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- SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006, SUPPLEMENT
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SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS, MARCH 2006
This is a service of the SIGNIS website, presenting reviews by Peter Malone of films that have been screening during the previous month.
AEON FLUX (US, 2005, d. Karyn Kusama).
Director Karyn Kusama previously wrote and directed a film about female boxing, Girlfight. That gives her some qualifications for this action drama where the heroine, Aeon Flux (also known as Catherine) has to take on many enemies in choreographed conflict. She is played by Charlize Theron, relying here on statuesque glamour rather than her subdued plainness as in Monster and North Country.
Perhaps this film has come too late in the day to make the impact it might have some years ago. Audiences have seen plenty of such futuristic stories - many of which were clearer to follow and brighter to look at. It follows familiar plotlines and relies on the interest in speculations about the future of the human race and the action.
The setting is several centuries hence and plague has decimated populations. Women are barren, so scientists are heavily involved in cloning procedures. In fact, most of the people seem to be clones - but there are signs of breakthrough and an ordinary human future.
Aeon belongs to a group of rebels controlled by frances McDormand. When they are sent on a mission to destroy Trevor Goodchild, the head of the industry, Aeon finds she is reluctant to kill him. Relying on her friend and sparring partner Sithendra (Sophie Okenedo), she discovers the (expected) treachery of Goodshild’s younger brother, Oren, (Jonny Lee Miller). The expected battle lines are drawn. Trevor turns out to be more than a Goodchild and Oren is the bad child. And the film ends with hope for humanity again. The film is based on a series of comic books.
CANDY (Australia, 2006, d. Neil Armfield)
There have been many striking films about drug addiction in recent years from Drugstore Cowboy through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Requiem for a Dream. These films show the fascination with drugs, the highs and hallucinations, the decisions about going off drugs and the experience of withdrawal. The hallucinations can be both beautiful and terrifying. Withdrawal can be a portrait of horror and pain.
They are all here in Candy. Nothing particularly new (though that should not be a criterion for dismissal as is sometimes the danger). But, the setting is an Australian one, centred in Sydney, and that gives Candy its own individuality and its appeal/communication for an Australian audience. The appeal beyond Australia is in the writing, the direction and performances.
The writing: Luke Davies has collaborated with director, Neil Armfield, to bring his novel to the screen. It is particularly Australian, frank and direct, with moments both of humour and literate style.
The direction: Neil Armfield is best known for his theatre work for several decades. His main work in cinema was a stylised adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the 1980s. He brings a deft hand to his work here. The film looks good and moves well. The withdrawal experience over three days and Candy’s miscarriage and its aftermath are both horrifying and persuasive.
The performances: Armfield has been able to cast four Australian Film Institute Best Acting winners. Abbie Cornish made a strong impression in Somersault (and One Perfect Day). Young, vigorous and attractive, she makes Candy a sympathetic victim of her mother’s hard love as well as acting on whims for starting on drugs and her wilfulness in continuing. Her love for Danny is palpable even though she risks losing him.
On the other hand, the film is Heath Ledger’s as Danny. He is the centre and offers the voiceover. Again, he acts on whim and is wilful - but in a far more laidback and carefree manner. He prefers to while away his life even though he has capacities for more, for more creative and intelligent work. His reaction to the miscarriage is moving.
Then there is Geoffrey Rush as a self-indulgent lecturer, a smiling but ultimately wicked father-figure, complicit in his friends’ destruction. The contrary is strongly to the fore in Noni Hazelhurst’s uptight and controlling mother, dominating her kindly husband (Tony Martin). The sequence where the couple announce Candy’s pregnancy and the mother’s silent vigilance is contrasted with the father’s hugging and passionately weeping gives strong indications of how we are to respond to these characters.
The film is divided into three parts that explain themselves: Heaven, Earth, Hell. But, the film is not without hope. Hell need not be the end.
CAPOTE (US, 2005, d. Bennett Miller)
Older audiences may remember the striking film of Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood. The book was published in 1965 and the film released in 1968, a time of discussion about human rights and capital punishment. In Cold Blood was a literary work of documentation and interpretation, what we might now call a ‘docudrama’, a novel based on fact.
Truman Capote was basking in the fame of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was feted as a Manhattan celebrity. In late 1959, he noticed a news item about the ruthless slaying of a quietly respectable Kansas family, the Clutters, and had an intuition that investigating this crime and the motives of the perpetrators was to be one of his life’s major tasks. It was. He spent five years researching, interviewing the killers, writing. He transformed ways of writing factual books, influencing the next generation of American writers.
It might not seem to be the subject of a feature film, but this period of Truman Capote’s life is what Bennett Miller’s film focuses on. It is absorbing.
