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WHO woulda thunk that Keanu Reeves would become the biggest sf and fantasy film hero going? Certainly not I. When I first noticed him, lovely lad that he was, as a member of an ensemble cast of alienated and substance-altered teens in the strange and disturbing 1986 crime drama, The River's Edge, I never would have predicted his affinity for far-ranging fantasy roles.
Even forgetting his central role as Neo in the Matrix trilogy—and I'm serious, please let's all try to forget it!—Reeves has done a great many sf-tinged roles in his twenty years as a reluctant movie star. From the dopey but adorable dude, Ted, in the Bill and Ted movies (1989, 1991) to the even more dopey but less adorable Jonathan Harker in Coppola's Dracula (1992), Reeves has traveled time, space, and overwrought drama with the best of them. Other sf/fantasy films featuring Mr. Reeves include Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Chain Reaction (1996), The Devil's Advocate (1997), The Gift (2000), Constantine (2005), and, according to how literal-minded you feel about religious myth, even 1993's Little Buddha (in which he played the divinity-in-the-making role of Siddhartha).
Although I defy anyone to question his physical beauty, Keanu's acting ability has been more of a matter of debate over the years. Since his screen affect is so often inscrutable—or out-and-out vacant if you're a detractor—it's not always clear whether he's delivering a performance or pondering what he should have for lunch. I've never seen any iPod wires coming from his ears, but he often has that off-somewhere-look of a download-obsessed listener who can't be bothered to interact with the outer world.
Because of his idiosyncrasies as a performer, Keanu's most believable roles have been those of the disaffected or the drugged, as in My Own Private Idaho (1991) or I Love You to Death (1990). His experiments with drama and romance, as in A Walk in the Clouds (1995), Sweet November (2001), or any number of the films mentioned in previous paragraphs, have been more problematic.
Which brings us to the two latest films of Keanu Reeves, both sf/fantasy, released within three weeks of one another.
The first out of the gate was the much-promoted yet little-seen romance, The Lake House. The movie was touted as Keanu's long-awaited reteaming with his Speed co-star, Sandra Bullock, but Asian film fans were more interested in it as (yet another) Hollywood remake of a Korean film; in this case, the fantasy romance, Il Mare (Siworae) directed by Lee Hyun-Seung, and starring Lee Jung-Jae and Jun Ji-Hyun.
The Korean original is, you will not be surprised to hear, the much superior movie. It tells the tale of a young woman who, when she moves to the big city, leaves a note behind in her mailbox for the next tenant, asking him to forward on any mail received at the lovely sea cottage she is now leaving behind. The "next" tenant turns out to be the first and previous occupant of the house, however. (Have I lost you yet?) Before long the two leads are exchanging notes and gifts yet quickly realize that they are separated by two years.
The man, Sung-Hyun, is living in 1997, and the young woman, Eun-Joo, is living in 1999. Their epistolary relationship, aided by an ornate magical mailbox, blossoms into a deep connection. But the "blessing" of that relationship may well be doomed by their separation in time.
Although by no means a hopeless story, the most moving aspect of Il Mare is its unflinching exploration of modern loneliness. The two leads are separated by time from one another, but other emotional and social impediments keep them isolated from much of the rest of their world. Eun-Joo is still pining after a fiancé who went to the U.S. to study and forgot to come home to her. While Sung-Hyun seems haunted by his estrangement from the architect father who abandoned him as a child; a betrayal of family that even interferes with the son's own ambitions as a building designer.
There is a quiet and a melancholy that is most memorable about Il Mare. The movie seems less interested in keeping the plot moving briskly along than it is in letting the viewer really experience the longing and solitude of the two leads. Depressing, you say? Actually, not at all.
What's depressing is what Hollywood does to perfectly good foreign originals. And Il Mare is no exception.
The Lake House is helmed by Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti, from an adapted screenplay by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright (for Proof) David Auburn. And although not a terrible film, it does manage to completely ruin the elegiac beauty of the original story.
As is the wont of American movies, it over-complicates the story and over-communicates the plot to the viewer. It telegraphs every relationship except that of the two leads, Dr. Kate Forster (Bullock) and builder Alex Wyler (Reeves) to their own loneliness. And it tries so hard to keep the time zigzag moving along at such a clip that it violates its own logic for no apparent reason other than to keep us touched and surprised. (Which it fails to do. As soon as you know that Bullock's character has been recast as a doctor, you know exactly what shocking plot development is on its way.)
Il Mare silently and easily expresses in three very brief scenes the irreparable rift between Sung-Hyun and his father. The Lake House has to make a major diversion out of it, casting Christopher Plummer as Alex's arrogant but brilliant father and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as the great man's more obedient younger son. Now, no one does arrogant oldsters better than Christopher Plummer, but his character and scenes are actually a distraction from the key relationship between Kate and Alex. As is the sad-sack fiancé of Kate, played by Dylan Walsh (who is such a good, devoted guy that Kate's preference for a man she doesn't even know, and probably never will, makes her seem less than sympathetic).
Maybe the filmmakers made these decisions to scatter their energies on purpose, realizing that Bullock and Reeves had precious little chemistry when they played their couple of scenes together, and even less when they were reading letters to one another separated by space and time.
Yet this pairing must have seemed, going in, to be a casting slam dunk, since there had been plenty of chemistry between them in their first film together, Speed.
