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Minimalist effort: Outinen in The Man Without a Past.

Into Salvation
By Ann Morrow

The Man Without a Past
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki

If the title of The Man Without ia Past sounds familiar, itís meant to. An homage to many things 1950s (and a nominee for Best Foreign Film Oscar), it slyly plays on such vintage movie genres as the western and the weepy, but in a decidedly understated way. Written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki, the film initially comes off as a deadly dull Ingmar Bergman satire, but as the viewer becomes immersed in the Finnish auteurís way-laid-back style, this lugubrious dramedy emerges as a wickedly deadpan delight.

The Man (Markku Peltola) is beaten by a gang of hoodlums after disembarking from a train, waking later in a Helsinki hospital without a clue as to who he is or where heís from. As glum as the overcast skies of Finland, he drifts to the outskirts of the city, and through the kindness of other dispossessed strangers, spends an evening in a bar (where he discovers he is not a drunkard), and finds shelter in a one-room shack illegally rented out by a bullying security guard. The shack is part of a commune of lost souls eking out an existence from the skimpy refuse of a depressed nation, and making do through an underground economy is one of the filmís amusingly gloomy themes. The Man reuses a tea bag he keeps in a matchbox, and grows small potatoes. But he also turns his squat into the height of minimalist chic by scavenging an old jukebox and setting the table with a single blue coffee mug. The film similarly reimagines the desolation of Finland through its 1950s Scandinavian- moderne set design and glowing art- nouveau color palette.

At the Salvation Army, the Man is given a used suit that turns him into a vision of retro cool. Irma (Kati Outinen), a straight-laced soup ladler, is so impressed she gets him a job with the army. These desultory events occur with a bare minimum of dialogue and long, portentous silences between the stoically expressionless characters. Yet through Kaurismakiís mordant wit and irony-free populism, the film revels in an underhanded joi de vivre. The Man kindles a romance with spinsterish Irma (Outinenís tightly repressed inner radiance won her the Best Actress Award at Cannes). He transforms the army band into a fabulous ensemble that is booked solid at hobo camps. He is caught up in bizarrely funny mishaps simply because he refuses to supply a fake name, and at one point, he is held on suspicion of not being Finnish, an incident that plays out like Dashiell Hammett on Thorazine. As he builds a new life for himself, we realize he really is the Man, in a Nordic Johnny Cash kind of way.

In one of the filmís many off-the-wall twists, Irma and the Man are torn asunder by revelations from his past, for which the music swells with comically melodramatic sudsiness. Perhaps only an auteur of Kaurismakiís inspired kookiness could concoct a story inspired by the Salvation Army; but under his subversively humanist worldview, itís not only hip to be square, itís downright uplifting.

L.A. Inconsequential

Hollywood Homicide
Directed by Ron Shelton

Ron Shelton is the kind of man for whom guy talk is a thing of beauty. Not the kind of guy talk that David Mamet pensówhere salesmen outflash each otherís business patois at machine-gun speedóand not the kind of guy talk you might hear on lesser sports-radio shows. Iím talking the kind of guy talk that you may have been lucky enough to encounter in your life, perhaps because your older siblings or their pals had wry, Irish senses of humor combined with a basic understanding of all things athletic. Sheltonís great baseball movie, Bull Durham, is rife with such examples, so if youíre still confused, rent that chestnut.

So itís no surprise that Shelton, with screenwriter Robert Souza, focuses intently on the guy-talk thing in Hollywood Homicide, so much so that they kind of forget to develop the rest of the movie, ostensibly a cop action thriller. Harrison Ford, as senior partner Joe Gavilan, and Josh Hartnett, as younger top gun K.C. Calden, get the banter down pretty well; and the filmmakerís running gag that, like everybody else in L.A., these two policemen have to moonlight to make ends meet, is delivered with amusing results. Gavilan, a realtor down on his luck, hustles potential buyers on his cell phone while simultaneously taking down clues from the brutal gangland-style killing of a rap group. K.C., who thinks heíd rather be an actor, practices his Brando while also teaching nubile young things proper yoga technique.

Within the filmís first quarter, we know that the rap groupís producer, the wonderfully named Antoine Sartain (Isaiah Washington), is the guilty party. Clearly, Shelton isnít wasting any time with whodunits; heíd rather explore the quirky relationship between Gavilan and Calden. Occasionally, the filmmakers throw in side plots, such as the mysterious circumstances surrounding K.C.ís cop fatherís death, or an internal-affairs investigation by Officer Macko (Bruce Greenwood), which seems entirely focused on ruining Gavilanís career. But these things, L.A. Confidential as they are, stand in the way of Gavilanís love scenes with radio psychic Ruby (Lena Olin), or K.C.ís getting laid in a hot tub.

To be fair, I donít believe that Shelton ever intended this movie to be deep or even critical. Rather, he seems to be intent on offering mindless summer entertainment for people not likely to indulge in The Matrix: Reloaded or Rugrats Go Wild. The movie does have some delicious moments, notably Fordís character having to pursue Sartain through the streets of Hollywood on a little girlís bicycle, and an aborted interrogation of our heroes by Macko in which Gavilan plays realtor on his cell phone while Calden practices his yoga technique. Overall, itís a strange mishmash of a film, with neither the adrenaline high of traditional chase movies like, say, The Fugitive, or the sustained goofiness of The Naked Gun.

óLaura Leon


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