Capote is a portrait rather than a biography. Some of his Alabama background is referred to and there is a postscript about his death twenty years later from complications due to alcoholism. Other than that we have his quest for completing In Cold Blood.
It should be said that this film reminds us strongly of the events, the investigations, the imprisonment of the killers, the appeals and the execution. It depends on one’s stand on capital punishment as to whether the film is for or against. It presents the reality.
The next thing that should be said is that Truman Capote was a complete narcissist. He saw everything in reference to himself. He was not the kind of person that most of us would like to encounter in real life. Smart, witty, caustic, he could be entertaining but his charm would wear thin very quickly. That is why Philip Seymour Hoffman’s award-winning performance is so good. He is able to mimic the mannerisms of Capote - his high pitched, pinched voice, his eccentric way of enunciating, his idiosyncrasies - and keep us fascinated.
The screenplay does not attempt to whitewash Capote. It is a warts and all portrait. On the one hand, when he is writing, he is serious-minded, diligent, hard-working. On the other, he is continually vain and attention-seeking. He is intrusive and exploitative, especially of the killers, even though he is attracted to (at times infatuated) with the better educated and cultured of the two, Perry Smith. His friend and associate, Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) serves as some kind of conscience for him
What In Cold Blood did (and what this film does in its way) is to enable the audience to share Capote’s inquiry. What happened? Why did it happen? Can we understand the motivation? The urges that drove two burglars to such violence? It is not so much stressed in this film, but Capote pointed out that neither of them could have murdered in this way just by himself. Rather, their pairing produced a killer.
The film has a fine cast. Catherine Keener is a strong, supportive and critical Harper Lee - self-absorbed Capote cannot bring himself to enjoy the premiere of the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. Clifton Powell Jr makes an intriguing Perry Smith. Chris Cooper is the Kansas investigator.
So, the film works on its intended two levels. The story of the writing of In Cold Blood gives insight into the American way of life, of crime, justice and execution. The story of Capote gives insight into eccentric genius and the toll it takes as well as the gaudy and fashionable temptations of celebrity and that toll that this takes.
CASANOVA (US, 2005, d. Lasse Halstrom)
Another Casanova film. There have been spoofs, tongue-in-cheek biographies and Fellini’s serious film with Donald Sutherland. Any need for another Casanova movie? On the strengths (or rather on the weakness of this attempt), the answer seems to be no. However, here it is, trying to combine lavish location photography, the recreation of 18th century Venice, and the light touch. The result has tickled the fancy of undemanding moods. But, it does seem sumptuously silly.
Lasse Halstrom has tended to make lighter serious dramas in recent years (Chocolat, Shipping News, An Unfinished Life). Here he has gone for the lighter. Perhaps it’s the screenplay which is a mixture of the satiric and the daft. Perhaps it’s the performances. But, at times, it really is absurd.
Heath Ledger as Casanova. He can do the light touch as in The Brothers Grimm. But, dashing romantic hero? A touch too stolid. Sienna Miller as Francesca Bruni, the Venetian feminist who masquerades (like Portia) as a man at the university and in the courts and writes tracts on women that the Inquisition says are heretical? She is attractive and convincing. Jeremy Irons as a pantomime Inquisitor with the touch of Carry-on? Dear oh dear. Lena Olin (Hallstrom’s wife) and Oliver Platt come off best as keeping the right note between farce and drama.
A final credit is given to the Patriarchate of Venice - but they must not have read the script with the picture of Boccaccio behaviour of cardinals and nuns and Jeremy Iron’s line (that, unfortunately for those who try their best gets the loudest laugh). He replies to a critic, ‘We are the Catholic church, we can do anything’.
DATE MOVIE (US, 2006, d. Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer)
Yes, Scary Movie-like spoofing of romantic comedies, and crassly. No real reason to see it as it is not particularly funny and the send-ups show how good some of the originals were - although Jennifer Coolidge does a great Barbra Streisand in Meet the Fockers. The main thing to do if you are a movie buff is to indulge in Trivial Pursuit making sure you have all the references, which include My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Shallow Hal, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Mr and Mrs Smith, Hitch, The Wedding Planner, The Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball, Jerry Maguire and a weak King Kong finale.
DOMINION: THE PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (US, 2005, d. Paul Schrader)
Out on DVD, this is the first version of the prequel to The Exorcist. Towards the end of 2004, Exorcist: The Beginning, directed by Renny Harlin, was released. The producers had been unhappy with Paul Schrader’s film, not finding it box-office horror enough for the multiplexes, so they shelved it and spent more money on a script rewrite (almost all of it), a new director and reassembling most of the cast and adding new characters and more sensationalised effects.
