Sunday, July 6, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Unbalanced

The Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s and 1860s, late in China's Qing Dynasty, took more than 20 million lives as forces of the Taiping Heavenly Army, led by a man who claimed a vision told him he was Jesus' younger brother, fought the government forces of the Qing rulers. The story of an official late in that conflict is the basis for the 2007 Jet Li movie The Warlords.

Li plays Qingyun, a common-born but gifted strategist as a general in the Qing Army. Thought dead when his army was defeated, he escaped and was nursed back to health in a nearby peasant village. He recruits the villagers to his cause, but only after he convinces village leaders Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Erhu (Andy Lau) of his trustworthiness by swearing a blood oath allowing any member of the trio to kill one of the others upon proof of betrayal. Under Qinyung's leadership, the villagers find success and earn recognition from the Imperial court. But the ruthlessness he displays leads to horrors his two co-leaders never anticipated, and they question the path on which Qinyung leads them.

Producers Peter Chan and Andre Moran had a budget of $40 million for their movie, and they spent $15 million of that insuring they got Jet Li. His presence, they said, guaranteed international distribution. Li, who is not as gifted an actor as he is martial artist, still does quality work as he shows the way success and bloodshed erode whatever moral code Qinyung once had. Much of the heavy dramatic work is done by Kaneshiro, with Lau pitching in as well.

Warlords is a bleak story of men who find that the small decisions that they make and that are made around them can soon lead them into traps that bring mayhem, destruction and ruin in their wake. It's a fitting story for what might be the bloodiest civil war seen by any nation and one whose toll wreaked more havoc on those who didn't fight than on those who did.
In the late 1940s, a member of the Blackfoot nation injured in World War II, Jimmy Picard, was admitted to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS with headaches, spells of blindness and blackouts. No physical cause could be found, so clinic staff called in Dr. George Devereux, a psychoanalyst who pays special attention to his patients' ethnic backgrounds and specializes in non-European cultures. Devereux wrote the history of his treatment in a 1951 book, Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.

The story of Devereux's treatment of Picard forms the narrative of Jimmy P., a 2013 independent movie from Arnaud Desplechin. Desplechin mainstay Mathieu Amalric stars as Devereux and Benicio Del Toro stars as Jimmy. As Devereux treats Jimmy, uncovering traumas from his past that affect his health today, the two men also become friends.

As both a character study and as a demonstration of some of the different angles a psychoanalyst must use to help a patient from a different culture, Jimmy P. is fairly interesting. But it's overlong for both, probably needing at least 20 minutes trimmed from its 114-minute run time. A good candidate for the edit is a visit from Devereux's lover Madelaine (Gina McKee); it doesn't do much for the story that couldn't be done as the two men converse and explore Jimmy's past and it stretches a slow-paced movie past the boredom line by chasing up an alley that adds nothing to the story. After all, the movie isn't called Georgie D.

Quiet, well-acted explorations of other cultures and facets of them not widely known are a welcome relief in a summer of ever bigger, ever dumber explosions and comedies whose presence in the world is nothing but tragedy. But Jimmy P. needs a trim in order to make its portrayal of Picard and Devereux more effective, and in order to keep a viewer tuned in to the resolution of their story.

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