CITY OF LIFE & DEATH aka “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on June 18th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From the Landmark Kendall Sq. Theater, Cambridge, MA on Thursday June 9, 2011.

Written & Directed by Chuan Lu, starring Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi and John Paisley, featuring cinematography by Yu Cao.

Whether as a lunchtime gathering between coworkers, or online as a movie blog or social media community, The Lunch Movie’s raison d’être is to celebrate the good stuff. There are too many good and great movies out there to bother writing negatively about movies that do not spark my enthusiasm. I make an effort to resist generic hyperbole of the “best” or “worst” variety. Once the provenance of know-it-all nerds, like THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy, these words have been made nearly redundant by critics more adept at synopsizing than analysis. Nonetheless CITY OF LIFE & DEATH stands apart even among a list of movies I love. It is the most profoundly haunting war movie I’ve encountered since APOCALYPSE NOW.

CITY OF LIFE & DEATH was shot in color and printed in black & white suggesting, at first glance, news reels of the era similar to Movietone news. The first hour details the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937 where thousands of Chinese soldiers were quickly cut down while fighting to hold their nation’s capital. That initial newsreel sense of the battle sequences expands rapidly to an awareness of extraordinary artistry. We’ve seen this more in still photography from war correspondents than we have in motion pictures. Composition within each frame is as strikingly beautiful as the subject matter is unnerving. “Epic” is a word that has become as squandered as “best” or “worst.” The massive scope of these street-to-street battles, on the scale of A BRIDGE TOO FAR and the finale of FULL METAL JACKET, should serve as a reminder of the true definition of “epic.”

As imposing as this widescreen doomscape is Chuan balances an intimacy with his characters, reminiscent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, with the urgency of hand-held vérité style as claustrophobic as THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. In the crush of battle we rarely catch the names of the combatants with whom we become acquainted. Still they become familiar to us even amid the chaos. The few detractors I’ve come across find only the pace of this film to complain about. Everyone acknowledges the breathtaking photography, and compelling performances, but some find certain parts of the story too slow. It is in these quieter moments that the plight of the characters is seared into your soul. There is very little music here, just the dull tap of bullets and hollow thunder of grenades, followed by pin-drop silence. You may find yourself catching your breath along with the soldiers for fear that breathing too deeply could give away their position. The sincere humanity imbued in the Chinese defenders and even some within the Japanese assault, soldiers we may know only briefly before they are killed, draws us ever deeply into this tragic story. The audience is placed in a position similar to the participants by the story’s ensemble structure; any character we embrace could die at any moment, regardless or even in spite of our hope that they may emerge as the protagonist.

The second hour, spanning early 1938 after Nanking has fallen, is where CITY OF LIFE & DEATH may become too much to bear even for those who consider themselves aficionados of war films. Perhaps even more than the Nazi Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, Nanking is notorious for an unfathomable number of rapes perpetrated within the first few months of the siege. The film manages to be as harrowing for its depiction of broken and battered women, attempting to comfort each other after being assaulted, as it would have been had it lingered in lurid detail of the crimes as they were committed. Yuanyuan Gao plays Miss Jiang, a character inspired by Iris Chang, whose book “The Rape of Nanking” is among the better known accounts of this battle to have been translated into English. Miss Jiang stands, often alone, as the last line of defense against sexual aggression. She tries to warn Chinese women how to avoid drawing the attention of Japanese soldiers. She is tasked with negotiating which women and children will be spared and at what cost. Through Miss Jiang we experience how each woman was forced to sell pieces of her soul for one more day breathing, with only so many pieces to her soul to spare, and so many days she can survive these conditions.

John Paisley plays John Rabe, a true life German businessman, who helped establish the Nanking Safety Zone to protect civilians from Japanese soldiers. In the film Rabe works with Miss Jiang, as well as his own Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), to protect his workers and their families. John Rabe has been called The Schindler of China; that coupled with this being a black & white film has drawn inevitable and somewhat appropriate comparisons to SCHINDLER’S LIST. Rabe remains an important secondary character, but Miss Jiang and Mr. Tang emerge as the civilian opponents to the invading army, and it is through their steps and missteps that a traditional tale of redemption is carved from all this random sorrow.

