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The new generation of comic auteurs tends to work in exceptionally narrow spaces. The apparent purpose of My Life’s in Turnaround, Eric Schaeffer’s first film, was to meet attractive young actresses; his second, If Lucy Fell, was a transparent pretext for meeting an attractive young supermodel. David O. Russell’s work is not quite so self-serving, but it also has a tight conceptual focus. Spanking the Monkey, his debut, was about a young man who has sex with his mother; his new Flirting With Disaster is about a young man who doesn’t know who his mother is.
Frantic where Monkey was edgy, Disaster is lighter than its predecessor, but also better sustained. Reconstituting the writer/director’s Oedipus complex as farce, the film sends Mel (Ben Stiller, who’s also in Lucy) on a search for his natural mother, thus bewildering his high-strung adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal) and frustrating his agreeable wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette), who lugs the couple’s newborn (and still-unnamed) son on a trek that leads from New York to L.A., and then on to Michigan and New Mexico.
This complicated itinerary is the responsibility of Tina (Téa Leoni), an adoption counselor who’s along for the ride. Tina’s doing a study of reunited natural families, and she intends to capture the emotion when Mel meets the woman who gave him up for adoption. Unfortunately, the adoption agency’s records are not in ideal condition, and the first two stops are abortive. In Michigan, however, Mel receives the clue that will lead to his real parents. That’s also where this motley entourage gets two new members: a gay ATF agent and his bisexual partner (in both senses of the word), who tags along because he’s still smitten with Nancy, a former schoolmate. Since Mel is attracted to Tina, the possibilities for both swapping and sulking are significant.
Fueled by lust, anticipation, and resentment, this crew eventually arrives at a remote New Mexico homestead, the home of Mel’s birth parents (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda). These semi-reformed hippies are genial hosts, although their eccentric other son, Lonnie, is less gracious. Dad hasn’t entirely retired from manufacturing LSD, which Lonnie uses to dose some of the food. (With ATF agents in attendance, it’s not hard to guess who’s gonna take a trip.) Naturally, it’s at this point that Mel’s other parents arrive.
With numerous characters chattering at once, one character brained with a frying pan, and everyone driving interchangeable rental cars, the film’s final 20 minutes have a slightly desperate quality. Still, a remarkably high number of Russell’s gags hit their target, and there’s an admirable discipline to his buffoonery; unlike most of today’s cinematic farceurs, the director doesn’t simply throw subplots overboard when they cease to amuse him. There’s even something of a theme. As nearly all the comedy’s central characters are revealed as frustrated parents or would-be parents, the timepiece pacing this breathless lampoon turns out to be a biological clock.
At the beginning of Stalingrad, as a German division moves from its Italian furlough to the carnage of the Eastern front, a seasoned sergeant bets his new, untested lieutenant that he will live
and the officer won’t. Since writer/director Joseph Vilsmaier’s film is in many ways an old-fashioned war epic, this seems like the sort of narrative covenant that will ultimately pay off. But Vilsmaier, it turns out, is not very interested in merely staging World War II’s bloodiest battle in microcosm. He wants to conjure the enormity of the struggle, in which one million died, and so leaves such gambits scattered on the snow alongside the piles of frozen, mutilated, rat-chewed corpses.
Vilsmaier’s ambition makes this 140-minute film both impressive and exhausting. Working on a scale that few this side of the grandly silly Braveheart have attempted in years, the director creates a vision of total war that’s impressively bleak and brutal. There are scenes here, notably one where the Germans submerge themselves in foxholes in the hope of blowing up Soviet tanks after they’ve passed over them, that are as wrenching as anything in this almost-vanished genre. If Vilsmaier meant to give this horror show some humanity, though, he’s failed.
Perhaps, of course, he had no such intention. The script (by Johannes Heide, Jürgen Buscher, and the director) makes the customary effort to clear the central characters from any implications of Nazism; as in Das Boot, they’re just soldiers doing their job, and guardedly skeptical of the ideology that’s sent them to Russia. Aside from that nicety, however, the soldiers are mostly cannon fodder. Indeed, only the sergeant (Jochen Nickel) and the lieutenant (Thomas Kreischmann) are consistently distinguishable among these bundled-up grunts. The occasional personal reflection or letter from home does little to differentiate these men, who are probably best identified by their respective modes of death.
