Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Swimming Pool

With her watchful, slanted eyes and sliver of a smirk, Charlotte Rampling has a feline edge of mystery and barely suppressed ferocity that few directors have known how to tap into. But for French director Francois Ozon, who wrote the lead in Swimming Pool for her, the 58-year-old actress is an inspiration. “Swimming Pool, like Under the Sand, is the fruit of a true collaboration between Charlotte and me,” he told Cinema magazine. “We’ve found one another, and we’re not about to let each other go.”

Under the Sand, the unsettling story of a devoted wife who slowly goes mad after her husband’s sudden disappearance, became an art-house hit in this country and did well in France largely on the strength of Rampling’s powerful performance. She’s also onscreen for almost every scene in Swimming Pool, the story of a woman who quite deliberately creates her own reality, but this time she dances a compelling tango with an equally strong young actress.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Bad Boys II

Bad Boys, which made a movie star of Will Smith, was a $10 million sleeper that the studio almost pulled the plug on. Smith, who played too-cool-to-care Miami cop Mike Lowry, and Martin Lawrence, who played his perpetually frustrated partner, Marcus Burnett, were brought in after Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, for whom the script was developed, dropped out. Director Michael Bay, a 28-year-old who had directed only music videos and ads, had only a pittance for rewrites, so his lead actors improvised heavily to make the script work for them. In the process, they came up with the banter that was one of the loose-limbed movie’s greatest charms. Bay and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson did the rest, giving the movie their signature polished look, high-voltage energy, and copious explosions.

Bad Boys II, the sequel the studio was panting for, cost more than seven times as much, which makes you appreciate the slick look of the original. It also makes you wonder what all the extra millions were spent on. A lot must have gone to salaries, since both stars are now hot and Bay has since upped his salary by directing hits like Pearl Harbor and Armageddon. But a lot must have literally gone up in flames. Bad Boys II is Bad Boys on steroids, with more and bigger explosions, a much larger and classier fleet of vehicles to trash, and a tendency to take things too far.

Once again, Mike and Marcus are trying to keep a big drug deal from going through. Complicating the bust this time is Syd (Gabrielle Union), Marcus’s sister and Mike’s girlfriend, who gets abducted by the dealer in the course of her work. Syd, it seems, is a gun-toting, stunt-driving, bad guy-seducing undercover DEA agent — a twist that the talented but sweet Union can’t quite pull off.

Syd’s romance with Mike does not convince either, though Union is easy to buy as a love interest. The damp head of that match seems to be Smith, who has yet to pull off a convincing onscreen romance. But the lack of chemistry between Mike and Syd doesn’t detract from the fun as much as the chill between Mike and Marcus.

Smith is a bona-fide movie star, and he always plays smooth-talking ladies’ men. He’s a man’s man as well, though, and his characters tend to do their real bonding with their buddies. In Bad Boys, his Mike played Oscar to Marcus’s Felix: the two squabbled constantly, but the affection between them was palpable. In the sequel, Marcus seems truly fed up with Mike, which makes his complaints a lot less fun to listen to. Their relationship may be more realistic, but it’s not nearly as funny — and who wants realism in a movie like this?

Bruckheimer and Simpson (who gets a co-producer credit on Bad Boys II although he died in 1996) pretty much invented the blow-’em-ups that dominate our summers. From their first effort, 1983’s Flashdance, the producers of Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Days of Thunder knew how to tap into our lizard brains.

Their short attention span theater always features underdogs and rebels who triumph by breaking the rules, but the plot is not the point. The real appeal lies in watching self-assured young men and clothing-averse young women fret, flirt, zip around in glistening machines and generally act cool, burnished by picture-postcard-perfect camerawork and lighting and backed by pounding soundtracks. And, of course, to watch stuff get blown up.

But that golden formula may be losing its sheen. Like junkies upping the dose to maintain the same high, Bruckheimer and his imitators have to keep giving us more bang for the buck just to keep our adrenaline flowing at the same rate, and you can only do so much of that before you OD. Even Marcus seems to think things have gone too far in Bad Boys II. “You’re gonna break a world record for gunfights in a week!” he tells Mike.

