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Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

It’s that time of the year. HARRY POTTER’s open, and it’s doing predictably well. This coming weekend, there’s a new Bond film. The Hollywood machine hums along, all things as they always are, and that means that in addition to big business, ‘tis the season for high art as well.

For example, there’s a special limited run starting this Friday in Los Angeles for Philip Noyce’s elegaic new heartbreaker, THE QUIET AMERICAN. The film will get a real release sometime in early 2003, so for now, it’s just this one city for these two weeks where you can see this one. And if you’re in any position to get to the Sunset 5 or the Laemmle Monicas or the AMC Century 16, then do so. Go for Michael Caine’s quiet, nuanced work, some of the best of his career. Go for Brendan Fraser, bending our impressions of him with a sly, controlled turn. Go for adult storytelling with a confident hand that establishes Noyce as far more than the commercial filmmaker he’s spent the last decade pretending to be. Whatever you go for, you’ll be richly rewarded.

”Michael Caine stars in THE QUIET AMERICAN from director Phillip Noyce. This adaptation of the Graham Greene novel is a murder mystery centered around a love triangle, set in Saigon during the French Indochina War, circa 1952. It is the story of a veteran English journalist (Michael Caine), an idealistic American (Brendan Fraser) and the beautiful Vietnamese woman caught between them. This is a world where nothing is what it seems -- suffused with intrigue and betrayal.”

That’s the way Miramax describes the film. I guess it’s a fair synopsis, but reading that, I wasn’t really excited as I walked into the screening. The room was packed, though, and I think that’s because of the buzz the film has been building since the very first test screening back in May, and which reached a fever pitch at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.

Now, nearly a week after seeing the film, I find that it lingers. It’s a film that’s haunted by memory from the very first frame, starting with a dead man (Brendan Fraser) floating in the Saigon River and another man (Michael Caine) in an office, where he is trying to explain what happened to a French police officer (Rade Sherbedgia). Even worse, he goes afterwards to tell a beautiful girl (Do Hai Yen), who is shattered by the news. It’s armed with these impressions that we flash back several months to the day the dead man first arrived in Vietnam.

It’s 1952. The French are fighting in the north of Vietnam as the country tries to assert its independence, and for the first time, it’s looking like the French are going to lose. There’s a quiet desperation that’s building just at the edge of the frame, a pressure that everyone feels but no one directly acknowledges. It’s making some people crazy, like a journalist (Holmes Osborne) who stays nearly-pickled at all times, too drunk to worry. People are willing to do anything to align themselves with whoever is going to get them through these dangerous days intact. That’s part of what drives Phuong (Hai Yen) into the arms of the much older Thomas Fowler (Caine), the local correspondent for THE LONDON TIMES.

To his credit, Fowler’s really in love with Phuong. And who wouldn’t be? She’s a flower, and she’s symbolic to him of this amazing land that’s made him positively drunk. He barely files stories anymore. Instead, he’s fallen into a habit. He spends his mornings reading the newspapers at an outdoor café. He spends his nights in the arms of this delicate girl with the open heart and open bed. And he spends his sleeping hours afloat on opium-soaked dreams. It’s better than anything he has at home, and Fowler has stopped even entertaining the thought of London. He would be perfectly happy if nothing ever changed again.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of history can see the shadow hanging over the situation, though, and Fowler’s perfect world comes tumbling down, one little bit at a time. The end of everything is heralded by the arrival of a soft-faced American who’s a little too forceful, a little too cheerful, a little too gawky. He’s an American Aid worker. His name is Alden Pyle (Fraser). And his intervention into this world that Fowler has built causes ripples that have international implications.

Graham Greene is a novelist of remarkable restraint, and it takes remarkable grace and subtlety to bring his work successfully to life. Carol Reed’s justifiably praised THE THIRD MAN and Neil Jordan’s exquisite and overlooked THE END OF THE AFFAIR are two examples of how to do it right. This particular story has been filmed before, but with nowhere near the brick-wrapped-in-velvet impact of this film. The script by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan manages to do something that would have been unthinkable as recently as ten years ago in an American film: it treats the Vietnamese as people with a culture worthy of respect. It treats them as our equals, not as an enemy. It’s one of the first films I’ve seen that invites you into the culture instead of trying to plant you outside of it as an invader.

Michael Caine’s performance is a big part of why it works, and it’s impossible to overstate how remarkable an example of the craft of film acting this really is. Caine’s one of those guys who works so much that he makes it all look easy. He’s consistent. You can count on him to bring something to the table in pretty much everything he does. This time out, he’s been given something really wonderful to do, and he rises to the occasion, giving the best performance I think he’s given since HANNAH & HER SISTERS. Fowler’s bound to a wife back in England who is Catholic, and who will never grant him the divorce he would need in order to bring Phuong home with him, so he’s not allowed to do what he really wants, which is marry this girl. He aches so badly you can hear it. His time with her is like a dream that he doesn’t want to wake up from.

