Running on Empty
The Princess and the Warrior and another Dolittle
Princess, bernd spauke; Dolittle, bruce mcbroom
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The Princess and the Warrior, the new film from writer-director Tom Tykwer, begins with a gurgling tracheotomy and ends with a leap into the void. In between, theres a convoluted robbery, an airborne toaster, a couple of deaths and a pair of attractive leads, all held together by a camera that swoops and prowls, and a piano score that struggles to wrest tension from minor chords. Best known in this country for his art-house hit Run Lola Run, Tykwer has made five features, most recently the English-language drama Heaven. That film, which stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi, is based on a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski and his frequent collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and is slated for release by Miramax later this year. If that sounds like a weird fit, it is, but its also not too shabby for the most famous filmmaker to come out of Germany since Fassbinder, even if Tykwers career in general and The Princess and the Warrior in particular beg the same question, once elegantly posed by novelist Walter Abish: How German is it?
The princess is Simone, or Sissi (Lolas Franka Potente), a saucer-eyed blond with a vague, slightly stunned affect who works in an asylum filled with the sort of charming lunatics of whom the movies never seem to tire. The warrior is Bodo (Benno Furmann), a soldier turned bank robber whose brutal, hair-trigger temper is betrayed by the tears that periodically stream down his face. Bodo and his brother Walter (Joachim Krol) are planning to rob a bank in order to move to Australia, ostensibly to liberate Bodo from the nightmare memory of his wifes death. Sissi isnt planning on anything, but since Tykwer has a thing for fate and circumstance, that doesnt mean her life wont get interesting. Or at least sensational: Sissi and Bodo meet when he cuts open her neck to insert the plastic straw that will save her life. Sissi is under the truck thats just run her over; for his part, Bodo had slipped beneath to escape two toughs on his trail. My breath didnt come back, says Sissi in her once-upon-a-time voice-over. Then the man came.
As you might expect from the director who made Lola run not just through city streets but through time and space, the tracheotomy is a real showstopper. After Bodo pierces Sissis neck, he gently wiggles the straw into the slit and orders her to breathe; when she does, a teardrop of blood spouts at the end, where it clings like a soap bubble. The sexual resonance of the image is almost as crude as the operation itself -- shes been pierced, first body, then soul -- but in the hands of a good or thoughtful director, it could have been a great prelude, a rippling metaphor rather than just a shock. Tykwer may want meaning to go with his special effects, but the problem with his filmmaking, both here and earlier, is that hes more interested in his own bag of tricks than in actually saying something. As Bodo breathes life into Sissi, you think of prop knives and latex throats and whether its an air pump that makes the bubble of blood tremble so beautifully, not love. You wonder how Tykwer did it, not why.
In the current issue of Film Comment, critic Olaf Moller writes that In a way Tykwer represents everything that went wrong with German cinema in the 90s. For Moller and other dissenters, the filmmakers brand of one-world pop communion and relentless privileging of form over content are not just irritating in and of themselves, but help to obscure those less commercial German filmmakers who havent found international acclaim and distribution. Moller may be overstating the case (though on second viewing, Lolas 80 minutes feel almost twice as long, and nearly as sluggish as this new features 130), but given how few German films make it over here, its hard to know. What is undeniable is that theres nothing especially unfamiliar, foreign or recognizably German about The Princess and the Warrior; at least Run Lola Run was waggishly, perhaps even intentionally predicated on the issue of punctuality. If Tykwers new film does well here, it will be as much for its pyrotechnics as for the fact that, as with so many of our own films, it doesnt have anything at all to say about the world and our place in it.
Back in Hollywood, where the blockbuster season seems little more than a blur of poop jokes, big boobs, bigger guns, and cars that alternately speed and crash (who says the movies dont reflect reality, or at least Los Angeles?), now comes Dr. Dolittle, the man who could talk to the animals if only he had a decent script. The best that the good doctor (Eddie Murphy) can do, encumbered as he is by Larry Levins screenplay and its low joke quotient, is discipline the dog, lay into the lizard and shtick it to the bear, in this case a circus performer called Archie, played by a bear named Tank and voiced by Steve Zahn. Archie and Dolittle team up when a developer threatens to clear-cut a stretch of forest somewhere north of San Francisco. A wild-animal delegation comes to ask for the doctors help in saving its home, one thing slowly leads to another, and before long Dolittle is trying to mate Archie, more mild than wild, with the forests last remaining bear (Ava, voiced by Lisa Kudrow). The idea is that if the bears mate, Dolittle and his creature friends will be able to invoke the endangered-species act and thwart the clear-cutting, which is just the sort of wacky environmental strategy that might work in these times.
Since this plot seems to have interested director Steve Carr (Next Friday) as much as it did Mondays preview audience, the film also comes with jokes about teenage sex, rap music and a bear that acts like a fairy, which means Dolittle doesnt only peddle KFC and Burger King, it peddles a reflex spasm of homophobia. That isnt surprising, since for all its sops toward the environmental and animal-rights movements, Dr. Dolittle 2 sells its politics the way most Hollywood movies do -- with good intentions and dimwitted contradictions. This probably wouldnt be worth mentioning if the film had something else going for it, like a moment worthy of Murphys talents, or if the contradictions werent so egregious, even nutty. This is, after all, a movie that advocates the rights of animals to live in the wild, unburdened by human contact, through the use of several hundred trained animals, including a half-dozen bears, a pack of wild wolves (there are none in California) and an errant crocodile. Zahns SoCal whine may occasionally elevate the films lowest common denominator (I can play polar, Archie boasts. Im freezing!), but theres nothing funny about the sight of Tank dancing for his dinner. Talk to the animals, sure, just dont condescend to either them or us.
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