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5 Stars Movies

All life’s a play in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

Whether it actually is or not, Synecdoche, New York has the feel of a very, very personal work of art. I know next to nothing about writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s personal life, and don’t even necessarily feel like I do now. Then again, few people do know Kaufman, as he has famously managed to sidestep much publicity despite perpetrating a successful screenwriting career in an industry in which the cult of personality applies to everyone.

Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s first film as director, after a string of playful yet brainy screenplays. The best antecedents I can name would be the surreal satires of Lindsay Anderson (like O Lucky Man!) and the Postmodern deconstruction of Tom Stoppard (especially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which wreaks hilarious havok with no less a holy relic than Hamlet). Kaufman’s hit parade so far includes Being John Malkovich, Human Nature (underrated! see it!), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and one of our favorites, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both pure pleasures to watch, but Adaptation showed the darker side of Kaufman’s brilliance. As I understood the film, the very life itself of screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicolas Cage) slowly becomes the violent, sexed-up Hollywood melodrama he loathes to write. To describe Synecdoche, New York in shorthand, it’s as if the cynical, challenging narrative nature of Adaptation were crossed with the deep emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine.

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
Here’s a theory to explain Hazel’s enigmatic burning house: could it be an allusion to the Talking Heads song “Love -> Building on Fire”? I’m being serious here…

But what it’s actually “about” would take a lot of analysis to figure out, and my single viewing is not enough to unpack it (assuming my IQ would be up to the task anyway). Like Adaptation, it’s actually a little frustrating to watch, but in a good sense, in that the audience is constantly being challenged. I have to admit that I don’t fully “get” it, but I also think it’s clear there’s no single key to unlocking any one meaning of the film.

I’m giving it the full five-star rating because I have enormous respect for any such uncompromising, challenging, affecting, and frustrating work of art in cinema. That it was produced as a major motion picture starring numerous famous faces and released in multiplexes nationally alongside the more typical fare Saw V and High School Musical 3 is nothing less than a miracle, and gives one hope for the future of the film industry. At least four people walked out of the screening I attended, some during an uncomfortable nude scene featuring Emily Watson (not uncomfortable in that she isn’t beautiful, because she is, but because the sex scene is so utterly frank). It’s a pity they did, for they missed one of the most weirdly moving last moments of a film I’ve ever seen (although it did have precedent in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which also suggested the voice of God towards his supplicant is akin to that of a film/theater/television director’s towards his actor).

The closest thing I’ve seen to Synecdoche, New York is Spike Jonze’s Michel Gondry’s brilliant music video for Bjork’s “Bachelorette” (Jonze Gondry is a longtime collaborator of Kaufman’s, and co-produced Synecdoche, New York). (UPDATE: corrections thanks to commenter Greg. I can’t believe I mixed up two of my favorite directors!) Less a pop music promo than a short film that stands on its own merits, “Bachelorette” recounts the tale of a young country girl who writes her autobiography and moves to the big city, where she falls in love with her publisher. A hit, her book spawns a theatrical adaptation, in which a young country girl writes her autobiography, moves to the big city, and falls in love with her publisher. A hit, it too spawns a theatrical play. You get the idea: the tale is infinitely recursive. But each copy is a copy within a copy, each more distorted, flimsy, and sad than its source material. Entropy and decay set in, and the world(s) collapse in upon themselves. Her life basically ends at the point she finishes her autobiography and looks only backwards instead of living for the future. Watch the video here:

Synecdoche, New York is a pun on the New York city Schenectady (the location of Caden’s original theater company) and the literary term for a figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole (for example, “The White House said today…” as used by newscasters rather than specifying the administration, or even more specifically, the Press Secretary). Theater director Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) divorces him and moves to Germany with their daughter and Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who may be her lover (this is Keener’s second sexually ambiguous role in a Kaufman film, here and in Being John Malkovich). Caden worries for the rest of his life that Maria is a better replacement for himself as husband and father.

