It seems like yesterday that Indian-born director Mira Nair burst onto the international scene with Salaam Bombay! about the street children of that sprawling Asian city. In fact, it has been almost 20 years. During that time Nair has carved out an impressive career with such culturally sensitive films as Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra and Monsoon Wedding.
The famous battle of Thermopylae, which took place in 480 BC between a massive Persian force led by the King Xerxes and a small band of Greeks headed by 300 Spartans and led by the popular King Leonidas is the subject of 300. Thermopylae (“Hot Gates”) was a narrow pass near a hot springs.
A dead girl lies in a grassy field. Her blood-soaked body has started to decompose. Who is she? How did she get there? Was the killing a crime of passion or opportunity? And who committed the heinous act?
The year: 1944. The place: a makeshift military encampment in the verdant countryside outside of Madrid, where a company of Spanish soldiers is methodically eliminating the few remaining resistance fighters trying to topple the fascist government of General Franco.
The Mayan Empire existed for 4,000 years, from 2500 BC to 1500 AD, and it spanned five modern-day countries—Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Mayan civilization made significant strides in astronomy, agriculture and architecture, and it prided itself on its colorful art and skilled artisans.
In Homer’s Odyssey the Sirens’ song was an enchanting tune, impossible to resist, that lured lonely sailors toward a perilous shoreline, where they would die when their ships crashed against the jagged rocks. In the mesmerizing documentary The Bridge, the Sirens’ song is the strange allure of San Francisco’s magnificent Golden Gate Bridge.
I made a weekend visit to an Amish community in northern Indiana just days after the funerals of the Amish schoolgirls shot in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse. I happened to pass a schoolyard outside a one-room schoolhouse where a dozen or so Amish children were playing and staring out through the fence. It gave me chills.
It was the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Hapsburg Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation.” So writes Pulitzer Prize–winning author Steven Millhauser in “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” one of the finest stories in his 1990 collection The Barnum Museum.
When it was announced that Oliver Stone would be directing a film about the downing of the twin towers on 9/11, there was a collective gasp. Would Stone focus on one of the many conspiracy theories about the disaster, as he did in JFK? Would he transform the story into a mythical tale of good versus evil, as in Platoon?
In 2004, about a year into Operation Iraqi Freedom, as the insurgency was gathering steam, journalist Deborah Scranton was offered a chance to embed herself with a military company that included members of the New Hampshire National Guard. She declined but made an intriguing counterproposal. She offered to give the soldiers light, mobile video cameras so they could record their experiences.
Great westerns have always wrestled with moral issues. John Ford’s The Searchers tackles racism; Howard Hawks’s Red River, loyalty; Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, honor; Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, revenge; Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, redemption.
The South African film Tsotsi, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, is based on a novel by the celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard. He wrote the novel in the 1960s but put it aside for many years; it was finally published in 1980. The movie differs from the novel in important ways.
You might expect that a movie with the teasing title The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada would deal with issues of redemption and resurrection. The film does brush up against themes of spiritual rebirth at times, but it is primarily concerned with friendship and the decision to honor the sanctity of friendship even after death.
The French film Caché (“Hidden”) is a stylish thriller tiptoeing around a psychological drama that lurks inside a political allegory. This is typical of the work of Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (Code Unknown), who enjoys presenting confrontational films in which seemingly normal folks leading normal lives turn out to be not very normal at all. Caché, which won the Best Director Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, stars the enigmatic Daniel Auteuil and the luminescent Juliette Binoche as Georges and Anne Laurent. He hosts a television talk show about books; she is a writer who works in publishing—until an anonymous two-hour videotape interrupts their lives.
After the world premiere of Brokeback Mountain at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Picture, the publicity machines began referring to it as “the gay cowboy movie.” That tag line changed once people got a chance to see the film. Now it is being called one of the best love stories Hollywood has turned out in a long while.
Christmas recommendations for Off the Map,Crash, Look at Me and more new DVDs—from film reviewers John Petrakis and Steve Vineberg. For recommendations in fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, theology and more, see the December 27 issue of the Century.