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At the Movies



Discussion of Pearl Harbor belongs in NCR’s business section rather than in one dealing with art or entertainment. It cost a lot of money to make, and it looks it. A classroom analysis of how some of its scenes were shot would be instructive, but in the corrupt atmosphere engendered by Hollywood blockbusters the only real question is: Will it make money?

Unfortunately, it will be considered a success if it does, even though its basic message is that the war between the United States and Japan was fought so that an Air Force nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), can decide between two Navy pilots from Tennessee, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett). It’s tough choosing between these heroic buddies-since-childhood, and she never really does -- which is why the war (and the movie) lasts so long.

I saw “Pearl Harbor” on Memorial Day, but could never feel very patriotic watching a detailed recreation of the Japanese socking it to our Pacific fleet. Michael Bay’s last movie was “Armageddon,” a more appropriate subject for the pyrotechnics of disaster.

The Japanese have the only intelligent lines: first, “We have the advantage of surprise,” and later, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.” If you already knew that, I thought to myself, why did you bother? Unfortunately, the movie isn’t interested in providing an answer; the Japanese high command complains that the United States is threatening to cut off its oil supply, but we never learn anything about Japan’s situation at that time or what U.S. expectations were during pre-raid negotiations.

Before we get to the enemy attack and a chance to use all those special effects, there’s already been a standard-length movie that opens with an inauthentic vignette of Rafe and Danny as 8-year-olds playing at being fighter pilots. Soon they are in the Air Force, and by showing off their skills -- and breaking regulations -- they come to the attention of Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin). The movie’s comic highpoint comes in shots of nurses plunging hypodermic needles into the rear ends of flyers. Evelyn does the job for Rafe. Predictably, romance quickly develops, but he volunteers to serve in the Royal Air Force, coming to the aid of a beleaguered England, which is carrying on against Germany alone at the end of 1940.

Evelyn is sent to Pearl Harbor, and reads Rafe’s ardent letters while sitting in a bathing suit near the water. Danny shows up with a new group of pilots, to the delight of the other nurses. It’s not long before Rafe is reported missing in action and presumably dead, his plane shot down off the coast of England. Evelyn is properly heartbroken but eventually her fellow nurses remind her that life must go on, and in the hope of consoling her the shy Danny grows bolder. They have just become lovers when (surprise!) Rafe returns to his unit; he had bailed out over France, and been interned in Switzerland.

Naturally, he is furious with his former buddy, and it’s just as well that the Japanese attack distracts them. It also gives director Michael Bay a chance to do his stuff: Some of the images are spectacular but it all seems artificial compared to the opening of “Saving Private Ryan.” Little boys who have grown up playing war may feel satisfied and some of their fathers will use the movie as a pretext to promote the missile defense system, but the rest of us are apt to grow impatient with this high-tech nihilism.

Naturally, a marketable movie isn’t going to end with the United States wiped out, so we have to go through 45 minutes more, encompassing the successful Doolittle raid on Tokyo in 1942. In its reach for inclusiveness, “Pearl Harbor” even pretends to honor a real-life hero, Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the first black sailor to be awarded the Navy Cross, but leaves so much of his part on the cutting room floor that we never find out what he did.

Our Song is a welcome contrast, a warm bath of authenticity, with close observation of three young women during a hot August in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Director and screenwriter Jim McKay must have spent lots of time gaining the confidence of his mostly African-American, non-professional actors. The movie feels like a documentary in which three friends play themselves. Emotionally involving and free of didacticism, “Our Song” should be seen by anyone working with teenagers and should be used in sociology classes on American urban life.

Superficially, not much happens and the story is open-ended. Additional energy and music is provided by the Jackie Robinson Steppers, a local marching band that teaches pride and discipline to its talented members, including the film’s central figures.

Jocelyn (Anna Simpson), Lanisha (Kerry Washington), and Maria (Melissa Martinez) like to hang out together. They go on shopping expeditions (which include minor shoplifting) and have hazy discussions of their hopes and concern about where they will go to school in the fall (their own school has been closed because of an asbestos problem). Maria’s father is in jail; Jocelyn, who works in a boutique, has a mother unwilling to surrender her youth; Lanisha’s father seems caring, and works as a doorman in a fancy apartment building.

Although middle-class viewers will have a problem getting used to the young women’s speech patterns, McKay gives us time to know them as individuals, providing close-ups of their attractive faces and constantly changing expressions as they walk around the neighborhood.

The most obvious development emerges after Maria becomes pregnant, but in small, subtle ways all three are undergoing significant changes. Interviewed at the clinic by a friendly nurse, Maria says that the school has provided no medical (much less moral) instruction on sex. Despite her fears and the irresponsible unconcern of the young father, she decides she will have the child. At the end it seems that Jocelyn is moving to another circle of friends. In a particularly poignant moment, Lanisha, who previously had undergone an abortion, promises to remain in close touch with the anxious Maria.

It is hard not to like these young women, who are attractive, resilient and not without intelligence. “Our Song” wisely avoids sentimentalizing its heroines, but it would have been worth placing them in relation to the area’s institutional resources. Men seem to be largely absent as a resource, except for dancing and lovemaking, but what are the many Brooklyn churches trying to do -- however inadequately -- in Crown Heights?

Zhang Yimou, the world-class Chinese director who gave us the delightful “Not One Less” last year, returns with another nostalgic image of village life in The Road Home. Its simple story is narrated by Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), who has returned to his native Sanheuten on the death of his father. Zhang shows this isolated northern Chinese village largely in wintry settings, and its changing beauty is overwhelming.

When Yusheng asks about funeral arrangements, his elderly mother reminds him of tradition, which calls for his father’s body to be carried back from the hospital to Sanheuten on foot by the men of the village. As Yusheng wonders about how to proceed, he reflects on his parents’ marriage, and the black and white of the opening scenes is replaced by panoramic color shots of dreamy intensity.

What should encourage wide distribution of “The Road Home” is that the mother in her youth is played by Zhang Ziyi, the agile young sword-fighter of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In fact, “Road” was made earlier and was her first movie. Here she plays Zhao Di, a lithe 18-year-old charmer who falls in love at first sight with Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao) when he comes from the city to be the village schoolteacher. Theirs is an innocent romance extremely rare among today’s movies.

Zhao Di weaves the traditional red cloth that will be placed in the primary school where Changyu will teach. There is gentle comedy in the timing of her visits to the village well so that she can hear him urging his students to study, even though she herself cannot read. When Changyu gives her an ornamental pin, its temporary loss becomes a near tragedy. She catches a fever when she stays out on the road during the bitterly cold day he promised to return.

Despite an excessive musical score, “The Road Home” is an unpretentious classic celebrating the ways of the old order. If Zhang exaggerates the goodness of the past, we are nevertheless moved by the sense of a united community as the dead body of Changyu’s father is carried back over the mountain to the village well.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001