Caden wins a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and uses the funds to move to Manhattan and craft an epic play housed in a disused theater illogically large enough to hold a scale model of New York City as his set. Outside, the real Manhattan descends into chaos and warfare. At one point, the characters leave the theater and walk past mysterious civil rights atrocities such as clown-costume-clad soldiers herding citizens onto armored busses at gunpoint.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis in Synecdoche, New York
Hope Davis, as the shrinkest with the mostest, offers to shrink Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head

Caden’s canvas is infinite, there is no script, and he hopes to find his story as he goes along. The play is in perpetual rehearsal for decades, and remains forever untitled. I hate to use this kind of cop-out phrase popular in college literature classes, but it truly is “a metaphor for life.” As Caden tries to find meaning for the traumatic events in his life, and to rationalize his decisions, he casts actors to play himself and the significant people in his life. Like memories being processed by the human brain, he is now able to replay recent painful events in his life over and over, giving direction to his actors on how to express their (his) pain, all with the emotional safety of knowing that it’s all just playacting.

Soon, he takes even another step back, and casts another set of actors to play the first. Reality itself begins to break down as in Bjork’s “Bachelorette”, also featuring a play within a play within a play, cast with several pairs of other actors playing herself and her lover as their affair, and entire world, disintegrates. A similar theme of copies and doubles also figures into Adaptation: writer “Charlie” may or may not have an identical twin brother, shamelessly able to make the kinds of compromises necessary for success in the movie biz and life itself that he is too weak or too ashamed to do himself. Is it significant, as Kaufman moves from writer to writer/director, that the central character of Adaptation is a writer, and that of Synecdoche, New York is a director?

Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York
A scene from Synecdoche, New York, starring Samantha Morton as Hazel, Emily Watson as Tammy as Hazel, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, and Tom Noonan as Sammy as Caden. Got that?

Caden is beset throughout with a host of mystery illnesses that forever threaten to kill him but never carry through their promise. I caught at least two hints that he may in fact already be dead: his shrink Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) makes a seeming slip of the tongue and asks why he killed himself, and later, one of his doppelgangers (Tom Noonan) commits suicide.

The walls between Caden’s life and his play blur; which is real and which is the play? The dispassionate director watches from a distance as others do the dirty work of living his life for him, such as conduct his love affairs and breakups with Claire (Michele Williams), Hazel (Samantha Morton), and Tammy (Emily Watson), that he may not have the emotional strength or sexual potency to do himself.

Caden eventually replaces himself and takes the simpler, less demanding role of one of the most fleetingly minor background figures in his life. Is he an actor in his own play, following the script and direction from someone else, an invisible external force… God? He essentially abdicates responsibility for his own life, and dies on cue.

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2 Stars Movies

John Sturges honors Kurosawa honoring Ford in The Magnificent Seven

John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s answer to Akira Kurosawa’s hugely popular Seven Samurai. It suffers in comparison, especially if, like this blogger, one watches them in quick succession. The remake is quaint, chaste, and dated in ways the fairly frank original isn’t. To put it another way, Seven Samurai is a period piece of its 16th Century setting, while The Magnificent Seven is a period piece of its 1960 production.

A remake was inevitable considering the dizzying circle of influence. Kurosawa was a fan of the Hollywood western and especially of director John Ford, all of which directly informed Seven Samurai. Hollywood’s transposition of the story to the American West for The Magnificent Seven was fairly straightforward. Its great success led to three motion picture sequels, a television series, and is reportedly set to be remade again in 2009.

The original eponymous seven samurai were actually ronin, masterless mercenaries akin to the Western outlaw: morally ambivalent drifters, killers with a personal code of honor. The Western genre is usually about outlaws, for the simple reason that they’re more dramatically interesting than regular plain folk. In both versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957 and 2007), for example, the villain Ben Wade (Glen Ford and Russell Crowe) is a far more appealing and seductive character than the good guy Dan Evans (Can Heflin and Christian Bale).

The Magnificent Seven
The meeting of the Badass Society is adjourned

An exception to the rule is the classic High Noon, in which Gary Cooper plays an honest lawman who prevails under extreme duress. The biggest clue the magnificent seven are not classic good guys: Yul Brynner appropriately sports his trademark black hat. Upping the badass quotient and testosterone levels are no less than Steve McQueen (here getting to drive a real mustang on screen), Charles Bronson, and the very lanky James Coburn.

