Fantasy Romance Danny Deckchair: A Wink to Frank Capra’s Sad Sacks

Jeff Balsmeyer’s Danny Deckchair has a lot going for it-a lot more than its deceptively light Capraesque fantasy of an ineffectual dreamer who slowly evolves into an eloquent spokesman for all the “little blokes” of the world. Rhys Ifans’ Danny Morgan is reminiscent of such vintage Frank Capra–Robert Riskin creations as James Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Gary Cooper’s John Doe in Meet John Doe (1941), though Danny is far less anguished than his suicidally inclined predecessors.

Our first glimpse of Danny finds him ruefully rising from a vat of wet cement, as if he were a living corpse in a mummy horror movie. No one in the vicinity seems unduly surprised, which leads us to suppose that Danny is notoriously accident-prone. His live-in girlfriend, Trudy Dunphy (Justine Clarke), is exasperated by Danny’s dreamy, flighty manner, coupled with his total lack of practical ambition; his career lethargy has left him stranded in a dead-end job at a cement plant. For her part, Trudy has a better job than Danny-she works in a real-estate office-and has even higher ambitions to get a job in the media: She makes special time for one of her real-estate clients, a trendy television sports announcer named Sandy Upman (Rhys Muldoon). (Apropos of nothing at all, two actors named Rhys in the same film strikes me as downright sinister or at least excessively Welsh, especially in these conspiratorial times.)

Mr. Balsmeyer happens to be an American screenwriter who went all the way to Australia to find a milieu in which his homespun innocence could thrive, free from the corruption and pseudo-sophistication of the overly intrusive mass media. He does not entirely succeed, inasmuch as his film takes a few mildly satirical pokes at the mass media Down Under. When Danny rises up to the skies in an accidental ascension courtesy of some homemade helium balloons, he becomes immortalized by the media as “Danny Deckchair” (because he was seated in his favorite piece of furniture when he took flight). The scene in fact re-enacts the real-life media stunt perpetrated by a Sydney truck driver in 1982.

With Danny now missing in the Great Beyond, perky Trudy is so heartbroken that she becomes an instant media star under the expert tutelage of her lover, Sandy. Meanwhile, Danny is brought down precipitously by a fireworks display in the small town of Clarence. He lands in a tree in the back garden of comely traffic officer Glenda Lake (Miranda Otto). To forestall the neighbor’s suspicions-that Danny is a dangerous alien from outer space-Glenda pretends that he’s one of her former professors who’s dropped in for a visit.

What happens next is truly magical: Danny and Glenda transform from their drab first impressions into the stuff of old-time Hollywood romance. Granted, this is all very predictable, but what makes Danny Deckchair truly marvelous is the decency and sensitivity with which Danny treats his faithless girlfriend Trudy when everything is revealed: He gently embraces her and tells her that their momentary media fame cannot last, and then they’ll just be back in their rut of incompatibility.

Danny’s gentleness with Trudy is so completely unexpected that it becomes the X factor that tips the film from a light diversion to a finely calibrated romantic fantasy. It would’ve been so easy and so conventional to dump all over Trudy as she so richly deserves. But hey, the same sensitivity that serves Danny so badly in Sydney and so perfectly in Clarence makes it impossible for him to be brutal to Trudy in the moment of his self-awakening. As for the charm factor, I can’t think of any screen couple this year with more of such an elusive quality than Ms. Otto and Mr. Ifans, as their final levitation so poetically suggests.

Hero Worship

Zhang Yimou’s Hero , from a screenplay by Li Feng, Zhange Yimou and Wang Bin, contains some of the most dazzling color cinematography and multi-textured martial-arts choreography in the history of world cinema. In this feast for the eyes (if not necessarily for the mind), Mr. Zhang and his collaborators have acknowledged the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which presented multiple conflicting versions of the same events, and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), with its magical midair battles between dueling combatants.

If I have very strong reservations about the latest and most spectacular work of a director I’ve long admired, it’s because of the conformist slant in the thrust of the film’s narrative. Worse still is Mr. Zhang’s presentation of a complicated assassination plot against a seemingly ruthless monarch: The plan is blocked at the last moment by a series of self-sacrificial actions on the part of the presumptive assassins-all in the name of a resurgent nationalism that, 2,000 years ago, led to the building of the Great Wall of China.

Mr. Zhang has had his share of problems in the past with the current imperial rulers of China, but I strongly doubt he’s had any trouble from above over Hero . This is not to say that I expect him to challenge the regime in his native land at every opportunity. Perhaps only in much-ridiculed America can a filmmaker like Michael Moore hoot and holler on the screen at his nation’s unscrupulous rulers.

