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Battling our demons

Fall movies reflect troubled times
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

You know the summer movie season is winding down when cinematic offal like “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” commands the multiplex. It’s actually a good thing, this momentary hiccup in Hollywood’s perpetual motion machine. While “Dickie” remains champ for a week, we can regroup, tend to our attention deficits and look toward the fall movies.

More serious than the frivolous pictures of the summer months, the fall movies carry the weight of Oscar aspirations. In many respects, they also reflect the mood of the nation.

And although the industry has failed to directly address 9/11, save for several documentaries and an ill-fitting nod in Spike Lee’s “The 25th Hour,” a response to the tragedy and the ensuing conflicts burrows deeply into the themes of several upcoming movies.

In “The Last Samurai,” one of the season’s most anticipated films, an alienated Civil War veteran recruited by the Japanese emperor to modernize his army finds comfort in the ancient ways of the samurai.

The blending of the American Old West and the samurai genre is nothing new — Hollywood flirted with Japanese director Akira Kurosawa for most of his professional life. But, interestingly, the film didn’t come together until the central character, played by Tom Cruise, was rewritten from a cowboy to a United States soldier. His search for honor, compassion, loyalty and nobility in battle becomes all the more immediate and elegiac when we learn that he’s haunted by an unspeakable, pointless massacre.

“The action of speaking alone,” Cruise said in Premiere magazine, describing the samurai’s sense of obligation, “has set the act of doing in motion.” One might draw an unintended parallel: President Bush making his case to the United Nations for a regime change in Iraq; it was a done deal, no matter the U.N.’s response. Bush is hardly a samurai; but he and his supporters seemed to find a certain comfort and confidence in what they saw as perceived moral rectitude during a time of uncertainty.

What is patriotism? In another Texas connection, “The Alamo” recreates the hopeless battle that became the flashpoint and the rallying cry for Texas independence from Mexico in 1836. The movie is unsentimental; the heroes, as we know, die bloody deaths. However, as a reaffirmation of our freedoms and values — and our passion in defending them, in risking lives for them — it implicitly joins the debate: What, exactly, does it mean to be patriotic?

Sticking with the western genre, “The Missing” follows a tough frontier woman who joins her long-lost father to rescue her daughter from a psychotic killer with mystical powers and a violent cult following. No conventional look at a glorified past, it’s a thematically dark and tense contemporary drama, one in which disparate people battle an elusive enemy claiming to harness the supernatural as an ally.

Equally as dark in its own way, the tragic love story “The Human Stain,” which details a man’s downward spiral after making a careless racial remark, examines political correctness gone amok. Set in the days after the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, the film is no less representative of the post 9/11 world, when the Patriot Act has raised the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union and discrimination of Arab-Americans remaining frightfully apparent.

So although filmmakers are clearly uncomfortable grappling with 9/11 directly, the ensuing events have inevitably colored their work. Borne out in the dark themes and preponderance of period epics — including the upcoming “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” the Civil War drama “Cold Mountain” and the pseudo-historical “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” — is a tacit, almost compulsive re-examination of our nation’s values and motives.

None of which means we’re not in need of some comic relief. Will Ferrell’s oversized “Elf” and Mike Myers’ “The Cat in the Hat” are on their way.

After all, we haven’t forgotten how to laugh - unless we’re watching “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.”

Larry Terenzi is an entertainment writer based in Los Angeles.