The basic scenario is similar: seven American gunslingers accept a pittance in order to defend a Mexican village besieged by bandits. But the many alterations beyond this all reflect some very “Hollywood” thinking. In the original, it is enough for the samurai that there be an injustice they are capable of addressing. But in a Hollywood film, there must be individual motivations, which interestingly have the side effect of rendering some characters less heroic. Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) is convinced Chris (Brynner) has an ulterior motive, such as pilfering a non-existent gold mine. The dandy bounty hunter Lee (Robert Vaughn) is also along for selfish reasons; he’s on the lam for an unspecified transgression, and needs to disappear for a while.

The original Seven Samurai is actually technically comprised of only five actual samurai plus two pretenders. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a peasant posing as a samurai, and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is an earnestly romantic young boy seeking samurai training and adventure. Perhaps to economize the story, The Magnificent Seven combines these two characters into one: Chico (Horst Buchholz), a former farmer that worships the outlaws and attaches himself to them in order to become one.

Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven
Go ahead and make our day

So that leaves Chris, Bernardo (Bronson), and Vin (McQueen). In this remake’s best sleight-of-hand, we’re in the dark as to their motivations until near the very end. None of them are young men, and what drives them turns out to be the fantasy of settling down into an agricultural lifestyle. The gruff Bernardo befriends a batch of scrappy kids, becoming a kind of protective older brother if not a father figure. Chris and Vin seal their friendship with the mutual confession that they both hanker for a simpler life (a sort of admission very difficult for two very macho men).

But many poor changes outweigh these aforementioned interesting ones. Being a product of Hollywood, it’s actually less violent, profane, and sexy than the original Japanese film. The Mexican villagers are wise and saintly, compared to the more realistically flawed farmers in Seven Samurai. The threat of sexual violence is whitewashed away; the bandits are not interested in the Mexican women. We see too much of the villains, and the chief bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) is practically a featured character.

James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven

But just as I was beginning to dismiss the remake as inferior to the original in every way, and of historical interest only, the movie darkens and becomes interesting again. The Mexican villagers, like their ancient Japanese counterparts, do reveal a dark side after all. Despite their initial success in beating back the bandits with the outlaws’ help, they have a crisis of faith and betray the outlaws in order to return to the comfort zone of their parasitic relationship with the bandits.

In the old west, an outlaw may very well find a home in a frontier town where no one knows his past deeds (a core theme of the HBO series Deadwood and the situation in which Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven opens). But in ancient feudal Japan’s caste system, a ronin could never take a step down and live among farmers. This also proves to be the case in The Magnificent Seven: Chris and Vin mosey on out of town and Chico stays behind, rejecting his pretensions to being a rebel outlaw, and reverting to his destined life as a farmer.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Wong Kar-wai’s American road movie My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar-wai’s first English-language film My Blueberry Nights is mostly set in bars and diners across America. His characters all indulge in the four great American pastimes: eating, drinking, gambling, and driving.

Rachel Weisz in My Blueberry Nights

Nobody films beautiful women, or should I say, nobody films women beautifully, like Wong Kar-wai. In Blueberry Nights, he has no less than four famous female faces to worship with his camera:

  • Norah Jones – Perhaps not the most natural of actors, but her speaking voice is as emotionally expressive as it is in her famously languid, evocative music.
  • Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) – Like Jones, Marshall is a musician and not an experienced actor, but her cameo is bittersweet and effective.
  • Rachel Weisz – The New York Times one described Weisz as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” but here she portrays a seemingly dim character with a cruel streak.
  • Natalie Portman – Like Weisz, Portman plays against type as a troubled young gambling addict with an Electra complex.
Natalie Portman and Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights
Natalie Portman offers Norah Jones an offer she can’t refuse

It’s impossible to miss the central metaphor: every morning, diner proprietor Jeremy (Jude Law) ritually bakes a blueberry pie. Never eaten, it is thrown out whole every night. It may be undesired for the time being, but every day there is a fresh chance for it to find someone who hungers for it.

