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.
January 20, 2009
We hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday. 2008 has been an exciting and challenging year for us. We’re excited to announce that will open in Los Angeles and Orange County theaters today, January 16th, and will expand to major cities in January and February. If you’ve seen the film at a film festival, we invite you to experience this warm-hearted film again and bring your friends.
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Owl and the Sparrow opens January 16th in Los Angeles and Orange County and expands the following week to major cities:
January 23, 2008 – San Jose, Camera 3
January 16, 2009
Laemmle Sunset 5 -West Hollywood
Meet writer/director Stephane Gauger & Exec. Producer Timothy Linh Bui (Green Dragon, Three Seasons) @ the 7.15p & 9.45p showtimes for Q&A
January 17, 2009
Edwards Westpark 8 – Irvine
Q&A with writer/director Stephane Gauger @ 4.30p & 7.30p showtimes
By L.A. Weekly Film Critics
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
OWL AND THE SPARROW (Vietnam/USA) Writer-director Stephane Gauger’s lovely debut tracks a week in the lives of three young Vietnamese: a flight attendant on holiday, a zoo employee and a 10-year-old runaway. After suffering through multiple-storyline ensemble dramas like Crash and Babel, which resort to convoluted narrative coincidences to drive home humanistic messages, Owl and the Sparrow feels shockingly, refreshingly simple. Unfolding organically and honestly without a thought to making any larger points, the film’s look at loneliness and tentative connection is small-scaled but tremendously resonant. Special accolades to child actress Pham Thi Han, who doesn’t have a hammy or maudlin bone in her body.
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* Owl and the Sparrow was released theatrically in Japan and South Korea.
Owl and the Sparrow awards and nominations 2008 Nominee, – John Cassavetes Award
2007 Nominee, – Breakthrough Director
Winner, Audience Award –
Winner, Best Narrative Feature
San Francisco Asian American Film Festival
Dallas Asian Film Festival
San Diego Asian American Film Festival
Winner, NETPAC Award – Hawaii International Film Festival
Winner, Emerging Filmmaker – Starz Denver Film Festival
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