Fortunately, for true Exorcist devotees, Schrader’s film is available, also with his commentary. (Unfortunately, the commentary is mainly about how he made the film rather than on the issues, which Schrader is personally interested in.)
The producers were quite right. This is barely a horror film. Rather, it is quite an intelligent drama about good and evil, about sin and personal conscience, about the demonic presence of evil in the world and its confrontation. A prologue shows Fr Merrin in Holland during the war, forced to select villagers as hostages to be executed by the occupying Nazis (which was also in The Beginning). The rational and religious explanations (with respectful and useful church and political background) of Fr Merrin’s being on sites in east Africa make sense. The part of Fr Francis is stronger in this film. He is played by Gabriel Mann who was not available for the re-make. Other priests and the archaeologist, Sarah, who becomes possessed in the other film are missing from this one.
Rather, the film develops quite logically: the unearthing of a church in Kenya (without the pseudo-historical background of the other film), the releasing of evil, an outcast cripple, cared for by Fr Merrin and a doctor, Rachel, a refugee from Poland, who gets healthier as the evil pervades, the British major who is uptight about empire, the sergeant major who is a racist bigot, and the locals who become more antagonistic to the British.
It is the cripple who is possessed. Attempts by Fr Francis to baptise him lead to his satanic manifestations (very restrained physically and in language from the originals) which challenge Fr Merrin’s guilt about Holland (allowing him a fantasy of what he might have done and what the results would be). The ritual is more ‘normal’ and the experience quite clearly enables Fr Merrin to complete a journey from disillusionment back to faith and to become the future Exorcist.
Stellan Skarsgaard is Fr Merrin (as he was in The Beginning) and he and his behaviour are far more credible in this version. In fact, this is a very interesting and credible exorcism film.
L’ENFER (HELL) (France, 2005, d. Danis Tanovic)
After Tom Tykwer made Heaven with Cate Blanchett, many fans of Kieslowski were wondering whether the other two films in the trilogy of stories he left at his untimely death would be made. Kieslowski’s collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz has collaborated with Oscar-winning director (No Man’s Land) in bringing Hell to the screen.
This is an impressive film. The focus is on three sisters who have been affected badly by the imprisonment and death of their father and the injuries to their mother and her life in an institution. (Originally, the background was given as the film opened but criticism that suspense was lacking led to crucial scenes about the father being left until much later in the film and, though the plot seems puzzling, this re-editing is much more effective.)
The three sisters have their own problems (and do not connect very much with each other). Celine (Karen Viard) is the unmarried one who dutifully visits her mother and meets a mysterious young man who she thinks is infatuated with her but who has the key to the rather devastating conclusion. Emmanuelle Beart is Sophie, dependent on her husband and who is shattered by his affair. Anne is the youngest, in love with a married professor, whose obsession leads to tragedy.
Tragedy is key. Anne sits for an exam and explains Euripides’ Medea, Medea’s betrayal by Jason and her unspeakable vengeance on him by killing their children. One suspects that Sophie is the Medea character here, but, while she could be, it is the sisters’ mother (Carole Bouquet) who is Medea who did not want to destroy her children - but did. The screenplay is also complex in its paralleling of the young man and Anne in their behaviour and its consequences except in the apportioning of guilt and innocence.
Kieslowski raised moral issues and dilemmas in his films and explored his own Decalogue. L’Enfer is very much a Decalogue film.
FEED (Australia, 2005, d. Brett Leonard)
Here’s one for the ‘don’t have to see’ list. It’s a police investigation story with touches of horror - and plenty of ugliness. It states that it is based on fact - and has a scene reminiscent of the recent German cannibal to prove it. It is a story of a psychopath who feeds obese woman and members of an internet club place bets as to when the women will die.
Once upon a time, American director, Brett Leonard, made some interesting Steven King adaptations (Lawnmower Man, Hideaway) and the thriller, Virtuosity. Here he is in Australia, with the help of Jack Thompson, and with Thompson’s son Patrick as producer and star.
It’s not quite as gross to watch as the plot suggests but it is unpleasant, the sociopath being a being a pshychosexual criminal and the detective being something of a psychosexual obsessive himself. The characters elicit very little empathy, even the victims, so we are left with the bizarre and the ugly.
FIND ME GUILTY (US, 2006, d. Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet is a veteran director from the Golden Years of Television in the 1950s who made his first feature film, Twelve Angry Men, in 1957 and continued through the decades with some very fine films (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, Q and A, Prince of the City). He made Find Me Guilty at age 81.
The film takes him back to a subject that has interested him for decades: crime in New York. He has explored the police, undercover agents, corruption, court cases. These ingredients are all to be found in Find Me Guilty. Basically, this is a courtroom drama and the screenplay has incorporated much of the trial proceedings verbatim. In the 1980s, a group of 76 Mafiosi were arrested and brought to trial together - with a variety of lawyers representing them. One drug dealer, Giacomo DiNorscia, ‘Jack’, decided to be his own defence despite his complete lack of training and know-how.