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4 Stars Movies

Get busy living or get busy dying: Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption

It’s hard to believe now, but The Shawshank Redemption was a relative flop at the box office, and overlooked in all seven of its Academy Award nominations (losing the 1994 Best Picture to Forrest Gump). But true to its own themes, it found redemption late in life, on television and home video. It regularly tops the running popularity poll in IMDB.com, but has the reputation for never being taken very seriously by critics.

That said, director Frank Darabont pierces the legend that the film was poorly reviewed, in a Charlie Rose Show interview included among the DVD bonus features. The four or five most widely read papers in the country did pan the film (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times being a notable exception), but nationwide, the contemporary reviews were highly positive.

Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature, a British television documentary also included on the DVD, posits the theory that any critical disdain is attributable to its conclusive happy ending. The original novella and Darabont’s screenplay adaptation both end on an ambiguous note of hope, but the studio Castle Rock specifically requested a concrete happy ending. Darabont still seems to have mixed feelings about the inserted coda, but there’s no doubt it delivers massive satisfaction and uplift.

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption
“I know what you think it means, sonny”

Despite the movie’s wild popularity, it doesn’t widely known that it is an adaption of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (a clunky title without even a “The” to aid in its scansion). It’s an atypical work that deals not at all with the supernatural, but King’s highly characteristic voice does show through in the sharp plotting, monstrous villains, and hilariously colorful dialogue. Seriously, did anyone at any time or in any social milieu ever actually call anyone “fuckstick?” Like many of King’s filthy turns of phrase, if they didn’t, they should have.

Of note, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was originally published with three other novellas in a single volume, Different Seasons. Two more became successful films: Apt Pupil (by director Bryan Singer) and The Body (as Stand By Me, by Barry Levinson).

Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption
“Get busy living, or get busy dying”

The Shawshank Redemption has its share of warm fuzzies, but repeatedly counterpunches with frank representations of the injustice of prison life, including rape, brutality, and exploitation. One glaring area in which it appears to wimp out, however, is its failure to acknowledge race. Racial tensions must have been at least as much of a problem in 1930s-50s prisons as they are now, if not more so.

The original character in the novella was a white Irish American, and Darabont reveals in the DVD bonus features that Morgan Freeman was an unconventional addition to the cast, an obviously correct decision they couldn’t pass up. Perhaps injecting racial themes into the script at that point would have been one theme too many for an already overstuffed movie, but they do percolate in the background. Red, for example, reflexively calls even the most marginal authority figure “sir.” Not only does Freeman carry a wholly natural gravitas (I recall a review of March of the Penguins that described him as “America’s favorite narrator”) but Red & Andy’s friendship is made that much more profound for the effective irrelevance of their races.

While most Hollywood movies are structured around adversarial relationships between male antagonists, The Shawshank Redemption is a rare tale of deep, sincere male friendship. It could very well be the greatest man-love story ever told, able to bring a lump to the throat of even the most macho of viewers.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Who abandoned whom in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages?

The Savages is the story of a fractured family, separated not least by geography, that reunites on the occasion of an aged parent’s health. Both siblings haven’t seen their father in years, so what was probably a slow decline seems to them a sudden plunge into senility. Both have their own problems, and neither is mature enough or equipped to care for their father. Who abandoned whom?

Curiously, the two siblings have defined their lives by two very different aspects of the theater: Wendy (Laura Linney) is a frustrated writer, endlessly applying for grants instead of actually writing. Rather, she brings a great deal of fiction into her everyday life: she manufactures drama at every turn, not just with her lover but also with her own body (she has a mean case of hypochondria). She is definitely a narcissist; her lover is only slightly older than she, but to her he is an “older man.” Also, note her hysterical (in both senses of the word) rationale for her belief that she is above an affair: “I have an M.F.A.”

Her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a college professor trapped in a perpetually unfinished book analyzing Brecht. Based on his attitude towards Wendy and her lover (a theater director), he evidently looks down on those that do the dirty business of actually creating theater.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages

In a coda, we see that both Jon and Wendy appear to have grown, and become unstuck in the careers and personal lives. Unfortunately, the ending rings false, and not in keeping with the tone of the events before it. Is writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ theme that the death of a parent is a final stepping stone in growing up? If so, how and why? As they did not witness their father’s aging, the audience did not witness Wendy and Jon’s offscreen growth.

