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