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Lost love: Zhang in 2046.

No Expectations
By Shawn Stone

2046

Directed by Wong Kar Wai

2046 is an exquisitely roman- tic film about the impossibility of most romantic love. You’d think that it would be depressing, but it’s not. The film’s view of humanity is luminous and nuanced; the one character who doesn’t pretend to be anything but a dreamy romantic is the only character granted a happy ending. Combined with the stunning visuals, 2046 makes the perverse notion of sexual futility almost delicious.

2046 is also a sequel, but you don’t need to have seen In the Mood for Love (2000) as a prerequisite—though seeing it will make the sequel even more of a tragedy than it already is.

The storyline begins where the previous film left it, in Hong Kong circa 1966. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) is a newspaperman living in a cheap motel. There are riots in the streets—riots are one of the signature motifs of the 1960s—but Chow lives apart from the rest of society. Having just lost his great love (Maggie Cheung, seen in brief flashbacks), Chow drifts from woman to woman, a cool ladies’ man with a smooth manner and a really sleazy mustache.

He may be a slick seducer, but we’re on to him early: His approach to relationships is so obviously self-destructive, and he is so clearly unaware of his own feelings, that he’s a sympathetic figure. And this is true especially when he’s being a total bastard.

Most of the women he meets are as lost as he is, though for very different reasons. The gambler nicknamed Black Spider (Gong Li) seems to be a victim of the period’s Southeast Asian wars; Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), a mercurial young hooker, seems never to have had a chance; Wang Jin Wen (Faye Wong), who is in love with a Japanese man, seems unwilling to challenge her father’s xenophobia. “Seems” is emphasized because the film, as per director Wong Kar Wai’s style, is often sketchy on details.

If you read film reviews on a regular basis, you probably take critical hyperbole with a grain—or a sack—of salt. This is a good thing.

Now that we have that established, believe this: 2046 is among the most visually sumptuous movies ever made. The gorgeous images of faces, bodies, cheap hotels, grubby gambling dens, bullet trains and sci-fi cityscapes are dreamy, hallucinatory and filled with an almost unbearable sense of isolation. Which is, in itself, evidence of Kar Wai’s half-rueful, half-damning view of love and lust, both cinematic and “real.”

Kar Wai has never worked in this wider ’scope ratio (2.35:1) before, but he uses the horizontal space with incredible sensitivity. Sometimes he uses the whole frame to capture a panorama of action, but it’s the way he uses only portions of the letter-shaped box that really register. Really, there are probably no more than a dozen commercial filmmakers alive who even have an inkling of what to do with the wider screen; a full-screen DVD version of 2046 would be incomprehensible.

The film is told in flashbacks and flashforwards. Some of this seems designed to keep the audience off- balance. Mostly, however, it’s to allow a fuller understanding of these doomed souls. And, as with In the Mood for Love, the ending is breathtakingly heartless—and perfect.

Grinning With Death

Lord of War

Directed by Andrew Niccols

A mass-murdering African dic-tator calls him the Lord of War, but Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) is more commonly known as a merchant of death. Yuri is an illegal arms dealer whose smooth talking and quick thinking put him at the top of a global industry. Andrew Niccol’s savagely satirical Lord of War is Yuri’s story, from his youth as a Ukrainian immigrant in Brooklyn to his nightmarish downfall in Sierra Leone, where his guns are used to slaughter a camp of innocent refugees.

After a snazzy intro in which a single bullet is tracked from manufacture to its human target, Yuri narrates his life story, beginning with a brief history of murder that displays his genius for self-serving rationales and a sense of humor as black as scorched earth. His character is shaped by the Russian mobsters who turn his 1970s Brooklyn neighborhood into a war zone, giving him the career inspiration that will eventually make him rich enough to afford his own fleet of cargo planes: Like the food his parents serve, he explains, weapons fulfill a basic human need. He recruits his vulnerable younger brother, Vitaly (Jared Leto), as a business partner, but what he really wants Vitaly around for is reinforcement of his own turpitude.

There isn’t an ethical argument that Yuri can’t turn into a witty justification, while his personal charm disguises his moral oblivion. His nerves of steel, gift for languages, and relish for creative paperwork not only allow him to outmaneuver business rivals and manipulate bloodthirsty tyrants, they also earn our admiration. The hyperarticulate Cage, at once easygoing and wound too tight, is a perfect fit with a character who remains a cipher even as he lets us into his deepest thoughts.

Though the film makes a convincing case that Yuri is selling his soul for the American Dream, it seems that his soul was vaporized long before we meet him. His motto of “Never to go to war with yourself” is meant to highlight his inner conflict, but there’s little indication that his conscience is a problem; it seems he’s too consumed by the art of the deal to notice the destruction occurring all around him. And that’s about the only failing Lord of War has (aside from Ian Holm’s deadweight rogue operative).

