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A BITTERSWEET LIFE (Korea, 2005, d. Kim Jee-woon)
The title of this powerful Korean gangster drama is somewhat misleading. There is no sweetness. It is all bitter.
Kim Jee-woon is one of those directors, along with Chan-wook Park, who have made something of an art form out of vengeance tragedies for Korean cinema. It is often disconcerting while watching films like this to realise that one is very impressed by the craft, energy and passion that has gone into the making of the film while appalled at the behaviour, especially the violence and bloodshed, that is up there on the screen. Obviously, revenge tragedies are not for those of squeamish sensitivities.
The enigmatic hero whose life is bittersweet is a very dapper young man who is proud of his security job in a hotel owned by his gangster-patron. Well-mannered, elegant but whose expressions give very little away, he can suddenly burst into martial arts violence when wanting to control a situation. He sees himself as cultured and far superior to other henchmen and thugs.
He would tell you, were you to ask, that he has no flaws. He is the completely loyal employee. When asked to intervene in the boss’s girlfriend’s affair, he lets them go, not thinking that there would be major repercussions. There are. He falls foul of his boss’s resentment that he did not obey him to the letter. He falls foul of the other thugs. He falls foul of the rival gang and their security guards. Mayhem ensues - which is a polite way of saying that all hell breaks loose for him and he replies in kind. He slaughters most of those who pursue him, using wits and skills and a minor armoury. But he continues bewildered as to why the boss is doing this to him.
The ending is bitter, not sweet, taking its cue from the endings of the revenge tragedies of Jacobean theatre. And, what is the audience left with? Vicarious thrills at the violence? Or a lesson in the futility of violence?
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (US, 2005, d. Ang Lee)
Once a film wins awards and is nominated for Oscars and expected to win, it sets up a whole different dynamic for audiences who go to see it. Expectations are generally far too high - which is worse if the film is different from the kind of film that usually wins. What makes response to Brokeback Mountain even more hazardous is the religious response to the film (or to reports about the film rather than the film itself). Various Church groups in the US have been outspoken in their condemnation (and some of the websites - check ‘Brokeback Mountain’, Church, Protests on a search engine and many pages come up - some rather vitriolic) and these reactions have been highly publicised, both those supporting and those denouncing the protests.
Brokeback Mountain was originally a short story by E.Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), under 40 pages, that one could read in about a third of the running time of the film. It used a flashback structure where Ennis Del Mar remembered his time herding sheep with Jack Twist on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain in 1963 and their relationship and infrequent meetings over twenty years. It was a story of loneliness and regrets.
Novelist and Pulitzer prizewinning author, Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana have continued their screenwriting collaboration in amplifying the short story and have treated it in direct linear fashion, keeping the regrets and grief until the end. It is interesting to note that the setting is 1963, the year that McMurtry’s novel Horseman Pass By was filmed with Paul Newman as Hud, a different look at the 20th century American cowboy.
The cinematography for Brokeback Mountain by Rodrigo Prieto is, using the cliché, absolutely stunning. The mountainscapes of Wyoming, the changes of the seasons, the rounding up of the sheep are very beautiful, giving a grandeur and dignity to the action. Ennis and Jack are enveloped by the power of nature.
And what of the theme? And its treatment? And how should audiences who hope they have a developed moral sensitivity and conscience respond? Especially in comparison with other issue themes in films which exercise moral conversations?
A safe principle for any storytelling is that there is no limit on what can be presented. Any kind of sexual relationship is a valid subject simply because it is part of human experience. To argue that would be a form of denial by suppression or repression. The issue for moral discussion is always how the topic is presented.
This means that Brokeback Mountain’s presentation and exploration of the sexual relationship between Ennis and Jack is a legitimate subject for a film.
On the one hand, director Ang Lee says that his film is not a gay film. On the other hand, some American commentators have declared that the film ‘glorifies’ homosexual relationships. Lee says that his film is about two men, two lonely men, isolated from their families, who are drawn to each other. This develops into an intense love with sexual expression that continues for two decades despite each of the men marrying and having children. Lee presents it as something which does occur in all societies. He obviously presents it sympathetically rather than making a crusade for it.
This raises the issue of homophobia, especially in American society. Responders to the cries of outrage ask why this issue seems to evoke more outcry than many others, especially in the context of concern about representations of violence in the news and in the media, of the obscenities of exploitation, civil war, rape and famine in countries of Africa and of the experiences of war, soldier children and terrorism which does not evoke the same heartfelt reactions. Irrespective of the merits or not of Brokeback Mountain, this is an important question that the release of the film raises.
The major world religions have had to discuss the issues of homosexual orientation and behaviour and how these fit with their moral codes. Brokeback Mountain, because it is sympathetic but not crusading, contributes data to this continued discussion. And that is important. Catholic teaching is quite clear. Fr Richard Leonard SJ in his review for the Australian Catholic Film Office gives a key reference for this teaching: The Catechism is very clear about the official teaching of the Catholic Church as regards homosexual acts. They are ‘intrinsically disordered’ and the inclination itself is ‘objectively disordered’ (#2357). In the next paragraph, however, the Church instructs us that gay women and men “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (#2358).
It seems that the relationship between Ennis and Jack is being presented with sympathy, the image of the two shirts is a powerful symbol of the love between them. Heath Ledger’s and Jake Gylenhaal’s performances make their characters and their dilemmas very real. It needs to be stressed that there is a lot more going on in the films two and a quarter hours running time besides the relationship, many more characters, including wives and families. It also needs to be stressed that there are some brief and not quite so explicit scenes that could disturb some audiences. The film also shows the consequences of Ennis’ and Jack’s adulterous behaviour and choices not only for themselves and their secretive meetings but on their families. These are issues of fidelity and commitment. The treatment of Ennis’s relationship with his wife and his children shows Ennis’s inadequacies as husband and parent, with understanding and sympathy as well as criticism.
The plot of Brokeback Mountain is controversial, certainly, in today’s moral climate and needs to be discussed with both discernment and compassion.
A COCK AND BULL STORY (UK, 2005, d. Michael Winterbottom)
It sounds like a foolhardy venture to attempt to film Laurence Sterne’s 1760 inventive, picaresque novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq. Not only does the plotline ramble, Tristram himself, the narrator, is not born for most of the time. In pre-post-modern style, the narrative is stream of consciousness with the author playing on all kinds of literary forms, word-play, social satire and philosophising about human nature.
But prolific British director, Michael Winterbottom (who successfully filmed Thomas Hardy with 1996’s Jude) and his frequent writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce - writing together under the name Martin Hardy - have pulled it off. Their basic premises was not to transfer the novel as such to the screen (a fatal approach that has damaged many a screen adaptation of literature) but to find the cinematic equivalents of what Sterne was doing. This means that it is a film about how you might make a film of Tristram Shandy as well as a film about the making of a film of Tristram Shandy. The makers have made it contemporary - which means that in ten years time they could make another go of it with a different cast and different frames of reference and humour.
This time the stars are Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden. Coogan made his name on British television with his Alan Partridge persona (and there is a lot of joking reference to this which will be lost on those not in the know). Bryden is part of the very successful satiric show, Little Britain. There is a lot of humour about star temperament and rivalry, billing and enlarging roles and pressures on wardrobe and make-up to satisfy these unreasonable whims.
Coogan thus plays a fictional version of himself (including Kelly Macdonald as his partner with their baby on set), something of his actual self. He plays Tristram as well as his father, Walter. This means that there is a lot of humour and subtext about identity (as when Tony Wilson (whom Coogan portrayed in Winterbottom’s Twenty Four Hour Party People) interviews, as himself, Coogan, as himself and as the fictional Coogan, for an extra on the DVD edition of the film! Rob Bryden is Uncle Toby in the scenes from the book. Various British actors appear as director (Jeremy Northam), writer (Ian Hart), producer (James Fleet) and commentator (Stephen Fry) who part way through the film explains Sterne’s method for those who do not know Sterne.
When Widow Watman’s part is written out, the producers decide to ring Gillian Anderson in LA to ask her to do the role, with a five-split-screen to show all the people amicably involved in the conference link-up. Gillian Anderson does do the role but it takes place in one of Coogan’s nightmares in a special effects womb before he is born as Tristram.
And so it goes. Audiences need to be mentally alert to stay with the various time levels the film is working in, to appreciate the reflective side of the dialogue, to pick up all the jokey references, especially to movies (like a dismissal of the battle scenes in Cold Mountain). Sometimes there is laugh out loud comedy, especially a scene where Tristram has a hot chestnut down his trousers and Coogan can’t act it to make it funny. Bryden then puts a chestnut down Coogan’s trousers and Coogan is wonderfully funny at acting out what it might be like.
A Cock and Bull story is very much that, but an experiment in literary film-making that is a dare that comes off.
CRY WOLF (US, 2005, d. Jeff Wadlow)
With so many slasher and horror films that have themselves ‘cried wolf’ over the years, audiences who do not devotedly check out every example of the genre might be wary of this one - and it even has a PG rating, so what kind of horror is this?
The quick answer is high school horror.
The setting is one of the preparatory academies that moviegoers have seen in Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Club and Mona Lisa Smile. Of course, it is fifty years on from some of those films’ setting and the students don’t go out to night meetings to discuss poetry or art. They go out to invent the equivalent of computer game scenarios (at more of a PG level) where conspiracies are hatched and the participants don’t know what is true or false.
Into this comes the very English Owen (Julian Morris) who has been shunted on from several schools (not always his fault). Dodger (she claims her mother loved Dickens!) is the bright student (Lindy Booth) who befriends Owen but leads him into the spiteful and lethal games of the group. It is Halloween and all kinds of macabre happenings occur leading up to a death. Whodunnit? And why?
There are enough twists to keep us guessing and, even if we do, do we have the right motive? Claiming nothing more than to be a thriller with scary touches, that is what it does (with the help of Jon Bob Jovi as the journalism teacher).
FINAL DESTINATION 3 (US, 2006, d. James Wong)
Two Final Destination films have proven popular box-office with younger audiences. This sequel (with an explicit acknowledgement from one of the cast that events seem to be repeating themselves) uses the original plot entirely. So, instead of a plane crashing, there is a rollercoaster smashing (which is a visual tour-de-force). One of the characters has premonitions about who will die and in what order. This time she has been taking photographs at the Graduation outing at a fair and derives clues from the photos of the about-to-be victims.
So far, so ordinary. However, most of the young characters are not going to be particularly missed by the audience. They bicker, they are fairly inarticulate (‘totally, like, totally’) and, if this is the future of the world, Lord save us. The actors (who are generally television regulars) perform as if appearing in a soap opera is a career peak.
The trouble is the deaths. They are particularly ugly (raising laughing gasps of disbelief) so that during the patches of poor acting, we are sadistically waiting for the next crunch (and so many of the deaths are crunches) to show up.
Extreme popcorn cinema.
FROZEN (UK, 2005, d. Juliet McKoen)
This is a mood piece for a very serious-minded audience.
On the coast of Lancashire, Kath (Shirley Henderson, a good actress, petite but with a whiningly reedy voice) is grief-stricken at the mysterious death of her sister, Annie. She has been undergoing counselling for her grief and her disturbed mental state for two years. At times, she is incapacitated. At times, she is ingenious in her initiatives in trying to discover what happened, especially stealing the surveillance tapes from the police station and getting a friend to decode them. She visits other friends and Annie’s former boyfriend. She walks the shoreline and has apparitions of Annie walking on the other side of the stream.
Along with this is a great deal of water imagery, fluid water, underwater/underice, ice, the frozen fish factory where Kath works, all evocative of Annie’s fate and Kath’s frozen state (and her destiny?).
While much of the film asks its audience to surrender its sense of time and contemplate Kath and her plight, there is also dramatic action as Kath becomes more emotionally involved with her clergyman counsellor (Roshan Seth) who devotes most of his time to his severely invalided wife. The film spends time reflecting on his professional and moral dilemmas.
The film-maker, director and writer, Juliet McKoen, is obviously talented but her film is very chilly.
ICE HARVEST (US, 2005, d. Harold Ramis).
For a quarter of a century, Harold Ramis has been directing cheerful films. He and Bill Murray collaborated on such raucous comedies as Stripes. The he did the Ghosbusters films. Perhaps his best known and liked is Groundhog Day. He also did the Analyze This and That. Ice Harvest is a bit of a surprise.
It is film noir. No, it is comedy film noir. Something of a bitter taste in the mouth as a group of selfish and heartless people show how obnoxious and brutal they can be. And all on Christmas Eve after the credits show the crib in detail and carol singing pervades the soundtrack.
Despite the nastiness, it is quite clever and often funny. This is especially true of Billy Bob Thornton and his deadpan one-liners and his well-timed delivery. His comment on his wife’s murder has the classic touch. John Cusack, on the other hand, usually seems more morose than happy - and that is what he does here, continually surprising us with his amoral attitude towards life (and some deaths).
It is all about a skimming robbery where a pornography dealer with push combines with a lawyer with brains but very little push (until pushed when he surprises himself and us all) to take 2 million dollars from a mob boss (Randy Quaid). Entangled in there is a stripper (Connie Neilson) who plays an effective femme fatale and the lawyer’s friend who is now married to his ex-wife and finding life a misery and goes through the whole film getting drunker and drunker. Oliver Platt throws himself into this role with gusto beyond the call. There is also a large standover thug (Mike Starr) who spends a lot of time in a chest.
Brief, cutting (although the first forty minutes seem like marking time until something happens - and that is right), black comedy nasty which has the courage of its own bad taste convictions. Something of what people who enjoy something when they think they shouldn’t, ‘a guilty pleasure’.
JARHEAD (US, 2005, d. Sam Mendes)
This is a very uncomfortable film to watch.
Everybody has a stance on the Gulf War and the reason for President George Bush going to the aid of Kuwait and attacking Saddam Hussein. Everybody probably has a stronger stance on the right and wrongs of President George W. Bush and America and allies in the Iraq War and the subsequent events and insurgency. Jarhead is a kind of Catch 22/Full Metal Jacket/Platoon look at the Gulf War but, of course, in the light of the events in Iraq. Whatever our stand, Jarhead will be at some time quite jarring.
Based on a memoir by Anthony Swofford, the screenplay was written by William Broyles who career includes being editor of Newsweek and serving in Vietnam. He writes from the inside of the US. Director is the British Sam Mendes whose work has been mainly in theatre, who won an Oscar for his first film, American Beauty, and then made the gangster drama, The Road to Perdition. He brings the tone of an outsider who understands the American psyche.
The star is Jake Gylenhaal for whom 2005 was an important year. Besides being the lead in Jarhead, he featured sympathetically in Proof and received an Oscar nomination for his performance in Brokeback Mountain. He is convincing as Swoff, a fairly callow youth, alienated from his family, about to be disappointed and dumped by his girlfriend, who submits himself to training as a marine. The first part of the films is the Full Metal Jacket part, the training by humiliation and abuse (often of the crass and sexist kind), regimentation and hard physical slog so that the marine will be ready to obey any order in the line of fire. Not everyone can survive this formation. Those who do are so are loyal to the marine code, the code of the ‘jarheads’ (after their complete haircut), an ingrained aggressive outlook on life that is lethally adversarial (to put it politely).
Jarhead follows the old genre of the single platoon movie where the audience gets to know the men as they get to know each other, josh and clash, form rivalries and friendships and get ready to go to war. Audiences who are anti war and wary of the involvement in Iraq will watch open-mouthed as the grunts watch the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now and sing along with the Wagner, hyping themselves into a frenzy as the climax with the napalm drop approaches. They can see no humanity in ‘the enemy’. It is at this moment that they are called to go to the Gulf.
The wait in the desert for action, the training under scorching conditions and their ignorance of the enemy (except that it is the enemy) means boredom and Catch 22 situations and behaviour. They eventually go into action - but the war is very soon over. There are vivid moments: the platoon warily holding up some camel drivers in the desert, close-ups of latrine duty and a climax where Swoff and his friend Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are keyed up for their first shot as expert snipers. And then it is back to the day-by-day ordinary US of the 90s.
Jamie Foxx has a strong role as the staff sergeant, both tough and humane, whose life is the marines. How war films have changed (and not) since World War II.
JUST FRIENDS (US, 2005, d. Roger Kumble)
Director Roger Kumble made the quite clever college adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons with Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cruel Intentions. He also made a lower-budget spin-off, Cruel Intentions 2. He also made the rather crass sex comedy The Sweetest Thing, with Cameron Diaz.
Just Friends is not going to go down as an important addition to his CV. On the other hand, it sets out to be an entertainingly obvious comedy for the cinema complex, and it achieves this goal quite well.
Ryan Reynolds is a personable actor who does not seem to mind sending himself up and literally falling on his face in farcical slapstick. He was the crude Van Wilder: Party Liaison and in Blade: Trinity. Here he is the fat teenager, Christ Bender, the butt of high school jokes and pranks whose best friend is Jamie (Amy Smart) who sees him only as a friend when he wants more.
