Sunday, November 25, 2007

Paris, Je t'aime

It's not easy making a movie with 18 different stories in it. Although 18 different international directors took the challenge, not everyone of them is good, some of them even boring. But in his entity, "Paris, je t'aime" is breathtaking, showing that, as "Love Actually" put it, 'love is all around', especially in the city of love. Here's a resumé (I'll try to make at as spoiler-free as possible) of the 18 different stories.

MONTMARTRE - kind of a dull opening sequence, nothing really special about it. A man finds a parking spot, and sees a lot of odd couples walking by, wondering why he can't find a girl. And than, suddenly, a woman faints next to his car...

QUAIS DE SEINE - another dull sequence, about three teenage boys who are searching for some 'piece of ass', when suddenly a Muslim girl trips right in front of them, receiving help from one of the boys. Really basic, but with a sweet heart to it.

LES MARAIS - this was a huge disappointment! Although a love story between two boys with an artsy background could have been interesting by the great Van Sant. Eventually, everything that comes AFTER the monologue by Ulliel is good, everything before it is just annoying.

TUILERIES - an entertaining sequence by the Coen brothers. Buscemi - without even saying one word - is mesmerizing and the whole sequence is just hilarious. This one kept me hooked until the very end, and this one also gets you truly hooked to the movie.

LOIN DU 16IEME - a beautiful story too, even if the execution is poor, the heart is there. It's the story of an Hispanic woman who drops her child off, early in the morning, to take care of another suburban baby. Beautiful.

PORTE DE CHOISY - this segment has got to be the strangest and weirdest from the whole movie. Some kind of shampoo salesman arrives in a Chinatown-lookalike place in Paris. If I understood it correctly, the story is about inner beauty, but I think I'm wrong.

BASTILLE - a truly wonderful sequence. A man meets with his wife at a restaurant, to break up with her, so that he can run off with his mistress. But the wife has some devastating news. Pretty basic, but truly sad and beautiful!

PLACE DES VICTOIRES - a sad sequence as well. Juliette Binoche plays a grieving mother. One night, she wakes up hearing her dead child. When she arrives at the location, a cowboy tells her she can give one last good-bye to her child. One of the best segments!

TOUR EIFFEL - two mimes who fall in love could have been great, but, even though it has some nice cinematic tricks, the story isn't intriguing and not funny at all.

PARC MONCEAU - a truly original and great sequence, one of the best of the movie! A young girl and an older man discuss their future and her fear for a certain man... Cuaron does a great directing job, and the actors are amazing!

QUARTIER DES ENFANTS ROUGES - an American actress (Gyllenhaal) falls in love with her drug dealer. a beautiful segment again, with a very sad ending.

PLACE DES FETES - a woman comes to a homeless man, he starts talking romantic to her... because she is the love of his life. Beautiful, sad, shocking, romantic,... Place des Fêtes will make everyone cry.

PIGALLE - a boring sequence between Ardant and Hoskins, who are looking for new thrills in their relationship... very unfunny and unromantic, Pigalle is a let-down.

QUARTIER DE LA MADELEINE - a dark horror-Gothic love starring Elijah Wood as a lost tourist in the backstreets of Paris in the night who meets a vampiress. With a black-and-white format but blood-red colour contrast that seems to incongruously bleed off screen, it nearly becomes a pastiche of Sin City – a refreshing eerie and visual turn in an otherwise fairly grounded film. bringing some diversity in the movie, QdlM is a relief. Dark, scary and oddly romantic, Madeleine is superb.

PERE-LACHAISE - another let-down segment. Directed by Wes Craven and with stars as Mortimer and Sewell, it could have been great, but Père-Lachaise is just ordinary, not original at all.

FAUBOURG SAINT-DENIS by Tom Tykwer but I think I was conditioned to think so, given that I downloaded the movie with him in mind as my favourite and nudged myself saying "finally, that's my favourite director here". Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Tykwer delivers a lovely segment in which a blind boy picks up the phone, and hears from his girlfriend (Portman - for once not annoying) that she breaks up with him, and he reflects on their relationship. As is Tywker's style, the story is dizzyingly fast-paced, kinetic and repetitive, featuring screaming and running (Lola Rennt) making it the most adrenaline-pumping segment in Paris je t'aime and possibly also the most touching once Tywker starts wielding his most powerful tool – music.

QUARTIER Latin - even though this segment has been co-directed by Depardieu and has such stars as Rowlands, Gazzara and Depardieu, this segment is a let-down too. Nothing happens, lack of chemistry between the actors.

14TH ARRONDISSEMENT - the last sequence is hilarious and sad at the same time. An American tells in her French class about her trip to Paris. Her French is truly terrible, but at the end of the segment, she realizes that Paris is so much more than meets the eye.With Feist on the background, "Paris, je t'aime" ends in a sweet tone, not letting me down at all, even though some segments bored the hell out of me, the entity of the movie is great! A true cinematic experience for young and old. Paris, je t'aime vraiment!

Yet Paris je t'aime truly spoils you with quality, for all the other stories are well-crafted with crisp acting and amusing writing. It is certainly one of the highlights of 2006 (not saying much, I suppose) and a very personal film in the sense that it is unavoidable to pick a favourite and a least favourite. Highly recommended both to mainstream of "pretentious" (heh) audiences.

Paris, Je t'aime

Original Post here

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Bird People in China

The Bird People in China may not have been the first gentle, understated drama Takashi Miike made, but it was undoubtedly the most respected at that point in his career. Capturing the hearts of audiences in Japan and abroad, it was instantly viewed as a turning point for the director away from the V-cinema Yakuza films that made up the bulk of his filmography. After this, the sky was the limit for Miike and he would follow it up with his first batch of commercial features that cemented his status as a major player within the Japanese film industry.

In an extremely remote part of the Yun Nan province mountainside, the members of a small village have discovered a deep Jade vein that promises to bring untold riches to the region. Japanese Salaryman, Wada (Masahiro Motoki) is working for the Jewellers that have first claim on this vein and with no time to properly prepare he is whisked off to the Mainland. Here a local guide named Shen (Mako) is set to lead him into the mountains to investigate the extent of the treasure. However, before they can depart Wada is accosted by an elderly Yakuza named Yuji (Renji Ishibashi). It seems Wada’s company borrowed money from a powerful Yakuza family and quickly fell behind in their payments. To put things right they offered the Yakuza a cut in their Jade vein claim, but later tried to persuade the gangsters that the claim wasn’t as rich as they first thought. Needless to say, the cynical Yakuza are not fooled easily and poor old Yujie has been ordered to accompany Wada on his little mountain excursion to verify the extent of the claim. With an uneasy alliance formed between these three men they set off on the perilous trip into the heart of the countryside. At first the city men are ignorant to the startling scenery they’re traversing, but little by little they become more receptive to the world around them and at the end of their journey, the men uncover a community that will change their lives forever.

If the plethora of critical appraisals on the cover don’t give you high enough expectations from this film, then allow me to reiterate some of the plaudits: The Bird People in China truly is an evocative, magical film. The title refers to an ancient legend that bird people once soared the skies with the aid of large mechanical wings. These men left behind a manual on how to construct said wings but it was lost for centuries, finally being discovered a few decades prior to the start of this story by a village elder - who promptly resurrected the bird people’s teachings within his community. As utterly fantastical as this may sound though, the film remains anchored in pure expressionistic realism, with the villagers’ embrace of these antiquated beliefs proving to be more a by-product of the peaceful idyll within their community. Free from the needless responsibilities and myriad distractions that take up modern society, their appreciation of life and nature is fundamental enough to incorporate grandiose hopes and dreams. Later on in the film Wada and Co. bump into a Japanese tourist who has been combing the area for clues on this legend. It seems etchings of the bird people have been found right across Japan and that Yun Nan is rumoured to be the birthplace of Japanese culture – in other words the film is more a tale of self-discovery rather than new. The Japanese men are reluctantly embarking on a journey into their own cultural roots and the change it evokes within them is truly heart-warming, resonating beautifully by the deliberate pace.

Not once does the story feel rushed nor does it lag throughout the near two-hour runtime. The pace and tone is intricately set to flesh out some of finer nuances in the story. The first half of the movie is rather light-hearted, with plenty of comedy to ensure that the time flies by as we’re introduced to the major players bit by bit. In a series of transportation gags we see Wada arrive in China by plane, then taking a train to Yun Nan. Completely disorientated from the stillness around him, he meets up with the local guide Shen - whose easy-going nature provides many comedic moments throughout the film. When they bump into Yujie the triangle of unlikely adventurers is complete. The relationship between Yujie and Wada is one of the most important aspects of Bird People in China and although flashbacks show they’re in exactly the same boat - having been ordered to China against their will, their alliance is anything but easy. The bullying Yakuza quickly establishes authority over the subordinate Salaryman and the animosity between the two is used to hilarious effect throughout their initial encounters with the Chinese terrain. The three men start their journey into the heart of Yun Nan territory in a rundown Japanese van, driven by a rather insane old man who doesn’t even blink when the vehicle starts falling down around them. After this van inevitably dies they switch to an auto-rickshaw until they run out of road to travel on and are left with a mountain to climb – literally! If that wasn’t gruelling enough, they hit the harsh side of nature head on with a ferocious thunderstorm destroying the business documents and spare clothing Wada was carrying. Bruised and shell-shocked from the storm, they are left to rely on one last form of transport before reaching the village – an utterly absurd, turtle-powered raft! This may be very amusing, but the analogy is clear. As the men get closer and closer to their destination they are being stripped bare of all the convenience of home and entering a world that’s becoming more primitive, more alien, with each new step and brimming with more surprises than they could possibly imagine.

When Wada and Yujie finally reach the village the pace of the film intentionally slows down considerably. The languid manner in which the rest of the story unfurls perfectly accentuates the difference between the calm utopia of this remote village and the busy “civilised” streets of Tokyo. But story doesn’t begin to wane; if anything proceedings become more interesting because it’s at this point that the differences between our Japanese protagonists truly come to the fore. Up until now there has been a tangible sense of each character’s lack of self-worth and isolation within their wildly different worlds back home. Both realise they have completely lost control over their own lives, yet when they’re confronted with the gentle idealism of this mountain community they react in subtly divergent ways. Yujie may at first seem like a stereotypical Yakuza thug, but he is clearly haunted by the realisation his criminal lifestyle will catch up with him sooner or later. He may not have wanted any part in this Chinese excursion, but he is truly fascinated by the people and culture surrounding him, snapping away with his camera throughout the journey. Wada on the other hand is a stereotypical elite Salaryman. Obsessed with personal appearance and completely focussed on the job at hand he keeps his head in his books throughout most of the journey, refusing to acknowledge the world around him. When the storm rips these books away, he has no choice but to stop and smell the roses – but he doesn’t give them a thorough sniff, maintaining an emotional distance well into his stay in the village. This is not the case for Yujie, who immediately embraces the villager’s lifestyle, immersing himself fully in the simple joys of their everyday life. As Wada investigates the Jade vein with some of the locals, the aging Yakuza stays back to engage in trivial pursuits and play with the children. His real self has finally risen to the surface to reveal a man who is not boorish and cruel at all, but gentle and playful.

Meanwhile Wada continues to be a tougher nut to crack and doesn’t drop his obsession with the job at hand until he starts to interact with the mysterious, blue-eyed village teacher, Yen. Not only does the colour of her eyes hint at her unique ancestry in such a remote part of the world, but Wada also hears her singing the traditional Scottish Folk song: “Annie Laurie”. Stunned that he recognises the tune, the Salaryman decides to take a crack at translating the English verse using the last technical items he has at his disposable – an electronic English translator and a tape recorder. It’s the turning point for his character because he would never have stopped to embark on such a trivial pursuit before, but now he’s so enraptured by the emotion in this girl’s singing that he completely forgets his business with the Jade vein and his life back at home. However, it’s not a complete immersion in the culture of these people; he’s still relying on the comfort of technology. By-products of the commercialism that’s permeated deeper throughout Japan than most nations across the globe - let alone Asia. It’s a country obsessed with financial and personal success at the expense of almost complete cultural isolation from its Chinese ancestors. The fact this village teaches it’s children how to fly is a striking contrast to the high-pressure Japanese school system, which has been the butt of some scathing criticism in films like Battle Royale and All About Lily Chou-Chou. Still, as highly regarded as this traditional way of life is, it’s clear that a degree of modernisation is inevitable – perhaps even necessary, now that the Jade vein has been discovered. Certainly the current generation in the village are eager to improve the financial prosperity and technical advancements their new business ties will bring. Wada seems adrift like flotsam within the currents of all these contrasting ideologies, unable to just extend his hands and crawl his way to shore.

