Windtalkers; Ya-Ya Sisterhood

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After the minor cultural earthquake of Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood's big guns are falling all over themselves to revisit World War II. Who can blame them? Creatively, World War II pictures offer action filmmakers the best of all possible worlds: directors get to play with tanks and planes and eviscerate bushels of enemy soldiers (the Horror of War, etc.) while indulging in the usual Rambo fantasies. And in contrast to Vietnam movies, the carnage is built not upon irony, confusion and hopelessness, but upon the reassuring realization that Yanks helped saved the world (or part of it).

At least Ryan and its 1998 complement, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, pushed the WWII combat picture in fresh directions. On first glance, John Woo's Windtalkers, like Pearl Harbor and Hart's War, promises similar reinvention, but fails almost as completely. It has a great subject?Navajo codetalkers' contribution to the war in the Pacific?and builds its story around cultural tension, showing the 20th-century descendants of cowboys and Indians working together for a common cause. And at its best, it manages to suggest the psychic damage violence inflicts on soldiers; its hero (Nicolas Cage) is a grunt who lost his entire unit in the Pacific, along with the hearing in one ear. But soon enough, Windtalkers reveals itself as pretend-serious, in the way that the recent Behind Enemy Lines was pretend-serious?another flashy, adolescent, big-budget genre picture wrapped in a momentous aura it does little to earn.

Cage's character, Joe Enders, is a shell of a man assigned to protect a Navajo codetalker named Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach of Smoke Signals). Working with the U.S. government, the codetalkers' elite unit devised a culturally unique military language based on their own unwritten tongue; in battle, they were able to call in artillery coordinates in terms the Japanese couldn't recognize. Enders' real mission, however, is to protect the code, not the talker; if a Navajo soldier seems on the verge of capture, his white Marine partner must kill him in the name of national security. Enders is afraid to become friends with Yahzee for that reason, and also because he's a quietly prejudiced man. Enders' pal, Ox (a subdued, affecting Christian Slater), a colorblind working stiff, is less constrained, and quickly becomes pals with his own codetalker, Charlie Whitehorse (first-time actor Roger Willie, whose serenity and dignity suggest a young Chief Dan George). They even play music together?Ox on harmonica, Charlie on flute.

This is a good starting point for a war epic with social conscience; the central gimmick summarizes the relationship between the winners in American history (white Europeans) and the losers (everybody else). Alas, the gimmick remains exactly that. We're supposed to be on the edge of our seats wondering when the white guys will get in a jam and have to kill their Native American buddies?and whether the buddies will have become assimilated enough by that point to understand and even condone their own executions. Woo's failure to appreciate his own subject produces a movie that's nearly as disappointing as Hart's War, a POW drama that used a racially charged court-martial of a black American airman as window dressing for a by-the-numbers escape fantasy. Both films duck their story's central, implied question: "Which holds greater moral weight in the minds of America's nonwhites: the good this country has done for them, or the harm?"

In its place, we get R-rated derring-do. Cage, long written off as a lost cause by all but his most ardent admirers, gives a substantial performance. But while his eyes communicate pained bloodlust during combat, his body is doing Schwarzenegger?mowing down hordes of cannon fodder, tossing satchel charges like pigskins. Between them, Cage, Slater and company kill more screaming Japanese banshees than Audie Murphy and John Wayne combined, and in contrast to Ryan and Line, the killing is never complicated by knowledge that the enemy, despite his vicious intent, is human, too. Beach is fine, sometimes touching, but his character is too much the blank-faced ingenue; Willie, who accompanied a friend to a Windtalkers audition and came away with a leading role, is amazingly relaxed and likable, but equally limited by his material. They're supporting players in their own film?genial symbols who must overcome their anxiety at white America's legacy of genocide and learn to kill for Uncle Sam. As arcs go, that's more juvenile and retro than anything Sidney Poitier ever put his name to.

An amazing sequence where Ben dons a dead Japanese soldier's uniform to sneak through enemy lines and steal a radio combines Woo's knack for close-quarters bloodshed and the script's awareness of racism's universal reach. ("You know what's the difference between you and the Jap, Yahzee?" asks a white Marine. "That uniform." Sure enough, when the Japanese spot Yahzee from afar, they see only his skin, not his bone structure, and let him waltz right in.) Elsewhere, Windtalkers is content to skim its own reason for being. By the end, we've been spoon-fed such bluntly obvious lessons about tolerance that we wouldn't be surprised to see Fat Albert's junkyard band show up and perform a song about it. Although Woo is Chinese and has shot pictures all over the world, he's made another simplistic Hollywood liberal movie about race?one that places the centuries-long plight of Native Americans alongside the sufferings of a white Marine, and manages to find the second story more interesting.