Ten years later, he reappears fit and well-built, working for a record company and having to squire an impossibly silly and self-centred singing star (Anna Faris, who also does not seem to mind sending herself up as well as she did in Lost in Translation and she stars in the Scary Movies series). Will he win over Jamie? Could she love him? And what about Dusty (Chris Klein better and more convincing than usual), the high school nerd who now seems the town’s Mr Perfect?
Chris spends most of the film being self-absorbed and obnoxious, so much so that you wonder whether he will win over Jamie. And Mr Perfect Dusty seems to good to be true. It won’t spoil anything to suggest that the film has a happy ending. The cast is cheerful. There are some jokes and pratfalls and enough to be undemandingly entertaining.
LADY VENGEANCE (Korea, 2005, d. Chan-wook Park)
One of the features of Korean cinema for almost the last ten years is that it has gone beyond martial arts to a proliferation of violent vengeance thrillers. Kim Ki Duk was an exponent of this kind of film before he moved to more contemplative dramas and thrillers. Kim Jee-woon does it all very stylishly so that you could feel quite guilty watching the ingenuity and style of a gangster film like A Bittersweet Life. Chan-wook Park has a worldwide reputation as well as at home. After making what looks like the beginnings of a trilogy with Sympathy for Mr Vengeance in 2001, he won the jury prize at Cannes, 2004, when (probably no surprise to see this) Quentin Tarantino headed the Jury with Old Boy. Now comes a third film, Lady Vengeance (chosen for the competition in Venice, 2005). It is stylish, thoughtful, violent.
Best to quote the director himself on his themes and gauge whether his words accurately describe his films. The main character in Old Boy says, ‘Seeking revenge is the only cure for someone who has been hurt”. The presumption is that this is the director’s own view. He says, emphatically, that it is not. ‘My view of vengeance has not changed... I still think it is the most foolish thing you can do. Revenge will do nothing to bring back what you have lost. It’s quite a simple concept, even children understand it, but adults, and sometimes even whole states, seem compelled to engage in these acts of violence’.
In the films, the central character has been cruelly victimised by an unscrupulous enemy. Old Boy has been incomprehensibly imprisoned for years and finds himself suddenly set loose and let loose. Lady Vengeance has spent thirteen years in prison, seeming the angel of kindness while all the time harbouring deep resentment and forming a network of fellow prisoners who will aid here when she is set loose and will pursue the man who destroyed her life. She meticulously goes about her plan. She was imprisoned for abducting and killing a child. The real killer has, meanwhile, killed again and again. Lady Vengeance assembles the grieving parents, along with the powerless police inspector, and tells them that the law will not do them justice. What follows is a horrific, almost ritual killing - although it is in the same vein, really, as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Where Lady Vengeance illustrates the director’s stance on the futility and the personal destructiveness of vengeance is in the use of the classical musical score and the times of quiet that the audience are given where they have an opportunity to get over the adrenalin rush or the horrified reaction and sit and contemplate what they have seen and felt before they leave the theatre. The revenge tragedy was a feature of the bloodthirsty era of Elizabethan and Jacobean times (think Hamlet). What does the revenge tragedy in Asian films say about our times?
LOOK BOTH WAYS (Australia, 2005, d. Sarah Watt)
The title of Sarah Watt’s small but award-winning film sounds like a Jungian exhortation to wholeness. No matter what our personal preferences and characteristics, we still have to look both ways.
Commentators on the Australian film industry might say that when it comes to promotion of directors and awards, it is rather a look one way: at male directors. Looking at this a little more closely reveals something unexpected from 2003. Gillian Armstrong won Best Director in 1979 for My Brilliant Career. Then, in 1986, Nadia Tass won for Malcolm. Move to 1991 and Jocelyn Moorhouse won for Proof. After that, no more women directors until 2003. The interesting point is that in 2003, 2004, 2005 the Best Director awards went to women directors: Sue Brooks for Japanese Story, 2003, Cate Shortland for Somersault, 2004, and now Sarah Watt for Look Both Ways.
Is there a particular characteristic that is common to these films? Is there a particular characteristic that could be called more feminine than masculine? That, of course, is a difficult and controversial question. However, one characteristic that emerges from these three films by women is ‘vulnerability’. Vulnerability is something experienced by men and women but is associated with the ‘feminine’ in both, with its emphasis on subjectivity, situations and circumstances and the need for making allowances in coming to decisions.
