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The sleeper awakes: Sass in Good Bye, Lenin!

Don’t Cry for Me, Erich Honnecker

By Shawn Stone

Good Bye, Lenin!
Directed by Wolfgang Becker

Back in the ’80s, one of the entertaining programs on CNN was its international hour, which ran late on Sunday evenings when only chronic insomniacs or true news junkies (or both) were still tuned in. It was broadcasting at its cheapest, an hour or two of unedited English-language news reports from around the world. The best stories, of course, originated from behind the then-Iron Curtain. I remember a chocolate factory in Czechoslovakia that not only created tasty treats, but was the embodiment of the Communist industrial ideal; there was an interview with an East German family who explained how the experience of living in a socialist paradise would probably make any reunification with the West impossible for decades, if ever. The “news” was such self-evident fiction that it seemed almost endearing.

I thought about this now-forgotten past while watching Wolfgang Becker’s wistful comedy about the death of East Germany, Good Bye, Lenin! Becker, a West German, or “wessie,” to use an East German term of contempt, manages to mourn the passing of an ideal without mourning the failed East German state itself. Becker’s vision allows a measure of nostalgia for the “socialist paradise.”

The setup is brilliant in its simplicity: Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a Communist idealist, falls into a coma. East Germany disappears. She wakes up. Told by their mother’s doctor that the slightest shock will probably kill her, Kerner’s 20-something children Alex (Daniel Brühl) and Ariane (Maria Simon) re-create the East German state in their mom’s bedroom.

Alex, a good-natured, devoted kid, goes to absurd lengths to shelter his mom from the consumerist paradise that is reunified Berlin. He goes through trash bins to find old East German products. He pays kids to portray Young Pioneers and sing Communist camp songs to his mom. Funniest of all, he joins forces with one of his friends, a would-be filmmaker, to create “new” East German news reports to show her. Using real news footage, they create a fictional, triumphant Communism as “real” as anything the real East German media produced. This satire plays out as beautifully on screen: Alex’s explanation for the giant Coca-cola banner that goes up across from their apartment house is as inspired as anything a real apparatchik might have produced.

The film doesn’t shy away from portraying the cruelties of the East German police state; nor does it miss an opportunity to lampoon the crass careerism and consumerism than emerged from the triumph of the West. Seen through the unhappy prism of the economic and social failures of the last dozen years, Good Bye, Lenin! casts a rueful, knowing eye on German reunification.

Just as you don’t have to know all the nasty, Hollywood-insider jokes Billy Wilder crammed into Sunset Blvd. to enjoy that film, a basic knowledge of East Germany isn’t necessary to like Good Bye, Lenin! There must be an added resonance for former East German audiences, however, to see actress Katrin Sass as the mother. Sass was one of East’s most prominent film stars, but her career went into the tank after the wall fell. Her luminous presence gives the mother an almost angelic quality; her puzzlement at every inexplicable change in her world has a sweet poignancy. This may be Becker’s greatest trick: He gives Communism a human face.

You’re a Big Girl Now

13 Going On 30
Directed by Gary Winick

Basically a remake of Big with-out the big heart, 13 Going On 30 time- forwards a girl instead of boy. The girl is Jenna, a 13-year-old social-climber who wishes she were “thirty, flirty, and thriving,” a mantra she got out of the fashion magazine she idolizes. She gets her wish when she is dusted by fairy powder provided by her best friend, Matt, who secretly adores her. But chubby Matt isn’t considered cool by the ruthless clique of ’tween fashion plates Jenna wants to become part of, and so her basement birthday party turns into her first taste of dashed ambitions. The following morning, Jenna wakes up and finds herself 30. And a highly toned 30 at that, since her grown-up self is played by Jennifer Garner.