But Jack was innately shrewd and could manage an audience capitalising on his ignorance, rushing in, then apologising while, all the time, really charming the jury. He reminded them often that he was not a gangster but a gagster! This made the capo extremely angry, trying to ostracise him. But, Jack’s talent led to his charming most of his co-defendants, a bizarre group of underlings, numbers men and runners. And he drove the prosecuting attorney beserk. On the other hand, while the judge had to warn him so often during the almost two year trial, he came to have a grudging admiration for him. Lumet keeps this interesting and entertaining while, at the same time, it is an appaling travesty of justice.
The surprise of the film is its star, Vin Diesel. We have not been accustomed to seeing him act. He is either fast and furious or some kind of xXx agent or, lately, trying to control children with military style as a pacifier. For his acting, it is best to go back to Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room. Dieself carries off the peforming Jack with great panache and, rather disconcertingly at first, with hair (though there is a final credit to wigmakers).
Linus Roache is the exasperated prosecutor, Ron Silver the patient judge and Alex Rocco the capo. Annabella Sciorra appears in one scene to great effect as Jack’s wife.
Lumet continues his illuminating movies about crime and the law.
THE FOG (US, 2005, d. Rupert Wainwright)
After a remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 comes this remake of his 1980 The Fog. Not a must for a remake, but this has been updated to the present with bigger budget (although a less starry cast).
The fog rolls on to an island off the Oregon coast and brings with it mysterious ghosts bent on vengeance on the town and the descendants of the admired founding fathers - who are to be honoured with a statue and dedication ceremony. The truth of the past is gradually revealed. The brutal past is nothing to celebrate. The ghosts have every reason for demanding justice and they wreak a dramatic revenge.
The central characters have every reason to be wary as they are descendants of the founding families. There is no major reason why they should escape (although one does not entirely but sacrifices herself and leaves with the spectres) and why all the rest, including the parish priest, Fr Malone, who knew the secret from this grandfather’s confession but was bound not to reveal it, should be dispatched by grim special effects.
There is an eeriness about the fog and its atmosphere. Director Rupert Wainwright made the millennium religious thriller, Stigmata.
GRBAVICA (Bosnia, d. Jasmila Zbanic)
This is not the kind of film that many people have heard of. It is a modest first feature from a woman director in Sarajevo. It runs for just over 90 minutes. Yet now it has a place in film history as winner of the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival, a surprise win given that there were so many other high-powered films in competition.
The director of the festival, Dieter Kosslick, when speaking about the film at the ceremony for the independent jury awards (before the announcement of its win) was almost in tears. The Ecumenical Jury then announced that it was its award winner.
Grbavica is the suburb of Sarajevo where single mother, Esma, a dressmaker who applies for a waitressing job at a local club, lives with her young teenage daughter, Sara. There are strong bonds between mother and daughter, although mother often loses her patience and Sara can be ungenerously cantankerous.
The film is powerful in its presentation of mother and daughter. Esma is played by veteran Serb actress, who appeared in Kustirica’s Underground and has been a supporter of peace between Bosnia and Serbia for years. is Sara. There is a lot more to be learnt about the relationship towards the end of the film, some of which is quite shattering for the characters - and for the audience.
What makes Grbavica special is that it takes up the theme of how the wars in the Balkans affected the parent generation, with loss of family, brutality and abuse, loss of years. And it takes up the theme of what the consequences are for the young generation born during and after the conflicts. Sarajevo now looks and sounds like anywhere else. But there are deep wounds and scars. The club setting with its neo-gangsters and violence also reminds us of these consequences.
The film makes a strong appeal to audiences to appreciate that it is not just the experience of war while it is being waged that is traumatic - and that is traumatic enough - but it is the suffering in the aftermath that lingers. Outsiders, glad that hostilities cease, underestimate the long-term damage of war.
The film has an important women’s sensibility with the contributions of the writer-director (who was 30 when the film was made) and the two actresses.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES (US, 2006, d. Alexandre Aja)
A remake of one of Wes Craven’s earliest horror films and something of a classic these days. Craven has co-produced this remake and chosen a French director, Alexandre Aja (Haute Couture/Switchblade Romance) who has co-written the screenplay.
This one is much better than the similar Texas Massacre derivatives where interchangeable afternoon soap-opera look-alikes spend a lot of time bickering and are picked of in grisly fashion one after the other. This is more the thinking-audiences terror gorefest!