A suggestion as to why this should make an impact in Look Both Ways is that the film is concerned with death. At the centre of the film is physical illness and death. Nick (William McInnes, who is Sarah Watt’s husband off-screen) is diagnosed with cancer, a sudden and unexpected diagnosis. How does a man deal with this news? Is there someone he can communicate it to? Nick, a press photographer, seems to be able to confide solely in his editor. Rather, the film shows his introspection, the aloneness he has to face in this life-then-death situation.
One of the qualities of the film is Sarah Watt’s ability to suggest and explore experiences of introspection. In her previous short films, she has demonstrated her ability at animation, not so much animated characters as paintings in motion, in rhythms, in patterns, as in her award-winning, Small Treasures (1995)). This is particularly true of the other central character in Look Both Ways, Meryl (Justine Clark). Meryl is also grieving, not for herself, but for the death of her father from whose funeral she is returning home. Animated inserts suggest Meryl’s anguish and pain.
It is death which brings Nick and Meryl together, a death on the railway lines, perhaps accidental, perhaps deliberate. Meryl has seen it. Nick has come, immediately after his diagnosis, to photograph the aftermath. Nick returns to the scene later to meet Meryl. The suggestion is that they might be soul-mates, aspects of death bringing them together, some kind of complementarity in compassion in love. The difficulty is that Nick is unable to communicate to Meryl either his condition or the desperate bewilderment he is feeling.
Once again, Sarah Watt dramatises introspection by inserting flashbacks of Nick’s father and his terminal illness, the son remembering his father’s stubbornness and asserting of independence the more helpless he became and his mother’s tenderness and exasperation in her continued care. The film brings this interiorising of his fears and comparisons with his father into the actual world when Nick takes Meryl to meet his mother.
The Australian inarticulate male almost ruins the relationship which has brought such love and affirmation to the warm Australian female - and to physical ruin as Meryl runs from the emotion and tongue-tied Nick and is almost knocked over by a car. The resolution comes with Nick’s freedom to express the truth about himself inviting Meryl to share his illness, welcoming her in to the deepest parts of his life.
While the core of Look Both Ways is powerful in engaging its audience in the vulnerability of the central characters, Sarah Watt invites the audience to identify with a briefly but clearly-drawn group of supporting characters, all of whom are concerned with death and life issues.
The editor, in whom Nick has confided and who has been caught off guard by the news and struggles with what he should say and do, has been busy with work and is challenged to come closer to his wife and children. The rather gung-ho journalist friend, (Anthony Hayes winning the Best Supporting Actor award), has been writing cavalierly on suicide and death wishes, finding the rail lines death grist for his journalistic theories and articles. Meanwhile, estranged from his wife and child, he has been involved in an affair and is confronted with his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy. Abortion or not? Death of the child or not? His choice or not? Her choice and responsibility. (And she tells him that his theories about suicide are rubbish.)
And, grieving in the background, is the wife of the dead man, who has been photographed for the paper. More enigmatically, is the grieving man at home with his silent family, who gets into his car with his son - and who, it emerges, is the train driver whose life has changed because of the accident. The scene where the driver visits the widow and she reassures him that the accident was not his responsibility is a moving sequence of understanding and the lifting of a burden.
That is the world of Look Both Ways. It is not afraid of introducing the often shunned or avoided theme of mortality and death, of terminal illness and of accident. Australian audiences were able to receive this film and its themes and be moved. They have responded to being led into Sarah Watt’s world of vulnerability, of a world where logic and principles go only so far, where deep human feeling and feelings are the means of coping.
MUNICH (US, 2005, d. Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg is, to say the least, prolific. Within six months of his War of the Worlds, he has released Munich. Munich has caused some controversy with its picture of Israeli agents in clandestine pursuit of the terrorist killers of members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Many Jewish commentators in particular have denounced the film as anti-Israel. This seems a strange accusation against a director who made Schindler’s List and who invested so much of his own finances into setting up the video record of survivors of the Holocaust.
Whatever the stances of the Jewish critics, Munich is one of the most disturbing films in recent times.
Audiences can read global conspiracy novels like those of Robert Ludlum and be amazed at the intricacies and dangers of the plots, especially with fictional heroes who submerge themselves in alien worlds, survive undercover, risk lives and sanity for their righteous cause. So, we enjoy movies like the Bourne Identity and Supremacy. But, with Munich, this was real life. This is a 1970s world of terrorists and counter-terrorists who are paid assassins, at the will of governments but publicly distanced and disowned by these governments.