Yuri’s engaging narration and his flashpoint successes brilliantly incorporate 30 years’ worth of censored stories on the illegal arms trade, while his wily evasion of a by-the-book Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) illustrates the woeful inadequacies of law enforcement in the global economy. The incorruptible agent also serves a counterpoint to his persuasive quarry, as when he explains to Yuri’s trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan) that more war victims are killed by small arms than all the weapons of mass destruction.

Though it has the tight focus of the best documentaries, the film is never preachy. Due to the sharp writing and the escalating intrigues of Yuri’s business entanglements, it’s immensely entertaining—except when it’s harrowing. Enmeshed in the for-profit civil wars of Western Africa, Yuri finds out what hell must be like, with the lunatic dictator of Liberia (Eamonn Walker) being as close to Satan as a mortal man can get. We’ve seen movies this up close and personal on the drug trade (Goodfellas and Blow come to mind), but the largely unacknowledged, wholesale carnage caused by Yuri’s trade puts his story in another league. What Casablanca is to romance, Lord of War is to cynicism.

—Ann Morrow

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Junebug

Directed by Phil Morrison

At once oddly mesmerizing and deeply annoying, Junebug is one of those movies in which the filmmaker’s unease with his characters and setting, no matter how familiar, is palpable. In this case, screenwriter Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison revisit their roots, so to speak, in a movie about the return home—in this case, the Carolinas—of successful Chicago businessman George (Alessandro Nivola) and his new wife Madeline (Embeth Davidtz). As is made evident in the film’s first moments, this couple are simply mad about each other and themselves—and why shouldn’t they be? They’re bright young things, living in a sophisticated world populated by intellectual, witty and beautiful people. However, once back home, the reality of George’s Bible Belt roots, his spiritual underpinnings, and the taciturnity of his family nearly prove their undoing.

OK, so once Morrison and MacLachlan have established their “You can’t go home again” theme, what do they do with it? In a word, bluff. While Madeline is met with open arms by George’s very pregnant sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams), the rest of the family, including dad Eugene (Scott Wilson), mom Peg (Celia Weston) and brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) seem tentative. Indeed, if not making complaints about Johnny’s messiness, Peg doesn’t have much to offer, and the house itself is tomblike in its silent perfection. Eugene, who appears to be the kind of soothing influence on roiling temperaments that many a good dad before him have had to be, retreats to his basement woodshop, and George, following in these footsteps, basically abandons his bride to her own devices while he does God knows what. Only Ashley, with her effervescent and nonstop prattle, seems lifelike, able to convey concomitant emotions such as loneliness in the wake of her husband’s long-dormant love, nervous joy at impending motherhood, and near rapture over finding, in Madeline, the type of glamour and sophistication that she never believed existed.

The filmmakers’ inability to flesh out most of the characters reflects an underlying unease with what they’re trying to do. Clearly, they feel that the ultra- religious atmosphere of George’s hometown is, at worst, weird, at best, a tad confining. And yet they don’t want to be too strong in skewering the town’s inhabitants, with whom they seem to want to share traits such as common decency and humbleness. Without making some sort of stand on the issue, the movie is nothing but a series of ambivalent gestures.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the writing of George. While Nivola imbues him with a courtly sensuality, we never get any evidence of how George’s background and present merged to create the man who so intrigued Madeline. Similarly, Madeline’s character, who seeks to cultivate folk artist and religious fanatic David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) for a show at her gallery, is at once ruthless and naïve. A scene in which Wark agrees to go with her gallery, because he recognizes in her piety and a will to share the will of Jesus, unwittingly hits home the fact that Madeline is not wholly scrupulous; unfortunately, it’s a moment that lacks import because of the filmmakers’ unwillingness to show us a character who is anything but likeable. Similarly, when Madeline refuses to join George at a critical moment for one of the characters, in order to take another crack at the folk artist, Junebug is completely neutral as to whether we’re supposed to side with George (family first) or the gallery owner. In the resulting vacuum, we have blankness.

Despite its faux artiness—scenes of empty rooms meant to convey the emptiness of the family’s existence—and inability to find a track and stick to it, Junebug succeeds on the strength of its luminous performances. Davidtz seems happy to have escaped a string of Lifetime movies and bit parts in big pictures like Schindler’s List, and be the full-fledged star of the show. Even more compelling is Adams the only cast member to emerge from this jumble with a fully fleshed-out character. Her foibles and loneliness create sorrow for us, but we rely upon, indeed cheer for, her character’s ultimate goodness and faith.

—Laura Leon


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