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At the Movies

Stages of Life


The most original and satisfying movie so far this year is After Life (Artistic License Films), a Japanese import directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Don’t get worried if it appeals to would-be philosophers; just don’t bother listening to their explanations.

“After Life” is as amusing as it is reflective, as compassionate as it is suggestive. Koreeda is encouraging us to think about the fragility of meaning and memory but he doesn’t wear his audience down with ideological baggage.

Instead of creating a ghostly atmosphere, the movie is shot in subdued colors and set in a dormitory-like building. Twenty-two newly dead men and women must spend a week together while they decide on their most precious memory, which will then be the single recollection they will carry with them through eternity. Such a premise could readily be exploited for sickly whimsy or ersatz supernaturalism; Koreeda, a veteran of documentary film, avoids easy effects and concentrates on down-to-earth moments.

Interviews with the newly arrived -- 10 of them played by non-actors -- are conducted across a desk in a straightforward manner. A hand-held camera catches the spontaneous reactions of a gentle old lady delighting in the beauty of cherry blossoms; another woman recalls the day in childhood she danced in a red dress; an aviator remembers flying effortlessly through clouds; a young man is disturbed to realize that the overall scheme seems to eliminate hell.

A little girl who first chooses a day at Disneyland is asked to think of a less routine memory. When she selects a more significant experience with her mother, we see its connection with the longing of her young woman caseworker (Erika Oda) for just such a memory.

The pattern is gradual; although there are no melodramatic gimmicks, our sense of involvement grows stronger. We come to realize that the celestial caseworkers are precisely those who were unable to make a choice. Now they are given the collective job of gathering specific details of the memories chosen by their clients and must try to determine how they can be re-created on film.

Koreeda maintains a very Japanese sense of emotional restraint. He allows for no illusion about the adequacy of our memories, which are seen to be no more reliable than the movies’ attempt to capture reality on film. “After Life” finds quiet humor in acknowledging such limitations; we sit in on story conferences and observe scenes restaged in a studio complete with sets. It becomes easy to identify with both the dead characters and their caretakers, who are neither heroes nor villains.

Perhaps its refusal to offer ultimate answers is part of “After Life’s” charm. It makes no effort to overwhelm us with metaphysical answers but asks us to acknowledge the fleeting, yet emotionally rewarding, relationships in our lives and the importance of living fully in the present.

Since efforts to produce a satisfying romantic comedy have grown increasingly desperate, director/writer John Sayles deserves thanks for making sure that his new movie, Limbo (Screen Gems), offers a credible and adult love story. There is less political content than usual; instead, Sayles makes good use of the natural glories of Alaska while wryly exposing grandiose plans to turn the state into a huge theme-park.

The central plot, however, follows the complex rhythms by which two bruised veterans of life, one with a teenage daughter who also feels starved for affection, move hesitantly through various stages of attraction and learn through severe testing to trust each other.

In the opening scene, Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a folk-rock singer at a lounge club in Juneau, publicly breaks with her musician boyfriend while performing at a wedding. Moving unhappily among the guests as a waitress offering hors d’oeuvres is Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), whom we later realize is Donna’s daughter from a long-broken marriage. Donna is so anxious to get back to Juneau that, without speaking to Noelle, she hitches a ride with Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), a laconic ex-fisherman who is delivering supplies for the party.

Joe praises her singing, but Donna maintains her independence. We’ve heard her longing and vulnerability in her singing (which is by Mastrantonio herself; why haven’t producers used her more?) Although she has no illusions about her career, she lives for the occasional joy of meshing so perfectly with a song that she conveys it intact to her audience.

Joe, meanwhile, has his own dark secret. It’s only later at Donna’s club -- whose barkeep and regulars are used by Sayles as a chorus -- that she discovers how his early dreams were shattered by a sailing accident that cost two lives and for which Joe blames himself.

Sayles takes his time with the story to make Joe’s involvement with Donna and his return to his life as a fisherman more plausible and to let us discover both Noelle’s talent as a young writer and her threatening inner rage. One complaint about the movie might be that in acquiring a sense of the local community we meet too many characters who subsequently disappear.

When Joe, Donna and Noelle find themselves stuck together under unusual circumstances, Noelle discovers the diary of a girl about her age who had lived there with her parents and reads sections to Donna and Joe at night. Despite the diary’s record of discouragement and despair, the readings give their present ordeal a heightened significance, and “Limbo” accomplishes a bold move from naturalism to myth.

The Castle (Miramax) is an unpretentious Australian comedy that succeeds largely because of the indomitable self-confidence of Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton). Its title refers to the Kerrigan home, an apparently undesirable and dilapidated house right next to an airport runway. There Darryl, a profoundly content tow-truck driver, and his equally upbeat wife, Sal (Anne Tenney), his daughter, three sons, and several greyhounds ignore the roar of the planes and revel in their lowbrow tastes in food and furnishings.

“The Castle” may seem at first to be only a smugly class-based joke, but it soon develops that director Rob Sitch believes greed is a more significant target than cheerful optimism.

The plot grows out of a callous big-business maneuver to enlarge the airport by driving out Darryl and his neighbors and demolishing their homes. Even if the tone grows farcical and sentimental, it’s easy to get caught up in Darryl’s fight to resist this maneuver, which quickly extends to bribery and intimidation. Inevitably, the conflict heads for court, where even courtroom losses do not destroy Darryl’s resolve.

“The Castle” may be nothing more than a farcical fairy tale, but its humor cuts two ways. Darryl may be laughable, as in his speech at his daughter’s wedding, welcoming his new in-laws, but he’s honest, decent-minded and genuinely enjoys his family.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999