Clive Owen has bank troubles in The International, but the people in Owl and the Sparrow tell us more about the world.
February 12, 2009
We have seen the future in Clive Owen’s face, and that future is bleak. The now-46-year-old English actor starred in one of the best films of 2006 (or of any year), Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian Children of Men, where his job was to safeguard the future of humanity. The present is likewise grim for Owen’s categorically violent characters in Frank Miller’s Sin City, Spike Lee’s Inside Man, the Driver series, and Will Graham’s British crime pic I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, as well as in Jack Manfred’s sour Croupier, Owen’s breakthrough role. It’s difficult to imagine him in a romantic comedy.
It has to do with his physical presence. The strength and resolve of Owen’s typical characters show through, but they always take a back seat to his essential bone-weariness. His is not a “hang-dog” expression, it’s “hang it all.” Owen’s big-screen masculinity is of the scruffy, anti-James-Bondian variety, which is why, with all due respect to Daniel Craig, Clive Owen should be the current James Bond for these post-martini times, disillusioned and case-hardened and in need of some sleep he’s never going to get. Punctuate it with a cigarette and a two-day beard, and we’ve got the basic Owen protagonist.
The International begins with a medium close-up of Owen standing outside the Berlin central train station, looking like a drowned rat. It grows nastier by leaps and bounds for Louis Salinger (Owen) as the increasingly familiar story unfolds. If only director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run; Heaven; Perfume) and writer Eric Singer had cooked up something a bit fresher than the old “malevolent clandestine superpower bent on taking over the world” scenario, à la Syriana, Traffic, or Goldfinger.
The laconic Salinger is an Interpol agent investigating major corporate skullduggery. IBBC, aka the International Bank of Business and Commerce, appears to be involved with assassinations, arms trading, intelligence gathering, destabilizing governments, and ultra-violent cover-ups of same from its fortress-like stronghold in Luxembourg, where sinister men in suits glower over computer screens and dispatch killers all over the globe. This bank has more armed goons than ATMs — don’t even think about complaining about a service charge.
There’s no Ernst Stavro Blofeld behind IBBC, just a pasty-faced, shaven-headed CEO named Skarssen (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen). Skarssen eschews fluffy white kittens — he lives quietly with his family. His Hitler-Youth kids help him make his cold-blooded decisions. Among his witticisms: “The true value of a conflict is the debt it produces.” ICCB is evidently modeled on BCCI, a similarly naughty real-life leviathan bank of the ’80s and ’90s — but verisimilitude alone cannot save this film.
The MacGuffin of the piece, the “Vulcan Guidance System,” has to do with an Italian family of arms manufacturers named Calvini, which gives the producers the chance to shoot spiffy second-unit stuff in Milan — also in Istanbul, the environs of Berlin, and New York City — while Salinger and his adversaries tussle over the dingus. And of course there’s an indecipherable old man, played by veteran I.O.M. Armin Mueller-Stahl, who holds all the secrets in his head. Just to round things out and provide The International with the whisper of a potential love interest, a New York assistant DA (huh?) named Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) pops up from time to time in various bits of business. But she’s strictly an afterthought.
As previously demonstrated, Owen can take a punch. The movie’s centerpiece, really the only reason to sit through it, occurs when Salinger goes into the Guggenheim Museum in New York on the trail of “Sherwood” (Brian F. O’Byrne), ICCB’s number one assassin. All of a sudden, a small army of hit men open fire on the Interpol man and his NYPD pal (Jack McGee) and turn the majestic Guggenheim atrium, with its curved 20th-century-modern ramp, into a Wild West shooting gallery. It’s the most spectacular “destruction” of a New York cultural landmark since Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin made their bones with a dinosaur at the American Museum of Natural History in On the Town. (Tykwer’s bullet storm was reportedly shot on a specially built set in Germany to stand in for the Guggenheim.)
One wonders how a filmmaker like the talented Tykwer, who has delved deeply into philosophical drama in such films as Heaven, The Princess and the Warrior, and Winter Sleepers — not to mention the techno-fueled destiny-mobile Run, Lola, Run — got saddled with a meat-and-potatoes screenplay so atypical of him. Take away the Guggenheim shootout and we’ve at least got Clive Owen at half throttle. Take away Owen and there’s nothing left but the tired old mystic cabal of sadistic sorcerers. Maybe the US government could send bailout money to this movie. Put me down for a dime.