As the fully developed Jenna delightedly discovers, she’s now the famous editor of Poise, her favorite magazine. But she can’t remember the intervening years, and so she looks up Matt, who is now a photographer in Greenwich Village and cute enough to be played by Mark Ruffalo. Yet Matt is less than thrilled at seeing his childhood sweetheart, who apparently became a ruthless social barracuda on her way to the height of coolness. Dismayed by the person she’s become, Jenna uses her girlish enthusiasm and sense of fair play to turn her life—and the faltering magazine—around.

Written by the screen team behind the gimmicky What Women Want, 13 Going On 30 relies on hardened clichés, such as Jenna’s duplicitous best friend and coworker, Lucy (Judy Greer), to provide a plot. It also confuses costume changes with comic rhythm, as Jenna’s teeny-bopper wardrobe is given more attention than any potential humor in her age-boggled dilemmas. Garner is adorable, if unconvincing (she doesn’t come close to the droll realism of Jamie Lee Curtis’ body-switching mom in Freaky Friday), but it’s hard to feel sympathy for her character when we know, as does her whole staff, that she’s a heartless careerist. The film’s most amusing moments come from Jenna’s squeamish reaction to grown-up men, especially her hockey-player boyfriend—conveniently enough for the film, which doesn’t have to address the idea of a 13-year-old having sex in an adult body.

Garner also has a warm rapport with Ruffalo, but since boyish, unpretentious Matt already has a perfectly nice fiancée, there’s no discernible reason to root for the two sundered sweethearts to reunite, even if Jenna does regret the choices that got her to the top. After she gets the hang of being a grown-up with a job, the story loses its initial fizz and becomes mechanical, reworking the Big message of holding on to your inner child. But that Jenna could wing it in the cutthroat publishing industry is a far cry from Tom Hanks’ whimsical success at a toy company. As if covering for the film’s lack of substance, the soundtrack prominently cranks out one nostalgic ’80s hit after another. But the only time travel audiences may wish for is 98 minutes’ worth, so they can choose a different movie.

—Ann Morrow

The Final Cut

Kill Bill Vol. 2
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

When last we saw the Bride (Uma Thurman), she was riding a jet plane into the sunset, samurai sword at hand, and drawing up her “Death List Five.” She had avenged herself on two of the five killers who butchered her wedding party, but hadn’t yet learned that her daughter was still alive. Nor had she killed Bill (David Carradine).

Not that you really need to know any of this to follow the action in Kill Bill Vol. 2. The director does a nice job of setting the scene for latecomers to the story. However, watching the second volume makes it abundantly clear that Kill Bill was intended to be one big movie—and should have been one big movie.

If the first installment of Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse epic was a breathtaking cinematic rush, the second has a languorous quality in its measured pace and charmingly ramshackle dialogue. Tarantino knew he couldn’t top the Kill Bill Vol. 1-concluding House of Blue Leaves sequence (the film is divided into titled chapters), in which the Bride slaughters 50-some samurai-sword wielding gangsters; he doesn’t even try. Vol. 2 shifts action to the American Southwest, where the desert heat and dust make everything slower and more complicated—including the Bride’s journey of revenge.

Next on the Death List is Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen). The once-proud killer is now an alcoholic strip-club bouncer; Madsen revels in the character’s degradation as he endures the verbal abuse of the moronic strip club owner. Budd’s utter lack of self-respect and his abandonment of the warrior code serves him well in his showdown with the Bride, whose real name—Beatrix Kiddo—is finally revealed.

Unlike the murderers played by Lucy Liu and Vivica A. Fox in Vol. 1, neither Budd nor Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) engender much sympathy from the audience. Even Budd can’t bear the vile, rancid Elle, who is one of the most cartoony, evil characters since Cruella DeVille tried to skin all those cute Dalmatian puppies. Hannah is delightfully despicable, whether explaining the particulars of snakebite death to someone enduring those same agonies or reminiscing about one of her favorite poisonings. The filmmaker doesn’t think much of Budd or Elle, either—not to give anything away, but neither gets the honored warrior death accorded the film’s other assassins.