Looking back through Miike’s films as a whole you can clearly see the recurring motif of a group of outcasts who are dreaming of a life somewhere, anywhere away from their current location. When they take the bull by the horns and proactively seek this new life they inevitably meet with disaster or disappointment. The Bird People of China eschews this trend because not only are the protagonists seemingly uninterested in seeking a new life for themselves, but they reluctantly manage to discover this mythical Shangri-la where peace and acceptance awaits. Perhaps it is this deeply ironic twist that attracted the director to the project, but there’s no denying that in Wada and Yuji we have a couple of atypical “Miike” anti-heroes. Even in the village there’s room for some traditional Miike outcasts. Most of the young adults in the village view the bird people legends as nothing but a pipedream, but Yan fiercely believes in her grandfather’s teachings, and then there’s the matter of her mixed-race descent. Another common Miike touch is in the juxtaposing of Wada’s business orders and Yujie’s Yakuza orders in Japan, not only is it an amusing way to highlight their similarities, but it’s also deglamourising the gangster lifestyle in the process. Most of Miike’s films to date have been Yakuza dramas, but he’s never been interested in projecting a romantic image of this life.

As rich in characterisation as The Bird People in China may be, it means nothing if the actors aren’t up to the task of realising them. Thankfully the cast are uniformly excellent. Masahiro Motoki may be better known to Western viewers for his more outlandish roles in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini or Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t but he fits into the part of Wada like a glove. Amply expressing the inner turmoil and sombre, introspective nature of the character. Still, as good as he is, it’s the veteran character actors Mako and Renji Ishibashi who truly shine. Mako is no stranger to western audiences having starred in numerous high-profile Hollywood films over the years, but as the affable Chinese guide, Shen, he is given a role with plenty of scope to flex his comic muscles deliver a performance that is a sheer delight to watch. Renji Ishibashi has starred in countless Yakuza films over the years so he’s certainly in his element here, putting in a performance that’s as warm as it is tough, capturing the child-like regression of the character and the menace behind his burgeoning mental instability with the skill only a veteran can achieve.

With the story being more understated than most of his films, there’s not so much need for Miike to unleash his catalogue of stylistic tricks, but he does manage to squeeze in one or two of his distinct stylistic touches. He makes full use of a rapid sped-up montage to introduce us to the frantic hustle and bustle of Wada’s life in Tokyo. It’s accentuated further by the measured pacing in the second half as the peaceful life of the villagers comes to the fore. Further contrasts between these worlds are drawn by the chosen colour scheme – another common trick the director incorporates into his film. Tokyo life is a blue-filtered collage of greys and whites, drab colours to match the lifestyle, whereas the Chinese countryside is awash with colour. When the Japanese visitors finally arrive at their destination, a yellow filter kicks in, giving the picture a golden hue and intensifying the greens in the picture. It would be unfair to give Miike all the credit for the stunning look of the film though. Hideo Yamamoto is one of the most talented Director’s of Photography working within the Japanese film industry and has worked with Miike on numerous films, always bringing out the most in the director’s style. He must have had a very rough time shooting on-location around Yun Nan province but the end result is nothing short of breathtaking, as the majestic sweeping mountain sides and epic geography of the area overshadows almost every other aspect of the film. If you’re left with one memory by the closing credits, it will probably be of the gorgeous canvass on which this gentle story is painted. Either that or the rousing message that even the most fantastical dreams may not be impossible to realise after all.

The Hours

"The Hours" is the magnificent adaptation to the big screen of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel.

The story is about three women living in three different periods – the first one is the famous British writer Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) in 1923; the second one is an ordinary American housewife in 1953 (played by Julianne Moore) and the last one is a modern woman, a lesbian living in New York in 2001 (played by Meryl Streep). To cut the story short – it all revolves around Woolf writing her novel „Mrs. Dalloway" – she's writing it, the housewife, Laura Brown is reading it and the last one, Clarissa is living the life of the main character of the book, preparing a party for an ex-lover and long-term friend, the poet Richard (Ed Harris), who's dying of AIDS . That's the most simple way to put it.

The story starts off with Virginia Woolf in 1941 walking towards a lake, putting rocks into her pockets. We hear a voice-over narration of her troubled-sounding voice as she writes a suicide letter for her loving husband. Switch over to 1951 and we see Laura Brown, a suburban wife and mother in Los Angeles. For anyone who knows the story of Mrs. Dalloway will find that Laura's story almost perfectly resembles the book. She wakes up, has breakfast, and prepares for a party. A quick flashforward 50 years later, and it's 2001, where we meet Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian who lives with her lover and daughter, and takes care of her best friend and ex husband (who is now gay and has AIDS). Her day also follows that of Mrs. Dalloway and we quickly learn the deep complexity of her character. She is frightened yet confident, questioning her own lesbian nature.

Themes rise, as concern over self-freedom is blatantly suffocating the three women. Also we see themes of feminism, self-pity, concern, and of course death. As two successful suicides are brought up, more and more tragic moments arise. The stories intertwine through both the book and reoccurring characters in different eras. An emotional impact sends all three stories to contemplate self-destruction but fail to do so because of concern for others' satisfaction.
The acting is without a doubt, superb, if not flawless. Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf in an almost uncanny way (The fake nose Nicole wore was brilliant). We see her transform into a factual character, making us feel we are really looking at the author herself. Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep brilliantly capture troubled women who face their own fate by escaping what they're forced to love. No matter which segment we're watching, the acting sucks us in and provokes our thoughts. Ed Harris who plays Richard Brown gained an Oscar nomination with his sympathetic approach to an AIDS infected gay man who loves his female best friend. As his character shows signs of retraction from his sexuality, we realize that a traumatic experience with his mother and her friend sent him to a life-long confusion.

Moore's anguish as a woman trapped in a marriage she cannot bear with kids she never wanted is somewhat moving. The slice of her life that the movie presents us, however, is too narrow for the audience to build up a reservoir of sympathy. Her character has to be so careful with the emotions she displays outwardly, that even in her private moments, she does little more than sob, so that the audience has to fill in a lot to empathize with the depth of her plight.
Streep's character requires even more work on the audience's part. Was her ex-lover also her ex-husband? What's motivated her to keep in close contact with her lover of long ago? What is she feeling about her situation, other than a reflexive attachment to a period of happiness from way back when? Does she feel conflicted between the energy she invests in a past relationship and her current one? Does her lover resent her split commitment? Whatever the audience decides is equally valid and equally unvalidated, since the film gives no clues on these important aspects of her character.

Although some viewers have described this as boring, I can't say I was ever less than gripped by the slowly increasing tension as each woman's day progresses. However, I was also not very convinced by the flesh and blood reality of many of these people. The truly honourable exception is Moore, who is wonderful as the fragile Laura. Daldry excels himself with this strand of the movie, creating a real sense of the depressive housewife's claustrophobia, and the traumatising effect her quiet breakdown has on her young son. It has been a long time since I saw a movie that left me with such a sense of torpid despondency and hopelessness as THE HOURS, The previous one being REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. An approach to modern cinema we were all waiting for.

Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators)

There's something so wonderfully, functionally elegant about the capacity of the German language to absorb suffixes. The title of today's post is one of these engineered compound words: erziehungs (education); berechtigten (entitled). "Entitled to educate" is a clumsy translation--"those who claim the moral authority to educate." is much closer.

A somewhat thin but likable film, "The Edukators" shows us a couple of young German guys who are reborn Seventies terrorists reduced to gesture. At night they break into rich people's houses and rearrange the furniture leaving notes telling their victims they've got too much money and had better watch out. ("The Days of Plenty Are Over" -- "Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei" -- goes the German film title.) They also go to demos and forcibly leaflet shoe stores with warnings about child labor, but their real thrills come in the break-ins: they're hooked on the rush. One has a girlfriend who works at a snooty upscale restaurant where customers and manager are equally abusive to her.

Things get messy when the other young man, Jan (Daniel Brühl) is prodded into an impulsive break-in with his friend's girl, Jule (Julie Jentsch). He's falling for her and reveals his secret lawbreaking to impress her. She insists on entering the house because it belongs to a man she owes 94,000 Euros to for totaling his Mercedes. This gesture's unplanned and the girl's inexperienced and they have to break back in the next night to find her cell phone. The owner returns while they're there and recognizes the girl. The three young people, Jule, Jan, and Peter (Stipe Erceg) feel that now they're "blown" they must kidnap the rich guy and take him to a cabin in the mountains, which of course they immediately do.

These are young revolutionaries after the fact. There are no longer any Bader-Meinhofs or Red Brigades to belong to. The paradox, a rather pat one, is that the guy they kidnap, Hardenberg (Burghart Klaussner), was a Sixties and Seventies revolutionary himself, who only slowly slid into the capitalist life. Needless to say the slide turned quite successful since he now earns over three million a year. But he claims to feel nostalgia for the old days and sympathy for his captors. Before long they're all happily playing cards and he's cooking for them and could probably escape sooner, if he weren't enjoying the forced vacation amid romantic reminders of the old days.

Things end surprisingly, but "The Edukators" isn't so much interested in its story as in existing as a platform for youthful critiques of capitalism and pondering the old saw -- which Hardenberg comes up with eventually, Anyone under thirty who isn't liberal has no heart; anyone over thirty who isn't conservative has no mind. The youths are exuberant and naive. Hormones are raging, so, typically, the love triangle almost takes over the politics. Their prisoner is smarter than they are, but what sustains the over-long second half is that his sympathy for his kidnappers doesn't seem fake, just as his story doesn't seem contrived. Or rather, only a little fake and a little contrived.

This is a film that musters some good suspense and adrenalin rushes at first, but starts losing them as the kidnapping wears on because it all begins to seem more about politics and the talk than about the action, though wondering how it's going to end is still what's going to keep you watching. That such a dichotomy should appear -- politics vs. action -- is an irony of the piece. If you've got sympathy for the youthful rebellion or the critiques of capitalism -- or just want to debate the issues brought up -- the movie can hold your interest. The actors are all plausible and appealing, particularly Klaussner and the young but experienced Brühl, whose sweetness and exuberance motivated the 2003 East Berlin comedy, "Goodbye, Lenin." The jerky digital video comes with the territory, though it may some day become as dated as bell-bottoms. The filmmakers could have edited this down to less than two hours and four minutes and given the story harder edges. The music is loud and integral to the youthful portraits.

The ending left me bewildered though. After seeing the film I interpreted it in he way that Hardenberg has succumbed to the establishment again. But on IMDb I read some other interpretations, notably that it was him who helped them to get to the Mediterrenean and who gave him his boat and money. The message in the empty apartment, 'Some people never change', also pointed into this direction. But why the attack by the police - especially with anti-terrorist forces - was still necessary then, is quite beyond me. Also, Hardenberg didn't at all look amused or content in the police car - as he obviously would have if he had only wanted to fool the cops.


In a "not too distant" future, where genetic engineering of humans is common and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class, Vincent (Hawke) is conceived and born without the aid of this technology. Suffering from the nearly eradicated physical dysfunctions of myopia and a congenital heart defect, as well as being given a life expectancy of 30.2 years, Vincent faces extreme genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way he can achieve his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut is to break the law and impersonate a "valid".

He assumes the identity of Jerome Eugene Morrow (Law) a former swimming star who, despite a genetic profile "second to none", won only a silver medal in a high-profile competition. He then attempted to commit suicide by jumping in front of a car, but again fell short of his goal in that he only succeeded in paralyzing himself from the waist down. However, as the incident occurred outside the country, no one knows of his newly acquired disability. Thus, Vincent can "buy" his identity with no one the wiser. Though he requires orthopedic surgery to increase his height and contact lenses to replace his glasses while matching Jerome's eyes, he can use his "valid" DNA in blood, tissue and urine samples to pass any genetic test - as long as he takes extreme measures to leave no traces of his identity as an "in-valid". But, where he was once an object of scorn and pity, he is now a perpetrator of an unspeakable fraud. Legally, exposure would only subject him to fines, but socially the consequences would be far more extreme - he is now a heretic against the new order of genetic determinism. Vincent is now a "borrowed ladder" (a reference to the ladder structure of an un-coiled DNA strand) or in harsher language, a de-gene-erate.

With Jerome's impressive genetic profile he easily gains access to the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, the most prestigious space-flight conglomerate of the day. With his own equally impressive determination, he quickly becomes the company's ace celestial navigator. But a week before Vincent is scheduled to leave for Saturn's moon Titan, the mission director is murdered, and evidence of Vincent's own DNA is found at the crime scene in the form of an eyelash. The presence of this unexpected "in-valid" DNA attracts the attention of the police, and Vincent must evade ever-increasing security as his mission launch date approaches and he pursues a relationship with his co-worker Irene Cassini (Thurman).