If this were a documentary, we would be looking more objectively at the situations, even as we responded emotionally. But, here, we have a drama with recognised actors playing the roles, inviting us to identify with them and their mission, making us complicit, however willing or unwilling we may be, in the search, the stalking, the violence and the killings.
Depending on our politics, on our consciences and moral stances, we can applaud the mission for vengeance or we can be bewildered by the world in which we live, by law, justice and morality, by the ethos of the eye for the eye. While the events took place three decades earlier, the final image is the New York skyline and the Twin Towers, an icon that evokes all kinds of emotions that can reinforce or cloud judgments.
The events in Munich recur throughout the film, the audience seeing ever more detail, the cumulative effect of the Black September violence. The film is really Post-Munich or Munich and its aftermath.
The screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels over America, the drama critical of Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, linking this ‘scoundrel time’ with the history of America and, especially, the AIDS epidemic. Kushner ranges widely here in the realm of international politics and violence.
Eric Bana portrays Avner, a Mossad officer who is commissioned to form a squad to execute the Black September terrorists. Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Matthieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler are the crack squad who have various complementary lethal skills, who are committed to Israel. The screenplay traces their interactions, Bana’s leadership, the gathering of information (Matthieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale are particularly impressive as the French apolitical sources), the travels to many cities of Europe and the killings, successful and unsuccessful.
Vengeance takes its toll not only on those who experience the violence but also on those who act on it. This is also a clear message of the film. Avner becomes more and more disturbed as the mission goes on. Fellow members are killed. There are serious demands on his marriage. The government distances itself from him.
Spielberg and Kushner take us on a very long journey (160 minutes), immerse us in the vengeance and leave it to us to try to work out what we feel and think.
THE NEW WORLD (US, 2005, d. Terrence Mallick)
For twenty years or more, director Terrence Malice’s reputation rested on his feature debut, Badlands (1973) and the beautifully photographed Days of Heaven (1978). When he made another feature (although he had been writing and producing other films), The Thin Red Line, his Pacific war film which was released the same year as Saving Private Ryan (1978), responses were divided. Though there were some vivid war reconstructions for the battle of Guadalcanal, much of the film was a contemplation of war, the meaning of life and the beauty of nature and indigenous people.
Much the same comment could be made about his fourth feature, The New World, the story of an early expedition to establish Jamestown, Virginia, in the firs decade of the seventeenth century, the encounter between the English and the Indians, referred to as ‘ The Naturals’, the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, her marriage to John Rolfe and the visit to the court of James I. There are some fights, some personal confrontations but the action is subordinate to the contemplation. For this, the Oscar- nominated photography of Emmanuel Lubezki is a great plus. James Horner offers a score, incorporating Mozart and Wagner, that is in the vein of a Philip Glass suite.
Many audiences will be extremely fidgety during The New World which runs for 140 minutes (but was longer). Mallick is not particularly interested in the drama of his events. In fact, the film lacks a dramatic drive. We see that many incidents take place but there is practically no indication in the screenplay of why they take place. It is basically a juxtaposition of events and characters, leaving it to the intelligence and goodwill of the audience to make the causal connections.
Characters come and go, interact and move on in much the same way as John Smith himself does, leaving a message for Pocahontas that he has drowned while he goes on a further expedition, turning up at the end for a soulful meeting with Pocahontas in England. Pocahontas herself, played by newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher with great dignity and bearing, is the centre of the film changing from young Natural in the forest and with the tribe, to her commission to befriend smith and her loving him, to her rejection by the tribe and assimilation into the English community, her marriage to John Rolfe and the trip to England.
Colin Farrell looks soulful, mournful and sometimes anguished as Smith. It is Christian Bale as Rolfe who has the most substantial acting role. Christopher Plummer registers as Captain Newport and David Thewliss as Captain Wingfield. There are a lot of name actors in minute roles, almost unrecognisable, like Jonathan Pryce as James I. Mallick peoples his screen but is less interested in presenting their dramatic development. Much of the dialogue is the interior voice of the characters.
All in all, this is a beautiful mood piece that requires giving up ordinary expectations of action and drama, characterisation and development and contemplating the beauty of nature, the inhumanity of humans, the confrontations of cultures, the courage and pigheadedness of pioneers, the destruction of indigenous peoples, the foundation of a new but not always better world.
THE OYSTER FARMER (Australia, 2005, d. Anna Grieve)
This is a small-budget feature that both surprises and pleases.
