Better and Better

There are new films in town from the respective directors of City of God and Oldboy, Fernando Meirelles and Chan-wook Park, or more exactly a new one from the director of City of God and an older one from the director of Oldboy. Inasmuch as both those titles stirred up considerable excitement, I expect that a number of moviegoers will be more excited about these new arrivals than I was, and yet (if this won't discourage them) I admit I enjoyed both of the directors' current releases more than their prior.

The Constant Gardener, marching under the pre-emptive banner of A Potboiler Production, is an adaptation of a John le Carré suspense novel (one I haven't read), and is a long stride for Meirelles from the slums of Rio de Janeiro. But not as long, quite, as the leap of his countryman, Walter Salles, from The Motorcycle Diaries to Dark Water -- from politically engagé to supernaturally engulfed. Le Carré has always had an elevated social consciousness, and a missionary zeal to match, and so the stretch for the Brazilian is largely geographical: to Kenya, where a multinational pharmaceutical company is using the natives as unwitting guinea pigs, or sacrificial lambs, for an experimental drug called Dypraxa. The spectator will require only the slightest touch of paranoia, or slightest taste for the paranoia genre, to find this premise credible. He will face a stiffer challenge to find it cinematic. Vague on particulars, slow in progress, thick in texture, the film follows a course of knowingness rather than "showingness." (Normal modus operandi for conspiracy theorists, who for a reason are not known as conspiracy exposers.) And the jiggle and jump in the visual style, though tempered a bit from City of God, can drum up little excitement on their own.

Many a filmmaker before Meirelles, like many a casual reader, has failed to locate the thrills in a le Carré thriller. Nevertheless, this one holds plenty of appeal as a love story, one which we know from the outset is to be an unhappy one. The murder of a British diplomat's wife in the African backcountry opens the door on a flashback to their first beginnings: he (Ralph Fiennes, almost cringingly diffident) dutifully reading a dull lecture on behalf of a government official in absentia, and she (Rachel Weisz, free and easy) reading him the riot act afterwards on the U.K.'s role in Iraq: "Vietnam the sequel." Not a meet-cute, but a meet-rude. And before they have time really to get to know one another, they're in bed, they're married, and, with a baby on the way, they're in Kenya, where the differences in their personalities are brought out in sharpest contrast: the professional fence-straddler and the inveterate firebrand. His private inquiry into her murder, apart from the light shed on corporate malfeasance, answers all questions about the genuineness of her love for him, and of his for her. As we have seen in such other le Carré vehicles as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking-Glass War, The Russia House, and (the most cinematic of these) The Little Drummer Girl, a gooey sentimentalist lurks within the sourball.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a year older than Oldboy, is part one of Chan-wook Park's so-called "revenge trilogy," three tales unconnected other than by theme, with part three of the cycle, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, already completed but still to come. We oughtn't to be kept waiting for that part any longer than the four months we have had to wait between parts two and one. The latter, postponing the thread of revenge until well underway, seems at first to be weaving the story of a kidnapping gone bad. "There are good kidnappings," asserts one of the schemers, "and bad kidnappings," and the present one had every intention of being a good one, a philanthropic fund-raiser to finance a lifesaving kidney operation for the sister of the turquoise-haired, deaf-mute mastermind. It goes bad, just the same, and then goes worse, in unpredictable and irreparable ways. The Korean filmmaker, on this showing, is a precisionist, a deadpan wit, an intermittent brute, and an ambiguous moralist. He is also a slowpoke. The twisty plot, while not without its improbabilities, has fewer of them, and smaller ones, than Oldboy; and the violence, while strong, is at least a little more restrained; and there is nothing at all to equate with the Fear Factor stunt of wolfing down a live octopus. These losses, as they will be viewed by some, will appear to others as gains. To me, for instance. And the image is cleaner, fresher, generally healthier to boot. Be aware, though, that the scheduled week at the Ken starting Friday, while not reduced in days, has been cut back to a single screening nightly, at 9:35. Which tells you something about the expected audience. Bloodsuckers only.

David Mackenzie's Asylum is not noticeably a step up from his Young Adam, nor a significant step removed from its era of repression, the late Fifties. The discontented and dangerously idle wife (Natasha Richardson) of a buttoned-down madhouse director (Hugh Bonneville) starts up a sort of Lady Chatterley thing with a dark, sweaty, lowborn wife killer and former sculptor (Marton Csokas) at work on the grounds. (Sometimes a tool is not just a tool.) Apart from a mildly shocking turn near the finish, the unfoldment seems rather over-obvious and overcalculated for a case of l'amour fou. The period cars, hats, dresses, and such, are enjoyable, even so; and the photography is crisp and clear; and Ian McKellen is properly smarmy as a manipulative psychiatrist who controls fewer puppet-strings than he'd like.

Tony Takitani, down to the final day of its week at the Ken, is somewhere around the fourteenth feature film of Jun Ichikawa, and the first to surface around here. No progress report will be possible. The source material is a story by Haruki Murakami, and its transition to the screen does not look to have been an easy one, never shaking loose from the omniscient third-person narrator. (At times the characters themselves will fill in the narrator's thoughts as if they were dialogue, a curious effect.) Unrolling almost in the form of a panorama, with the camera gliding left to right from one scene to the next, it tells of a man who is first attracted to a woman by her clothes ("She wore her clothes naturally," the narrator expounds, "as though enveloped by a special breeze"), then repulsed by her spendthrift obsession with them after their marriage, then left with a cavernous closetful of them after her death. The idea, teased out to a long, slow hour and a quarter, has a certain parable-like potency, but not enough to fight through the oatmeal-gray image (unflattering to the clothes), the monotonous musing piano, and the insistent wistful narrator. A running time of an hour and a quarter, however, deserves to be commended in itself, whether for the purpose of sustaining speed, as in Red Eye, or, as here, limiting tedium.

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