It's ironic, really. Modern actioners aren't exactly known for their believable romances or their subtle character development. Yet Speed accomplished both cinematic coups. The reason? The relationship between the two leads played by Reeves and Bullock was allowed to develop (slowly, despite the movie's title) while the characters were caught up dealing with action-packed crisis after crisis. And their growing bond was captured not in sappy statements like "We'll be together in time," but rather in a simple glance or gesture in the silences of a very tense bus (and later subway) ride.
Too bad the people behind The Lake House couldn't take a lesson from Speed—or at the very least, the original version of their story, Il Mare.
Despite his affinity for sf and fantasy film, you have to give Keanu credit for trying to put a little variety in his oeuvre. For his other summer sf film is about as far away from The Lake House as you can get. And it just happens to be the best, most faithful adaptation of the work Philip K. Dick ever brought to the screen.
The film is A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of Dick's most personal and troubling novel about the destructive power of addiction on the mind, body, and spirit of a man, and by extension, his society. And it has been lovingly translated to the screen by Richard Linklater.
Besides being an avowed PKD fan, Linklater knows a thing or two about themes like the questionable nature of reality and the marginalized lives and brilliant insanity of the crackpots, druggies, and conspiracy theorists who populate the "bohemian" side of cities like his hometown of Austin, Texas. This is the material Linklater has specialized in writing and directing in small indie-ish films over the years.
And although he has recently delved into more commercial screen expressions of the American eccentric—in movies like 2003's School of Rock and 2005's Bad News Bears—Linklater is best known for cult classics like the rambling community portrait Slacker (1991), a movie in which any number of the characters from Dick's A Scanner Darkly might have felt right at home.
In 2001, Linklater wrote and directed a movie that was clearly a personal prelude to his work on Scanner. It was a film he decided to tell by means of a new computerized development of an early twentieth-century animation technique. Called "interpolated rotoscoping," the new process, using proprietary software developed by Bob Sabiston, allowed for painterly animation to be superimposed on live action photography.
Linklater's movie was called Waking Life, and it followed a young man (Wiley Wiggins) as he arrives at an unnamed town and wanders from place to place observing or passively interacting with scores of people with plenty to say about life, death, the future, and the nature of reality. After a while the young man questions whether he is caught in a constant dream state, or might even possibly be dead. In one of the last scenes, the young hero interacts with a man at a pinball machine, who relates an elaborate story concerning Philip K. Dick and the nature of time.
The man playing that pinball philosopher is none other than the writer-director himself, Richard Linklater.
Linklater is a man who is clearly capable of getting into Dickian head games. And the nervous, surreal animation that he so aptly utilized in his own Waking Life is just as appropriate to capture the altered states, confused identity, and paranoid delusions of A Scanner Darkly.
Central to the plot is Bob Arctor (Reeves), who is also, apparently, an Orange County Sheriff's Department narcotics undercover agent called "Fred." Unfortunately, both Bob and Officer Fred are now addicted to a botanically based and highly damaging street drug called Substance D. Bob's friends are equally under the influence and feeling the damage. These pals include a man named Freck (Rory Cochrane), who hallucinates about being constantly swarmed by aphids; a bright, very verbal, and utterly treacherous housemate named Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.); an affable stoner named Luckman (Woody Harrelson); and Bob's love-interest, a strung-out retail clerk and sometime dealer named Donna (Winona Ryder).
There are a few sf touches in both the book and the movie. These include the "scramble suit," a holographic identity jumbler worn by narcs to hide their true appearance and identity. But Dick's novel and Linklater's movie are really not futuristic or fantastical except for these few trappings. The story of A Scanner Darkly is instead an all-too-realistic and contemporary exploration of an addict's descent into self-destruction and paranoia.
As in all Dick stories, paranoia is fully justified in this seedy suburban realm. There are vast corporate and governmental conspiracies at play. And even people in Arctor's inner circle might really be out to destroy him—if Substance D doesn't do the job first.
Keanu Reeves is surprisingly effective in the central role of Bob/Fred/and later, Bruce. But this is just the kind of alienated and altered character that Keanu has always played so effectively. Downey and Harrelson—both of whom know a great deal about the illegally medicated life—are also quite good, and it's their mordantly hilarious riffs that offer a little absurdist comic relief in this very dark tale.
But how do you even judge an acting performance when it's been painted over by a team of animators using computer software? That's the kind of question about what's real and true that even Mr. D. might appreciate.
Suffice it to say that A Scanner Darkly is a very fine film in which the writing, directing, performing, and technical arts all serve their story very well indeed. Did I enjoy it? Not really. Like the novel, I found the whole thing as depressing as hell. Maybe that's the point. (And that's probably why the audiences of America flocked like happy sheep to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and stayed away from this haunting movie in droves.)
But here's a question for you: Is there such a thing as an un-product placement? At several points in the novel A Scanner Darkly, Donna denounces and physically rips off or attacks the Coca Cola Company and its vehicles. She sees Coke as a great symbol of all-pervasive corporate evil. (And, heck, former President Bill Clinton, with his recent campaign against sugary soft drinks and their creation of obese, sugar-addicted children would probably agree with her.) And yet, that is one aspect of the novel that Linklater doesn't touch in his very faithful adaptation.
Was there, perchance, a Big Pay-Off made by Coke to stay out of the movie? Or, perhaps, an even larger Corporate Conspiracy between the beverage industry leader and Warner Brothers?
Can't be! Sorry! I must be getting paranoid.
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