Kontroll DVD released August 30, 2005.
Watch the trailer (at apple.com).
I'm a pain in the ass to rent movies with. My friends can tell you that many a movie night has been spent wandering the video store with me as I shoot down suggestion after suggestion because a) I have seen it, b) I've read a clutch of reviews that panned it, or c) I'm dead sure it would make for a horrible group viewing experience.
So it was with some trepidation that my pal Steve went on his lonesome to the superb Lost Weekend Video last Thursday to pick up our night's entertainment. A group of friends, several of whom are serious movie buffs, were converging on Steve's house -- and his nifty new home theater -- for a night of snooty flickifying and heckling from the back rows. "Just pick something," I told Steve. "I'm trying to reform my ways. I will happily keep my mouth shut and watch whatever you bring back."
"I'm hardly a connoisseur," Steve muttered as he returned, DVD in hand. He didn't need the disclaimer. He had done well.
My exercise in giving up control of movie night had yielded a wonderful, unexpected Hungarian film titled, ironically, Kontroll. Why this little gem of a movie had sparkled on the vid store shelf only Steve can say. It not only made for a great group picture (even holding up under the typical, incessant barrage of jokes from our mini peanut gallery), its images and energy are still with me days later. Co-written (with Jim Adler) by young, American-born director Nimród Antal, the movie is a visual stunner, packed with more creativity than the last half-dozen Hollywood movies I've sat through.
In an alternate reality set entirely in the catacombs of the Budapest subway system, the melancholy Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), and his grungy pals form a team of down-and-out ticket inspectors ("kontrollers"), who ride the rails all day, demanding that passengers show proof that they have indeed paid the fare. They are weaponless, uniformless (except for their tattered red arm bands) and they command no authority whatsoever. They are the meter maids of the system -- bullied and disrespected by everyone they approach, from leather-clad biker pimps to gypsy witches who curse them by blowing magic powder in their faces. The joke here, of course, is that the kontrollers have no real control over anything. They are regularly pummeled and spat upon by the very people they seek to control.
What's worse, out of all the competing kontroller teams (and they do compete, at times with violent results), Bulcsú's is the worst. They're the sad sacks, the bottom of the heap, the scorn of the entire kontroller force -- drunks and screw-ups and narcoleptics. Meanwhile, some creepy guy in a hood is going about pushing people in front of trains -- and Bulcsú keeps running into a girl dressed in a fluffy pink teddy bear outfit. Strange goings-on indeed.
Equal parts actioner, mood piece, thriller and comedy, the movie has a slam-bang pace with judiciously sprinkled quiet, thoughtful, moving and, yes, very eerie moments. The characters are often funny and bizarre, with a few cast members sporting misshapen mugs worthy of a Fellini flick.
Kontroll opens with a strange blessing from a Hungarian transit official, explaining why the filmmakers were allowed to shoot in the Budapest subway system, and taking pains to say that, as it is portrayed, this is a largely fictional world. But what a visually arresting world it is. The sets are not sets at all, just brilliantly selected existing locations within what seems to be a vast, dark, almost dystopian subway system.
The movie was shot at night, when the subway is normally empty, and although there are plenty of scenes with rush hour crowds, the most gorgeous shots take advantage of massive, unpopulated underground spaces: escalators that seem to go on forever, miles of cable-covered tunnels that look like the innards of an alien spacecraft, empty tiled train platforms with row upon row of flickering fluorescent lights. The subway is like a city underground. Not once do we get a glimpse of the world above. In fact, one character even sleeps in the subway each night after the last trains have passed through and the passengers are all gone.
In a fashion typical of European alterna-flicks (and impossible, it seems, for Hollywood), Kontroll leaves some of its biggest mysteries unsolved, but with enough clever ambiguity that our movie night ended -- as the best movie nights do -- with some spirited discussion about what we had just seen and what it all meant.
It's always a delight when you stumble across a movie that can rekindle your faith in the medium itself. Yes, I had given up control over movie night -- and it was a liberating experience.