Hollywood Hills Hanky-Panky Saved by a Serious Work Ethic

Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, from her own screenplay, flirts with erotic experimentation among feverishly overwrought, marginally decadent dabblers in the arts-much like her debut feature film, High Art (1998), in which the naïve and impressionable Radha Mitchell, an apprentice in “high art” photography, is eventually seduced by her Weltschmerz -y mentor, played by Ally Sheedy. In Laurel Canyon (the name of a stylish street that runs through the heart of the Hollywood Hills, an upscale bohemian enclave for “artists” of all kinds), Ms. Cholodenko and her collaborators have broadened their canvas to take in a wider array of tense, ambitious, borderline-neurotic personalities who mix and mingle their different conceptions of sexual morality and normality.

Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) start off the film as an engaged, repressed straight-arrow couple, recently graduated from Harvard Medical School. They’ve moved to Los Angeles to complete their medical studies and plan to stay in the home of Sam’s mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a veteran record producer who has promised them that her house will be empty. But when Sam and Alex arrive, Sam goes ballistic: He learns that his mother is still on the premises, trying to boost her faltering career with a hit featuring a British band whose lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), doubles as Jane’s much younger lover.

The audience is gradually let in on the explosive back story of Sam’s long-standing alienation from his mother: He thinks she was callously irresponsible as a wife and parent. Curiously, he seems never to have told Alex, his fiancée, about his deep hostility towards his mother, and Alex seems a little puzzled by all the uproar. Sam and Alex have also just come from a mysteriously frosty meeting with Alex’s parents, so that all around us are people who don’t seem capable of getting along with each other.

For their part, Alex and Jane seem to get along fairly well. The hitherto serious-minded Alex becomes increasingly fascinated with the free and easy ways of Jane, Ian and the other musicians. Alex also begins to display an independent streak at odds with our first impression of her and Sam as a close-knit couple. And while Alex stays home working on her dissertation, Sam goes off to the hospital for his duties as a psychiatric resident, where he quickly encounters a very attractive diversion in a fellow psychiatric resident named Sara (Natascha McElhone).

What rescues this situation from the formulaic banality it seems to be headed toward is the seriousness with which the filmmakers take the actual work being done by the various characters. It matters very much to Jane and Ian and the band that their recording succeeds, and as we listen to one rehearsal after another, we’re gradually drawn into the suspense: Will it be a hit or a flop? For his part, Sam becomes deeply involved with a young male patient’s psychotic episode, and the patient’s terror at being found out by his mother. When Sam confronts mother and son together, he suddenly understands not only the son’s psychotic episode, but also his own near-psychotic feelings about his mother. But every insight leads to a new dilemma, and by the end of the film, nothing has been conclusively resolved.

And yet, almost miraculously, no one behaves in a way that might be termed reprehensible. As in Jean Renoir’s seminal The Rules of the Game, everyone has his reasons. Temptation is everywhere, all the time. Who will succumb? The work people do, and the direction of their goals, goes a long way in determining the success or failure of their closest emotional relationships.

Ms. McDormand is the latest of the marvelously middle-aged actresses playing characters who can look at the shrunken past and the shrinking future without losing sight of the passionate present. At times, she seems to linger in the swimming pool-as though by staying long enough, she can return her estranged son to the comforting amniotic fluid of her womb.

As for Mr. Bale’s Sam, he’s a character whose destiny must be decided by a newly liberated ex-Puritan suddenly endowed with the power to forgive and understand. Still, there are no guarantees in this admirably grown-up entertainment. Ms. Beckinsale’s Alex may have unblocked her repressed sensuality, but perhaps at too high a price. Mr. Nivola’s Ian is pleasant enough as a shameless poltergeist, but his psychic essence could easily degenerate into a tiresome facetiousness, especially if his career goes badly. Laurel Canyon is not about a beginning or an ending; it’s closer to the middle-just before the hard decisions have to be made.

Intercontinental

Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa, from her own screenplay, based upon a novel by Stefanie Zweig, is this year’s German entry for the foreign-film Oscar, and if the past is any guide, it should be a shoo-in-think of all the Holocaust-related films honored in minor categories over the years. But there’s more to this movie than its peripheral association with the Nazi slaughter. Ironies abound in this tale of adjustment to an alien existence on a remote continent.