There’s almost an air of disbelief about Fowler as Pyle begins to fall in love with Phuong. He can’t believe this young American would be crass enough or bold enough to really try and take her away from him, especially after he’s befriended Pyle, shown him a way into Vietnam. Time after time, Pyle shows up in just the right place at just the right moment, always selling the same story about being an American Aid worker, but it doesn’t add up for Fowler, and he finds himself responding as a journalist, whether he wants to or not. There’s a story here, something that might just change the course of history for this country, and Fowler can’t help but figure out what, precisely, is going on.

One of the things that distinguishes this from so many other films is that it’s not flashy. It’s not showy. It’s not overtly clever. It’s not about a twist ending. This is, very simply, a damn good story told well. This is the exact opposite of an arthouse picture, and if it gets labeled as one, it would be a shame. This is the kind of human story that anyone can find themselves drawn into, about our weaknesses and how they betray us even when we think we’re serving the greater good. If you want to dig for meaning below the surface, it’s there. This is one of the most effective fables about colonialism I’ve ever seen, and when you realize that Greene wrote the novel before America’s failure in Vietnam, it’s nearly prescient. There’s an explosion in this film that could be called the very first American shot on Vietnamese soil, and when you see the after-effects... the innocent people lying dead... the families whose lives are changed by the random blast pattern of shrapnel... it’s impossibel to be unaffected. It’s impossible not to see some parallel to events still happening in the world. This film will force you to really deal with how you feel about our proclivity to push our way into the affairs of others around the world. Christopher Doyle, famous as Wong Kar-Wei’s cinematographer, has given Noyce a remarkable box of paints with which he gives life and color to the exotic world that he gradually comes to feel may be teetering on the verge of implosion, but the visual stylization of the movie is never the point of what you see. This is economical, incisive work by Noyce. He knows how intensely powerful much of the emotional material in this story is, and he underplays, confident that what we’re watching will move us without him ladling on the gravy, and he’s right. It’s a testament to Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, both listed as executive producers, and the entire fistful of other producers on the film, all of whom had the courage to let Noyce make this version of the movie without sexing it up or adding in obligatory action or any of a million other things that could have turned this into typical Hollywood horseshit. Taste appears to have somehow won the day, and the result is a film that creeps up on you. When it all starts to come together in the last half-hour, it’s almost impossible to take. You know how badly things are going to end, but you still don’t want to see it happen. You can’t help but hope that somehow, things will work out. For Pyle’s sake. For Phuong’s. Just because sometimes, you need something good to happen to prove it still can.

Finally, special mention must be made of the work done by the actress playing Phuong. Like any movie that deals with men at odds over a woman, we must believe in their attraction to her if we are going to believe in the film itself. When you see Superman going crazy and defying the laws of time and space to save Margot Kidder, it’s okay to think, Dude, seriously, get over it. You can get a much better chick than that. I know... it’s not right. It’s not good. But it’s true. Without some sort of visible heat, we’re just not going to believe the rivalry, and we won’t invest. Do Hai Yen was not a professional actor when she took the role, and she didn’t speak a bit of English. Yet somehow she manages to project just the right air of unguarded sweetness and quiet determination, a combination that seems to sum up all of Vietnam at that particular moment. She’s wonderful with Caine, and when her heart slowly turns to Pyle, we can see how hard it is for her. We can’t help but understand. And we can see where Pyle’s love for her comes from. He’s not trying to hurt Fowler, and he isn’t trying to take something that belongs to Fowler. Love happens. And sometimes it’s inconvenient and inappropriate and poorly timed, but it still happens, and when it does, there’s no resisting.

I hope you all take the opportunity, whether it’s during the exclusive run in LA these next two weeks or during the general release next year, to see this wonderful film that’s sure to affect any viewer open to its particular and potent charms.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 19, 2002, 7:36 a.m. CST


    by Primus

    Can't wait, looks a good one. Rabbit-Proof Fence was cool too - good for Noyce!

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 7:44 a.m. CST

    looks interesting

    by Meier

    I am planning on seeing this thanks to all the Oscar buzz Caine is getting for his role, thanks for the review Mori

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 8:38 a.m. CST

    Brendan Fraser

    by Glass

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 1:22 p.m. CST

    The buddhist reasons...

    by WeedyMcSmokey

    ... That this film be widely seen to pay kharmically for that Mel Gibson shit-fest We Were Soldiers. Unbelievably insulting jingoistic BULLSHIT. The fact that this will do less than a third of the box as that is evidence enough for why Mr. Puppet and his oil-chugging frat buddies are operating the nation. And I thought I wasn't going to make politics an issue anymore.

