Activism is for the young and the hungry, allegedly -- the radical's flame expires with success, or so says Clive Owen in Children of Men. Ken Loach, now 70 and renowned for Kes, Riff-Raff, and Ladybird, Ladybird, could just rest on his laurels and waffle from retrospective to retrospective, but instead offers The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his most militantly political work in a decade. It opens on a game of hurling, which in Loach's modern-day studies might trigger the kind of seriocomic flare-ups which regularly vent the frustrations of the working-class protagonists; there is little room for humor in occupied Ireland circa 1920, however, so the match segues abruptly into the rounding of the players by a bunch of barking, frothing-at-the-mouth English soldiers (the "Blacks and Tans") and the killing of one of the lads for letting a bit of Gaelic slip into his speech. Cillian Murphy witnesses the whole thing, he's a medical student who trades a scholarship in England for the guerilla groups where his brother (Padriac Delaney) is among the locals taking up arms for freedom. The Irish Republican Army amounts to "corner boys with delusions of grandeur," according to a wealthy landowner, who's captured by the rebels and marched up the somber green hills, along with the young servant (John Crean) he forced into treason; Murphy has to shoot the turncoat, an old chum, no less painful than having your fingernails pulled with pliers yet a part of the struggle, accepted with grim determination. A British troop is ambushed, an Irish family's home is burned, rebel victory is followed by government retaliation, and so it goes -- having directed Land and Freedom and kept up with the news, Loach knows that fight for changes is frustrating, cyclical, and essential.
Back to Children of Men for a moment. Like that futuristic dystopia, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a tale of politicization, deeply rooted in the Now despite many scrupulous period re-creations. Loach, however, would be rightly distrustful of the canny dazzle of Cuarón's mise en scène, and sticks to medium-shot groupings and frugal camera movement (a skirmish amid the tall grass is surveyed with the unadorned, meat-and-potatoes tilting and panning out of a late William Wellman Western). And to add insult to the audience's injury, the action is halted for a debate where Michael Collins and the compromises of the 1921 Treaty are discussed (the sole changes will be "the accents of the powerful and the color of the flag") and a certain anachronistic vein is boldly foregrounded ("not the will of the people, but the fear of the people"). The heft of a nation tragically divided is harshly, vitally evoked, yet The Wind is a lesser picture than My Name Is Joe or Sweet Sixteen: The director's hyper-realistic characters are regularly enriched with human-sized detail until the dented fabrics of society around them are revealed, but here Loach starts out with the wide canvas of the Irish troubles and schematically turns it into a fraternal conflict, grounded only intermittently in flesh and blood. Still, the film's stark outrage -- fierce enough to breath fire into dainty scarecrow Murphy -- exposes the pussyfooting that these days passes for "political" in Babel or Blood Diamond. Still following General Kael's orders about Loach being "not much fun," reviewers gag on the tenacious didacticism of his commitment while ignoring the battered poetry of his humanism. May they be condemned to watching 300 again and again, a struggle for "freedom" they can better appreciate.
The main problem with I Think I Love My Wife is not that Chris Rock remade the quintessentially French Chloe in the Afternoon as an American buppie-midlife midlife comedy, but that he picked the wrong Rohmer moral tale. Had he turned Claire's Knee into Claire's Booty, examining the obsession exerted by Kerry Washington's ass, he might have compounded Rohmer's erudite, existential sensibility with his own brand of comedy. Unhappily, Washington here is used simplistically as the hoochie-vamp who turns up in a red dress at the office of old acquaintance Rock; an investment broker grown bored with his comfortable, sexless marriage to schoolteacher Gina Torres, Rock is soon taking Washington to auto shows, moving her stuff out of her beau's apartment and, before he knows it, questioning the solidity of his life. The shift from mental to physical infidelity embodies that chasm between thought and action which so fascinates Rohmer, and Rock, who directed and co-wrote the movie (a step forward from Head of the State -- an achievement requiring no genius), diligently takes note while adding Viagra jokes and the ol' lotion bottle that ejaculates at the sight of Washington in heels and panties. The emphasis on domestic frustration versus the importance of family life places the film next to Adam Sandler's Click as a conscious rethinking of their comic personae, or at least as a reminder that the SNL guys are getting old. What's dispiriting is how afraid Rock's shtick here seems of bringing in the racial confrontation that sharpens his stand-up -- the gag about his character getting terrified of a black guy rapping out obscenities in an elevator might be Rock's stinging admission, if it hadn't been defused by being repeated later with a white guy. Inclusiveness? Pootie Tang was spikier, and funnier.
Speaking of Adam Sandler, Reign Over Me makes a mixed but intriguing use of the star's doofus façade. The story is bizarrely reminiscent of I Think I Love My Wife, with Sandler in Kerry Washington's role -- the unbalanced outsider whose "freedom" piques the interest of an estranged colleague (Don Cheadle here) saddled with a sturdy, stagnated marriage. The rage Sandler's characters seem to habitually carry in their pocket is revealed along the way as severely repressed anguish, the result of having lost all of his family on 9/11; withdrawn into iTunes and Playstation, it's a part made to be milked, but Sandler deftly downplays the male-weepie uplift in favor of stunted instability, numbness sliding into violence. Mike Binder, a director of TV-sized smarm, continues to dismantle his own best effects -- The Upside of Anger gave Joan Allen and Kevin Costner room to breathe only to betray them with a risible pile-up of twists, and Reign Over Me elbows Sandler into buddy-buddy tidiness, one courtroom climax shy of a group hug. It's an ungainly film, although its messiness is wholly preferable to the neatly contrived string-pulling of Premonition, a film also about grief but which forces the pain of loss into a grid of suspense thriller. Now dig this: Sandra Bullock's hubby dies in a car crash, then the next morning he's alive, then Sandy wakes up the following day to see his coffin, then he's alive again and she's trying to sort things out by consulting a doctor (that Peter Stormare plays the doctor should have given the befuddled hausfrau a sinister tip-off, but what the hell, she can't even notice that her husband is played by Dr. Doom himself). The scariest thing about it is how Hollywood gives aging cutups like Rock and Sandler whole films to "explore" their personalities, while former It-Girls like Bullock are lucky to get dumped into imbecilic dreck like this.
Reviewed March 30, 2007.