Divine Secrets Of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Directed by Callie Khouri

In Divine Secrets, Sandra Bullock plays the lead, Sidda Lee Walker, a Louisiana-born playwright whose frank comments about her unhappy childhood in a Time magazine interview drive an even deeper wedge between herself and her high-strung mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn). Mom's friends, bonded since childhood as Ya-Ya sisters, kidnap Sidda and take her back home for a bit of forced education on the family history; by the end, we know she'll find common ground with Mom, and that previously unknown family secrets will be laid out for her in radiant flashbacks that are vastly more interesting than anything happening in the present. Pity Bullock; she's no great actress, but this is no great role. Thanks to the box office success of the flashback-heavy Fried Green Tomatoes, lead actresses in multigenerational domestic dramas tend to spend a lot of screen time leafing through family albums, chattering to significant others long-distance or sitting spellbound as an elder tells anecdotes about Mom and Dad. The star does plenty of that?so much that you might find yourself pushing an invisible fast-forward button on the arm of your seat.

Fortunately, writer-director Callie Khouri (who wrote the Oscar-winning script for Thelma & Louise) and her cinematographer, John Bailey, find the beauty in women of all ages, races and physical conditions; they also find clever ways of leaping from one period to another. Some of the closeups of the film's large, varied cast are so luminous that they recall the best Hollywood domestic melodramas of recent times: The Joy Luck Club, Little Women and How to Make an American Quilt. The big cast delivers consistently sharp, crowd-pleasing performances?especially by Vivi's friends, played by Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan and Shirley Knight, and James Garner, who plays Vivi's long-suffering husband. Burstyn matches up well with her flashback counterpart, Ashley Judd, whose haggard, haunted face is pored over in a welcome series of lovely, soul-searching closeups. Throughout, Khouri takes Vivi's pain seriously even when she's mocking it; she insists that while forgiveness is intertwined with understanding, they're not the same thing, and you must grant one before pursuing the other.

Ya-Ya is drawn from two novels by Rebecca Wells, and reportedly was much condensed and fiddled with. It definitely tries too hard to be loved, and the huggy ending smacks of Oprah. But there's more human truth in this melodrama than in Windtalkers; by enacting the familiar, basic rituals of existence (birth, adolescence, mating, separation, death) it gives every viewer, male or female, something to latch onto and identify with. (Its subplot about changing racial attitudes in the South, while awkward and brief, is more relevant than anything in Woo's movie.) Ever since the heyday of Pauline Kael, film critics have been instructed to go looking for craft and meaning in even the stupidest, most cartoonishly sexist Boy Movies, because Boy Movies, being violent, are supposedly closer to Pure Cinema than yucky stuff about mothers and daughters and the allure of home. Sure enough, negative reviews of Ya-Ya by both men and women have generally fallen into one of two categories: "Not bad, if you like this kind of thing," and "Dear God, not another one." Some reviewers deploy adjectives that waltz with condescension and even brush against contempt. "Slop," spits Roger Ebert; "Cornball," groans Armond White; "Targets its audience so scrupulously and with such efficient zeal that you can practically divine the impressively large mascara budget from the opening credits," writes Donald Munro of The Fresno Bee.

Oh, really? Movies like Ya-Ya may be simplistic, but at least they demand audiences acknowledge the uneasy relationship between men and women and the past's powerful grip on present-day lives. That's a far cry from your typical action film, thriller or war movie, which embraces its own brand of stock characters and situations, pushes women, children and domestic life to the margins, then demands to be taken seriously because it's about revenge, killing and other manly stuff. As flawed, familiar and clunky in its way as Windtalkers, Divine Secrets is ultimately a more intelligent, pleasurable movie, because at least it's set in something resembling reality. That's the odd thing about so-called Chick Flicks: whether they're good, competent or bad, they nearly always insist that men are a crucial part of women's lives. When's the last time a two-fisted Boy Movie extended women the same courtesy?

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