After numerous close calls, the investigation eventually comes to a close as Director Josef (Gore Vidal) is arrested for the murder. However, just as Vincent appears to be in the clear, he is confronted by one of the detectives covering the investigation, who is revealed as Vincent's estranged brother, Anton (Loren Dean). Anton criticizes Vincent for putting his family under undue stress due to his disappearance, and threatens him with exposure. However, it soon becomes apparent that Anton is acting more out of insecurity and is more concerned with how Vincent had managed to get the better of him, despite his supposed genetic superiority. Vincent and Anton settle their competition as they did when they were children, by seeing who could swim out into the ocean farthest. Once again, Vincent manages to beat his brother, and saves him from drowning. This is simply because he refused to save any strength to swim back to shore, and this is why he has excelled at Gattaca - he is willing to risk everything to succeed.
As the day of the launch finally arrives, Jerome bids Vincent farewell and says that he intends to travel the world. He reveals that he has stored enough genetic samples to last Vincent two lifetimes. Overwhelmed and grateful, Vincent thanks Jerome for "lending" him the identity that has allowed his success at Gattaca. Jerome replies, however, that it is he who should be grateful, since Vincent lent Jerome his dreams. As Vincent moves through the Gattaca complex to the launch site, he is stopped for an unexpected DNA test. Vincent reluctantly agrees to take the test, even though he has none of Jerome's genetic material to hide his identity. The test result uncovers Vincent's "in-valid" status, and the doctor reveals that he has known Vincent's true identity all along, saying: "For future reference, right-handed men don't hold it with their left. Just one of those things". However, the doctor then alters the test result to allow him to proceed regardless, confessing that his son admires Vincent, and wants to be an astronaut just like him, despite an unforeseen genetic defect that would already rule him out. As the shuttle lifts off, Jerome is shown committing suicide inside his home incinerator, wearing his silver medal, which turns gold in the flames.

The story centers on the irony of the perfect Jerome failing to succeed despite being given every advantage while the imperfect Vincent transcends his deficiencies through force of will and spirit. A milder version of the disorder that afflicts Vincent prevents Irene from taking part in space flight. This dichotomy shows how the eugenic policy in Gattaca and the world in which it is set adversely affect the humanity of both Vincent and Jerome, as well as the "invalid" and "valid" humans they represent.

The film's themes include personal identity, courage, friendship, love, hope, the burden of perfection, sacrifice, sibling rivalry, society and control, fate, genetic determinism, and whether human nature and the human spirit can be defined or limited by DNA.

The English Patient

In World War II, a badly burned amnesiac known only as "The English Patient" is found in the African desert and is transported to Italy, where he joins a convoy of medical troops and others at an abandoned monastery. Among them are Hana (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse whose lovers generally meet unpleasant ends; Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hardy (Kevin Whately), two explosives experts who search the monastery for bombs; and David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian soldier-of-fortune who knows the identity of the English patient and has a score to settle.

Through flashbacks we learn the story of the Patient: he is Laszo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian explorer who, in the late '30s, falls in with a group of British cartographers, including Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristen Scott-Thomas), while mapping the deserts of North Africa. After Clifton leaves them on government business, Katharine and Clifton fall in love with each other in the desert, resulting in an affair that, naturally, has a less-than-happy ending.

If one is able to overlook the illogical parts of the story line (such as, why would a patient found in Africa be sent to what is essentially the front line of the war in Italy?), then you can appreciate "The English Patient" as a throwback to the intelligent, layered, sweeping epics of David Lean in the '60s. Much more than "Titanic" or other epic romances of late, this movie puts one in mind of "Doctor Zhivago" and "Gone With the Wind" - an epic love story set against a huge historical backdrop. You shouldn't expect a war film, though there are some striking (if all-too-brief) scenes of violence that stand out more than the romantic sections, as is usually the case (Caravaggio's interrogation by a sadistic SS officer (Jurgen Prochnow) in particular).
The movie is very ambiguous, in regards to pretty much everything. The central question of the film is: How far are you willing to go for love? As critics of the movie are fast to point out, Almasy is, on the surface, a far-from-likable character - he has an affair with a married woman and betrays his country by giving maps and intelligence to the Germans, causing the death of his friend Madox (Julian Wadham) and the torture of Caravaggio, and actually killing a British soldier who has him under arrest at one point. The fact that Almasy is in many ways reprehensible is kind of the point - he's in love with Katharine, and sees the world narrowly in terms of his love that loyalty to country (or anything else for that matter) is secondary; as Almasy says, he hates "Ownership. Being owned." The two engage in a rather bold love affair (shagging within ear shot of hundreds of people at a Christmas party) and it's clear that Katharine is more drawn to the mysterious, exciting Almasy than the comparatively boring Geoffrey.

The 1944 subplot is somewhat shaky and seems superfluous; the romance between Kip and Hannah is never completely believable, and I feel the film could have done without it. But those sequences do add an interesting texture of mystery and complexity to the film, so I won't complain too much.