The brutal majority within the Japanese forces is embodied by Captain Durdin (Sam Voutas) while Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) represents the dwindling core of Japanese soldiers who feel their souls diminished with every day they occupy Nanking. Most of the Japanese soldiers are seen as happy to rape and pillage and wipe the Chinese off the face of the earth. Kadokawa stands for a few who realize that they will never be able to return home and think of themselves as human.

Much as I admire CITY OF LIFE & DEATH for having the spirit to be artistically ambitious, and the technical skill to realize those ambitions, it gives me hope on a more practical level as well. Let’s face it, the average American viewer thinks Karate movies and Kung Fu movies are the same thing, and wouldn’t be able to spot the samurai movie between 13 ASSASSINS and RED CLIFF. Euro-centric American audiences seldom recognize that the history and culture of China and Japan are as disparate as Italy and Germany. While pundits like Donald Trump and Lou Dobbs sound alarms about China, younger characters in this movie remind us that there are many Chinese still living who remember Nanking, or who lost family there. The perseverance and determination of Miss Jiang, Mr. Tang and legions of nameless soldiers reveal a Chinese national character that might be less concerned with Soviet style world domination and more concerned with making sure no one is ever again able to threaten them as one neighbor had done. In the end whether you are Chinese or Japanese, Italian or German, or any hyphenate American you will be humbled by this story’s answer to the question “What price survival?”

I thoroughly understand how excessive it sounds to place a recent film in the pantheon with not only the most legendary war films but some of the more significant achievements in the film medium. This is no exaggeration. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH gave me that sense, which occurs a handful of times per decade, that I was experiencing something that would alter my perception regarding cinema and war and the value of life itself. It accomplished this within the first act.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 15th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Friday, February 1, 2008.

Written & Directed by Jared Hess, starring Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino and Jon Greis.

If Apathy had a poster-child, it’d be Napoleon Dynamite. He spends his days going to school to avoid his weird family, and his nights avoiding his classmates by hiding in his home drawing mythical beasts. His complacency is shaken when circumstances force him to experience two classic high school rites of passage: ask a girl to a dance, and help a friend run for Student President.

Between the bigger studios and the indie world, we get a handful of movies like this every year. Most are deservedly forgotten. Every so often, a performance comes along to set one film above the rest, becoming the prototype for the next generation of characters cherished by nerds as “quotable:” Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, and Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite.

It’ll finish on Tuesday – CALIFORNIA PRIMARY DAY!! If you’re at a loss who to vote for, write in Pedro Sanchez.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.15.11
I have pondered my statement above from three years ago that studios release movies like this. I now recant that statement. Maybe ten or twenty years ago NAPOLEON DYNAMITE would have a chance at a major studio, but not anymore; this film is living proof of the necessity of the film festival circuit. If this script were submitted to any of the major studios it never would have passed through the first round of readers. The characters are too passive, development execs would say, and the story is too challenging to market. If the script were submitted to a talent agency, Hess’s quirky dialog might have been enough to get him signed as a client, but he would have quickly found himself farmed out to the latest Fox, WB or UPN teen/tween show. Certain movies will only get made if a committed crew makes costumes out of their own clothes, borrows locations from neighbors, rents a camera and shoots it with no guarantee that anyone other than friends and family will ever see it. Where the studio marketing team sees a product that does not fit their target demographic paradigm, the audiences who seek out film festivals will take one look at Napoleon, and say “He looks weird, but I know a guy like that; I wonder what this kid’s story is?”

I like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, but I do not love it, and I do not regard it as a cult classic. Then again that may be because I am not part of the cult! When we screened it over two days at the agency, the first day drew one of our best crowds ever, with all chairs at the conference table filled and some dragging their desk chairs in from outside. Only my pal Sammy showed up on the second day. Everyone else jumped ship, including a few people who had urged me for weeks to show it, and with whose lunch schedules I had coordinated the screening dates. This led me to a new theory about this movie: it worked initially because it was a surprise. Just as a studio story department can’t draw up a character like Napoleon by design, the film loses something if you plan to see it; it’s one of those movies that you may own on DVD but never watch. When it runs on cable after midnight you’ll stay up late to watch it. You could have planned to watch it at 8pm with your own DVD, but when it pops up as a surprise, that is when the charm shines through. Just a theory; I’ll have to test that by catching it unexpectedly, like I tested my “studios give us movies like this every year” notion. What do you think?