A good deal of the fun in Vol. 2 is in a flashback to Kiddo’s “cruel” martial-arts training at the hands of Pei Mei (Gordon Liu, clearly having a ball as the beard-pulling, insult-hurling priest). Tarantino even comes up with another showy bit for actor Michael Parks, who played the laconic sheriff in the first part, and a slimy pimp here.

The biggest change from Vol. 1 is the presence of Carradine’s Bill, a leathery, wily bastard who dominates every scene he’s in. Carradine oozes charm, even when the only thing on his mind is murder; his star turn is the latest in a now-long line of Tarantino career resurrections that includes Robert Forster, Pam Grier and John Travolta.

Still, however much fun Vol. 2 is, it doesn’t work as well on its own as the first part. To get the full import of Tarantino’s beautifully constructed story, with its careful foreshadowings and genuinely inspired surprises, it needs to be seen all at once. And now that Miramax has made a tidy profit on the two-film release scheme, Tarantino has said that he’s going to recut the two parts into one for the arthouse circuit later this year. I’m reserving final judgment until then.

—Shawn Stone

Found in Translation

Japanese Story
Directed by Sue Brooks

Japanese Story, which finds a young Japanese man adrift in Australia, has some similarities to Lost in Translation, the least of them being that it was written and directed by women (Alison Tilson and Sue Brooks). Both films come from a dreamily interior perspective, and center on the yearning of two people whose lives temporarily bisect while following impossibly different trajectories. And both have an awareness of the long, sometimes ludicrous reach of globalism. But where Lost in Translation is comic and ephemeral, Japanese Story is poignant tragedy.

Sandy (Toni Collette) is a stressed-out geologist who can’t say no, especially not to her partner, Bill (Matthew Dyktynski), with whom she’s developed a geologic software program. When the son of an international Japanese industrialist arrives on holiday and wants to be shown the remotest sights of the outback, Sandy is pushed into playing tour guide. It’s dislike at first greeting. Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) assumes that the casually dressed Sandy is his driver. Sandy assumes, rightly at first, that Hiro is a spoiled dilettante. After demanding to be taken into the wilderness to look at rocks, he gets floppy drunk at a karaoke bar. Sandy has to pile him into the jeep just like she did with his luggage. But later, at the beach, she can’t help noticing his delicately attractive build.

Mutually annoyed with each other, they soon become intrigued by their mutual otherness, which is thrown into relief by the vast red sands of the Pilbara desert. When the jeep bogs down in a sand trap, Sandy has to convince Hiro that the outback is not a theme park. “People die out here. All the time,” she tells him. Still, he won’t use his phone to call for help, apparently fearing the disapproval of his father more than their dangerous predicament.

With its rapturous footage (by Ian Baker) of the bleakly rugged terrain and an evocative, exotic score, Japanese Story provides an effective setting for the two strangers to become entranced with each other. Hiro is moved by the stirring expanse (“There’s nothing. . . . It scares me”), and is filled with admiration for Sandy’s understanding of it. The enforced leisure gives Sandy—who apparently hasn’t had the patience to appreciate anyone before (including her widowed mother)—the time to get to know her bewildering companion. She realizes that his desire to lose himself in the remote desert is more than just a lark. Lulled into abandon by their isolation, they fall into a dreamy affair. And then the peril of being a stranger in a strange land comes down swiftly and inexplicably.

Collette, a compelling character actress (The Sixth Sense) is a powerful presence here (she’s in virtually every frame), expressing most of Sandy’s thoughts and emotions nonverbally. Her shocked transformation into a keenly aware person is a subdued tour-de-force. That the rest of the film isn’t as moving is due to Tilson’s stubbornly clunky dialogue and the script’s unsubtle emphasis on the characters’ cultural differences. Yet Story’s basic premise—that life is short—is conveyed with enough beauty and sadness to put Brooks on a par with any other woman filmmaker.

—Ann Morrow

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