Like the epics mentioned above, the film is able to convey time and place through simple devices like crowd scenes, strategically placed posters, and military presence. We do not need to dwell on the fact that it's 1938 in Cairo, but it's helpful to know. The direction of Anthony Minghella and the desert cinematography by John Seale are absolutely gorgeous; the sand dunes, sand storms, and haunting caves of the desert are captured in beautiful detail. Gabriel Yared's score is haunting and atmospheric.

The acting is generally solid. Fiennes gives a very layered performance as a character who is mysterious, complex, and haunted. The difference between the Almasys of 1938 and 1944 are remarkable; one exciting and somewhat carefree, the other haunted and reflective. Kirsten Scott Thomas is effective as Katharine, the female explorer looking for adventure, and Colin Firth gives one of his best performances as Geoffrey, who realizes early on that he's no competition for the exciting Almasy. Willem Dafoe does nice work as Caravaggio, the shifty, hunted thief-turned-spy driven by revenge. Jurgen Prochnow gives a performance reminiscent of Jose Ferrer in "Lawrence of Arabia" (and a similar character too): very brief, but more memorable then some of the major characters. Some of the 1944 actors are unremarkable: Juliette Binochette is nothing special, while Naveen Andrews is good but unremarkable. Kevin Whately, as Kip's ill-fated partner, does what he can with a rather smallish role.

"The English Patient" is not a perfect movie by any means, but the vituperative attacks on it by much of the movie-going public are not deserved at all. Maybe it's a show of how film sensibilities have changed since the era of the Leans and Kubricks, or maybe people were expecting something simple to understand. Complex to fault, brilliantly directed and shot, "The English Patient" is a wonderful modern-day epic.


The winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes last night is the first feature-length film from Afghanistan. This quiet, pieceful little film is firstly not about Osama Bin Laden. The film's about the women, their position in the Afganistan nowadays. The Taliban have forbidden women to go out without any male company, whether that is the woman's husband, brother or son. Long before their downfall, the Taliban had virtually no friends outside their fundamentalist, Islamic circle. Certainly they had no international support. Unfortunately, not until they succored Al-Quada leading to the American intervention and continuing occupation were these terrorizing fanatics deposed.

Director Siddiq Barmak's short feature-length film, "Osama," won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Were an Oscar category for Most Harrowing Movie to exist, "Osama" would face no competition.

Set in Afghanistan, this is the story of a mother and twelve-year old daughter who become unemployed, and threatened with actual starvation, when their hospital jobs end with the tottering and inadequate institution's financial collapse. The mother comes up with the idea of cutting her daughter's hair and sending her out as a boy to earn subsistence money for the two of them and the aged grandmother. A sympathetic man who fought against the Russians with the girl's deceased father gives her employment but a Taliban impresses the disguised girl for a para-military training camp that by comparison makes the Hitler Youth movement look borderline rational.

Marina Golbahari is the young girl and she acts the part of a boy with scarcely concealed terror, especially when she is put into the Taliban training camp where, among other things, she must learn Islamic ablutions involving genitals in a room full of boys. There is not a second of humor in her experiences.

She's eventually detected and she goes on "trial" before a "judge" who, before dealing with her case, sends a foreign journalist to be shot and a European female doctor to be stoned to death. For the girl he pronounces forgiveness at the same moment marrying her to a pederast, a wife-acquiring mullah whose understated depravity leaves a stench in every viewer's nostrils.
This isn't an easy film to watch. It begins with a peaceful demonstration by women demanding work and disclaiming any political motivation. They are violently dispersed by not very many armed Taliban using high pressure hoses and brute force. I had a sense that the many female extras were not so much acting as recreating a reign of terror and a time of privation. The riot
scenes are harrowing, the cinematographer focusing closely on frightened and beaten women.
Given Al-Quada's support by the Taliban there exist neither legal nor moral objections to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and our continuing efforts to extirpate any remaining terrorist and Taliban remnants. The more troubling issue, forcefully raised by "Osama," is how a civilized world can tolerate the known misogynistic degradation of women, and many other abuses of basic human rights, without intervening. Can respect for a nation's autonomy or its fundamentalist religion override the duty to alleviate conditions anathema to contemporary conceptions of human rights? We tried German judges for enforcing the notorious Nuremberg Laws that stripped civil rights from Jews and prepared the way for concentration camps and genocide. Should the world now tolerate regimes that in the name of religion kill and torture while subverting the most basic individual rights? "Osama" is a good cinematic brief for a resounding "NO."

The cinematography is sparse and effective-the bleached colors of a ruined town reflecting the hopelessness of its inhabitants. I expect we will be seeing more from Barmak-I certainly hope so.