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The Quiet American

Director(s) Philip Noyce. Starring Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Rade Sherbedgia, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne. Screenwriter(s) Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan. Studio Miramax.

The Quiet American
*1* A film review by Sean O'Connell, filmcritic.com

The Quiet American, a passionate portrayal of love in a dangerous time that opens the door to so much more. The film stars Michael Caine (at his most relaxed) and Brendan Fraser (at his most, well, whatever it is he does) as two corners of a love triangle that’s threatening to collapse.

It begins in Saigon, in the late-1950s. The French continue to wage war against the Vietnamese Communists, but – in typical French fashion – are on the verge of pulling out. Seasoned London Times reporter Thomas Fowler (Caine) has loosely covered the conflict for years, but is in danger of being recalled to England for lack of original story ideas.

Fowler has no intention of leaving Saigon. He’s currently enjoying the creature comforts of his new exotic life, has fallen deeply in love with a Vietnamese dancer named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), and has recently befriended Alden Pyle (Fraser), a Boston native working for the Economic Aid Commission.

Seeking to stave off a transfer back to the life (and wife) he detests, Fowler forges ahead on a bluffed story involving military activity in North Vietnam. A violent confrontation at Phat Diem has blown the lid off a much larger story that could point fingers directly at the United States and its increased involvement in the war in Vietnam.

The most genuine pleasure to be found in American is Caine, who masterfully inhabits the skin of his character. Fowler is a decent man enjoying life’s splendors who genuinely believes he’s earned that right. Caine is so convincing, it’s hard to think otherwise. Though he recently collected his second Supporting Actor Oscar after coasting through The Cider House Rules, he seriously earns what would be his sixth nod here.

Together with Fraser – who is polite, courteous, and inoffensive to a fault – the two actors convincingly portray men nourished by their love of the same woman. Caine sells it better, largely because he’s more talented but also because he’s given tremendous lines like, “To lose her, for me, would be the beginning of death.” My knees are going weak, and I’m straight.

Noyce cleverly employs point-of-view camera shots during the film’s lengthy passages of dialogue, which helps us feel part of the doomed relationships. Despite the gorgeous but charcoaled Saigon locales, we temporarily forget this love triangle is playing out in war-torn Vietnam, and the screenplay – working from a Graham Greene novel – keeps us in the dark on several key political plot points until they become absolutely necessary to advance the story.

All along, Fowler and Pyle’s pissing match over Phuong rightfully overshadows the engaging political/military subplot until the war works its way into the heart of Saigon with explosive fashion. That’s when the mystery begins to unravel at a fevered pace, and American draws us in completely. Quiet is a strong drama. You’ll want to sing its praises loudly.



Best known in the United States for such big-budget thrillers as Patriot Games, Australian director Phillip Noyce shows his more thoughtful side with this superb, beautifully photographed adaptation of Graham Greenes novel The Quiet American. Set in Vietnam in 1952, the story follows the adventures of British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), who is stationed in Saigon, covering the war in Indochina. Hardly a hot topic back home, the ongoing assignment leaves him plenty of time to devote to his gorgeous, much younger Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Their sybaritic idyll is shattered when Fowler befriends a genial young American named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who is in Vietnam on a medical rescue mission. Pyle quickly becomes a rival for Phuongs affections, but later Fowler realizes that is not the only threat he poses: The American, it turns out, is not as politically nave as he seems and may be behind the terrorist bombings that have ripped through Saigon. The always-excellent Caine outdoes himself here, creating with deft and subtle strokes a magnificent portrait of a politically uncommitted man who is forced by circumstances into a position of social consciousness. Fraser is well cast as his foil, a sunny, open-faced Yank whose idealism is revealed to have a sinister side. The weak link in the triangle is Phuong, who is less a character than an Orientalist symbol and, as a result, the most glaringly dated element in the story. Yet the rest of The Quiet American is surprisingly -- and perhaps uncomfortably -- resonant today, casting both a dark eye on the American involvement in Southeast Asia and offering insight into the psychology of a terrorist. One of the best political dramas to emerge from Hollywood in years

*3* A Quiet Rumble

Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American, a metaphorical, politically charged drama about a romantic triangle in early 1950s Vietnam, is easily one of the best films I've seen this year, and unquestionably one of the finest adaptations of a Graham Greene novel ever brought to the screen — right up there with The Third Man and Our Man in Havana. But Miramax Films honcho Harvey Weinstein is hedging about releasing it in '02, perhaps, according to Noyce, over concerns that the film's purported anti-American tone might strike an adverse chord with audiences still smarting from the shock waves of September 11.
That's the situation in a nutshell, according to Noyce, and that's regrettable. Actuallly, it's kinda lame.

I discussed The Quiet American for an hour or so with a colleague on Wednesday evening after seeing it at Miramax headquarters, and September 11 reverberations never even occurred to us. When Noyce told me about the September 11 factor Thursday morning, it was like ... what? This is not a strident political drum-beater, although politics are certainly part of it. And yet a staunchly apolitical viewer could watch it and say it's about sex, jealousy, and sugar daddies by way of The Scent of Green Papaya.

It's about Vietnam, yes, and the destruction that Americans like Brendan Fraser's Alden Pyle, guided by dogged anti-Communism and a belief that ends justify ruthless means, visited upon it. But the core story is about an older man — Michael Caine's Thomas Fowler, a London Times reporter based in Saigon — who's in love with a young Vietnamese girl (Hai Yen Do) and is trying to keep Pyle, his romantic rival, from taking her from him, which Fowler believes would be the beginning of death.

What does this have to do with the national nightmare that rocked our psyches nearly a year ago, except for the fact that American policy has inspired hate in third-world countries? Is there anyone out there who still has his or her head in the sand about this?

The Quiet American's obvious political metaphors — Fraser is arrogant America, Caine is old-world colonialism, Hai Yen Do is Vietnam itself — work hand-in-hand with the romantic current, and never, in my view, overwhelm the import, which is a mix of many things. The film is about texture as much as meaning. There are residues of sadness, regret, Asian sensuousity — you can feel the Vietnamese aromas and tropical humidity in every scene. The painterly photography by Chris Doyle (In the Mood for Love) is to die for. Christopher Hampton's screenplay (fortified by voice-over narration written by producer Anthony Minghella) is concise and, at times, near-poetic.

This movie is not a commercial slam-dunk — it's a haunting, adult, carefully measured piece — but the caliber of the work that went into it deserves a commercial run and a run at Oscar nominations (certainly for Doyle and especially for Caine, whose performance as the aging, love-struck Fowler is not only one of his best ever, but pays off in much richer and more flavorful ways than his Oscar-winning turn in The Cider House Rules) before the year is out.
A Miramax spokesperson denied that September 11 echoes were a factor in determining the release plans. Our plan is to release [The Quiet American] in the U.K. in November, and have it play various festivals this fall, before determining an optimal release schedule for the U.S, he said. We haven't made the determination yet.

Ironically, says Noyce, The Quiet American was test-screened in Clifton, New Jersey on the evening of September 10. The numbers, he says, were good for a first cut. The next morning he and co-producer Kathleen McLaughlin were standing outside Miramax headquarters, located only a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at roughly 8:40 A.M., and wondering how to kill time before their scheduled 9:00 A.M. meeting with Harvey Weinstein and other Miramax staffers. A couple of minutes later, the first jet plowed into the North Tower, and the meeting was forgotten about.

Noyce and his team, including Quiet American producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, met with Weinstein and his executives at the offices of Talk magazine a couple of days later. Several weeks later a semblance of normality began to return and The Quiet American was eventually test-screened again. Reactions, however, were now different.

On September 10 there was room in the American psyche for questions like the ones the film raises, says Noyce. But it never got the same response [after September 11] because it always hit a nerve.

Why was the U.S. so savagely attacked nearly a year ago? Noyce believes that the reasons behind it go back decades and are deeply rooted, and the only long-term solution, really, is to look at the past. If you really think about it, you have to do this. But when a family is attacked, a family pulls together. And in order for audiences to buy into his film, Noyce acknowledges, they have to accept that Pyle has earned the fate that awaits him at the end of Greene's story.
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