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The odd couple: (l-r) Berry and Del Toro in Things We Lost in the Fire.

Step by Step

By Shawn Stone

Things We Lost in the Fire

Directed by Susanne Bier

There’s a scene in Things We Lost in the Fire that nicely delineates the dramatic knife edge on which the whole film is balanced. Devoted husband and dad Steven (David Duchovny) walks into a bedroom to find his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) and 10-year-old daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) in tears, watching TV.

“Is this that Lifetime movie again?” he asks, only half joking.

As it turns out, they weren’t watching Lifetime. And Things We Lost in the Fire, which is only a couple of dumbed-down rewrites and a hack director away from being as clichéd as the worst TV movie on that much-maligned cable channel, is a tearjerker that earns its spare, but effective, tears. By concentrating on character development and letting a talented cast dig deep into (but not wallow in) the pain of the material, director Susanne Bier has created something both moving and resonant.

The first third of the film presents the story in shards. Since it begins at his funeral, we know from the start that all- American dad Steve is dead. By going back-and-forth in time, however, Bier deftly accomplishes a number of key storytelling points. We learn, of course, what a swell guy Steve was. We also meet his best friend from childhood, a junkie wreck named Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), who, it turns out, is three weeks into recovery. We are introduced to the acrimonious feelings Audrey has for Jerry, and how they are turned upside down in ways she can’t comprehend when Steve is killed.

The main action begins when Audrey invites Jerry to live in the family’s renovated garage. At first, this raises a red flag: Is this going to be one of those recovery-through-bad-romance stories? As it turns out, no. What we slowly realize is the depth of Audrey’s denial; the fact that she needs her husband’s onetime closest friend around is a function of this. This even plays out in moments of comedy, as when she has Jerry help her get to sleep. This intimate moment is so devoid of emotion (never mind sex), the audience couldn’t help but laugh.

The film, as noted, lives on its performances, and everyone is terrific. Del Toro could do this role in his sleep, but he doesn’t. And Berry is better than she’s ever been (though given the dismal roles she usually takes, this means more than it would seem). There’s fine supporting work, too, from Alison Lohman as another recovering addict, and John Carroll Lynch as the nice-guy neighbor who provides the film’s intermittent light moments.

The film walks the tightrope between melodrama and cliché right to the end, but filmmaker Bier keeps Things We Lost in the Fire honest. That’s no small feat.

Dangerous Games

Lust, Caution

Directed by Ang Lee

This intense, shockingly downbeat drama twists patriotism and naïveté, and criminality and realism, into moral quandaries as knotted as the lead characters’ athletic positions in the film’s brutal and explicit sex scenes. If there’s anything wrong with Lust, Caution, it’s in director Ang Lee’s often oblique approach to the story, and historical period—but that just may be a matter of being in the West.

The action is set in Shanghai and Hong Kong during World War II, just before and during the brutal Japanese occupation of China. Wang Jiazhi (newcomer Wei Tang) is an idealistic college student who falls in with a group of fellow idealists. Shocked at the lack of patriotism they perceive in their fellow citizens, they do what any crazy kids in the late 1930s would do: They put on a show. The show is so successful in evoking patriotic fervor in its audiences, the crazy kids decide to take their action to the next level: They reinvent themselves as a cell of assassin-spies.

The hamfisted, dramatically inert nature of the play they “triumph” with is a clue towards their future aptitude as spies.

They settle on a target, a Chinese official collaborating with the Japanese named Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Yee and his wife (Joan Chen) lead the most careful of lives, but theatrical cunning (and the use of an unknowing dupe) allow Wang Jiazhi to insinuate herself into their lives. Eventually, Mr. Yee and Jiazhi fall into an affair of violent—and I mean violent—passion. Thus the title: caution and lust.

You probably want to know, since the film is rated NC-17, if the sex is “real.” It looks faked to me, but given the obvious emotional strain on the actors, it is, in one sense, “real.”

The plot is complex, as various assassination schemes fail, or are delayed. Years pass. One of the neat things about the film, in fact, is the way it plays with time.

And then there is the violence. It erupts at unlikely moments, in the sex and in everyday life. There’s a particularly brutal murder scene with Hitchcockian power and brutality. (It brings to mind the scene in Torn Curtain where Paul Newman has a particularly difficult, gruesome time killing one of the villains.

Lee clearly draws contemporary parallels, too. The relentless, self-enforced cheerfulness of the women playing endless hours of mah-jongg in secure compounds, while their collaborationist husbands profit from the Japanese occupation of China, cuts close to today’s headlines. Not to mention the equally relentless atmosphere of imprisonment, with every building guarded by armed men and Japanese patrols everywhere.

What’s missing for western audiences, though, is a lack of historical context, because everyone on both sides of the central conflict is doomed. They’re all—nationalists and collaborators—on the wrong side of history; when Mao and his Communists win the civil war a few years after the end of the period portrayed in the picture, all of the characters will face death or exile. If you don’t know how this historical drama played out, the profound tragedy of the film’s resolution is muted.

The final irony, and probably Lee’s great achievement, is how visually gorgeous Lust, Caution is. The abyss has never looked so good.

—Shawn Stone

As the War on Terror Turns

Rendition

Directed by Gavin Hood

Rendition is another political drama exploring the issues of the war on terrorism. It’s named for “extraordinary rendition,” a measure enacted under the Clinton administration that authorizes the seizure and deportation of suspected terrorists without due process. The suspected terrorist under director Gavin Hood’s ponderous treatment is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (charismatic Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born mechanical engineer. Anwar is married to an American, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), who is nine months pregnant. Returning home from a conference in South Africa, Anwar is kidnapped and flown to a secret detention facility in Northern Africa. On the basis of flimsy evidence regarding his cell phone, he is tortured for information.

In what is becoming a routine opening sequence, Rendition revolves around a bombing, in Egypt, that kills 19 people, but not its intended victim, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), a ruthless police chief. Doug Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA rookie recruited from the oil industry, is promoted after his superior dies in the bombing. Despite his lack of experience, he is assigned to the “interrogation” of Anwar, under the supervision of Abasi. Meanwhile, Isabella turns to a college friend who works as a U.S. Senate aide (Peter Sarsgaard) to help her locate her missing husband. Their adversary in discovering the truth of Anwar’s whereabouts is CIA heavyweight Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep, playing tough with a Southern accent). Like Syriana and several other subsequent terror-themed films, Rendition uses interlocking stories—including teen lovers on opposite sides of the political spectrum—to neatly present various aspects of its central issue: Is the torture of suspects an effective way to obtain information that will save lives? For Doug, it’s an especially queasy question since the interrogation of Anwar is his “first torture,” and because Anwar is, for all intents and purposes, an American.

Set mostly in Egypt against a background of local color (shot by the talented cinematographer Dion Beebe) that distinguishes it from the desert-baked environs of similar films, Rendition is a dutifully objective movie that is more informative than absorbing. Hood allows the actors ample time to express their private doubts and motives in a subdued style; during the simmering power struggle between Doug and Abasi, Abasi holds back his anger with an audibly hard swallow. Eventually, all the characters, including Isabella (a stereotype of the devoted wife), will have a scene in which they can let loose their frustrations. But only one encounter really sizzles: that between Sarsgaard’s aide and Streep’s imperious power broker, who have a hissed argument at a party that distills the civil-rights versus homeland-security debate. Most everything else in Rendition is just melodrama.

—Ann Morrow


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