Two talented Chrises make contributions: Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris in HBO’s The Wire) appears as perhaps the most mature and sensible character in the film. And Chris Ware was an excellent choice to design the poster and DVD menus, for The Savages would fit very nicely alongside his Acme Novelty Library comic book series.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Martin Scorsese remakes Internal Affairs as The Departed

Martin Scorsese works almost constantly, even keeping busy with documentaries between each higher-profile feature film. But the frequency of his fiction films is far enough apart for them to remain much more hotly anticipated, and every year that went by with him being passed over by the Academy Awards only more firmly established his status as a Great American Director.

Despite finally being the occasion of his long-overdue recognition by the Academy, The Departed probably won’t be ranked among his more idiosyncratic and personal films like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas (not to mention his still-underappreciated films about religious faith: The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun). The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Chinese thriller Infernal Affairs, and thus should actually be categorized alongside Scorsese’s other star-studded remake, Cape Fear. Both are undoubtedly stamped with Scorsese’s auteur touch, but still not among his most distinctively personal work.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson in The Departed
So, Jack, what was Polanski really like?

Seeing the film for the second time, this time on the small screen, this blogger is struck by the extremely high energy and pace. Like Michael Mann’s Heat (itself an influence on Infernal Affairs), the story concerns the parallel narratives of a cop — or should I say “cwawp” — (Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan) and a criminal (Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan). But unlike Mann’s stately pacing, Scorsese keeps every scene remarkably short and frantically cross-cuts between the dual narratives. Were Marty and editor Thelma Schoonmaker chugging espressos in the editing suite?

Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon in The Departed
So, Jack, what was Antonioni really like?

One aspect of the plot I still don’t fully understand: what exactly does crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) offer Colin to ensure such undying loyalty? It doesn’t seem enough that Frank provided minor charity to Colin’s struggling family in his youth. What does Colin really owe him?

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4 Stars Movies

Sidney Lumet shows us how it’s done in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a powerful, electric return to form for the 83 year-old Sidney Lumet, director of such canonical classics as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Network, and, uh, The Wiz?

Kelly Masterson’s screenplay tells the high-tension tale of a pair of wholly doomed brothers as a non-linear narrative from multiple points of view. Each jump in time and POV is accompanied by a thrilling editing technique I haven’t seen anywhere else but Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider: the current and subsequent scene ricochet back and forth in increasing speed until we’re hurtled through time into another fragment of the narrative.

Ethan Hawk and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
A masterclass in blocking from Sidney Lumet

The movie is full of examples of a fine director knowing how to use the form to the story’s advantage. For one example of how the composition of a shot reflects the subtext of the scene, note how that whenever Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawk) plot their scheme in the bar, Andy physically looms over Hank and dominates the frame with his bulk.

The acting is great all around, including a devastating turn from Albert Finney as a bitterly disappointed father, and Marisa Tomei as a woman who cast her lot with two of the worst prospects on the planet. And in case you think Hawke and Hoffman are miscast as siblings, well… just watch.

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4 Stars Movies

Emma Thompson & Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility repopularized Jane Austen

In this blog’s opinion, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is the best-of-breed within Jane Austen film adaptations. Please note, however, there are two very good reasons to discredit my opinion on this subject:

I. Despite my English major, I am ashamed to admit I have read only one Jane Austen novel: Emma. Yeah, I know, I’ve got to get working on that.

II. Sense and Sensibility features two of this blog’s all-time favorite movie crushes: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Any film featuring just one of these English roses automatically earns extra credit. Any film featuring Emma and Kate, together, equals porn (especially if they hop into bed together, as they do here… granted, as sisters keeping their toes warm, but still!). Any film featuring Emma and Kate, plus a screenplay by Emma, equals bliss.

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility
“Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honor and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”

A few extra notes:

  • Guest commentator (and first-class Austen aficionado) Snarkbait has coined the best phrase for this genre: “Regency Era froth”.
  • Actor Greg Wise (John Willoughby) later became Mr. Emma Thompson, after Kenneth Branaugh foolishly let her get away.
  • Hugh Grant’s trademark stammer, persistent interest in the carpet, and out-of-control hair are still charming even in 18th Century surroundings. But it is difficult to stifle a snicker when the devilish Grant, as Edward Ferrars, expresses an interest in joining the Church.
  • I wish I had Alan Rickman’s (Col. Brandon) vocal cords.
  • Hey, look! It’s Tom Wilkinson in a cameo as the soon-to-be-late Mr. Dashwood! This blog thinks Wilkinson is one of the finest and most versatile actors working today.
  • Required viewing: Emma Thompson’s 1996 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar acceptance speech (not on YouTube as of this writing, but here is the text).
Categories
4 Stars Movies

David vs. Goliath in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah is a dark story about the psychological damage of war, certainly not a recipe for an entertaining night at the movies. This blogger will cop to finding it difficult to work up the enthusiasm to sit down for a movie on such a troubling topic, fearing the resultant depression (despite my love and respect for cinema as an art form, and staunch sympathy for the anti-war movement, sometimes a person just needs a little light entertainment). But writer/director Paul Haggis structured the plot as a murder mystery, with a few pinches of wry humor, to craft an excellent film that is not punishingly sad.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a pious, patriotic, and disciplined man. But he is also emotionally detached; he dispassionately investigates the mysterious death of his own son. Drawing upon his skills as both a former army soldier and police sergeant, he outwits both the army’s own investigators and the resident local police smartypants Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Impressively for an old coot, he is even able to locate a back-alley cell phone phreaker, in an unfamiliar town, using only a diner’s phone book. But the seemingly cold man does reveal his pain and weakness before the end, and even a buried unsavory side involving racism.

Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon in In the Valley of Elah
(Don’t Go Back To Sgt.) Rockville

The title derives from the Biblical parable of David and Goliath, a macho mano-a-manu beatdown that occurred during the battle of the Israelites vs. the Palestinians. Aside from the obvious parallels to the locale and participants of the ancient and never-ending Middle East conflicts, the tale is also a metaphor for how Deerfield views manhood and how he raised his son: to stand tall against any odds. But as Deerfield learns unpleasant truths about his son (drugs, torture, prostitutes) and his country (unjustified war, institutional corruption), he must, late in life, come to reevaluate his most core beliefs. So what makes this clearly liberal anti-war film special is its respect for exactly the type of person it might indict: the god-fearing patriot.

Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron in In the Valley of Elah
Whitman’s Sampler, my favorite!

Finally, I’d like to highlight one excellent scene (in every way: writing, acting, and directing): as Deerfield phones his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) to tell her their son is dead, the scene begins in the middle, and in the end the camera pulls back to show Joan has torn apart the room. A lesser film would have shown the whole thing, for the sake of melodrama.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Ang Lee’s very un-titillating erotic thriller Se, jie (Lust, Caution)

As a public service, this blog would like to issue a warning to anyone that under the impression that Se, jie (Lust, Caution) is an NC-17 erotic thriller. Judging from the marketing campaign alone, one might understandably imagine that the latest film from the director of Sense & Sensibility and Eat Drink Man Woman would be a sexy drama suitable for viewing with a significant other, but be warned that most of it is quite far from titillating. In fact, the first of three sex scenes can only be classified as a rape (albeit one complicated by the characters’ complex relationship).

Se, jie is set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai, with flashbacks to the few years preceding. A naive but sincerely dedicated bunch of Chinese student activists form a terrorist cell, with the aim to assassinate collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Theater student Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) discovers she is a natural actress and gifted improviser, which unfortunately also makes her a superbly qualified as a undercover spy.

Lust, Caution

To fully inhabit her cover story as a married woman, she must first lose her virginity. This happens almost simultaneously with her cell losing their metaphorical virginity as they messily execute their first righteous assassination. As Paul Newman discovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, murder is hard work, and takes time.

Se, jie was released in the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and concerns many of the same themes: wartime occupation, violent resistance, and the use of sex as undercover ingratiation. But while Verhoeven couldn’t resist front-loading his film with plenty of cheesecake, Ang Lee and James Schamus take the high road and don’t pretend that the morally empty Mr. Yee isn’t violently twisted, and that Wong Chia Chi doesn’t absolutely suffer for her cause.

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