’s set piece shootout takes place in New York City along the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim – and this scene makes the whole film worthwhile.

The Guggenheim Shootout:

(Spoiler alert)

Many recent films have suffered from a lack of patient set-up and development of an action scene. Things happen too suddenly. This is not the case here. Louis and his two buddy detectives follow a lead to an address that turns out to be a flattened lot. Then, after this setback, the pursuit begins afresh – taking us to the Guggenheim where it all goes down.

Once inside the Guggenheim, Tykwer takes a cue from Hitchcock and plays around with the dramatic potential of looking: we see what the characters are going to see seconds before they do. Then all hell breaks loose, but the action is always clear. In recent thrillers, the action has been ruined by stylistic camerawork and editing: jerky handheld style; faster-than-the-eye-can-follow cuts; and too many close shots that rob the viewer of the big picture. Here, Tykwer always makes it clear what is happening and what is at stake. He shoots up close for intensity, and then he pulls long to show Louis’s progress and what he’s up against.

The location is integral to this shootout. With its white walls, spiraling ramp, and glass cupola, the Guggenheim is a wonderfully atmospheric stage for a shootout. Also, like Hitchcock, Tykwer knows that a readily recognizable location adds drama to a scene of suspense. For practicality, the spiraling wall provides cover for the shooters all the way down.

The sound is tremendous. You get the euphony of cinematic gunfire. Add to that the tinkle of broken glass building to a crescendo of shattering panes.

Throw in an allusion to the Odessa Steps and you’ve got yourself a memorable action scene.

Thus, see The International for the Guggenheim shootout; the rest of the film is fairly engaging but mostly derivative.

(To be continued)


Ed Howard said...

I thought the film was more interesting than you did. Yes, narratively it's a typical thriller with an often silly plot and underdeveloped main characters (especially Watts). But it's stylishly, inventively shot, and Tykwer's apparent preference for long shots sets it apart from any number of other espionage thrillers of its type. He has a real eye for corporate architecture, the grid-like lines of glass-and-steel buildings that dwarf the protagonists. It's less a story about a particular guy investigating a mystery than it is about the broader theme of the individual versus the institution in world affairs.

And yes, the Guggenheim shootout was incredibly cool, and indicative of Tykwer's general concern with the ways in which place informs action.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment. I do think the film is stylish and inventive visually, and that's what I liked about it. I also liked that the stylish nature of it did not detract from the action or suspense. The Guggenheim shootout could have been ruined with handheld camerawork and jump cuts. (Or maybe there's another name for it - is there a technical term for the jerky motion Spielberg used in the Normandy landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan or is it just fewer frames per second?)

I read your review and I loved your focus on the long shots and the belittling architecture. Actually, I was going to give this movie a miss, but your review gave me that final nudge I needed - and I was glad to take your comments with me. There's that one expansive shot of the steel and glass building and all those sharp, regimented steps. An awesome shot.