There are at least seven ferocious gun battles in this movie, plus five drawn-out chases, including one stunner on a bridge, where cars on a fleeing transport truck are let loose one by one to somersault into the cop cars speeding in pursuit. There’s also an infestation of rats; a sawn-apart body whose gory parts are crammed into a barrel; a severed finger; embalmed bodies that tumble out of a mortuary truck into heavy traffic, where some get run over; and a scene inside a mortuary where Mike roots around inside corpses in search of evidence.

Are we having fun yet?

Sunday, July 6, 2003

Today I Vote for My Joey

As stagebound and talky as a sitcom and starring a feisty group of card-carrying AARP members, Today I Vote for My Joey plays like a Yiddish version of The Golden Girls, but producer-writer-director Aviva Kempner has more on her mind than geriatric sex jokes. The subject of this 20-minute short is the Florida voting fiasco of the last presidential election, and Kempner wastes no time on subtleties in driving home her point. As one character puts it: “They stole the election from us!”

The movie is playing this week at the New Jersey International Film Festival, where it was named this year’s Best Short Narrative Film/Video. It opens on the day of the 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach, where a group of elderly Jewish friends and the Haitian home health nurse who tends to one of them are all raring to cast their votes for Al Gore and that nice Jewish boy, “Joey” Lieberman.

The old friends kvell at the prospect of voting for the first Jewish vice presidential candidate ever while the nurse talks about how proud she’ll be to participate in a free election after the political repression she experienced in Haiti. But when it comes time to vote, the nurse is shocked to hear that her relatives have been turned away from the polls and the Jews are horrified to learn that, confused by their butterfly ballots, they voted for “that anti-Semite [Pat] Buchanan.”

There are no gray areas in this brightly lit film, which makes no effort to appeal to those who don’t share its politics. “It’s a real Democratic revenge film,” Kempner said in a phone interview from her Washington, D.C. home. “There’s no doubt about that.” Paired at the festival with Unprecedented, a documentary about the 2000 election that its website describes as “a disturbing picture of an election marred by suspicious irregularities, electoral injustices, and sinister voter purges in a state governed by the winning candidate's brother,” Kempner’s short is a celluloid call to action for people who think the wrong man won. When the two films played together recently in DC, she says, “People were laughing during my movie, and during Unprecedented there was a lot of booing. I think the two films together are a real catharsis for people.”

Though new to fiction films, Kempner is an old hand at documentaries. Her first movie, which she produced and co-wrote, was Partisans of Vilna, an account of the Jewish resistance against the Nazis. Promises to Keep, a documentary on the homeless whose narration she wrote, was nominated for an Academy Award, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a film about the Jewish baseball star of the 1930s and ’40s that she wrote, produced and directed, was nominated for an Emmy.

Kempner’s movies reflect her passions, which tend to center around what she calls “Jewish heroes.” The daughter of a Jewish-American soldier and a Polish Jew who survived a German labor camp by passing for Catholic, she was born in Berlin shortly after World War II. She grew up in Detroit, under the shadow of her parents’ memories of the Holocaust that killed three of her grandparents and one of her aunts. (Full disclosure: Her stepfather and my dad were good friends, so I have vivid childhood memories of her family -- and of seeing her as a comically full-throated, fur-coated mother in her high school's production of Bye Bye Birdie.)

After getting a masters degree in urban planning and a law degree, Kempner practiced law for a while, but she was soon drawn to moviemaking, inspired by seeing Roots and Holocaust on TV and by obsessive re-readings of Leon Uris' Mila 18, a book about the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Being a child of survivors, I have this feeling that I have a responsibility for telling these under-known stories,” she says. “That Jews did resist the Nazis, or what an amazing player Hank Greenberg was, or how devastating it was for these Jews to inadvertently vote for Pat Buchanan.” Even her production company bears witness, named for the maternal grandparents who died in Auschwitz.

Kempner made Joey under the auspices of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. She decided to focus on the 2000 election because it was “the thing that I felt the most upset about,” she says. “What was so awful was that the butterfly ballot was an innocent mistake, but why not have one consistent system for voting? I think we need voting reform in this country.”

“This is a good time to be thinking about that,” she adds, “since the politicians are already campaigning for the next election.”