The Taser's Edge

The American (2010), directed by Anton Corbijn

I often post the trailer to a movie as a way to introduce it before reviewing it.  The one above is singularly annoying, as that fuzzy-radio-ized American voice which effectively narrates the trailer is found nowhere in the film.

The basic plot is that George Clooney’s character is an assassin and a gunsmith for assassins.  He is aging, he has too much loss from a violent past bearing down on him, some murderous Swedes are after him, and he settles in a quiet Italian village in order to complete a job.  Although he knows that his work requires that he never has truly personal relationships, he falls in love with a prostitute and she falls in love with him.  Eventually, of course, his career choice catches up with him and anyone near him.

I read the book on which this was based after the movie came out, by which time Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman had already been re-titled and re-released as The American.  That novel is one of the best I read last year, but it was also clear as I read it that it would not actually be filmed.  That is, the movie would not work if it really followed the book.

In the book, the assassin never names himself, and it’s not really even clear whether he’s an American or not.  Instead of photographing architecture as in the movie, he photographs and draws butterflies. (Book “Flaw” 1: No butterflies in movies!) He becomes good friends with the priest, who is actually a holy man, and they have spiritual conversations over the priest’s wonderful cooking. (Flaw 2: No non-stereotypical priests in movies!)  Oh yes, also in the book, the Clooney character’s not an assassin. (Flaw 3: Only actual assassins, not other members of the assassin industry, are in movies!).

The biggest way in which the book fought being filmed, however, was in the way that the main character narrated it.  So much of it is his internal processing of his environment as only a highly trained and veteran hunted man could.  (Flaw 4: No thoughts in movies!) Car colors, makes, and models, and ditto with firearms.  Choosing to make sure no one can follow him back to his home by winding endlessly through the village streets on the way home.  Picking up on who is new to town, even though he himself is new to town.  Moreover, it is only very slowly that he tells us about his past or what he is doing in town. (Flaw 5: No waiting, ambiguity, or subtlety in movies!)

In the book, it takes a long while for us to know what his work really entails, while the opening scene of the movie leaves three people dead at his hand. It has altogether too much James Bond-ing, down to the throwaway beautiful (and sometimes deadly) women, the Walther PP7 Clooney carries, and the Vespa chase down ancient streets and stairways.

It’s actually sad that they couldn’t figure out some way to put a monologue over the top, both because the visuals for the film aren’t enough to translate the book, and because the reason I watch George Clooney movies is to hear his voice.  Yes, he’s beautiful (although this movie shows that even Clooney’s butt has aged in the eight years since Solaris), but his voice is even better, and this film is very low on dialogue.

Thankfully, next on the release schedule for Clooney appears to be The Descendants, and Alexander Payne has yet to disappoint at dialogue or voiceover (sadly, no great YouTube proof).

The American: solidly in the upper middle of the pretty-good-but-not-great pack.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (dir. Woody Allen)

What’s not to love about Woody Allen?  Aside from the fact that some people just can’t stand him as a person, his art, or his personal life, nothing.  I did a count this week, and I’ve seen 28 Woody Allen films (29 counting Antz).  And this weekend, I caught his directorial debut, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which streams on Netflix.

The closest comparison to Tiger Lily might be an extreme version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Take a crappy movie, and then not only supply fake lines to ridiculous characters for humor’s sake (as MST3K did), but create an entire fake plot.

Woody Allen-level gold (whether or not you like that kind of gold) to follow at :48 and 1:45.  Don’t worry: despite Allen’s press, Tiger Lily doesn’t actually contain any raping or pillaging.  It does, however, contain a hip new soundtrack by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the beginning of which you can catch in the final seconds of this clip:

The movie might be a better symbol of a film career which at its best has been devoted to ambitious ideas and creating risk-taking art than a good film in itself.  Allen would likely hate the comparison, but the pattern of his artistic biography isn’t that far from Miles Davis.’  Their common M.O.: Explore and master an area with a few works, totally self-reinvent, explore and master a new area with a few works, totally self-reinvent, repeat a few times making sure to alienate old audiences and gain new ones all the time, have at least one really self-involved period where your art suffers for a while and your audience suffers with it, have at least one artistic comeback in which you prove that you’re still an undeniable genius, and generally just keep creating and sharing your art like crazy until you die.

Tiger Lily clearly took a ton of skill, and it mostly succeeds.  Success in this case, however, is making a totally incoherent Japanese spy movie into a mostly coherent American comedy with vaudeville and slapstick influences.  I for one think we can use more mostly coherent American comedies with vaudeville and slapstick influences today (think I Heart Huckabees as well as the films of major movie stars whom the Coen brothers get their hands on–Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, and the greatest screwball actor of his generation, George Clooney).

A word of caution, however: one other classic film tradition that Allen retains in Tiger Lily is some serious racial insensitivity in the form of crazy faux-Japanese character names that sound ‘funny’ to American ears.  Is it all in fun?  Does it matter if it’s ‘all in fun’?  You can decide.

Movies for Which I Have Some Hope, Episode 1

Up in the Air: Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) returns, as does Jason Bateman (at least in team with Reitman).  I have enjoyed both of Reitman’s first movies.  One suggestion: the intricate opening credits he seems to love really kill my love for his movies.  I think I saw Touch of Evil on Turner Classic Movies right before seeing Thank You For Smoking for the first time in the theater, and whoever introduced Touch of Evil talked about how important it was to Orson Welles to just start his films, with as few opening credits as the studio would allow.  Reitman seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum.  He has to be pushing his producers to allow him to do those ridiculous opening credits.  And his movies would actually be better without them.  Still, this is an excellent trailer that makes me want to see his film (a quality of all recent trailers involving George Clooney).

For fun, compare Clooney’s narration of the Up in the Air trailer to Sean Penn’s opening narration from the 21 Grams trailer: