Saturday, May 21, 2005

"Kontroll" Proves Elusive, "Hitchhiker" an Easy Ride


directed by Nimrod Antal
starring...oh, who am I kidding, I don’t know their names. A bunch of Hungarian actors.
released in 2003, but now showing in limited release in the United States

“Kontroll” is a hard film to describe, let alone summarize. Believe me, I’ve tried. “It’s a neat little Hungarian movie,” I say to one friend, lamely. “It’s like ‘Run Lola Run’ meets ‘The Seventh Seal’,” I say to another. The worst is when I try to explain what the movie is *about*: “See, it takes place in the subways of Budapest, and it’s about these ticket inspectors, and,’s kind of surreal. ”

Well, “Kontroll” does take place in the Budapest subway system, where it was actually filmed, and it does focus on the ticket inspectors (or controllers, as they’re called) who make their living there. These inspectors seem less like controllers, however, than like Morlocks. Divided into squads of four or five strong, they fan out into the different trains to make sure no one’s scamming the public transportation system. Wan and unshaven, sporting red-and-black armbands with a disconcerting fascist vibe that contrasts sharply with their slovenly attire, the underlings perform their duties with a mixture of weariness and zeal, swagger and skulk, insolence and subordination to the ominous “suits” in charge. Occasionally, one of them snaps, slits a throat, and sends a shiver of terrified empathy through the rest.

The film unfolds largely from the perspective of one of the grunts, Bulscu, a dark, brooding thirtysomething who seems simultaneously out of place and eerily at home in this milieu. In fact, Bulscu doesn’t appear to have a home outside of the subway; he sleeps there, furtively, at night, wanders and races down its labyrinthine passages during his off hours, and, like a vampire, never seems to see the light of day. But we get hints—though never more than hints—that Bulscu had a previous existence, and a rather successful one at that, aboveground. We also get hints of a potential romance with a fetching girl who rides the subways in a teddy bear costume. (Yes, you read that right.) And then there are Bulscu’s brushes with an array of underground antagonists, including a leering rival team leader who looks like Clive Owen’s sleazy brother; a fresh-faced, fleet-footed prankster known only as “Bootsie”; and a menacing hooded figure who may be pushing various unfortunate passengers to their deaths on the subway tracks.

But the plot is ultimately of little consequence; “Kontroll,” despite its underlying mystery and genuinely thrilling chase sequences, is more of a mood piece with vaguely metaphysical dimensions. Why exactly Bulscu is inhabiting the subways is the one question on which the movie turns, and which it deliberately leaves open. A chance encounter with someone from his past suggests that his self-imposed exile is a gesture of existential angst, the same that afflicts his fellow controllers. Yet it’s also overladen—quite self-consciously, judging from the director’s half-tongue-in-cheek, half-serious introduction to the movie—with heavily allegorical imagery, from the hooded Darth Sidious-like figure who disturbs Bulscu's solitude to the character who appears in the garb of an angel near the very end. Are Bulscu’s nemeses merely manifestations of himself, that he must vanquish before he can find his way out of the infernal regions? Is Teddy Bear girl the Beatrice to his Dante? When was the last time Bulscu had a bath? (That, sad to say, was the one thought that kept dogging me throughout the movie, especially as his fights, races, and other confrontations took increasing toll on his grooming habits.)

Which is only to caution against etherealizing a movie that is pretty firmly rooted in the gritty, offhand violence of post-Tarantino noir. “Kontroll” is also grounded by Bulscu’s ragtag team of misfits (there’s the big goofy guy, the wise geezer, the sardonic little guy, and the youngun who bears a faint resemblance to Chad Michael Murray), by the pulsing Euro-rock soundtrack, and, of course, by the subway system itself. Dank, grimy, and unforgivingly lit, it makes all the revolutionary forays of today’s CGI junkies look as artificial as they really are. Yet the subway also takes on a meaning and identity of its own, far more enigmatic than any of the absurdist human players who flit like lost souls through its seemingly endless corridors, which elevates “Kontroll” to something greater than the sum of its parts.




directed by Garth Jennings
starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Alan Rickman (voice), John Malkovich, Bill Nighy, others

Despite my earlier rants on the subject, I concede that CGI-heavy movies can still be most entertaining, as “Hitchhiker” proves. That said, the reason “Hitchhiker” flies is not its effects, which look well enough without overwhelming, but its easy, freewheeling faithfulness to the veddy British, half-wry, half-lunatic humor of its source. Viewers should understand, from the outset, that it this in no way, shape, or form an action/adventure flick. Rather, it’s a romping verbal and existential comedy dressed up for fun in the guise of a galactic fantasy. As someone who read the first three books in the Douglas Adams series when I was about twelve, and haven’t read (or reread) any of them since, I can’t speak to either its accuracy of adaptation for the devotee or its accessibility to complete neophytes. What I can say is it’s a hoot, thanks in large part to the spirited performances of its cast (Rockwell and Malkovich are particular standouts) and its fearless embrace of the Improbability Drive. Sure, it flags a little towards the end, and sure, the romance cooked up between Freeman’s perpetually bemused Arthur Dent and Deschanel’s free-spirited Trillian, was probably unnecessary. But “Hitchhiker”’s great virtue is that it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. No critic should, either.

RATING: ** 1/2


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