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 8th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Wednesday, February 6, 2008.

Written & Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Rebekah Johnson, Orlando Jones, Anthony Anderson and introducing Ben Foster (who got the gig during an open call!)

Between Rosh Hashanah of 1954 and 1955, the Kurtzman family of Baltimore is confronted with endings, beginnings and other upheavals. Nate Kurtzman (Mantegna), who runs a burlesque house and numbers racket, sees both of his businesses dying at the hands of television and a brand new state lottery. Older son Van (Brody) is off to college in the first non-Jewish school he’s ever attended. Younger son Ben not only experiences his first crush with Sylvia, an African American girl in his class, he also discovers rock-n-roll. When Nate makes a last-ditch attempt at financial solvency for his family, races and generations collide in hilarious, poignant and unexpected ways.

This is the fourth of Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore Films” the others being DINER, TIN MEN and AVALON. LIBERTY HEIGHTS is set a notch above the others by some of the most intricate editing (by Stu Linder) to come out of a major studio in years. Without taking the focus away from the characters, the editing creates stunningly evocative layers of sound, image and music. Aside from the music (Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Elvis, Tom Waits) it helps to have Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle providing the images. Doyle, possibly the most underrated shooter alive, is largely responsible for the glowing signature look of most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Many films are described as “labors of love” — it’s rare to see this much love poured into every aspect of a movie.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.8.11
To this day LIBERTY HEIGHTS is the only movie that ever prompted me to write a fan letter to a filmmaker, primarily for the reasons mentioned in the above pitch to my agency coworkers: images in that playful 50’s color palette balanced with resonant music grabbed me within the first act and rewarded my attention throughout. I had witnessed a single song used well with a montage, but I had never seen montages of music paired with montages of images, with sound from one scene bleeding into the scenes that precede and follow. My actor and fellow writer pals will hate me for saying this, but certain elements of great movies can only come from the vision of a director, and must be controlled by the unsung creative forces of editors and composers.

Andrea Morricone composed the score for LIBERTY HEIGHTS. In the final 42 seconds of the trailer you can hear echoes of his father Ennio’s work, particularly the romantic sweep of CINEMA PARADISO, on which Andrea assisted the maestro. During a Halloween party scene where Van meets both Dubbie and Trey, the girl of his dreams and her boyfriend, dialog is often replaced with a soundscape swinging from “Shake Rattle & Roll” to the roar of Trey’s convertible to “Rock Island Line.” James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Morricone’s score trade partners as Ben and Sylvia attend a James Brown concert downtown, while uptown Van and Dubbie share a heart to heart at a party in the backyard of one of their classmates mausoleum like homes. Levinson’s seamless blend of sound and vision finds one scene informing another, one character speaking for another character’s dilemma, in a manner as unorthodox for a mainstream film as it is haunting and unforgettable.

I do not mean to imply that LIBERTY HEIGHTS is lacking in the engaging performances and impeccable storytelling departments. This film afforded me the unique experience of giving up on guessing where the story will go next. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize your cliché based predictions and assumptions have been tossed out the window, that it’s best to sit back, and enjoy the company in which you have been placed. I can give you one glimpse that will not spoil any dramatic turns: before Ben takes Sylvia to see James Brown, he asks if he can borrow his father’s Cadillac. In any other movie set in the 1950’s Nate Kurtzman would be reading the newspaper, Ada Kurtzman (Bebe Neuwirth) would be darning socks or otherwise knitting, and “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” would be on TV. Here when Ben yells down from the kitchen, we see Nate and Ada practicing the cha cha in a swank finished basement, hiding just how hip Mom and Dad Kurtzman are from passersby on the street. That’s a married couple still deeply in love and smoldering for each other, even as their son is old enough to go to college; when is the last time you saw that in an American movie?

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