Films

Through 9/11 glasses

A romance, an immigrant drama and a CIA thriller take on new meaning

Brian D. Johnson December 3 2001
Films

Through 9/11 glasses

A romance, an immigrant drama and a CIA thriller take on new meaning

Brian D. Johnson December 3 2001

Through 9/11 glasses

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

A romance, an immigrant drama and a CIA thriller take on new meaning

In the opening minutes of Sidewalks of New York, Tommy (Ed Burns) stands on a Manhattan rooftop and talks about picking up the pieces after being ditched by his girlfriend. “What are you gonna do,” he shrugs, “live your life in fear of a broken heart?” But as the scene unfolds, you find yourself staring at the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which loom in the background, and thinking about lives shattered on a different scale. Tommy later talks of growing up with “the bridge and tunnel crowd” in Queens, across the river from Manhattan, and “seeing the city from a distance.” Again, you can imagine only a ravaged skyline.

Just as the world looks different postSept. 11, so do the movies. Some, such as Kandahar, are more relevant than ever. Others have acquired an unintended gravity—such as Quebec’s L’Ange de goudron (Tar Angel), which climaxes with an Arab immigrant hijacking an airplane on a runway; or Hollywood’s Spy Game, in which a suicide bombing brings down a massive apartment block in Beirut.

Originally set for release in September, Sidewalks of New York was postponed. And now it’s odd to see a movie so emphatically set in a New York where the characters have nothing to worry about but love and sex. A contemporary picture suddenly becomes a period film. Yet even without Sept. 11, there’s something retro about the Manhattan moxie that writerdirector Burns brings to this briskly engaging ensemble piece. It’s the kind of threering relationship comedy Woody Allen used to make, with more Woody types than you can shake a shtick at. And they all talk in those “Whaddaya mean?...” tones

of pleading incredulity. Tommy is Macho Woody, a glib TV producer who picks up a Puerto Rican teacher (Rosario Dawson) in a video store. Her ex-husband is Nebbish Woody (David Krumholtz), a young doorman/musician who woos a teenage waitress (Brittany Murphy). Then there’s Creepy Woody—a philandering dentist (Stanley Tucci) who’s having an affair with the waitress while neglecting his wife (Heather Graham).

Although the daisy-chain narrative is a tad contrived, Burns keeps the comedy percolating with a nimble wit. Tucci is a master of disingenuous sleaze. And the female performances are especially strong, most remarkably from Graham, who plays against type as an earnest wife in the Mia Farrow mould. At one point, her character laments the “void” in the lives of a generation that lacks the context of a war or depression. If only she knew.

There’s no shortage of context in L’Ange de goudron, a provocative and poignant drama by Quebec writer-director Denis Chouinard. His story focuses on a Montreal family of Algerian immigrants who are on the verge of gaining Canadian citizenship when the 19-year-old son, Hafid

(Rabah Ait Ouyahia), risks their future by joining a group of activists. After Hafid disappears on a clandestine mission, his father (Zinedine Soualem) and girlfriend (Catherine Trudeau) go searching for him. It’s an odd-couple road trip into the white desert of a Quebec winter—with Arabic rhythms pleated on the sound I track. The plot takes a reckless § twist as a snowmobile squad of I activists tries to turn back a s flight of deportees on an airport runway. But in the heartbreaking conflict between the

father, who craves security, and the son, who craves justice, the drama strikes a powerful chord. And in light of Sept. 11, this tale of an Arab family learning the words to O Canada while grappling with the trauma of immigration is more resonant than ever.

Directed by Tony Scott (Crimson Tide), Spy Game is a clever, efficient thriller that tries to extract some romance from the sordid politics of the CIA. Robert Redford stars as Nathan Muir, a spook on the verge of retirement who spends his last day at the office trying to save his protégé, Tommy (Brad Pitt), from being executed in a Chinese prison. While outmanoeuvring his superiors, who want Tommy dead, Nathan tells their sorcererapprentice saga in flashbacks that range from Vietnam to Lebanon. It’s Redford’s movie, and as a weathered pro, he’s at the top of his game, while Pitt just keeps his head down and plays cool. Not so long ago, Spy Game would have been fine escapist fare. But these days, there’s something perverse about watching a CIA agent ride his Porsche into the sunset in a film about assassins, refugee camps and rich Arab terrorists. ESI