Monday, December 6, 2010

Three From The Shelf: Shattered Glass, Secret Ballot & Beijing Bicycle

With the holiday season approaching, people naturally flock to their DVD stores to rent movies suitable to the occasion. Here are three pictures (not related to Christmas) that didn't necessarily bring joy to the world in their time, but might now light up your viewing pleasure.

After the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times in 2003, there probably wasn't a more timely film that same year than Shattered Glass. Unfortunately, it barely got the time of day. The story of journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a writer for the liberal publication The New Republic, who cooked up over 90 percent of the stories he published, happened not long before Blair started his own brand of faux journalism. Directed by Billy Ray (Breach), Shattered Glass is an engaging, intelligently laid out story of how a young and eager journalist on the rise charmed his way into the editorial bosom of a prestigious magazine (at about the time that eagerness and charm began taking precedence over brains). Christensen gives a performance both cunning and subtle, playing a quietly obsequious cipher who finally hits a wall. Peter Sarsgaard, as the editor who provides that wall, gives an equally understated performance. As an investigative drama, Shattered Glass doesn't break any new ground, but it sure smashes a lot of illusions.

Secret Ballot, which won a Special Prize for Best Director at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, is an absurdly funny and evocative political allegory. It's also something of a rarity for an Iranian film: a deadpan comedy. Director Babak Payami gives this quirky drama a very formal, subdued tone, but the engaging ironies provide the movie with some definite pop.

The story begins with a huge wooden box that's dropped from an airplane. It lands at an army outpost where two soldiers appear to be guarding a deserted beach. The package contains election ballots, and not far behind that is the pollster. The pollster has been sent to gather up every vote in the region for the current election. But what the soldiers haven't been told is that the election representative is a woman. Not used to taking orders from a lady, one officer initially balks at her suggestion that he drive her around. Soon, however, he reluctantly takes her from town to town, where the days' events eventually have an indelible effect on both of them.

Most of the humor in the plot comes from Payami contrasting the personalities of the two characters. The pollster is a liberal idealist who believes that, given the opportunity to vote, people will automatically open themselves up to democratic principles. Meanwhile, the soldier has the harsher, more cynical view. He thinks that being free means not allowing yourself to be swindled by anybody. One example occurs when they spot a man running across the desert: She sees him as a potential voter while he thinks the man's a thief that he needs to bring into custody. Payami doesn't take sides or simplify their views. As they travel across the flat landscape, both have their belief systems challenged. Secret Ballot might be a little plodding at times, but Payami still fills his picture with the kind of political ironies that sneak up on you.

In Vittorio De Sica's masterful 1948 picture The Bicycle Thief, a stolen bicycle became an emblem that set a man against his own impoverished surroundings. In the equally rewarding Beijing Bicycle (2001), the stolen bicycle is instead an emblem of class conflict. Director Wang Xiaoshuai creates a poignant and bittersweet picture of life in modern China. In the newly industrialized world of Beijing, the bike is not merely a mode of transportation, but also a key to one's identity and self-worth.

At 17, Guei (Cui Lin) decides to leave his provincial village to find a new life in the city. He begins work as a bicycle courier, managing to make a meagre salary until he can pay off the cost of his lustrous mountain bike. Just at the moment when he almost gains possession of his treasure, the bicycle is stolen. Guei, who is fired from his job, combs the city in search of his lost possession. What Guei doesn't know is that Jian (Li Bin), a wealthy city boy, has bought Guei's bike from a local flea market. For Jian, whose father has denied him a bicycle so they can send his sister to school, the vehicle is merely a tool to impress a new girlfriend, Qin (Zhou Xun), and gain status with his friends. Before long, both young men confront each other to finally decide who is to gain possession of the bicycle.

Beijing Bicycle has a blithely comic air that slowly turns tragic. Xiaoshuai lets us take in the rapid pulse of the city alongside Guei, so we gradually come to see that owning the bike is a major step for him to becoming an adult with proprietorship and responsibility. Jian, on the other hand, comes to see that having the bike does little to take away his anxiety at feeling that he barely matters in life. Beijing Bicycle is a startling and fresh examination of how the bike still remains an ambiguous icon in Chinese society.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see

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