Jim Caldwell rushes to the scene every time he hears about a car crash. He has to look at the wreckage, inspect the mangled, gore-spattered bodies and speculate on the victims’ last thoughts.
Jim is the wealthy patriarch of Billy Bob Thornton’s quirkily dysfunctional family in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” which is in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. He learns at the beginning of the movie, set in Alabama in 1969, that the wife who left him 20 years ago has died in the U.K.
She wants to be buried back home, and her British second husband is bringing her back for the funeral -- accompanied by his buttoned-up son Philip and flower-child daughter Camilla. Neither Jim (Robert Duvall) nor Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) wants to meet. Jim has hated his rival for two decades.
The scene is set for a squirmingly awkward family situation with a dash of culture clash thrown in. Add to the mix Jim’s pothead middle-aged son, Carroll (Kevin Bacon), who is arrested for demonstrating against the war in Vietnam; another son Skip (Thornton), who lives in a kind of childhood limbo obsessed with planes and cars; and a daughter Donna who is sick of her wasted, motormouthed ex-football-star husband.
Jim and Kingsley eventually hit it off and go to examine the wreck of Jayne Mansfield’s car together. Skip falls in love with Camilla’s accent and Donna makes a beeline for Philip.
The film suffers from a surfeit of characters and some clunky dialogue, yet it has some pricelessly funny moments too. There’s a farcical scene involving LSD in the breakfast tea and a crudely surreal one featuring a naked poetry reading.
War and father-son relations are the core themes of the movie. Both elderly men served in World War I, and two of Jim’s three sons served in World War II. The third, Jimbo, spent his war years working in a laundry and never saw combat, a fact he finds hard to take. The war message can seem labored at times -- an argument that erupts one evening between Kingsley and Philip over the son’s war years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp seems strangely stilted.
Rape of Nanjing
Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” is a richly shot war epic set at the end of the terrible Rape of Nanjing in 1937, where more than 200,000 Chinese were massacred at the hands of the Japanese.
Based on a novel by Geling Yan, it tells the story of a group of Catholic schoolgirls whose lives were saved by unlikely heroes -- a dozen courtesans and an American wastrel posing as a priest.
Zhang’s images of the burned-out city with bodies piled up in the street are powerful, though most of the action is set in a cathedral complex where the girls hide out, shielded from the mayhem outside by high stone walls.
Christian Bale plays a mortician who arrives on a job, only to find that the body he was supposed to attend to has been bombed to smithereens. At first he takes no interest in the girls’ plight, drinks the wine in the cellar and tries to seduce one of a group of prostitutes who have found their way into the complex and are hiding underground.
As it dawns on him that his outsider status may protect the girls, he shoulders responsibility. When their fate seems sealed as they are called to perform a “concert” for senior Japanese officers, the courtesans step in and go in their place -- an act of sacrifice that is almost certain to lead to their deaths.
Splashes of Hope
The use of color is more subdued than in some of Zhang’s movies, though still beautiful. A stained glass window and the courtesans’ richly woven fabrics offer bright splashes of hope in the bleak gray city, still burning.
Metaphorically, though, this is a black-and-white movie of good and evil, with none of the subtle undercurrents of Zhang’s best films (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou.”) The press material describes it as his “most universally accessible” movie to date.
If that means they expect it to be a commercial hit in China, they are probably right. Japanese people may not flock to the cinema.
It also claims to “move beyond a nationalist perspective on Nanjing.” I’m not so sure about that.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor No stars Worthless
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(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)