The story here is more personal and intimate than in last year’s Shanghai Ghetto , in which an entire Jewish community was transported to Shanghai. There, the Jewish interaction with the impoverished and oppressed Chinese slum dwellers introduced a global dimension. By contrast, Nowhere in Africa is almost a comedy of manners. An upper-class, German Jewish family is offered refuge on a farm in Kenya, a British colony, in the fateful year of 1938. This is a true story that like many such stories would be hard to invent, written as an autobiographical novel by Ms. Zweig from her own point of view as a child when her family’s unusual emigration began. Ms. Link has retained the child’s point of view, but has shifted the main focus to the parents, Walter and Jettel Redlich (Merab Ninidze and Juliane Köhler). Their daughter, Regina, is played by Lea Kurka and, when she’s slightly older, by Karoline Eckerts.

The very dark comedy is provided by the reluctance of the somewhat sheltered Jettel to believe that a cultivated, socially active family from Germany can ever hope to settle down in a godforsaken place like East Africa. For a long time she believed, along with a huge number of similarly deluded European Jews, that the Nazi “pogrom,” like so many others before it in European history, would soon run its course, and then everything would get back to normal. This is the same delusion Roman Polanski devastatingly records in the Warsaw ghetto of The Pianist.

Walter Redlich is the realist and the prophet in his family; he anticipates that things will get much worse before they get better, and so accepts the invitation to Kenya. The Redlichs’ host is the far-sighted German-Jewish Süsskind (Matthias Habich), who sought sanctuary abroad in 1933, as soon as Hitler and his minions came to power. By leaving early, Süsskind was able to keep his money from the Nazis-a luxury no longer available to Jewish refugees in 1938. Despite Walter’s instructions to Jettel to bring a small refrigerator with her to Kenya, his frivolous wife spends the money on a pretty frock.

To make matters more difficult, Walter has contracted malaria while awaiting the arrival of his wife and daughter. Fortunately, Süsskind is on hand with the proper medicine, and with the help of Walter’s invaluable native cook, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), Walter survives and is in good enough health to welcome Jettel and Regina. Regina bonds immediately with the marvelously avuncular Owuor, as well as the many friendly African children elsewhere on the farm. The heart of the drama is in the transformation of Jettel and Regina from bourgeois German Jews, who believed they had become true Germans by abandoning their Orthodox customs, to full-fledged Africans with a love for the soil and the people.

Then comes an ironic twist: In 1939, when war is declared between England and Germany, the Redlichs are interned by the British authorities in Kenya. The British are comparatively benign in their treatment of the German Jews in their midst. Regina is admitted to a British religious school, and in a strikingly evocative scene, she and the other Jewish children are asked to take their seats at the side of the room while the rest of the children join in the singing of a Christian hymn. It’s a delicate, ambivalent exclusion-and at the same time, a respectful gesture of consideration for non-Christian pupils.

A final irony: Once the war is over, Walter is invited by the German judiciary to return to Germany to help reform the legal system-but Jettel is unwilling to return to the people who allowed her mother and sister to die in the death camps. Walter and Jettel seem to have reached an impasse: Walter will go back alone to Germany, while Jettel and Regina stay behind. At this crucial moment, the entire valley is invaded by locusts, and Jettel and Regina fight side-by-side with their African friends and neighbors to save the harvest. Jettel suddenly sees that Walter has interrupted his journey to lend his arms and coat to drive off the locusts. By recommitting himself to the people who sheltered his family, Walter finds himself reconciled with Jettel, who then allows the final decision on their future to be made by him. Of course, they must return to Europe, but there’s a palpable feeling of pain and loss when they do leave. Out a great historical evil comes a gentle fable of love and understanding between people literally continents apart.

Companions Aloft

Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration, a remarkable contemplation of the everyday miracle of birds in flight to and from every corner of the globe, required the services of five crews of more than 450 people, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers, to follow a variety of bird migrations through 40 countries and seven continents. Among the more familiar landmarks are the Eiffel Tower and Monument Valley, but there are forays to both poles, and more penguins than you can shake a stick at in that Antarctic restaurant where they were first discovered and mistaken for pompous headwaiters.

Winged Migration is a beautiful spectacle that makes one think of God and Darwin in the same breath. What marvelous creatures! And how powerfully motivated they must be to seek food for survival in such far-off places. They’re a constant miracle to behold, and their kindness and generosity in allowing human intruders with their cameras to join them in such close proximity is a miracle in itself. Mercifully, there are only a few ugly moments when gunshots from below bring down our winged companions. For shame!