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Arts & Entertainment Preview - November 2000

B Y   E L L A   T A Y L O R

That's Life

   A rare moment of calm
   in the Jian household

With its elderly matriarch in a coma, the Jian family of Taipei appears to be unraveling, its members staggering through familiar age-appropriate dilemmas: mid-life regrets and career crises for the adults; first love for the teenage daughter; trouble at school for the eight-year-old boy. Nearly three hours long, Yi Yi hardly lacks for event; a murder occurs, and an attempted suicide, and the movie is littered with half-betrayals and tainted ethical choices. Periods of false calm are punctuated by outbursts of hysteria until, finally, a provisional peace descends for those still standing. Over all of this the writer and director Edward Yang presides with a coolly compassionate eye and quietly goofy wit. The English title for Yi Yi is A One and a Two, a reference to the jazz musician's preparatory count and also to the riffing rhythms of this intelligently loose-limbed movie. Gorgeously shot against the jagged skyline of Taipei, a city of cell phones and pagers, of overnight wealth and sudden bankruptcies, the film evokes a world that mirrors closely our own urban culture, yet with the residual trappings of Taiwanese domestic tradition. Yang has said that his movie is "simply about life," and he has made it seem so with the most graceful artifice and deceptive simplicity. As one character observes, "We get twice from movies what we get from life." Like the child in the film who keeps photographing the backs of people's heads to show what isn't seen, Yang shows us ordinary people acting, as we all do, with imperfect knowledge.

A Tough Tenderness

Landlord and tenant:   
Rispoli (right) with Macdonald   

Narrated by the mulatto son born on Staten Island in 1956 to an Irish immigrant mother who is reluctantly falling in love with an Italian-American factory worker, Two Family House sounds like a position paper on postwar race relations. So it is, but like all well-told tales, only incidentally. The director, Raymond De Felitta, focuses on one man (based on De Felitta's uncle) prying himself loose from a tight community that, even as it props him up, holds him back from fulfilling his dreams. Having lost an early opportunity to become a singer, Buddy Visalo (the excellent Michael Rispoli) has run through a host of failed money-making ventures, most recently the purchase of a decrepit house whose lower floor he hopes to convert into a bar. Derided by his wife, Estelle (Katherine Narducci, of The Sopranos), who loves him but doesn't believe in him, Buddy befriends Mary (Kelly Macdonald, of Trainspotting), the heavily pregnant tenant whom he first evicted and then set up in an empty apartment. De Felitta has a playwright's ear for vernacular speech, a novelist's thirst for cumulative detail, a born filmmaker's flair for setting scenes, and the tough tenderness only an insider can bring to the lives of working people. One lovely, languorous sequence -- a long Saturday afternoon in Mary's new apartment -- beautifully evokes the ups and downs and roundabouts during which love takes root between two decent but radically unfulfilled people.

Family Ties

   A little male bonding:
   Mark Ruffalo (left) and
   Rory Culkin

Two siblings, orphaned in childhood and as different from each other as can be, come together for a few weeks in their family home in upstate New York. By the end their relationship has been altered in significant ways that you can barely see but that resonate profoundly. You Can Count on Me is a small tale of ordinary trouble told with refreshing delicacy and tact by Kenneth Lonergan, who has made a lucrative living writing the ho-hum screenplays for Analyze This and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Laura Linney, whose sterling work in The Truman Show laid the groundwork for her performance here as a priss with a wild woman tucked inside her bodice, plays Sammy, a churchgoing bank officer and single mother whose comfortable life is upended when her delinquent younger brother, Terry (played with laconic grace by Mark Ruffalo), stops home to borrow money, and stays. As Terry becomes a father of sorts to Sammy's son (Rory Culkin), Sammy finds herself loosening up -- specifically in a motel with the new bank manager (amusingly played by Matthew Broderick). If this were prime time, Sammy and Terry's relationship would tie itself in a nice satiny bow of self-actualization. You Can Count on Me takes a more inconclusive route, offering its own testament to our incorrigible capacity to repeat our mistakes and then change our ways just a little.

Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.

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Photo Credits -- Yi Yi: Winstar Cinema. Two Family House: Theresa Dillon. You Can Count on Me: Paramount Classics.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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