Things aren’t nearly so frantic in Vietnam, scene of filmmaker Stephane Gauger’s charming little fable, Owl and the Sparrow — although cash and the lack of it once again drive the plot. But where the money trail in The International leads to clichés, the low-key exploits of a little girl named Thuy are arguably as unpredictable as a thunderstorm in the South China Sea.
Ten-year-old orphan Thuy — played with a beguiling mixture of toughness and vulnerability by first-timer Pham Thi Han — runs away from the factory where her “uncle” exploits her and other child laborers, and heads for nearby Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City, although no one there bothers with that name), where she joins the multitude of homeless kids selling flowers and trinkets on the street. Running parallel to her story are the lonely lives of Lan, a pretty flight attendant living in an HCMC hotel (Cat Ly) and Hai (Le The Lu), a gentle young man tending the animals at the city zoo. Fate intends these three to come together, and director Gauger sees to it with a light, wistful touch plus a maximum of Vietnamese local color.
Films from and/or about Vietnam on American screens are rare as phoenix tails. American-made Owl and the Sparrow, exec-produced by Timothy Linh Bui (Three Seasons) and Ham Tran (Journey from the Fall), takes full advantage of director Gauger’s Viet-American point of view (half Vietnamese, Gauger was born in Saigon) and his apparent dedication to telling true-to-life stories of ordinary Vietnamese. Owl and the Sparrow opens Friday at the Sundance Kabuki as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s “SFFS Screen” series. It’s worth the trip across the bay.
December 5, 2007
Film tech knows good storytelling, too
Once upon a time, a little but big-hearted orphan girl ran away from her mean uncle and tried to find her way through life in the big city …
If “Owl and the Sparrow” had a narrator, that’s how this contemporary fairy tale would begin. And if one film were chosen as the audience favorite at this year’s Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival, it should be this one.
“Owl and the Sparrow”
Screens at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and 12:30 p.m. Friday at Dole Cannery multiplex, as part of the Hawaii International Film Festival Go to www.hiff.org for ticket info
This endearing feature shot in Vietnam is part of the festival’s American Immigrant Filmmaker on Profile showcase, the filmmaker in question being Stephane Gauger, born in Vietnam and raised in Southern California. Trained in film lighting by cinematographer and former festival guest Matthew Libatique, Gauger has a background not only in film tech work, but has also written and directed short narrative and documentary films. “Owl and the Sparrow” is his first feature — Gauger wrote, directed and did the bulk of the camerawork — and it’s an absolute gem. (The film has already won a Best Narrative Award at this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.)
Clearly familiar with the urban hustle and bustle of Saigon, Gauger brings a cinematic sensibility akin to the French new wave of the 1960s, shooting totally on location with a hand-held camera and live sound. It’s this sense of naturalistic immediacy and total immersion into Saigon city life that gives his film its edge. The visuals also work in contrast to the meditative and minimalist guitar-and-electronics soundtrack by Pete Nguyen.
But all the adept technical work wouldn’t have amounted to much if Gauger didn’t have an excellent cast, and he gets involving performances from his main actors, in particular the remarkable Pham Thi Han. It’s her wholehearted portrayal of the willful and imaginative Thuy that gets the audience to believe in her mission of creating a loving family for herself.
Over the course of a week selling flowers on the street, Thuy meets and befriends two lonely people — flight attendant Lan (Cat Ly) and zoo keeper Hai (Le The Lu) — both of whom are suffering from matters of the heart. But Thuy’s matchmaking goes awry when Uncle Minh (Nguyen Hau) shows up searching for his runaway niece, finding her in a city orphanage.
The three adults play their characters well, with Cat Ly particularly fine as the single woman.
Gauger does a great job balancing the fanciful and realistic elements of his story. And, yes, there is the requisite happy ending, but it doesn’t feel forced, and ends on a lovely scene that promises a future filled with love.