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Labor pains
Three films on occupational hazards
Related Links

Just Like Heaven's official Web site

Lord of War's official Web site

With the possible exception of the days of Soviet Social Realism, people have gone to the movies to escape the daily grind, not relive it. We would like to make a living without having movies remind us that our occupations may involve dubious moral choices. Some jobs are excepted, however, like that of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), the arms dealer in Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War.

Yuri’s a merchant of death, but he has style, saying things like that there’s "one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is, how do we arm the other 11?" He sure is a lot more fun than Valentine (Ethan Hawke), the humorless Interpol prig who’s trying to hunt him down. Valentine’s the film’s conscience, fingering those who profit by selling Third World countries the instruments of there own destruction. Niccol gives him lip service, but what turns him on is remaking De Palma’s Scarface with guns replacing cocaine. Lord of War isn’t as much fun, though, or as morally instructive.

Time for a more idealistic occupation? Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon), the workaholic doctor in Mark Waters’s Just like Heaven, simply wants to save lives. But what about her own? After working late as usual, she speeds to a blind date but runs into a truck. Fans of Ghost or Topper might be amused by this film’s variations on a theme; others will be annoyed by ectoplasmic Elizabeth’s nagging of beer-swilling widower David (Mark Ruffalo), who has sublet her not quite vacated apartment. Right-to-lifers will be most pleased by the film’s creepy resolution.

Heaven celebrates our bourgeois complacency. So does Dai Sijie’s Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise|Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which he adapted from his own novel. The Cultural Revolution sentences teenage pals Luo and Ma to a primitive village for re-education. There both are smitten by the title local girl and enchanted by a cache of contraband books. Dai’s novel is slight; it does evokes the magic of great literature, but that quality is inherently uncinematic. And in his feature debut as a director, he proves he’s no cinéaste. Despite some clever conceits, Balzac makes Maoist fanaticism look better than Western mediocrity.

Issue Date: September 16 - 22, 2005
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