There are several reasons for this. The characters are far better drawn than usual. They are a family celebrating the parents’ silver anniversary, driving cross-country. They do bicker but they seem much more real and we get to know them better. When the nightmare starts, they elicit some sympathy. The other quality is the bigger-budget vivid photography of New Mexico locations - they are, in fact, in Morocco! The makers are obviously fascinated by their desert and mountainscapes. Then it all turns murderously sinister which may be too much for many audiences - all well staged and edited for maximum effect.
During the credits there is a long collage of reportage about the nuclear tests in New Mexico from 1947 to the 1970s. Later dialogue reinforces this with accusations by the mutants living in an abandoned test town: that mainstream America and authorities have made these monsters what they are. This means that there is an invitation to interpret all this allegorically: what authorities and the military do to its own citizens and the consequences. The film gets our adrenalin pumping as the survivors of the family defend themselves aggressively and gruesomely. While the ending is upbeat and seems to glorify self-defence for family values, there is one final image which puts a more cynical perspective on the proceedings, remaining critical of government and agencies..
KIDULTHOOD (UK, 2005, d. Menhaj Huda)
Not a bad coinage, ‘kidulthood’, to describe the pressures on teenagers to act like adults (or to mimic adults behaviour which they really don’t understand). (Also impressive is a coinage from an Australian Baptist minister who wanted to describe the retrogression in adult crises, ‘middlessence’!)
This is a West London slice of life which is depressing and makes one despair about the future. Obviously things are not always as bad as what we see in this 48 hour period of young people’s lives. Writer, Noel Clarke, who plays the central school bully, 19 year old Sam, is in fact now 30 and draws on his own experiences in his screenplay (even filming in his neighbourhood and flat to save budget expenses). The film has that sense of realism. However, Clarke in interviews has made the point strongly that ‘the film is not trying to promote, rationalise or justify’ any of the behaviour we see.
And the film is not lacking in disturbing behaviour - which Clarke says is reported daily in the news. The film opens with very cruel and physical bullying leading to a suicide. There are drugs easily available, as well as sex and teenage pregnancy. There is the background of London gangs and brutality and torture. Parent ignorance and/or neglect. And more affluent kids throwing parties in their parents’ absence where violence breaks out and someone is killed. Reminiscent of Larry Clarks 1995 look at New York teenagers (though less prurient), this is a call to awareness and vigilance. But, has society let things get out of control?
Kidulthood, convincingly acted in scenes which we would hope are exaggerated, is both depressing and alarming.
LAST HOLIDAY (US, 2005, d. Wayne Wang)
Queen Latifah as Alec Guinness? Now that’s a stretch of the imagination (or a trick question for Trivial Pursuit). The answer is that Wayne Wang’s version of Last Holiday is a US adaptation and remake of an Alec Guinness film of 1950. Novelist J.B.Priestly wrote the screenplay at the time of the making of the film of his classic play, An Inspector Calls.
The plot outline is much the same, except for the very end.
Wayne Wang made a number of small budget films in the 1980s, Dim Sum and Eat a Bowl of Tea. He moved into the major league with The Joy Luck Club. Since 2000, he has been making very American romantic comedies with sentiment: Anywhere But Here, Maid in Manhattan, Because of Winn Dixie. Last Holiday is one of these.
Imagine Queen Latifah as a quiet, somewhat fearful and repressed sales representative in a large department store. We don’t have to make such an effort for this, although that is how the film opens. When she is diagnosed as terminal, she decides to break out and to branch out and live her last holiday to the full. She goes to Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, to the top hotel, to meet a chef she admires (who turns out to be Gerard Depardieu looking genially dishevelled, despite the fact that the credits say he had a costume asstant and a hair stylist to make it look as if he had just got out of bed).
She lives it up but she is an innately kind person who speaks her mind clearly and changes the lives and attitudes of all the people she meets, staff and millionaires alike. The most dastardly of these is Timothy Hutton, holidaying with his mistress and trying to bribe politicians to pass legislation to benefit his company. LL Cool J is the ardent admirer of Queen Latifah, but also reticent and low-key.
What happens when you have only a few weeks to live? The answer here is that you live the capitalist dream, you live it up in luxury, do all the things you didn’t know you wanted to. But, be nice.
LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (US, 2005, d. Paul McGuigan)
If you enjoy movies that show characters playing confidence tricks, especially on deserving victims, and enjoy being the victim of a clever screenwriter and a director (Scottish Paul McGuigan) who is playing tricks on the audience, then Lucky Number Slevin is well worth the visit - except to note that it is dealing with quite ruthless gangsters who are not troubled by scruples about violence and revenge.
A 1980s prologue sets up the sting, all to do with bets, bookies and numbers gangsters. Twenty years later, it all comes to a head, especially with the now reclusive rival thugs (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley) setting up hitman Bruce Willis (who really is excellent at this kind of role) to avenge their son’s deaths. Into it all stumbles an unlikely lad, Slevin (Josh Hartnett) who finds himself suddenly abducted (to show the poor man’s troubles, he spends the first 30 minutes or more in a towel, including the abduction and threatening interview). Across the hall, lives a morgue physician (Lucy Liu) who comes to borrow a cup of sugar. They both get embroiled in a series of dangerous adventures, which also include Stanley Tucci as the detective in pursuit.
It’s all a case of mistaken identities and part of the entertainment is sorting out who is who and what is what. Jason Smilovic’s screenplay is also full of witty one-liners and off-hand remarks, questions answered by questions and exclamations that keep us attentive.
The two gangster chiefs ham it up a little, especially in the melodramatics when they find themselves trussed up together. Josh Harnett is better than usual. And, even though you might start to realise where the twists are, it’s interesting to see how it is all resolved, plus a couple of surprises.
THE MATADOR (US, 2005, d. Richard Shepard)
A glossy, very, tongue-in-cheek black comedy a touch reminiscent of Analyze This and Analyze That. A hitman has a nervous breakdown.
A charmingly disshevilled Pierce Brosnan is a longtime effective hitman. But, he has lost his edge. When he looks through the sights at his targets, he sees himself as a sad child. He misses. He can’t do it.
After an almost botched job in Mexico City, his forgetting his woes in sex and drowning them in drink, we he shares a drink in a bar with a genial Denver man who is in line for a big job. Between jigs and reels, they go to a bullfight where the hitman confesses the truth to the nice man who is disbelieving and non-plussed.
Trips to Europe. More failures. Warnings from his handler. He goes on the run. Where to? Denver. The nice man and his intrigued wife (Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis) take him in. But, there is one more twist.
So, if you want to know what the twist is, you like Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear who genially work of one another, and enjoy international locations (most filmed in Mexico in fact), then the only thing to do is to see this comic amoral film.
THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES (UK, 2005, d. Timothy and Stephen Quay)
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is an exotic and difficult film. It was written and directed by the Quay Brothers, an American set of twins, Timothy and Stephen Quay, who went to London Royal College of Art and made short films. They have remained in England after a return to the United States where they worked as book illustrators. They used puppets and miniature objects in the various short films, experimental films, music videos, set design for theatre, ballet and opera. Their first feature film was Institut Benjamenta, 1995, a combination of live action and animation.
These influences are clearly seen in The Piano Tuner. In one sense, the film is less of a movie than a video installation, a moving work of art that could be viewed as people walk through a museum rather than sit in a cinema watching a narrative unfold. There are all kinds of experimental designs, machines, varying grades of colour and lack of colour to give the film its unreal atmosphere. This is an extreme example of magic realism.
The plot is difficult to follow: it focuses on an opera star about to be married, her being murdered on stage. A doctor, Dr Droz, takes her corpse to his laboratory by the ocean. He is a maker of musical automata. He also employs a piano tuner to look after his objects. Also in the household is a seductive and maternal housekeeper. The piano tuner becomes entranced with his work, with the song that he hears - only to discover that it is the opera singer brought to life and the doctor’s intention is to have her sing in his diabolical opera. He falls in love with her - and the audience realises that he is the same actor who portrayed the opera singer’s fiance.
The film is unusual, beautiful to look at in its different kind of way. Amira Cassar (The Anatomy of Hell) is the opera singer, Gottfried John, a veteran of many films as a German character is the doctor and Spanish Assumpta Serna as the housekeeper.
The film can be appreciated as an avant garde experiment rather than as a film of entertainment.
THE PROPOSITION (Australia, 2005, d. John Hillcoat)
A striking film with the power to disturb.
Music video director, John Hillcoat, has made only three films, the 1988 grim prison drama, Ghosts of the Civil Dead and the 1996 New Guinea melodrama, To Have and to Hold. With each of them he has collaborated with musician Nick Cave. Cave has written the screenplay for The Proposition as well as its score and poetic lyrics.
On the one hand, the makers had the traditions of the American Western in view, the films of Sam Peckinpah as well as the Italian films of Sergio Leone. On the other hand, they were making a film about outback Australia in the 1880s, a frontier certainly with similarities with the west but with its own life and problems. Far north western Queensland was still part of the then burgeoning British Empire no matter how different the desert, the rocks and the ranges were from the mother country. British authorities were brought in to keep law and order, not an easy thing with alienated Irish families (think also Ned Kelly in Victoria who was executed in 1880) taking up brutal crime as well as a generally humiliating racist attitude towards the aborigines, especially when they were considered to have ‘rebelled’.
All this is present in The Proposition.