North of Sydney, in the Hawkesbury River area, there are communities which depend on the river, some of them oyster farmers. Small dramas take place. The farmers are dependent on their skills as well as their hunches about the weather and the river. The markets process and sell their produce. Marriages break. Outsiders come in for casual work. The locals are sometimes suspicious, sometimes welcoming.
David Field plays an oyster farmer who has fallen out with his wife, Kerry Armstrong. His work is hard slog. She works on intuition. This has damaged their marriage, especially as he is so preoccupied with his work. They have a son. He also has a father who looks on and makes wise comments. Into this world comes a young man from Sydney caring for his sister who is ill after an accident. He needs money for her operation.
Nothing particularly startling. However, the characters are well drawn and well played. The attention to detail, especially for the oyster farming (offering audiences more than they ever need to know), creates an authentic atmosphere. The mundane details of interactions, friendships, flirtations, suspicions, fights, jealousies build up a picture of a community that rings true. There is also a robbery and its aftermath (with ironic poetic justice) that gives some edge to life in the community.
The Hawkesbury looks beautiful, providing a striking setting for these small dramas.
SONG OF SONGS (UK, 2005, d. Josh Appignanesi)
A very brief, small-budget venture into an enclosed world in London’s northern suburbs, a world of traditional Jewry. The central characters are a brother and sister. She has been studying at a seminary in Jerusalem. He has moved away from home and is teaching literature to new arrivals in Britain. Their mother is an invalid at home.
Ruth (Natalie Press) is reserved, more than a touch cerebral in her approach to life, yet trying to please her mother. She is asked to find her brother, David. When she does so, there is an emotional and religious clash. She is strict. He speaks rather messianically of salvation coming through breaking traditions. In many ways, he tries to tempt and test her in her beliefs.
The screenplay has a great number of religious discussions about the nature of the law and observance. There are many voiceovers using biblical texts. The film is introduced by David asking where his father is and quoting the Vanity of vanities text from Qoheleth. A key text is the Song of Songs 6:8 with love as a seal on a person’s heart.
The film requires a great deal of attention to the interaction of the characters, an alertness to what is happening beneath the surface as well as the willingness to give a great deal of thought to the arguments about Judaism and its traditions.
THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN (New Zealand/US, 2005, d. Roger Donaldson)
Roger Donaldson left Australia at the time of conscription for the Vietnam War. He moved to New Zealand and made documentaries and the feature films, Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace. With The Bounty, he began an international career that has lasted over twenty years. During his documentary days, he met Burt Munro, a veteran of motorcycle racing and breaking speed records.
Now he has returned to New Zealand and his love for his adoptive country to make a feature film on Burt Munro. It needs to be said at once that the Indian of the title refers to Burt’s bike (or motorcicle as he pronounces it), made in Massachusetts in the 1930s and is not a reference to actual native American Indians. Donaldson has not just directed. He wrote the screenplay as well and consulted Burt Munro’s three children.
The Burt who emerges from the film is a cheerful, older bloke from the Southern hemisphere who is not used to American ways and who bemuses and amuses the Yanks. He never misses an opportunity to tell them that he is from the other side of the world, proud of New Zealand.
We find him in Invercargill, revving up his cicle, disturbing the neighbour’s peace but someone whom their young son, Tom (a natural performance by Aaron Murphy) likes spending time with. Burt’s aim is to get to Bonneville, the dry lake speed course in Utah. Between several jigs and quite some reels, he actually gets the money and sets off - with everyone’s good wishes though not with everyone’s expectations that he could break a record.
The New Zealand 1960s sequences have the homely touch.
The rest of the film is Burt’s arrival in LA (not a world he is used to) , his road journey to Utah and his endeavours at Bonneville - which sometimes leaves the spectators aghast.
This is a genial film, a Rocky for the older generation (or, as 79 year old Stan Freberg remarked, ‘the chronologically gifted’). Burt meets all kinds of people along the way and wins them over (except the disgruntled LA taxi driver). The people include the screen’s most genial and kindly transvestite, a nice used car salesman, an actual Indian and his family and a very eager and lonely widow.
There is a credit for Anthony Hopkins’ dialogue coach, but his accent (while definitely from the Southern hemisphere, seems a sometimes bizarre mixture). But Hopkins gives his character a warmth and sincere naiveté that is engaging. Just as Burt wins over all the people he meets, so he wins over the audience (except anyone who resembles the grumbling taxi driver).