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 2:07 p.m. CST

    i love it

    by ZO

    when Mo or Harry talks about love and falling in love etc. like they're trying to show what happens when we all know its all imagined and everything they write about is from movies and what they have seen.

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 2:36 p.m. CST



    ... but I only watch movies with gunfights and space ships.

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 4:20 p.m. CST

    definite rental

    by Hud

    kidding. mori's precis does make me think that Greene's prescience and his feel for the foreign exotic (though a notch below Conrad) has been turned over time into a potboiler playbook: a quiet, obliging native girl, one foreign lover too long in country, and a fresh one, vigorous but blundering, and restless locals up to their beady eyes in insurrection. I'm glad to hear Noyce has done a creditable job, as the story's ingredients make it sound as though anyone could have made this movie. Casablanca in a mangrove swamp?

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 8:01 p.m. CST

    "for the first time, it

    by ThePoleOfJustice

    I'd just like to point out that this is the first, and probably only time, you will see the above sentence.

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 8:52 p.m. CST

    Once again, a fine piece of writing from Mori...

    by Johnny Ahab

    ...undoubtedly the best writer on the site. I'm afraid I can't sit through Harry's out-of-control gushing and bad syntax. (I've gotten suckered into seeing too many bad movies on his recommendations.) I have really come to appreciate your writing, Drew, and when I see your name at the top of any article, I know I'm going to settle in for some well-thought-out writing about film. I'm so there for this. Nice to get the slew of post-Toronto movies for grown-ups after binging on popcorn and spectacle. I like big honkin' movies as much as any fanboy, but come Fall, I start to get excited about the Serious Stuff. Loved "Auto Focus", sleaze and all, for Kinnear & Dafoe's brilliant acting work. Enjoyed "Bowling for Columbine" and "Far From Heaven". Will get my butt to this one ASAP. And hey, guyinthebackrow, what's your beef with the Sunset 5? In a city that's all puffed up appearance and fake imagery, there's something cozily shabby, indie scruffy and non-Hollywood about the Sunset 5. I love that place.

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 9:43 p.m. CST

    Brendan Fraser Is Great

    by NickFoley

    Both Mummy movies, Bedazzled, Airheads, Gods & Monsters, Blast From The Past. What a guy.

  • Nov. 19, 2002, 9:45 p.m. CST

    this is an interesting talkback....

    by jackburtonlives

    that is going in many directions. as for harry and mori sounding like they're "faking" it when talking about love, i thought it was an apt comment... but for all the wrong reasons... because we can't comment on such a thing. who knows about harry or mori's sensibilities or experiences when it comes to such a subject. and yet, it hits the nail on the head in a strange way because it sounds like that's what this film is really about. the "question" of falling in love. is love possible in such circumstances? or is it purely mercantile? love between westerners and asians is always a tenuous thing because of the different cultures. but marriage in asia has traditionally been for economic/family reasons. "love" doesn't enter into the occasion. a vietnamese woman going for the aging michael caine and then opting for a young american out of ... .love? or was it an economic or "political" decision? can a woman in such a situation even dare bring love into the equation? in vietnam, in those times, i really doubt a young vietnamese woman could "fall in love" with a foreigner. call me a cynic. in asia, family comes first. any relation in this context, i believe, is carefully calculated. love is spontaneous. this film could be very interesting and could deal with a very sensitive subject. i'm interested in seeing how the drama plays out.

  • Nov. 20, 2002, 12:35 a.m. CST

    Right, Ahab!

    by Mrs Danvers

    Yeah Moriarty is a writer, Harry's just a patronizing geek with no life experience trying to tell us how to live while hiding behind the internet. Good to see Phil Noyce has finally pulled his finger out (look for his first feature 'Newsfront' for early promise never till now fulfilled). Also good to hear Miramax won't regret succumbing to Michael Caine's threats if they didn't release this picture. Why are the establishment always so frightened of human truth? Coz they stand to lose what they've amassed. Same applies to Washington -- a relief to finally see a truly political film (not since the 70s) that questions foreign policy morality and acknowledges the humanity of other cultures. Bring it on!

  • Nov. 20, 2002, 4:30 a.m. CST

    "Taste appears to have somehow won the day"

    by tav

    How did that happen?

  • Nov. 20, 2002, 4:43 a.m. CST

    Noyce is back x 2

    by Leika

    Check out Rabbit Proof Fence when you get a chance. It's getting a limited release on the 29th of November. Noyce must have overdosed on simplistic H'wood movies and decided to find the filmmaker in him again. First The Quiet American, and then RPF, which was a BIG hit in Oz, and which is a wonderful film, if you're into films with three kids having to walk 1500 miles to get home, through the Australian Outback. (True story, actually - and pretty effing unbelievable).

  • Nov. 20, 2002, 3:28 p.m. CST

    good good good!

    by drjones

    nice review...I