The photography of the landscapes and the skyscapes create a distinctive Australian atmosphere. The sometimes iconic close-up contemplation of faces of both officers of the law and the outlaws suggests a mythical tone for the film. The range of speeches about empire, about Darwin’s Origin of Species as applied to aborigines (in a powerful speech by bounty hunter John Hurt who appears so effectively in only two sequences), about justice and imprisonment, about wealth and poverty offer a great deal of food for thought in what is a very physical and visceral film. This latter is very true of the flogging sequence where the people want vengeance and become disgusted. (Hillcoat has forty lashes while intercutting reactions and a song voiceover making its greater reticence as disturbing as The Passion of the Christ).
Ray Winstone gives his most sympathetic performance as a hard man with a soft side, trying to maintain law and order at the behest of the foppish, wealthy and merciless landowner (David Wenham). Emily Watson impresses as Winstone’s wife, trying to maintain some English gentility, afraid of the brutality and of her own spirit of vengeance. Hillcoat directs a moving scene where she describes a disturbing dream by focusing on the movements and gestures of her hands.
Guy Pearce, gaunt as ever, is the outlaw brother who wants to save his simpleton brother from hanging by going after his older brother, the leader of the crimes of robbery and rape (Danny Huston).
The Proposition is something of a revisionist look at the colonies in the 1880s, especially Queensland. On the frontier life was not easy. One had to be rugged and tough to pioneer settlement and survive. The violence was brutal, towards women, towards the aborigines some of whom were troopers, some of whom rode with the gangs and others were servants - one of the latter, still in his buttoned up attire, wishes his masters a merry Christmas as he removes his boots and walks out of the gate barefoot back into his land.
SYRIANA (US, 2005, d. Stephen Gaghan)
A very interesting and topical film.
A word of reviewer warning first. The plot of Syriana is extremely complex, quite a number of different strands which require full concentration. This is made even more demanding because the screenplay moves very swiftly from one strand to another, often brief scenes of drama and reporting. In fact, the locations for the film are varied. In the US, we are in Washington, Baltimore and at a hunting park in Texas. In Europe, the central action is in Geneva but also in a luxury resort in Spain. In the middle East, the film opens in Iran, moves to the oil fields of the Gulf and then to Lebanon.
And the film is up-to-date topical. While it was made in 2004, many of the references and difficulties have not changed. The role of the sheikhs and their relationships with the US government reminds us of what Michael Moore alleged in Fahrenheit 911 about the Bushes and Saudi families. The discussions about Iran and its nuclear ambitions are there as well as an American association for the liberation of Iran, peopled by wealthy businessmen. With its portrayal of the recruiting and training (and religious brainwashing) of young men prepared to kill themselves (as witnessed in their videoed testaments), audiences can get some grasp on the reasons for insurgencies.
In the United States itself, the Enron scandals, bankruptcy and current trials are obviously mirrored in a significant part of Syriana. A legal bureaucrat (Jeffrey Wright) is commissioned to investigate the background to oil company mergers, to get evidence of bribes and corruption and to deliver top-level names as scapegoats for prosecution. (The recent, Oscar-nominated documentary, Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room is well worth seeing, an illuminating portrait of greed, gamble and mismanagement.)
The background of American espionage and agents also comes to the fore, especially the activities of the CIA which are morally appalling, executions of foreign powers who are disapproved of because of their alleged hostility to US interests. Most of us can seem politically naïve and trusting of powers that be. Syriana gives plausible fictional grounds (though referenced to fact) for all kinds of conspiracy theories.
George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, with its critique of McCarthyism and the unscrupulous vilification of citizens by uncontrolled authoritarian senators and committees, has received many Oscar-nominations including Best Film. Clooney is behind Syriana as producer and also as star (with another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Clooney is establishing himself as a media personality who can influence political opinion through his films.
He plays a veteran agent who has been involved in arms deals, abductions and infiltrating Hezbollah. Now, he has spoken his mind and authorities distance themselves from him, spreading slanderous rumours to destroy his credibility. Tycoon Christopher Plummer reminds him at the end that he has been used for decades and did not ask the reasons behind what was ordered. Times have changed and there is a need to question.
The other leading player is Matt Damon as a young family man in Geneva, a prominent financial adviser. When tragedy strikes his family, he is offered an opportunity to be counsellor to a reforming Gulf prince (not approved of by the US government). He is so caught up in this world of power and wealth that he is prepared to sacrifice family. Until tragedy strikes again.
Director Stephen Gaghan wrote the Oscar-winning Traffic. Obviously, he is fascinated by American politics and issues of justice. For those who are willing to keep attentive to his film, he offers opportunity for audiences to share this fascination.