Death and dismemberment are the constants in this film, in which soldiers shoot, slash, and burn their opponents, innocent civilians, their own comrades, and themselves. They trudge by dying compatriots who beg to be killed, wound themselves to qualify for evacuation, and are rewarded for their sufferings when a plane dumps packages of Iron Crosses on the frigid ground. As in Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, another meditation on the same cruel campaign, these are not heroes. In cinematic as well as historic terms, heroism is effectively ruled out, both by the battle’s futility and the fact that it’s fought, grudgingly or not, or behalf of Hitler.
Such nihilism is up-to-date, but many of Stalingrad’s elements are archaic. The absurdly sweeping score, for example, presses the viewer to be stirred by events that are fundamentally unstirring. While the film’s tone admits that war is waste, its style is more traditional: In its virtuosic action sequences, this account of doomed antiheroes can’t resist slipping into the heroic mode. That should make Stalingrad an object of intense curiosity among connoisseurs of the genre, but doesn’t recommend it to nonspecialists. The film makes the battle almost unbearably vivid, yet it doesn’t provide any new perspective on either Stalingrad or the wider slaughter that the Nazis visited upon Europe.
Japan is among the world’s most tidy nations, but its dreams are another matter. As is revealed by the recent surge of Japanimation features—true believers prefer the term “anime”—the country is haunted by the specters of nuclear annihilation, dehumanizing technology, and sexy teenage girls.
The protagonist of Ghost in the Shell isn’t actually a teenage girl, although she looks much like the lithe young heroines of other anime films. Maj. Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg whose trim body (frequently undraped to reveal that it’s outfitted with nipples, although not genitals) is covered in something more akin to Gore-Tex than skin. She’s a characteristic Japanese fantasy creation: beautiful, courageous, competent, and mostly mechanical. All that’s left of her humanity is the consciousness (Westerners might say “soul”) contained by her high-tech frame—the “ghost” in her “shell.”
The problem posed by director Mamoru Oshii and screenwriter Kazunori Ito’s pictorially and philosophically complex (but only 82-minute) film is the possibility of a ghost without a shell. Kusanagi and her colleagues in Security Police Section 9 are seeking a hacker they know as the Puppet Master, who turns out not to be a living creature but rather a rogue bit of artificial intelligence created by another government agency. (Bureaucratic infighting is one traditional Japanese theme that should translate clearly for Washington audiences.) Through “ghost hacking,” the Puppet Master can make humans carry out tasks for him, but the cyberbeing is no longer content with this mode of existence: He wants a shell to call his own.
Like most Japanimated films, Ghost is based on a serialized comic-book epic, which means it’s oversupplied with plot. Masamune Shirow’s original tale envisions a Japan that has survived not just one but two more world wars, and where a “militant immigrant organization” is among the forces threatening the tenuous order. By the standards of either Disney cartoon features or Hollywood action flicks, such concerns are eccentric. Ghost is full of arcane dialogue, which ranges from elaborate plot explications to reflections on cyber-Darwinism (“overspecialize and you breed in weakness”) and quotations from the Bible. For those not familiar with the original comic, the combination is more likely to function as psychedelic experience than narrative.
Still, it’s a fairly effective psychedelic experience. Combining traditional and computerized animation—and incorporating photographic backdrops—Oshii has crafted the most palpable Japanimated alternative universe since the pioneering Akira. It’s a cartoon-noir Tokyo where even the neon signs look ominous, and the tone is enhanced by the music of Kenji Kawai, who’s eschewed the traditional sugary Nippon-pop for sinuous dirges more akin to the Arabic/medieval art-rock of Dead Can Dance. As storytelling, Ghost is as problematic as most anime features, but its dystopian reverie succeeds as sheer mood.CP