Yet if ever there were a triumph of form over content, Hero certainly qualifies. Mr. Zhang and his 300-strong crew traveled all over China to find appropriate locations for his unprecedented shifting chromatic tapestry (in red, blue, white and green) of lies and truths. The film’s political, emotional and sexual intrigues feature Jet Li as Nameless, a mysterious minor functionary who is at the center of an assassination plot against the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming), a kingdom at perpetual war with the six other Chinese kingdoms (Zhao, Han, Wei, Yan, Chu and Qi). The other members of the plot are Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his loyal and loving female servant, Moon (Zhang Ziyi); Broken Sword’s mistress and fighting partner, Flying Snow (Maggie Cheng Man-yuk); and Sky (Donnie Yen), another of the king’s potential assassins (vanquished by Nameless at the outset so he can get close enough to the king to deliver the coup de grâce ).

Mr. Zhang is aided in the telling of this convoluted tale by Christopher Doyle, the Australian-born cinematographer who has spent most of his career in Asia; action director Tony Ching Siu-Tung; costume designer Emi Wada; and composer Tan Dun-an internationally honored assemblage of talents accustomed to crossing many boundaries. I wouldn’t have missed this spectacle for the world, and neither should you-despite an admitted quirk in my political sensibility in these contentious times that keeps me from admiring the film wholeheartedly.

Swap Shop

John Curran’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore , from a screenplay by Larry Gross, based on the novellas We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Adultery by Andre Dubus, can best be described as a stylized sex film with little concern for sociological probability and infrastructure. Any film in which the sexuality is genuinely erotic makes critics like myself nervous-enough to look around corners searching for breaches in believability. Hence, the presumed New England college community in which the two married couples swap partners-first covertly and then openly-seems inauthentic; where is the censorious college community with all its attendant gossip? I can’t dismiss these objections out of hand, even though I was fully absorbed in the characters and their casually outrageous behavior. From the credits, I gather that the cast members collaborated with the director and the screenwriter more closely than is usually the custom in the filmmaking process. Hence, at times I felt as if I was watching a group acting exercise.

Some things in the story were puzzling to me-like why the two male leads, Mark Ruffalo’s Jack Linden and Peter Krause’s Hank Evans, chose to sport similarly designed beards, as if they were auditioning to be doppelgängers in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Beards make men look more alike simply because they serve to conceal a certain amount of distinguishing information in the face. Many are the times when I’ve almost mistaken a bearded stranger for a bearded acquaintance.

Jack and Hank are both English professors at the college, and they’re close enough buddies to run together in the nearby woods for exercise. What little back story there is suggests that Hank has been a more active adulterer in the past than Jack. Hank’s wife, Edith (Naomi Watts), can’t take it anymore, and so she sets out to seduce Jack, who cooperates enthusiastically, which in turn induces Jack’s wife, Terry (Laura Dern), to allow herself to be seduced by the always hot-to-trot Hank. It all seems very symmetrical, but why?

There are very few clues. Hank and Edith seem to be better off financially than Jack and Terry, and the strain seems to be getting to Terry. Hank, however, is just a struggling unpublished writer, and the money in the Evans’ household seems to come from Edith’s wealthy family. Jack is not even a writer, struggling or not, but simply an underpaid academic with few prospects. At one point, he seems almost murderously desperate over his blocked life-but nothing happens in the end, so we’re left with nothing but a series of mystifying malaises. Still, I liked the actors and the sex so much that I didn’t mind. I doubt you will, either.

Tinker, Tailor

Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful ( Un Monde Presque Paisible ), from a screenplay by Rosalinde Deville, based on Quoi de Neuf sur la Guerre? by Robert Bober, opens amid comparative calm in August 1946, inside a ladies’ garment workshop in the Jewish Tailors’ District of Paris. Five men, four women and their children struggle to make a living and a life in a workshop amid sewing machines, cutting and finishing tables, and bolts of blue after a storm of bigotry and hatred engulfs their loved ones.

This is curiously the kind of movie in which you find yourself in the company of brave people to whom you hope nothing more “dramatic” will happen-and for the most part, you are not disappointed. There are a few unpleasant moments, particularly the one when a young man recognizes a police inspector as the same man who arrested his parents and sent them to the Nazi gas chambers. There is no violence in the encounter, only a suppressed rage that will smolder until the young man can put his story into a book that will settle all accounts.

This is also one of the very few movies in which a sympathetic group of people is somehow consoled for their horrendous losses by the dignity and professionalism of their employment. An ensemble cast creates a lived-in and worked-in atmosphere that is only occasionally interrupted by the very tentative affairs of the heart.

Simon Abkarian heads the cast as Albert, the kind and generous proprietor of the shop, along with his wife, Leá (Zabou Breitman), and a shop full of others who have survived the death camps. The seamless and yet varied ensemble includes Lubna Azabal, Clotilde Courau, Vincent Elbaz, Julie Gayet, Stanislas Merhar, Denis Podalydès and Malik Zidi. This is a film of half-notes and nuances, and as a chronicle of emotional survival it is infinitely inspiring.