V FOR VENDETTA (UK, 2006, d. James Mc Teigue)
More graphic novel adaptation, this time from British author (From Hell, ) who seems to have disassociated himself from the film. Hoever, it has very interesting credentials, produced by Hollywood action mogul, Joel Silver, and written by the creators of The Matrix, The Wachowski Brothers, and is directed by James McTeigue, one of the assistants on the series, who worked on many Australian films.
Audiences have become used to adaptations of comic book heroes presented in the American style. This one is very British. Caracters are British. Situations are British. The tone is British. V for Vendetta begins with a historical prologue about Guy Fawkes and the plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. In the near future, a masked character (Guy Fawkes’s style) begins a series of terrorist explosions in London leading to a manhunt.
Now this might be routine science future material but it is handled differently. One of the pleasures of watching the film is to identify the influences that have been absorbed into it. V is in the line of many masked avengers like Zorro. However, the mask and cape means that we remember the phantom of the opera, especially when V imprisons the plucky herone, Evey (played by Natalie Portman with a very English accent) - a touch like Beauty and the Beast. However, one of the major debts is to George Orwell and 1984. (With John Hurt (who played Winston Smith himself in the 1984 version of 1984) as the new Big Brother. There is also some relentless police work.
Making further difference is a supporting cast of some British actors one doesn’t expect to find. Stephen Rea is (as usual hang-dog look) the pursuing detective. Tim Piggot Smith is the Police Chief, Roger Allam is the conceited TV personality, Sinead Cusack a doctor, John Standing a double standards bishop and, of all people, Stephen Fry as a character who seems to resemble Stephen Fry (or at least Stephen Fry’s popular image). (It will be interesting to see whether this all goes down well in the US.)
There was some concern at the end of 2005 about the production, especially since it seems to have an open mind on aspects of terrorism, on critique of government and its double dealing, on power to the people to rise up against lying governments. The climax is quite explosive and, for those who live in London or who hold London in sacrosanct regard, more than a bit shocking. However, Guy Fawkes would be delighted (and, maybe, George Orwell too).
V himself is a tantalising figure with mixed motives. His treatment as a child recalls inquiries into institutional physical abuse of children. His imagination is quite dangerous but he indulges in cod-Shakesperean ‘quotations’, especially with v alliterative rhetoric. Though he never comes out from behind the mask except in a moment of deceit, we do not see Hugo Weaving’s face as V but only hear him.
Some touches of graphic violence, especially in prison scenes and the final confrontations, but, on the whole, a rollicking British variation on the heroes theme.
THE WEATHER MAN (US, 2005, d. Gore Verbinski)
Maybe it’s the desperation of the marketing people, but the advertising for The Weater Man keep referring to it as a comedy. This is misleading since most people who believe advertising expect comedies to be laugh out loud affairs. This is not. While there can be fine weather, we usually associate the weather forecasters, especially on television, with prospective bad weather.
This is not to say that The Weather Man is not worth seeing. It is just better not to go along under false pretences. (Director Gore Verbinski is also more associated with comedy: Mouse Hunt, The Mexican and The Pirates of the Carribean).
This is a film about being miserable. Nicholas Cage, who really can look lugubrious and whose laughter can sometimes seem an effort, is well cast as David Spritz, a Chicago weather man whose forecast in life seems as bleak as the weather over the state of Illinois. People throw fast food at him in disapproval as if he were actually responsible for the weather they don’t like (and he wonders why it is always disposable fast food that they throw). David’s marriage has broken up (and, judging from the flashbacks he is mostly to blame, too edgy, not listening, angry and intolerant). His twelve year old daughter is fat, moody, verbally bullied and suffering because of her parents’ bickering. (He tries archery with her but she loses interest because she was really interested in hunting and killing animals.) His fifteen year old son is in drug rehabilitation program (not realising that his supervisor is a molester). His father, a severe but well-regarded Pulitzer Prizewinning author whom his son is devoted to) is terminally ill. There is one sign of a rainbow. He is being offered a national TV spot by Hello America - but he is well on the way to botching this opening. Not exactly comedy material -especially when it is being presented very seriously.
This, of course, is a nightmare of the American Dream and the audience is asked to share it quite relentlessly (with a few smiling moments which might justify ‘comedy’ but don’t).
The danger with being miserable is that it leads to self-pity and this is what is wrong with David in his depression. He wants to get back with his wife (Hope Davis). He wants to help his daughter and son (and does manage to reach out to them both). He wants to reach out to his father, Michael Caine, (but when his turn comes to make a tribute at ‘the living funeral’, the lights go out). However, there is a fine, moving, compensatory scene where father and son listen to Bob Seeger’s song about being a rock of security.
Americans like happy endings - and The Weather Man has a semi-happy ending (or is it really much more realistic and much less?). A film well worth reflecting on.