Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One-World Filmmaking

The International
DVD via DVDPlay

As my movie-watching habits have changed and become more completist, like my music-listening, I've realized that it's possible to appreciate a bad film for a single good scene, just like how the right key track can partially redeem a tepid album. But ultimately a director must make good films, and a band must produce good albums, to stand the test of time.

The International has a very sluggish first hour, inflating a plot that's no less silly than any of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies and an international cast of recognizable types who are exactly as they seem to be with lovely technical shots of European scenery. Then the plot shifts to New York and appropriately to classical film logic it immediately gets a good deal more violent, in the form of a quite glorious sequence set in the Guggenheim where German director Tom Tykwer has fun mincing together Hong Kong bullet ballet, Tarantino-style bloody delight in the practical effects of gunshot impact, and a gleeful pleasure taken in blowing up a lot of scenery just for the fun of it borrowed from westerns of all time periods, with the whizzbang handiwork of a troupe of overcaffeinated Foley artists singing out of all the surround-sound speakers.

Naomi Watts doesn't have much to contribute because she's drawn the short straw in a script full of softly-speaking big sticks (major glower power at work in The International, with Armin Mueller-Stahl's of special notice) but Clive Owen continues to improbably keep the same basic character riff fresh -- some day, a bold filmmaker should make a picture where Clive Owen plays an overworked, insomniac everyman at his wit's end who shows up for work one day and nothing at all bad happens. The movie is part of that new class of American-written, Euro-directed action movies that are beginning to proliferate as the realities of digital distribution sink into the movie business. The International benefits from its international background, both in the authenticity of its locations and cast and the confining factors of its budget. They're not making $50 million thrillers in Hollywood these days, more $250 million blue-screen tentpole sequels, and as such some of these transcontinental projects are keeping alive the tradition of practical stunts and "real" effects in action movies.

The best thing about The International's signature gunfight isn't that the scene breaks any new ground, it's that if you know what to look for you can tell the whole thing was done with stuntmen and squibs blowing up in the walls of the set. Rather than using digital matte work to make imaginary bullet holes appear in the real museum, the filmmakers constructed a massive, multilevel mock Guggenheim and then literally blew the crap out of it. That's so much better. The practical vs. digital effects debate in film is not at all dissimilar to the analog vs. digital debate in audio. Only there are actually some circumstances under which digital film effects are justifiable ("Lost," for example, would have been impossible to make any time before it actually was), for example when the danger to a stuntman would make the shot too difficult to film practically. There's no similar argument for CD over vinyl (as a pure listening medium -- I don't care what you do in the car or on the treadmill).

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